Stars of the Playboy Club

Jimmy Van Heusen—One of the original Playboy’s

I’m delighted to learn that the long-awaited documentary, Jimmy Van Heusen …Swingin’ With Frank & Bing, is finally airing on PBS stations this month.  (Check your local listings for further details.)  This is an excellent film by Jim Burns, a Syracuse-born producer-director who long lamented the absence of his fellow countryman from the general discussion of the great contributors to the classic American songbook.  You’ll learn a lot about Van Heusen that you didn’t know, and you’ll also get to hear nearly all of his classic songs.

One can only imagine that James Van Heusen (1913-1990) frequented the Playboy clubs in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, although, alas, there’s no concrete documentation of exactly when and, as yet, no photographic evidence of Van Heusen posing with bunnies. Yet the story of the songwriter, who was born Chester Babcock in 1913 (there were all kinds of big centennial concerts last year) is particularly germane to the Playboy experience: he was, in fact, one of the original playboys.  Van Heusen was a single man for most of his life, and he lived and embodied the Playboy dream for decades even before Hugh Hefner thought to capture that ideal in magazine format.  He was the original high-rolling, hard-living skirt chasing swinging bachelor; when Frank Sinatra played that character in his movies like The Tender Trap or Come Blow Your Horn, he was unabashedly modeling that role on his close friend Van Heusen.  Famously, Sinatra also began emulating Van Heusen in his personal life as well.  (Van Heusen’s lyricist-partner Sammy Cahn said in a much-quoted quip, “The trouble with Sinatra is that he thinks he’s Van Heusen.”)  Van Heusen’s songs, like his title tune from “The Tender Trap,” helped define an era – while “Come Fly With Me” heralded the beginning of the age of the Jet Set.

You’ll see tons of rare footage in the new documentary, but there’s precious little of the Man himself.  Van Heusen was hardly a recluse, but he somehow managed to be absent whenever a TV or movie camera was turned on. Considering that this is the man who wrote more hit songs for more hit movies than anyone, the irony is obvious. Unlike his hero, George Gershwin, who loved to play in public, and unlike Sammy Cahn, he didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight: he much preferred to hear Sinatra sing his songs than to sing them himself.  Jim Burns did manage to unearth an interview from the early 1960s that is virtually the only known footage of Van Heusen talking on camera, and that in itself is rather miraculous.

In March 1960, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen appeared on Playboy’s Penthouse – so far this is the only known footage of the two of them appearing together as a team.  Jim declined to include any of it in of the documentary because Van Heusen is so reticent to perform that even though he happily accompanies Sammy – and looks very dapper in his tuxedo – the composer doesn’t speak so much as one word. He doesn’t even open his mouth to sing along as part of the chorus on “High Hopes!”  This was shortly before the Academy Awards – Sammy explains that they’re hiding out from Hollywood – when they were just about to receive the Oscar, in fact, for “High Hopes.”

Sammy doesn’t have the voice of a Sinatra or of Frank D’Rone, the Chicago based crooner who joins them on the show, but he was a natural born entertainer some, including Sammy himself, would say “ham,” as non-kosher as that was.   Sammy loved writing “special lyrics,” as he called them, and they’re especially funny here, as when he sings “Be my love / For no one else can stand my singing” and has D’Rone sing ‘I’ll walk alone / For to tell you the truth, I read ‘Playboy.'” One wishes Van Heusen would have sung something, but it’s a very entertaining 12-minute segment just the same. Alas, this show hasn’t yet been released on home video.  Write your Playboy representative at once!

On another occasion, a longtime friend of Van Heusen’s had the opportunity to be in the kitchen of the composer’s bachelor apartment.  He reported that the refrigerator contained nothing but empty, chilled martini glasses.  You can’t get more Playboy than that.

 

 

Frank Sinatra and Jimmy

Frank Sinatra and Jimmy

Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy, Doris Day and Nat King Cole

Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy, Doris Day and Nat King Cole

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

Marilyn Cole—London Playboy Bunny—Centerfold—Playmate of the Year

Marilyn Cole working as a Bunny in the London Playboy Club

Marilyn Cole working as a Bunny in the London Playboy Club

Marilyn Cole Lownes is an important figure– no pun intended! – In the history of Playboy.  And over the last year or so, I’m delighted to report she’s also become a dear friend of mine.

