Playboy, that great icon of American pop culture, owed its existence for many years to gambling revenue from Blighty
The launch party of the London Playboy Club in Mayfair in 1966 drew the great and the good from Peter Sellers to Rudolf Nureyev to Princess Lee Radziwell. Sammy Davis Jr regularly performed there. The Club hosted Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate’s wedding reception in 1968. Among other highlights, British Pathé footage of the event shows Joan Collins majestically grooving on the dance floor.
So far, so well known. A lesser-known fact is that the London club rapidly became the most successful and largest casino in Europe, earning so much by the mid-1970s that its profits were keeping the entire Playboy enterprise afloat. It makes you stop and think: Playboy, that great icon of American pop culture, owed its existence for many years to gambling revenue from Blighty.
Another little known fact: 45 Park Lane, the 10-storey building which housed the Playboy Club, was designed by a Modernist dream team that included the masterplanners of Milton Keynes, Richard Llewelyn-Davies and Jeffrey Weeks, and Walter Gropius. The conjunction of Gropius, high priest of European Modernism, and Playboy, purveyor of fluffy-tailed fantasy, seems as unlikely as it is tantalising. One of his biographers, Reginald Isaacs, records that Gropius too was amused by the connection.1
But just as we talk ourselves into seeing a certain logic in the link - recalling, for instance, that in his 1960 piece ‘I’d Crawl a Mile for … Playboy’, Reyner Banham praised the magazine for good modern design - we learn that it is a red herring.2 This is not to say that the story of 45 Park Lane isn’t interesting. The building was the brainchild of UK-property developer Jack Cotton, whose eccentric habits almost rivalled those of Playboy’s pyjama-clad founder Hugh Hefner. As recounted in business journalist Oliver Marriott’s 1967 classic The Property Boom, the fact that 45 Park Lane was ever built is surprising. Two other UK-based Cotton projects with which Gropius was associated, including the controversial Monico restaurant redevelopment project in Piccadilly, all came to nothing. Cotton, an investor in the Pan-Am building in New York, had apparently hired Gropius in the hopes that his name would magically overcome various UK planning obstacles. It didn’t.3
‘Drinks were served using the ‘Bunny Dip’, an athletic back-bend, just short of a limbo, which allowed Bunnies to move drinks from tray to table without dangerously exposing cleavage’
Gropius’s final contribution to 45 Park Lane is hard to pin down given the number of designers who ended up working on it: as well as Gropius and his firm the Architects’ Collaborative (TAC), Llewelyn-Davies and Weeks, Cotton brought in his own firm, Cotton, Ballard and Blow. Marriott claims that Gropius’s input was confined to the elevation where he was responsible for changing the existing Portland Stone facade to a dour, nubbly precast concrete one - alterations that supposedly raised the cost of the project by £150,000 to £800,000. What is indisputable is that the results of this design-by-committee approach were not distinguished: the building itself was the apotheosis of a style best described as developer-led corporate modern.
Yet even if the building was not an architectural triumph, it soon proved to be a commercial one. The building was rented in 1965 to Playboy for its first European club. For all of Playboy’s championing of Eames, Saarinen, and Noguchi, however, there is no evidence that the widely touted Gropius name attracted Playboy to the building. Part of the Playboy modus operandi was to occupy prestige city-centre locations wherever it went, and 45 Park Lane, in the heart of Mayfair, fit the bill. An estate agent apparently first pointed it out to Victor Lownes, the high-flying Playboy executive responsible for the £1.6 million club venture, from the window of his room at the neighbouring Hilton Hotel.4
We might argue that it was 45 Park Lane’s generic Modernist aesthetic that caught Lownes’s eye for, whatever else they may have been, the Playboy Clubs were emphatically modern. Except that Playboy was quite happy to occupy historically significant buildings when it suited, as shown by Hefner’s own Playboy Mansion in Chicago. And even when prominent, exteriors were never the main focus of the clubs. Rather, all modernity, all meaning, was manifest in the interior, although these were not interiors as we usually define them - as private, bounded spaces. Playboy interiors were highly mediated and dependent upon external referents; in this case, the ‘world’ of Playboy as depicted in other sites, including Hefner’s Mansion and the pages of its magazine.
