Haresh Shah

The Real Man Eclipsed By His Image


The questions I am asked often are:

Have you met Hefner?

Have  you been to Playboy mansion?

What is he like as a person?

The answers to the first two is YES. As for the third, I don’t know. But I do have a certain feelings about him. And I have personal opinions.


Soon after I was hired by John Mastro, I met with Lee Hall, the man who would be my real boss. At the end of our introductory meeting, he hands me a leather covered ring binder, which weighed a ton.  The rounded spine measured almost three inches (6.6 cm.) overflowing with typewritten pages inside.

‘For  you to read on the plane.’ It was Playboy Style Book.  The volume defined raison d’être of every single page of the magazine in the minute details from the typeface of the head, subhead, the body, the positioning of page numbers, the direction the Rabbit Head must always face (left), the positioning of the little Rabbit Head slug  to mark the end of features. The concepts and execution of the Playmate, all minutely explained. And as importantly, the concepts of each section from Playboy After Hours, to Dear Playboy to the Playboy Interview, the cropping of the photos, capturing and freezing of the most dramatic expressions on their faces,  the quotes that  appear right underneath them and the exact format defining the philosophy, the word counts and the positioning of the major and the minor features. Fiction and non-fiction.  Lead pictorial and back of the book pictorial.  It talked at length about  “the pacing” – the rhythm of how the text features, illustrations, photos should follow, the presentation of it all while continuously striving for  harmony in diversity. The surprise element and the elements that would challenge and provoke readers.

What did all of that have to do with the color corrections and the print quality? I didn’t even ask.  It fascinated and absorbed me, for here was the treasure trove of incredible word for word guide to How To Make A Perfect Magazine. The Bible, Bhagwat Gita, if you may. Basically paying attention to the tiniest things that can make a big difference. The loose-leaf pages that filled the volume, were dated from mid-Fifties to the late-Sixties. Some definitions contained a page or more, most only a paragraph or two. In the margin of each such item was the initial HMH (Hugh Marston Hefner) and next to them, the dates. I suspect that in the most likelihood, he typed all those pages himself . Such attention to details. Nothing left to interpretation. It became very clear to me that this HMH was an editor par excellence.  And immediately, I became one of his most devoted pupil and then the preacher of his gospel to everyone who worked with me in the next twenty one years. That, as you know, was in October of 1972.


I would not meet the man for fifteen years whose mantra I had chanted to a whole slew of editorial teams from all across the globe. I saw him face-to-face for the first time on October 7, 1987. A busload of us arrived at the back parking lot of his famed Mansion  to meet with and pay our respect to the capo dei capi – the highlight of the International Publishing’s conference being held that year at El Encanto in Santa Barbara, California.

First we were given a grand tour of the Mansion and its fairy tale surroundings that included tennis court, swimming pool, the now all too talked about Grotto, traipsing birds and strolling exotic animals and the wedding cake of the house, reminiscent of The Great Gatsby’s fictional home on the Long Island, three thousand miles (4800 km) away. You can’t help but be in awe of it all. More amazed than envious, because we could as well be visiting the Disneyland. But we had  fallen into the Rabbit hole and into the wonderland which was our own.

Having already been treated to a sumptuous buffet lunch, we are clustered around the pool, drinks in hands, awaiting eagerly the Man of the house. We are imagining him to walk out of the front door in his trademark  silk pajamas and the long flowing robe. Perhaps with his ubiquitous pipe in one hand. The image we all behold. Anxiety rising, we indulge in small talks with each other but our eyes can’t help but wander back and forth between where we’re standing and the front door of the house. First we see our boss, Bill Stokkan – the divisional President – in his navy blue slacks and the mottled grey silk sports jacket over a white shirt. Then we see him. Both of them walking towards us, arms around each other. And we gasp. Whatever happened to his silk pajamas and the robe?  He is smartly and causally dressed in a white linen suit over an open collared white shirt sans tie, looking like Jay Gatsby in his informal mode. His hair thinning his lanky frame makes him look younger than his 61 years. As he approaches us, he seems to be as much in awe of us as we are of him.

I imagine him thinking to himself, Holy shit! What have I done? All of us, his clones. He couldn’t have imagined this scenario in his wildest dream. He seems shy, and you can sense an amazement on his face as he shakes hands with each one of us. The countries are being called out, Philip Mason from Australia, Bebe Martinez from Argentina, Albert Cheng from Hong Kong, Ali Karacan from Turkey, Anteos Chrysostomides from Greece. He wonders out loud: How does she remember all these names, let alone pronounce them? As Elsa (Purcell) – the departmental administrator rattles off names to match the faces. Just like Dr. Malaiperuman, years earlier – the Warden of the Indian Students Hostel in London not only rattles off the names of 120 of us to Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II, but adds to them, Haresh Shah, London College of Printing. Incredible. The queen too must have wondered – but holds her gentle demeanor.  Feeling, if not like grandpa, but certainly the Godfather of us all. Standing there with us, Hefner looks just like one of us, which he actually is.