Marilyn went through every stage of the Playboy experience: from bunny to centerfold model to wife of one of the key executives in the organization—all that in addition to being a participant in the behind-the-scenes operation of Playboy Enterprises.

bunny marilyn cole

Marilyn Cole

I first met Marilyn last year when I came to interview her husband Victor at their fashionable “flat” in Manhattan’s midtown east; her story, and their story, was already well known, but she told me a few things that weren’t in the history books – starting with how she left her native Portsmouth at about the age of 20 with the sole ambition of becoming a “Bunny girl” at the London Playboy club.  It was Victor who first noticed her and pointed out her potential as a model to Hefner, by having her pose for some test photos and then shipping the proofs to Playboy HQ in Chicago. Hefner agreed and she became the centerfold for January 1972.

marilyn cole playboy bunny

Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Cole

That pictorial went over so well that Marilyn soon was the Playmate of the year for 1973. Although it was Victor who first “discovered” her, she was initially romantically linked to Hefner, before becoming involved with Lownes. Both men were more than 20 years older than Marilyn, who was born in 1949.

Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Cole playboy bunny

Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Cole

Marilyn was easily the most famous Playboy model of her time.  In 1972 and ’73, much was made of how she was the first completely uncovered woman in the magazine.  In retrospect, however, it seems what made Marilyn so unique was, in a sense, not just her beauty, but her very Britishness.

When she posed for the centerfold in 1971, it had been five years since the London Playboy club had opened.  As the first English Playmate of the Year, Marilyn became a symbol of Playboy’s new international status – her very presence, her accent, her image reminded everyone that we weren’t in Illinois any more, the experience had gone universal.  She embodied the kind of high culture that Playboy had aspired to when Hefner put out the first issue almost 20 years earlier.

marilyn cole playboy bunny

Marilyn Cole poses for Roxy Music

It’s equally significant that Marilyn also soon became one of the most famous rock-and-roll album cover models of all time when her image appeared on Roxy Music’s Stranded.  In fact, her photo was spread over two panels, very much like a centerfold; it had been in the magazine that she was first noticed by Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry.  Ten years earlier, when the original American clubs were first opening, Playboy was still an open secret – everybody read it, but they hid it under the mattress.  By Marilyn’s time, the sexual revolution was reaching its apogee, and she was as much a symbol of it as Hefner.  Now a Playboy model could be a full-fledged celebrity – someone out in the open and take home to meet your mother.

marilyn cole lownes outside playboy masion

Marilyn Cole outside of the Playboy Mansion

The union of Marilyn and Victor must surely count as the most successful marriage amongst those that either Lownes or Hefner ever had – they’ve been together for over 30 years at this point, and are still one of the world’s great power couples.  They have highly compatible tastes in music, from Roxy Music to Mabel Mercer, and can often be seen together at the tonier nightspots like 54 Below (when in New York), Crazy Cog’s (in London),or any of the many events produced by the Mabel Mercer Foundation.  They made a sensational appearance together at the opening of the new London Playboy club in 2011, with Marilyn looking resplendent in a silver-white gown.  In fact, they were treated like royalty – which is exactly what they are.

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


 

A Visit to the Playboy Mansion

Keith Hefner and Patty Farmer
It was such a beautiful, sunny day on a recent visit to the notorious Playboy Mansion. I had a tour of the impeccable grounds with none other than Keith Hefner himself. Keith is an accomplished American singer, songwriter, composer, actor, and the younger brother to the infamous Hugh Hefner. I got to sit and chat with Keith about the Playboy Clubs.  Stay tuned!

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents

 


Sonny Rollins

I had the honor of interviewing the legendary Sonny Rollins last week. What an honor- the greatest living jazz saxophonist ever!

sonny rollins saxophone player

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents


Bobby Short at the Playboy Club

One of the impressive performers to grace the stage of the Playboy Club in Chicago was none other than cabaret singer and pianist, Bobby Short. Who knew Bobby Short was the second act to ever to perform at the Chicago Playboy Club-following Mabel Mercer?

I can’t wait to share with you the many highlights and secrets of the Playboy Club. Stay tuned!

bobby short pianist

 

You can read more stories in my books Playboy Swings and The Persian Room Presents