Steven Watts, a professor of history at the University of Missouri, examines the life of Hugh Hefner in his new book “Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream.”

Steven Watts, a professor of history at the University of Missouri, examines the life of Hugh Hefner in his new book “Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream.”

“I think the image I had in my mind is probably one a lot of people have – that Hugh Hefner is sort of a party animal and an impresario of this wild social cavorting at the Playboy Mansion constantly,” Watts said.

“But I was surprised to discover two things. First, he’s a very romantic guy – a sentimental guy in a very old-fashioned way. Second, he leads a very orderly life, almost to the point of being regimented. A rigid existence. Nuclear warfare might change the schedule at the Mansion, but I’m not even sure about that.”

Hopeless romantic? Structured down to the minute? Even – no, especially – the photos in Watts’ book seem to refute the idea.

There’s Hefner in that classic pose on the cover: pipe in hand, penetrating gaze, daring you to question what he does. Or take one of the 53 photos that line the chapters of the tome: endless variations of Playboy bunnies on each arm or shots of him playing pinball in the Mansion or riding in his private jet, The Big Bunny.

Even photos of Hef at age 8, seated placidly on an upholstered chair, or a standing shot of him in Army uniform during his time in the service (1945-46), have that same visage of mischief and subversion.

And yet, a taste for sex and expensive bathrobes did not an empire make: Hugh Hefner is a complex man. That’s probably why he so fascinated Watts.

Watts began to specialize in scholarly, thorough biographies of American business icons with works such as “The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century” and “The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life.”

One mention of the name Playboy or a look at that classic bunny logo shows you just how iconic is his latest subject.

“To me, it just seemed like a natural progression as a cultural historian,” Watts said. “The two people I’d done earlier were from the early and the middle of the 20th century and done much to create the modern consumer culture. I was scouting around for a figure near the end of the century who’d bring that progression to a logical conclusion. Hefner bubbled to the top of the list as a fascinating character and there really hadn’t been a serious book on him yet.”

After winning approval for the book in 2003, Watts gained unprecedented access to Hefner’s behind-the-scenes life. Was it tough to get Hef to commit?

“Not at all, and that surprised me,” Watts said. “I had a friend, an attorney in Los Angeles, who knew some people at Playboy, and I sent a letter, a shot in the dark, to Dick Rosenzweig (co-head of Playboy’s Alta Loma Entertainment), who is sort of Hefner’s right-hand man out there. I expected a lot of red tape, and I was astonished: Rosenzweig called three days later and said he’d shown it to Hefner and he was immensely interested.

“A week after that, I found myself in the Playboy Mansion,” he said. “It wasn’t so much intimidating, as ... well, very far out of my normal realm of experience. The day I met Hefner, we were sitting at a dining room table and talking about the project, and I saw a young woman, a platinum blonde, walk in, kiss him on the cheek and sit down. Then, another one came in a few minutes later, and after that they just kept coming. Seven platinum blondes in their 20s sitting around the table. I just remember looking around and thinking I was Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’: not exactly in Kansas. It was a little unnerving.”

Watts’ book combines the history of the Playboy empire – all of the major highs and brutal lows since the magazine’s launch in December 1953 are covered – with Hefner’s own.

Throughout his research and a series of interviews with Hefner, Watts became most fascinated with Hefner’s romantic side and the airtight schedule that includes, among other things, movie screenings at the Mansion that are meticulously researched and presented by Hefner himself.

The other important strand in the book is the social context, and many of Watts’ later interviews with Hefner, he said, shifted away from Hefner’s and the magazine’s history and focused more on how the Playboy empire is continuing into the 21st century.

“I think he recognizes that the company and the magazine alike will never have the huge market share and impact they did 30 years ago, and that’s because of the Internet, of course, and competitors,” Watts said. “But the company is exploring a number of ways to further the Playboy image on the Net, and Playboy is also actively pursuing its gaming business, with the clubs in Las Vegas and many partnerships in China and Macau. But they really, however, make most of their money these days in licensing.”

Products that became icons were plenty available by the time Playboy arrived – but not on the level or in the arena Hefner’s did.

As stated by T.S. Eliot in one of Watts’ five epigraphs for the beginning of the book, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

“When people think of Playboy, the thing that leaps to mind is sex – that’s certainly been its key calling card,” Watts said. “But I guess what struck me as a historian, particularly looking at the magazine through the decades, was from the late ’50s to about the late ’70s what a terrific magazine it was for more reasons than just the sex. It was a terrific journalistic venue, filled with really good cultural commentary, social criticism, movie and music reviews by very prominent writers. I mean, it was a lifestyle magazine for the hip and in-crowd in that period. It really presented a picture of the good life.”

When deciding on the Hefner book, Watts said he had also considered media moguls like Ted Turner and technology giants like Bill Gates, but Hefner “just seemed a better subject.”

Watts said he’s already planning his next biography, although he’s keeping quiet about who it’s going to be about.

He’s still in contact with Hefner and the Playboy titan has been very cooperative, Watts said, about doing promotional events for the book.

It’s worth noting that Watts’ wife, Patti, has also been to meet Hefner many times, and the couple have become regulars at the Mansion’s New Year’s Eve soiree.

“She finds it all very interesting,” Watts says. “We go to the New Year’s Eve parties and they’re formal affairs and very elegant ones. It’s a great place to meet interesting people – there’s an older generation of Hollywood types who hang out around there.”

Nothing too racy, then?

“Well, she (Patti) does look a little askance at some of the more outlandish things going on there,” Watts says, laughing, “especially with the younger ones.”

The Patriot Ledger