By Gail Buchalter
April 07, 1980 12:00 PM

“It’s a fairy tale,” marvels Los Angeles entrepreneur George Gradow. “When I go to bed every night I say, ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’ ” What key-carrying male American dreamer would disagree? After all, Gradow’s bedmate is Barbi Benton, for nine years top bunny in Hugh Hefner’s personal hutch but now George’s bride of six months.

Barbi’s not complaining, either. She lost the Playboy mansion but gained a 28-room Pasadena palace with the requisite swimming pool and tennis court, plus a husband-manager.

“We have a good relationship,” explains Gradow, 39, “and one reason is that it’s not only built on love. Love is very illusory so we’ve tried to build our marriage on practical, objective things.” Sometimes it seems more like a merger.

Benton, 30, whose showbiz career has been long in the warm-up, dropped out of the syndicated TV cornpone series Hee Haw after six years, in 1976. She had also made three forgettable country music albums (though her single Brass Buckles was a brief hit in 1976), appeared in a short-lived 1977 television series called Sugar Time, and toured with a nightclub singing act. “I’d like to play Vegas as a head-liner,” she allows. “If I went along as I had been going, I’d always be an opening act.”

A previous agent didn’t help by telling her she was too big a star to try out for The Dukes of Hazzard. “I kept making the wrong moves,” she laments. Enter Gradow, who made his money dabbling in all sorts of businesses but confesses to “knowing very little about the entertainment industry.” He adds: “I don’t know that I really appreciate good talent, but to the extent that it makes me feel good I know my wife is a good talent.”

It was that kind of conviction that brought George and Barbi together. In 1977 Liz Prince, a former employee, asked Gradow when he was going to get married. “When I find someone who looks like Barbi Benton,” he replied. (He had seen her on Sugar Time.) Coincidentally, Prince knew Barbi’s mother and the two arranged a meeting. “I met George as a businessman, a financial adviser, and not as a possible husband,” relates Barbi. Besides, she adds, “I was going out with another guy.” When her romance with the “other guy” (actor Andrew Prine) fizzled, Benton invited Gradow to the Academy of Country Music dinner.

Gradow, who claims he never even had another girlfriend, was smitten. After four months he proposed. Benton’s first reaction was, “No, I’m not that suicidal,” but in a matter of weeks she reconsidered. “He’s so funny and he has the energy of 10 men,” she now says. They married last October. “We’re so alike,” Barbi says. “George is a one-woman man, and I could never get beyond dating more than one man at a time. One thing I love is that I don’t have a lot of people running around Hollywood saying ‘I’ve had her,’ because guys love to talk, especially about celebrities.”

Benton interviewed “every conceivable manager in L.A.” but Gradow won the job because “my lawyers kept telling me George was smarter than the people we were talking to.” His first step was to redirect Barbi’s sights; they are currently waiting for the right movie or record contract to come along, while she pursues a new interest, song-writing, with such collaborators as Carol (Rocky) Connors and Shel (A Boy Named Sue) Silverstein.

Benton was born Barbara Klein (she changed her name before her screen debut in a 1969 German film, What’s a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Business like This?, because the producers wanted a more American-sounding name). She grew up in Sacramento, where her father was a gynecologist and her mother worked as an investment counselor. As a child, Barbi remembers, she “had lessons in everything”—from scuba diving to piano. She did some “tearoom modeling” in high school but went to UCLA intent on becoming a veterinarian. “I had to give up that career,” she laughs, “when I realized I couldn’t stand the sight of blood.” At the same time she signed with a commercial agency and “became what everybody wants to be—the new face in town.”

Television commercials led to a role on the TV series Playboy after Dark (and later Laugh-In) plus a come-on from Hefner. He was 43, she was 19. “I told him I never dated a man over 24,” recalls Barbi. “He told me he never dated anyone older than that either.” They lived together for almost nine years: Barbi appeared on three Playboy covers and in two spreads. “I was shy and would make the photographer turn his back when I changed poses,” says Barbi of her first nude modeling session. “By the second one, I just let it all hang out.”

She and Hef remained friends after they stopped hanging out in 1976. “I only regret not marrying Barbi,” says Hugh, “because it finally led to our going separate ways. But I have been married and have children and wasn’t, and am not, interested in doing it again. Barbi hadn’t had that and wanted it.”

Gradow was raised in San Francisco, where his Eastern European parents had emigrated in 1938. George was a born hustler. At Washington University in St. Louis he bought three cars—a ’46 Packard, ’48 Dodge and ’49 Buick—and rented them out to freshmen, bringing in $250 a week. He also charged $10 for a list of the campus’ more “active” girls, though copying machines doomed that enterprise. His physician father wanted George to become a doctor too, but George chose to study law at New York University—in due course, however, he abandoned law as well. When he landed in Los Angeles in 1967 with $200, two suits and a ’57 Triumph, he found a line of work he preferred: ministering to sick businesses, and then selling them for a profit or extracting a large fee for his advice. In 1975 he bought a controlling interest in the Churchill Group, now one of the largest owners of mobile home parks in the country.

“The game plan of my life,” says Gradow, “is never be at anyone else’s mercy. I want to have children, so I can show them how to enjoy life and avoid going through the traumas I did.” Barbi says they’ll begin a family in two years.

Enjoying life isn’t difficult at the six-acre estate Gradow has owned since 1978. The garage at the end of the quarter-mile driveway houses a white Corniche, a Mercedes limo and a BMW. “I wasn’t impressed with the house,” shrugs Barbi. “I had lived in an equally big one for nine years.” The newlyweds entertain in one of three dining rooms—often throwing theme parties, like the Japanese dinner where all the guests wore kimonos and were entertained by two geisha girls.

One recent dinner guest was Barbi’s ex-playmate. Hef approves of the match (though he didn’t show at the wedding). “As you can imagine,” he says of his relationship with Barbi, “it might be a difficult act to follow and it says a lot for George, as well as for Barbi, that it isn’t. I’m grateful we have remained friends.”

Yet Gradow still seems to be pinching himself. “Here I am,” he muses, “tremendously insecure, with this extremely beautiful woman who could have anyone in the world. I wonder how the hell I did it.”