In fact, the London Playboy Club arguably had no need for big name architects at all. By the time that it touched down in Britain, Hefner, his brother, Keith, Lownes, restaurateur Arnold Morton, and the designer Art Miner, had already honed a distinct model for the clubs and had perfected their operations.5 Expansion of the chain had been rapid: the first Playboy Club had been founded in 1960 in Chicago and by 1966, 16 were found in American cities from Atlanta to St Louis, as well a Club-Hotel in Jamaica. Eventually, 33 were established worldwide. Each was, in the words of architectural critic Beatriz Preciado, ‘a “public” reproduction of the interior of Hefner’s Playboy House …’, with rooms that referred back to its founder’s mythical bachelor pad (Playroom, Penthouse, Library/VIP room, and Living Room).6 These spaces were serviced by a flotilla of Bunnies, complete with cuffs with cufflinks, collars, bow-ties, rabbit ears, cottontails, high-cut corsets and cantilevered bosoms. This was the formula that Lownes would faithfully implement in London, albeit on a grand scale.
The London Playboy Club was envisioned as a multi-storey entertainment centre. On passing through the relatively discreet Curzon Street entrance, one would arrive at the reception area with Playmate Bar beyond. The Living Room restaurant and discotheque was on the first floor. On the second floor, the VIP room hosted fine dining and dancing. The Playboy Playroom restaurant and stage was found on the third floor, followed by the pièce de resistance, the fourth-floor Penthouse Casino. The floors above the Casino contained serviced flats for members or for visiting entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr with a Penthouse on the eighth floor. After doing an initial walk-through, one befuddled Chicago Tribune reporter concluded his 6 April 1969 article, ‘A man could check into this Playboy Club and never be seen again. Something like Hef himself’ - an allusion to the fact that Hefner reportedly didn’t leave his mansion for weeks at a time.
Even though Playboy was synonymous with Americanisation, and Americanisation was frequently decried in the English press and establishment, most appeared sanguine about the Club’s appearance on its shores. The Club’s one real offence was that it recruited members by direct mail, still a new phenomenon in Britain. Four hundred thousand people, including peers, Senior Service officers, and managing directors, were sent membership packs. (One is preserved at the British Library.) Senior churchman were also sent packs, including, unfortunately, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Another similarly solicited churchman, Bishop Cockin, wrote an indignant letter to The Times on 20 April 1966 condemning Playboy’s membership secretary, Robin Douglas-Home, ‘a name honoured in British political life’, for promoting ‘blatant luxury spending on buildings, food and entertainment’. In his reply of 23 April 1966, Douglas-Home was unapologetic, predicting - correctly - that the Club would be a boon to London’s tourist economy.
No such reservations were expressed by the 20,000 people who responded positively to the solicitation and paid the eight guinea membership fee. These new members wanted precisely what they paid for: the fantasy of Playboy as they knew it or, perhaps more simply, an American vibe. One of the three ex-Bunnies interviewed for this piece, Bunny Rosemary (aka Trish Murphy, who worked at the London club between 1968 and 1978) described being ‘blown away’ when she first walked through the club’s door: she felt she’d entered a Rat Pack movie, an environment that was at once smart and casual, a world apart from the cluttered Victoriana of British bars. The sense of stepping into an exciting place that was somehow already known - and where you were known - was crucial to Playboy Club’s appeal. To cultivate a sense of belonging, all new members were given a key with an individual number; on arrival, this key was presented to the Reception Bunny, who posted the member’s name under a sign announcing, ‘At the Playboy Club Tonight’.
Far from being unique, the clubs were meant to be interchangeable, with similar layouts, decor, service and offerings, so that a key holder from Chicago could enter the London Club and instantly feel at home. Themed rooms, such as the Playmate Bar and Penthouse, were all done up in Playboy-house style with the Playboy logo stamped on everything from carpets to matchboxes. (Hefner apparently took a keen interest in even the smallest of design details).7 Every club also offered comparable food and drinks options at comparable prices. In the Playmate Bar grill, you could order sirloin steak, rump steak, gammon, a hamburger or any drink for only 50 pence each. Whatever the drink, wherever it was ordered, members knew how it would come. As part of their demanding two-week training, Bunnies learned to supply mixer, ice cubes, straw, and garnish exactly as prescribed in the Bunny Manual. The drink was then served using the ‘Bunny Dip’, an athletic back-bend, just short of a limbo, which allowed Bunnies to move drinks from tray to table without dangerously exposing cleavage.
