Hugh Hefner, the creator of Playboy magazine and one of the most recognizable brands on earth, died of natural causes at his home, the Playboy Mansion, Wednesday at 91.
By most accounts, the man who in 1953 started the magazine at his kitchen table with a $1,000 loan from his parents, then spun it into a global empire of publishing, television and beyond, lived up to the suave, gentlemanly and libidinous persona he cultivated — the benevolent king of a manor where the parade of a specific type of beautiful women, lavish parties and a certain red-blooded American male archetype never died.
Hefner and his magazine sowed controversy, fought for free speech and ushered in new attitudes about sex and race that influenced generations. He published work by some of the greatest writers of the 20th century alongside photographs of nude women, and upset the norm by making his Playboy-themed nightclubs and TV shows integrated during the Jim Crow era. He also sustained continued criticism from feminists and detractors who called him a pornographer who profited from objectifying women.
His influence was global, but he touched many lives personally in Tampa Bay, from the locals who posed for the magazine to people who never met him.
A number of Playboy models have hailed from the area, including the original Hooters girl, Lynne Austin. And St. Petersburg was once home to one of Hefner's Playboy Clubs, where guests were served food and drinks by Playboy Bunnies.
"The main thing he taught us was to love," said Karissa Shannon, 27, a Clearwater native who, along with twin sister Kristina, appeared in a Playboy centerfold in 2009 and later lived at the Playboy Mansion. "He surrounded himself with friends and love. He accepted everyone as they were -— we had been sort of trouble teens — and he was kind to everyone."
Both twins recalled Hefner saying he wasn't worried about getting older or death.
"We asked him what he thought happened, and he always joked, 'There's no heaven without sex'," Kristina said. "We were at a funeral once, and he actually showed us his grave site next to Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page. He made a joke that he wanted to spend eternity between them."
An inspiration in the business and politics of sex
Tampa strip club owner and free speech activist Joe Redner said Hefner was an inspiration who "shined a light on the fallacies people held about sex."
When Redner took on the Tampa city council over regulations in his club Mons Venus, Hefner sent him an encouraging, handwritten note reading "keep up the good fight" inside a Playboy book.
Courtesy of Joe Redner
"He opened up the culture with his stances on civil rights, and sex between consenting adults," Redner said. "It surprised me that he knew who I was, but I was a Playboy reader. I looked at the pictures of course, but I liked the articles, because they were always about social issues. You can always tell through people's actions whether they care about people or not, and you felt from his magazine that he did."
Paul Allen, publisher of the Palm Harbor-based NightMoves adult entertainment industry magazine, said his 30-year-old publication wouldn't be here today if not for Playboy.
"He changed my life. And he changed hundreds of thousands of young boys, the way they thought about sex," Allen said. "He positively changed people's thought patterns, changed the way people looked at the naked body and sex. That is such a huge, massive statement, because sex is the biggest drive of anything in the world. People change jobs, lose friends, commit suicide and murder in the name of love and sex. To have the influence that he had is mind-boggling."
A force before the internet
Comedian, designer and St. Petersburg resident Rhonda Shear, 62, can attest to the cultural influence of the Playboy media empire, even for those who didn't take their clothes off.
Shear, then a 20-year-old beauty queen from Louisiana, was fully clothed the first time she appeared in the magazine. When the Floral Trail Society stripped her of an obscure debutante title over that photo, the story appeared newspapers around the world.
Courtesy of Rhonda Shear
"Overnight, people were sending me international press clippings," said Shear, who devotes much of her new book, Up All Night, to Playboy experiences. "Being in Playboy was like going viral before the internet existed. That was the power of it back then. ... It changed the entire course of my life. Even years later, even if it was just a little blurb in the back of the magazine, you'd immediately start getting calls from casting directors."
The allure of the Playboy Mansion party
The mansion where Hefner lived, worked and threw fantastical parties is mythical. TV and movie plots revolve around it. The "grotto," as in the mansion's model-and-celebrity-filled cave and hot tub, is part of the popular imagination because of it.
"You'd come downstairs in the morning, and Snoop Dogg or Brian Grazer would be there in the kitchen," Karissa Shannon said.
"Besides seeing Anthony Michael Hall throw up on his shoes," one thing that pro wrestler, musician and Tampa resident Chris Jericho remembers from a 2006 party was the moment when Hefner finally came downstairs.
"All of the girls with body paint on, general hot chicks everywhere — they all flocked to him. All of them just beelined," he said.
The social calendar was meticulously curated with annual Midsummer Night's Dream parties and pajama events that saw the same guests return for decades.
St. Petersburg's Allegra Buffington had the opportunity to attend a New Year's Eve party at the mansion in 2015.
"It looked like something from a fairytale," she said. "There was so much food, so many balloons and Christmas decorations and Dwight Yoakam was there. (Hefner) didn't stay up late. He was 89. I thought it was amazing that he was at the party greeting people for about an hour, but then he went to bed with (wife) Crystal and we partied on until 3 a.m."
Courtesy of Charlotte Lambert
Shear attended parties at the iconic Playboy Mansion from 1978 to 2015, and remembers Hefner as a wonderful dancer who would often play backgammon late into the night.
"If you wanted to bring a date, you had to submit a photo and bio, and Hef would have to approve it himself," she said.
As the parties wound down, the remaining guests would join him at the dining room table for a spread of desserts and coffee, and Hefner would tell stories.
"He loved talking about movies, but he was a tender man," Shear said. "Many times on those occasions he'd bring up Dorothy Stratten, this breathtaking playmate who had died, and he'd reminisce about her. He grieved over her like a child."
Rachel Jolley, 31, of St. Petersburg has been married for six years to Miss October 2014, Charlotte Lambert.
"One of the coolest things about the Mansion which surprised me was, there was no separation of class or status. Every person, whether you were Paris Hilton or a regular civilian like me, everyone came through the same entryway, the same door," Lambert said. "There was no extra security. It was all very much like a big family all the time."
After the parties ended
Safety Harbor resident Pamela Stein Zander, who is married to Cheap Trick frontman Robin Zander, lived at the mansion for several weeks after becoming Miss November 1987.
"He's very respectful, and my experience was just straight-up amazing. In person ... he was a gentleman," she said. "He had card night. Sundays were movie nights. We'd all get invited to go up and we'd have a buffet dinner and get to watch old movies in his theater."
Those who lived there, for even a short period of time, describe it as a sanctuary .
"The first thing we'd do in the morning is run into his bedroom and jump in bed with him, and the way he'd smile was the best feeling in the world," Karissa Shannon said. "He did a lot for us, but we were also taking care of him."
Reach Christopher Spata at (727) 893-0789 or [email protected] Follow @spatatimes.