The real Playboy Club
Former Bunnies, performers and Hugh Hefner remember the Chicago hangout.
Later in the decade, the children of Playboy Club members would advance the “free love” philosophy to new heights during the Summer of Love while wearing Levis and tie-dye shirts. Hef’s uniform of silk pajamas, smoking jacket and pipe seemed antiquated.
In 1969, Penthouse magazine debuted with more hard-core nudity and began chipping away at Playboy’s circulation. Two years later, Hefner purchased a new Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, and by 1975, the Chicago Mansion was mothballed. Over the next two years, Playboy Clubs in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Kansas City and San Francisco failed. The original Chicago club bounced to two other locations before closing for good in 1986. Clubs in New York and Los Angeles soon followed. By the early 1990s, Playboy Clubs were but a memory.
“Playboy simply got left behind,” says Russell Miller, author of the definitive history Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy. “In the early 1960s, Playboy absolutely had a role in the changes taking place in American society,” Miller says. “But by the end of the decade, it seemed like a parody of itself.”
The former Bunnies prefer to recall the Playboy Club in its heyday. Some even argue that the Playboy Club contributed to the feminist movement.
“These young women used it as a launching pad to do great things. They used it to fund their educations, support their children. The money they made allowed them to become independent. They no longer needed to be supported by a man,” says Kathryn Leigh Scott, 66, a former Bunny and author of The Bunny Years, an oral history.
Nancy Downey Caddick, for one, would agree. She worked at the Chicago club on and off from 1960–63, and eventually earned her doctorate in clinical social work. After a career at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the 72-year-old continues to work at the hospital part-time.
“For me, it was a way station as I tried to figure out what to do with my life,” Downey Caddick says. “At the Playboy Club, I learned how to speak to customers and how to listen. It’s what I do as a therapist.”
But Steinem, 77, who has called for a boycott of the show, remains unconvinced. She says the Playboy Club glamorizes the objectification of women. “It normalizes prostitution and male dominance,” Steinem recently told Reuters. “I just know that over the years, women have called me and told me horror stories of what they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.”
Hefner, by contrast, seems to have renewed vigor because of The Playboy Club series. He notes the recent rebirth of Playboy Clubs in Las Vegas and London as proof that the brand still has strength (not to mention the planned revival of the Chicago Club). Regardless of its future, Playboy’s place in history is solid: By pushing the boundaries of social mores, it both fueled and documented the change in American attitudes about sex. Not bad for a girlie mag and a bunny costume.