It was 2006. I was in the airport in Nairobi, Kenya and on my way to or way home from (I can’t remember at this point) two weeks at the UNFCCC negotiations for research. I remember missing the boys—it was my first long trip away from them. But I especially and will always remember being pulled out of that place into another orbit entirely as a vivacious and beautiful woman in her 70s (I later found out) started to gush to me about going on three weeks of safari for the first time in her life. Casual conversation about all the places she was going and how she was getting there (a helicopter in some cases) quickly turned to her sharing part of her life story of how she got there.
“You see,” she said, “you know what changed my life? I’ll tell you. I was on track to live my life as a housewife in 1954—the standard thing that was expected of me, from a good family, with good prospects for a husband, etc. I was working (in Texas, I think) when Playboy started. Hugh ‘found’ me and asked me to be on the cover. I was playmate of the month.” She went on to say that it was such a crazy thing, in the 1950s, to pose nude, but that Playboy managed to cut this difficult path through the center of the culture at the time by choosing ‘girl next door’ types from obscurity. And she talked about the restrictions, about how you were supposed to act because you were a bunny. But she talked more about all of the ways it changed her, the places she went, and, most importantly, the female friends she made. She described that world as being part of a family and, more importantly, part of a sisterhood with respect to being Playmate of the Month and a Playboy bunny as you were part of the fold. It took her out of the anticipated and expected life she was on track for and changed everything. She lived a life, now in her 70s, long after her centerfold days, that, based on that one risk, led to a life that she could say was fully lived on her own terms.
What amazed me about her description of the experience were two things: first, that the women who participated in the Playboy (magazine) world were like sisters who supported one another, and not just for the moment. For life. They were there for one another as they got married, or pursued careers, and showed up when things went sideways. And second, that Hugh Hefner was at the center of a lot of it. If he found out you couldn’t pay your mortgage, it would suddenly get paid, and then some. Long after you were no longer centerfold material.
I knew about Hefner’s conflicted legacy, about his role in the sexual ethics of his day which were (again) contradictory. And I knew that there were huge issues with the magazine and the mansion along the way, particularly as it related to the difference between working at one of the clubs and being in the magazine. But I never heard this side of things: that they acted as family to one another, as a bulwark against the constricted (in the 1950s) norms of the day, and as a *sisterhood*—words that would later only come to be associated with the sexual revolution and feminism. But there she was, in the Nairobi airport, a real Playmate of the Month—one of the first—singing the praises of how it changed her life and singing Hugh Hefner’s praises for still being there for her in her 70s. On her way to a three-week safari. And glowing with the vivaciousness of a life well-constructed, empowered, and well lived.
Suffice it to say that I will always remember that momentary connection turned hour-long conversation while our lives crossed in an airport waiting area. Haven’t thought about it in a long while–in fact, until Hefner’s passing and the multitude of Facebook posts one one side or another of that coin that was his life. We are all, each of us, contradictory, aren’t we? We are never all of one thing or another. It’s important to remember this in the line of making sense of things, including ourselves.