The Bunnies are the best example of the level of control exerted in the design of the Playboy Club experience: there was nothing accidental or spontaneous about its fantasies. In the best Disney tradition, the Bunnies dressed up every night in a concealed, spartan backstage area (the entrance to which was painted matt black so that, if the door was open, it could not be seen from within the club). The Bunny Mothers assigned different-coloured costumes to each Bunny, creating a carefully choreographed candybox array, and inspected their appearance, nails to tails, 20 minutes before they hit the floors. Once in position, Bunnies were to follow strict rules of service and conduct. While approachable and friendly, standard Bunny greetings and behaviour tended towards the formal. (‘Good evening, I am your Bunny - (name). May I see the Playboy key, please?’) They could not sit at tables with guests, although the ‘Bunny Perch’ on the back of a chair was acceptable. Above all, Bunnies were never to date members. Playboy planted private detectives on the floors who tested the Bunnies’ resolve by offering them theatre tickets or money for their last names or phone numbers.
Few fell for these inducements. Gloria Steinem’s brilliant 1963 undercover exposé, ‘A Bunny’s Tale’, emphasised the tough, cynical, unglamorous side of the job (‘I was an IBM machine and I was being programmed,’ she cried), and there is no doubt that the work was gruelling.8 Yet many Bunnies had no wish to be fired: they earned a decent salary (£35 a week; about £600 today) plus perks (tips, free meals, hairdresser, chiropodist, trips, parties). Bunny Rosemary stressed that as a working-class girl and ex-clerk from Tottenham, the London Playboy Club represented a world of financial security she’d never have experienced otherwise. And despite pestering from members - tail pulling was rife - Bunnies Barbara (Haigh) and Catherine (McDonald) felt that the training and rules meant they were skilled in their jobs and could handle situations professionally, though Barbara admits that the ‘no dating’ rule was not always followed and, of course, Playboy executives and special keyholders were exempt.
Whatever the reality, it was in nobody’s interest that Bunnies appear openly available, given fierce licensing laws and the need for the club to welcome women as guests. Bunny Rosemary confirms that at times the ratio of women to men was near 50:50 which makes sense: if the Playboy Club was not a place where men could get a date, it had to be a place where they could bring one. Although the clubs were described as an extension of Hefner’s Mansion or of the celebrated 1956 Playboy Penthouse Apartment (admired by Banham), the demand that they accommodate women meant that Playboy’s ‘Entertainment for Men’ mantra evolved. By the mid-1960s, the urbane masculine style that defined Playboy bachelor pads gave way to a more commercial vernacular style de luxe. There were exceptions. The Playmate Bar remained unrepentantly male-oriented, with illuminated colour transparencies of Playboy centrefolds glowing from wood-panelled walls. And the risqué images of Playboy illustrator LeRoy Neiman adorned the stairwell. But elsewhere the preference was for Neiman’s splashy expressionist paintings, which, even when naughty, were arty enough to project sophistication and not put off one’s wife.
The point was choice. One night, members and their guests might hit the Living Room, a relaxed, apartment-like space with contemporary furniture, wood panelling, and orange and brown colour scheme, which offered live acts and buffet meals. For a special occasion, they might try the VIP Room, with its fine French dining - the speciality was duck à l’orange - tricked out in deep royal blue, with felt wall coverings, velvet banquettes, proper napery, bone china, and Bunnies in blue velvet and silver trim costumes. (Bunny Barbara, who worked at the Club from 1971, notes that blondes were preferred in this setting; she also recalls the frequent presence of Clement Freud, the club food consultant.) Regardless of style, all spaces came with the latest technology: CCTV, 35mm film projection, the latest sound equipment, and advanced lighting. The use of technology, however, was functionally different than in Hefner’s Mansion: instead of a prosthetic aid to seduction - think of Hef’s eight-and-a-half-foot round rotating vibrating bed - here it was proof of the club’s distinctly American modernity.
One aspect of the London Playboy Club, however, was distinct from anything in the States, and more than any other came to define it: gambling. Casinos had sprung up in Britain since the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act, known as the ‘Vicars’ Charter’ according to Lownes because it had been set up to legalise whist drives at church galas.9 The Lords were united in deploring this loophole which also gave rise to the notorious Clermont Casino run by John Aspinall (purchased by Lownes in 1972; in 1980, he bought Victoria Sporting Club too). Even though gambling was available throughout the Club, high rollers played in the Penthouse Casino at gaming tables staffed by Bunny croupiers, a daring move at a time when dealers were exclusively male. Increasingly restrictive gambling legislation, however, soon required that the club be totally reconfigured to separate gambling areas from entertainment ones and that croupier Bunnies cover up cleavage and upper thighs so that men would not be ‘enticed’ to gamble - a curiously retrograde rule implying that, in the Playboy world, men risked sexual exploitation by women rather than the other way round.
