I visited Hugh Hefner at the Mansion: Here's what happened
A look at Hugh Hefner, the pipe-smoking icon who founded Playboy and died at the age of 91 surrounded by family.
SAN FRANCISCO — In 1992, I was summoned to the gates of the Playboy Mansion in an impossibly beautiful corner of Los Angeles.
My finger poked the buzzer on the gate intercom and, after announcing myself, it swung lazily open.
Two bunnies crossed my path; the animals stopped, wrinkled their noses, and hopped off. As the car made its way up a winding path, a sign warned: "Children X-ing." The party, it seemed, was over.
Hugh Hefner was 66 then, in hindsight a spry senior citizen about to have his love life turbocharged in six years' time by the advent of Viagra. My visit coincided with the release of a favorable documentary called Hugh Hefner: Once Upon A Time.
The plan was for me to watch the movie with The Man Called Hef in his fabled screening room, home to many a Mansion movie night but perhaps not much movie-watching. Like clockwork, Hef appeared proffering a hand and a grin, flopped down on a sofa and said "Let's roll it."
I tried to play it cool, but it was all a bit much. Between the slippers, pajamas and the fabled red silk bathrobe — it was early afternoon, people — and the odd phenomenon of watching a movie about a man while sitting with that man while he's assessing the movie about himself, the experience was this side of surreal.
After the movie was over, we spoke for a bit about his life and times, which seemed largely to recap the movie I'd just seen. He offered me a soft drink. My visit was proving far tamer than history had advertised.
What was clear was that this was not party-hound Hef. In 1989, he had shocked everyone by heading to the altar with Kimberley Conrad, who was all of 30. The couple soon had two sons, Cooper and Marston, for whom the cautionary sign had been placed in the driveway.
But what happened some time after I left the Mansion — a visit that included a tour around the various rooms and grottos that had been home to fabled debauchery but now seemed eerily quiet — was surprising.
I had recently moved to join USA TODAY's Los Angeles bureau from its Virginia headquarters, and Hefner's PR handler called and invited me back to the Mansion for what can best be described as a salon.
Why Hefner would want me there, I had no idea; why he wanted to hold a salon made perfect sense. While being a formidable lightning rod for activists who condemned his magazine and lifestyle as inherently exploitative, Hefner nonetheless wasn't one to shy away from a good debate.
And it was in that spirit that he decided to hold these occasional gatherings to discuss the topics of the day.
Hugh Hefner led an amazing life. Here are five fascinating facts about the original playboy.
So I attended a few of them, and I'd be lying if I could tell you exactly what we discussed (one session focused on what California Regents should be doing about the soaring costs of public education).
I would try and just keep up with the conversation, but mostly I was staring over at real guests, such as his pals Smokey Robinson and Robinson's mentor and Motown founder Berry Gordy, wondering, "What am I doing here?"
Hefner was always gracious during these celebrity-packed kaffeeklatsches, sometimes throwing out a loaded question but mainly enjoying the occasionally heated sparring in his midst.
Eventually my invitations stopped coming. I didn't know if I'd offended the host with a comment. But I didn't think that was the reason. The man had too thick a skin for that. Mostly, I figured, he just wanted to see new faces light up his room.
Perhaps family life was getting to him after all, I wondered. Maybe being holed up like a silk-robed Rapunzel in that opulent mansion was getting lonely for a man that had come to epitomize the wild nightlife.
Not long after, I heard that Conrad had moved out and into a nearby house. In 1998, the couple separated (and much later divorced). The "Children X-ing" sign came down, and the Bunnies returned to the lawn.
That was a Mansion I never got to see. There was no invite extended for Hef's subsequent party years, which went on, staggeringly, for another two decades.
That's OK. My memories remain that of a rather quiet man who was curious about others and the world around him. Maybe a man more akin to Hugh Marston Hefner, than to Hef.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.