The BBC app on my iPhone announced the news last week. Hugh Hefner had died.
Learning about his passing didn’t move me one way or the other, but it did bring back some interesting memories.
In the mid-70s, I was in my mid-20s and just beginning to make my mark in the business world. I was trying to work hard and smart and was moving up in the corporate ranks fairly rapidly. I was gay, living in New York City, and in the first year of that decade, I’d walked from Greenwich Village to Central Park in the inaugural Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day March. That demonstration of unity evolved into today’s Gay Pride Parades and was my coming out party.
I may have been bringing my whole self to work back then, but in the 70s most of my coworkers weren’t. In the workplace—watercooler boasting aside, they tended to be straight and cooly inhibited or gay and extraordinarily closeted.
I was introduced to the Playboy Club by my dear friend, Andrew Piretti. Andy was an A&R man and a vice-president at CBS Records. His office was in CBS’s mid-town tower known as Black Rock. Andy was openly gay, great fun, and a big-time arts supporter. We’d often meet after work for a drink; we’d take turns deciding on the location.
On a Friday, I came home and called Belles, my answering service for messages. (Answering machines, TADs, wouldn’t be widely available until the early 80s.) The operator said, “Just one message this afternoon, Stephen: Mr. Piretti asked that you meet him at the Playboy Club. She paused for just a beat, “You have a wonderful evening.”
I walked from my West 75th Street apartment to the IRT Subway station on Broadway and 72nd. I took the IRT from 72nd to 59th Street/Columbus Circle, walked east along the north side of Central Park South, and crossed Fifth Avenue—where CPS becomes 59th Street. The Playboy club was mid-block, just past the Sherry-Netherland Hotel and across the street from the 50-story General Motors Building.
The club, with its sleek two-story entrance and pair of black and white bunny-logoed awnings promised a top-shelf experience. And it didn’t disappoint—when it opened in December 1963, outfitting the club cost over $4,000,000. In those days, that amount of money bought a lot of opulence and created an over-the-top watering hole.
For the era, the place seemed to define sophistication. The welcome by the maître d‘ and his introduction to the bunny who led me to Andy’s table for two set the stage for an extraordinarily good time. As the escort bunny seated me and introduced me to our waiter bunny, I began noticing something remarkable for a food, drink, and entertainment venue of that time. Unlike like the Empire Room at the Waldorf or The Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, The Playboy Club was a truly friendly, warm—almost collegial—place to enjoy drinks, dinner, and A-list entertainers. Service wasn’t just outstanding, it was as perfect as humanly possible—personal without being intrusive.
I sat down. The waiter bunny smiled at Andy, glanced at her order pad, and said, “You must be Mr. Brockelman. Welcome to The Playboy Club. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him nod at her. Andy already had a drink; she asked me what I’d like. My go-to drinks back then were rum and tonic with a wedge of lime in warm weather and bourbon and soda with a lemon twist in winter. Somehow those drinks didn’t seem like they’d live up to her expectations.
“Johnny Walker Black. On the rocks with a twist.”
My drink arrived in a flash. It was in an oversized, crystal rock glass that was heavy in my hand and sported the Playboy swizzle stick that people collected as evidence that they’d been in a hot spot. And while I hadn’t ordered a double, the drink appeared to be close to a triple. There was a whole lot of scotch goodness in that glass.
Andy and I made small talk for a few minutes. He told me a couple of stories—he was an extremely engaging and funny raconteur. He updated me on the drama around some work he was having done in his apartment. (He lived in one of the storied buildings on Gramercy Park South; he had one of the coveted keys to the park; his stories always included a dose of drama.)
While we were chatting, I started looking around at the scenery, gazing at the people, and enjoying the whole experience. Celebrities started arriving around 7 p.m. and I missed the end of one of his stories.
I asked him why he belonged to The Playboy Club.
“Membership’s reasonable, drinks are a little pricey but they’re powerful, and it’s a great place to meet with clients. If you’re negotiating something, this a great place to close. Straight guys are distracted by the cleavage and gay guys are distracted by the service and the surroundings. The showroom’s impressive, too. If you don’t have plans for anything tonight, we can stay and see Bob Newhart.”
I bought my Playboy card key in New York in 1974—it was metal, gold-colored, it had a great hand feel—I maintained my membership through the early 80s.
I used that card in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Denver. I watched straight men that I’d invited get all squirrelly and boyish around the bunnies and lose all track of our conversation and negotiation; I enjoyed my gay friends loving the visual luxury, fine food, power drinks, and personal service.
Newhart was a riot that night. He brought down the house.
As Andy and I were walking down the stairs toward 59th Street just before midnight, he looked back, over his shoulder toward the 360-degree bar on the second floor and said, “If you’re ever on the lookout for a date—a hot gay guy in a coat and tie—you can usually find handful upstairs.”