Even with tightening rules, by 1975, the casino had grown into the largest in Europe and generated huge revenues. In a surreal piece of irony, on 1 November 1978, The Times’ business diary reported that Playboy displaced Tampax as the foreign-owned company with the highest profit margin in the UK; Lownes was the country’s highest-paid executive. When its casino licences were not renewed in 1980, the club shut down soon after, and the loss of its profits was devastating for its parent company, Playboy Enterprises, which was being carried by profits from the casino and its other UK-gambling ventures: from a profit of $31 million in 1981, the company recorded a loss of $51 million a year later.10 Even among those who lamented its passing, not least my Bunny interviewees, many felt that the closure was overdue. The clubs, like Playboy itself, had lost their lustre. While Bunnies had always had their critics, with the rise of feminism and of edgier (and not exclusively straight) sexual subcultures in the 1970s, they came to be regarded as offensive, passé - or most damning of all - boring. One by one, clubs closed. The last holdout, in Manila, shut in 1991.
When the Club left 45 Park Lane in 1982, other occupants moved in. In a fitting twist, it was converted into an ultra-luxurious residence for the Sultan of Brunei’s younger ‘playboy’ brother, Prince Jefri, in the 1990s. Most recently, in 2011, the building has been converted into a sister hotel to the Dorchester: the architect Thierry Despont covered up Gropius’s unloved precast exterior with a clunky metallic grille which gives it, from a distance, a vaguely Art Deco air. And Playboy? Like 45 Park Lane, it has continued to kick around, a ‘classic’ awaiting the inevitable corporate rebirth. And it has come to pass: the new London Playboy Club, designed by Jestico and Whiles, opened in 2011, two blocks away from its predecessor. In its design, the new club is haunted by references to the old: the bunny logo is woven into carpets or laser cut into wooden screens that protect the bar’s interior from the street. But the essential elements remain: the casino (now run by gambling giant, Caesars), the fine cuisine, and, yes, the Bunnies themselves, who smile gamely, fluff their iconic tails, and sally forth, trays raised, to meet the branded fantasies of the 21st century.
1 Reginald Isaacs, Gropius: An Illustrated Biography of the Creator of the Bauhaus (Bulfinch Press Book/Little, Brown & Co, 1991), pp296-98.
2 Reyner Banham, ‘I’d Crawl a Mile for … Playboy’, in Penny Sparke (ed), Design by Choice (Academy Editions), pp61-3. Originally published in AJ, 7 April 1960.
3 Oliver Marriott, The Property Boom (Abingdon Publishing, 1967), pp139-44.
4 Victor Lownes, Playboy Extraordinary: The Story of the Rise and Near Collapse of the Playboy Empire (Panther Press, 1983), pp83-85.
5 Beatriz Preciado identifies Art Miner as architect of the clubs in Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics (Zone Books, 2014), pp185-86, 188-89.
6 Beatriz Preciado, ‘Pornotopia’, in Beatriz Colomina, Annmarie Brennan, and Jeannie Kim (eds), Cold War Hothouses: Inventing Postwar Culture from Cockpit to Playboy (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), pp252-53.
7 Gretchen Edgren, Inside the Playboy Mansion: If You Don’t Swing, Don’t Ring (General Publishing Group, 1998), p76.
8 Gloria Steinem, ‘A Bunny’s Tale,’ in Show (May 1963), pp90-93, 114-115 (quote on p115); and ‘A Bunny’s Tale, Part II,’ in Show (June 1963), pp66-68, 110-116.
9 Lownes, p91.
10 Joshua Robertson, 50 Years of the Playboy Bunny (Chronicle Books, 2010), p167.
My most sincere thanks go to Barbara Haigh, Catherine McDonald (one of the original six London Playboy Bunnies who was trained in Chicago), and Trish Murphy, with a combined 20-plus years of experience of the London Playboy Club, for so generously sharing their memories of its decor and operations, as well as to Grace Chapman for research assistance.