He blends in like sugar in coffee. He makes small talk with us, poses for group pix with each one of the fourteen editorial teams – mostly shot by his ever present in-house photographer, but is also graceful and patient enough to linger and allow those of us who wanted to use our own cameras. Wouldn’t you know that up until then my steadfast Canon SureShot would decide to jam the film while forwarding? Seeing me frantically trying to un-jam the forwarding mechanism and the dismay on my face while he is patiently standing there with my whole staff striking the pose – he finally says: ‘The reason we have staff photographers.’ Not allowing me in the least to let my frustration turn into and embarrassment.  True to what he said in his interview done for Playboy’s 20th anniversary issue of January 1974: ‘I still have a certain sense of wonder at all that’s happened. I don’t think that I’ll ever become jaded by the success or the life I’m leading; it’s simply not my nature. As a matter of fact, I feel like a kid in the world’s largest candy store.’


In addition to the ring binder, I had inherited from my predecessor, two 7” (15.4cm) reel-to-reel Scotch magnetic tapes, and 123 pages of transcript of the sessions that took place on March 1, 1972 in his Chicago Mansion. Mostly its Hefner speaking, explaining in minute details every single page of his magazine. He flips through several issues to demonstrate to the editors designates of the first three Foreign Editions of Playboy soon to be launched in Germany, Italy and France – like an old fashioned father telling the prospective suitors, what it meant to marry his precious daughter and what it would take for them to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed.

Within the first couple of minutes of introduction, and before he launches into stoke-by-stroke run down on what he calls the editorial balance, I sense an emotional note: Now, first of all, I don’t know to what extent you have been through the various things in terms of what makes the book now = what we put into the magazine – I will say that first we put into the magazine and I don’t want to be corny about it, but it is true, is a great deal of love and caring. His voice quivers a bit as he says this, perhaps afraid of what may become of his “baby” in the foreign hands. He emphasizes the fact that almost twenty years later, Playboy remains in editorial hands and is not run by the advertising departments or the bankers. I am sure that while flattered at his labor of love going across the ocean, deep down in his heart, he must feel a certain sadness at letting go of his darling. The way before I even joined Playboy, I was an avid reader as I was of Time, Life and The New Yorker. And everything about editing and publishing captivated and thrilled me. And here I had landed a living guide, that no amount of schooling could teach me.

As I write this, it overwhelms me to think that in not too far of the future, I too would have the teams of editors sitting around the dining table or the outdoor picnic bench of my Evanston house, and I too would be flipping through pages of several issues piled high on the dining table, to make a point.  And telling them what it would take for them to take on a product as personal as Playboy.   And that someday, I would pen the messages to the readers of every new edition, that would appear on the opening pages of their premier issues, signed: Hugh M. Hefner


I return to the Mansion five days later, on October 12, with the Japanese team comprising of Messers. Shimaji, Yokuhama and Sasaki. We are there to interview Hefner for the Japanese edition. We sit in his smallish library, decorated in the subdued English ambiance. While the bust of Barbi Benton stares down at us from its perch, we get our wish as we see him shuffling down the stairs in his silk pajamas. He seems more at ease in his usual attire. He is friendly, mild mannered and soft spoken, warm and welcoming. The interview begins and it takes more than twice as long because Mr. Shimaji, like most Japanese editors, speaks only perfunctory English and the conversation has to be translated back and forth. We are given an hour, but it stretches into an hour and a half and perhaps more. He ignores the nudging from whoever is in charge of his agenda. Its cara-a-cara between the two editors and he gives his fellow editor his due respect. Through the interview, he downs cans and cans of Pepsi from the mini refrigerator across the room, stocked to the brim with nothing else but cans of Pepsi.  He saunters back and forth to get another can and yet another, and excuses himself a couple of times to go to the bathroom. There is nothing that Shimaji asks that is new. By then the man has lived such a public life that there is not much left to reveal, if anything.

Except little snippet like this: As early on as the early Seventies, he didn’t just have a phone installed in his limo, but as Bob (Gutwilig) tells it, once when they were riding together, Hefner signals him to pick up the ringing phone, to tell the caller, ‘can you please hold, Mr. Hefner is on the other line.’ Now that’s what I call a class. But other than that, as he has often said: My life is an open book. With illustrations.

© Haresh Shah 2013

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks



Other Face to Face Stories



Next Friday, July 26, 2013


Twelve of our Japanese readers won a trip to Los Angeles and Chicago that included a tour of the Playboy Mansion and the Dodger’s game in Los Angeles. A visit to Playboy’s  headquarters in Chicago and dinners at Playboy Club and at a Jazz Restaurant with the director of Playboy International Publishing – that’s moi, accompanied by two Playmates, Susi Schott (August 1984) and Carole Ficatier, (December 1985) A true kids in the candy store experience.