On “The House of Hefner” by Chris Jones (Esquire, April 2013)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: It’s no secret: Hugh Hefner is old. Very old. In the Playboy Mansion, he is clinging to changeless, ageless time—or whatever it is that change, age, and time mean in his world. He is a boy, a young man, an old man all at once. In the Playboy Mansion, everything is what it always has been and will never be different. But I’ll stop with this so you can read the story and hear it told better from Chris Jones.

Here, the key to writing a story about a person whom we know is going to die soon—we hate to say this, so we avoid at all cost—is, for as long as possible, not acknowledging that we know he is going to die. It’s the unspoken sentiment that is driving the story.

Hugh Hefner, who is 86, will not live forever. But the beauty of this story is Hefner’s own refined—yet surely sensed—resistance to acknowledging this.

Jones both opens and closes with Movie Nights at the mansion—a scene so simple that says so much about the unchanging nature of Hefner and his nights with good company. In the opening section, after setting the “Manly Night” scene and offering background on what it had always been, we reach what we might stretch to call the nut graf of the story—or maybe its “theme-setter”:

Hefner sits where he has always sat, on the couch closest to the screen, with Ray Anthony beside him and his brother behind him, routines so embedded they feel like breathing to them. He pulls a blanket over himself, and the red light from his headphones shines through the dark, and he is relaxed now, smiling, lost in a movie he has already seen however many times. Watching Hugh Hefner watch a movie is like watching another man look out to sea. When he and Keith were boys, they would go to the Chicago theaters three or four times a week, double features, and they would sit in the blackness and together go far away. “In that darkened theater,” Hefner says, “all things were possible.”

In this story, the thing is, Hefner and his men are still boys. Jones’ observations of them watching old movies, eating ice cream sundaes, and snuggling up to blankets tell us so.

But the heart of the story is what’s left unsaid mostly throughout. It’s acknowledged subtly, but never blatantly. The heart of the story is that Hugh Hefner will not live forever. The subtle acknowledgement of this unspoken fact surfaces in the second section after a long, long sentence illustrating how “it can feel as though nothing will ever change, that all of this will last forever.” The truth, of course, is that it will not: “Illusion still maintains permanent residency at the Playboy Mansion, but for the first time since Hefner bought this place in 1971, truth has lately been paying visits.”

Jones illustrates this hard truth through examples of the beloved monkey that had died, buried in the backyard. The fact that “long-standing patterns of behavior” are beginning to change: Longtime personal assistant Mary O’Connor, who never talks about Hefner, wants to suddenly talk to Jones about Hefner. And here, still yet Jones avoids acknowledging that this woman not only is going to die, but is already three months gone. We find out much later. Lastly, “And then there are truth’s more cruel and obvious signs, in bad hips and ears.” We know, here, that this is the truth of the end—every man’s steady, natural deterioration.

The question is what all of this means. Jones brings us back to different eras of Hefner’s life through telling of his meticulous scrapbooking and documentation of life events; through history of his pride and joy, Playboy magazine; through stories of his escapades with women but also his boyish, romantic love for each of his wives. We see that, now, Hugh Hefner is every person he has ever been, amassing now to create one perfect, ceaselessly satisfactory lifestyle. Jones lets this build, amassing it all.

Until we get to the end, when finally, Jones acknowledges that horrifying thought that all of this will eventually cease. Through all of this, it was never about Playboy. “It wasn’t the brand or the rabbit. It was him. It is him. And without him, it will be no more.” And Jones acknowledges our wanting to avoid acknowledgment of this in his next paragraph:

“That’s not a very nice thing to think about. Why even think about it? It’s better to stay here, fixed in time and space, and to escape into another movie, into another Movie Night in a lifetime of Movie Nights.”

And in this, Jones maintains rejection of that hard truth. Why even think about it? He maintains that illusion that has consumed the Playboy Mansion and he maintains the theme of this story, established ever since “Hefner sits where he has always sat.”

If you’re going to read this story by Chris Jones—which, no-brainer, you should be doing—that means you need to read these stories by Chris Jones: “The Things That Carried Him,” “Home,” and in the wake of Roger Ebert’s passing, here’s to keeping his memory: “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man.” See the post on this story here.