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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.