February 25, 1985 12:00 PM

The only thing cute about A Bunny’s Tale, airing on ABC on Feb. 25, is its title. The show, an adaptation of a 1963 magazine story by Gloria Steinem about working as a bunny at New York’s Playboy Club, is serious feminism. And it gives a national airing to a long-smoldering feud between two of America’s most controversial public figures: Steinem, who has risen from free-lance writer to living symbol of the women’s movement, and Hugh Hefner, the man who invented Playboy. Although Hefner never appears in the docudrama, his presence pervades it. These are the people behind A Bunny’s Tale:

When you drive up to the iron gates of his mansion, a voice emerges from a boulder by the side of the road asking you to state your business. You pull up through a fantasyland where flamingos and African cranes stroll peacefully along the sward, a vibrant motley of Japanese koi bask in the pools and a hutch of bunnies—the furry kind—do what bunnies do. You open the massive door on a marble court and enter a Hollywood version of an English baron’s castle, with stereo equipment and video machines vying for place with the leather and oak and gleaming brass of the appointments. Unlit pipes are scattered about, marking the places where the master has lighted. Also scattered in random patterns are dewy young people, uniform in their physical beauty. There are dewy young women, innocently sensuous in terrycloth robes, lounging decoratively in various rooms, and there are dewy young men, tall and muscular in jeans or gym shorts, chatting with the young women. “These are friends of Hef’s,” an aide explains. This being the place it is, the dewettes far outnumber the dewees.

Black satin pajamas and a patterned black robe can make a man look casual, but they cannot relax him. Hefner constantly fiddles with a pipe that will not stay lit or jumps up from his library couch to fetch a Pepsi from the refrigerator hidden behind an oak door. He never finishes a Pepsi: At the end of two hours, a string of clear bottles with two-inch-wide brown bands of liquid at their bottoms stands on the bar.

“I don’t have negative feelings about Gloria Steinem,” he explains. “I’m very supportive of the women’s movement. We had a fund raiser here for the ERA not too many years ago.” But he adds, “I don’t think that would be likely to happen today.”

It wouldn’t. “I think Hefner wants the Playboy clubs to be appreciated as oases of sophistication and glamour,” says Gloria Steinem. “I think Hefner himself wants to go down in history as a person of sophistication and glamour. But the last person I would want to go down in history as is Hugh Hefner.” Steinem is in New York, at her desk at Ms. magazine in between public appearances around the country. She had script approval of A Bunny’s Tale, and she has seen it. She believes that everything it depicts—from the men manhandling bunnies, forcing room keys and money down their bodices, to the company doctors who routinely performed internal examinations on unwilling bunnies, to the management pressure on bunnies to “date” VIP Playboy Club keyholders—is factual.

Hugh Hefner uses the word “hurtful” eight times in a two-hour discussion of the Playboy empire’s relations with the women’s movement. He recalls his campaigns back in the ’60s against hurtful laws that regulated sexual conduct. He makes admissions against his own interest: “There are even things reflected in Playboy magazine that are stereotypes and perhaps hurtful, like the overemphasis on youth.” But most hurtful of all to him is his personal fall from ideological grace.

“In the ’60s, you were viewed by liberals as a…” a questioner begins.

“Hero,” Hefner unselfconsciously completes the sentence. He is not far from right. The Moratorium group held antiwar fund raisers in the Chicago Playboy mansion. The liberal political scientist Max Lerner, the sex education crusader Mary Calderone, Dick Gregory, Eugene McCarthy, Jesse Jackson, NOW. These were the people and groups who came to Hefner for financial and moral support, as well as the chance to rub shoulders with Warren Beatty and Barbi Benton and George Hamilton. Now Hefner oscillates between wistfulness and outrage as he argues that he is not a demon.

“How do we treat the bunnies?” he asks himself, addressing the issues in A Bunny’s Tale. He answers for the 500-odd women still working in ears and tails at 13 clubs around the world, “The record is clear in terms of lack of exploitation and lack of sexual harassment. We invented the bunny mother to protect the bunnies. It became a tradition that with bunnies you can look but don’t touch. The notion that a customer could get away with manhandling a bunny is ridiculous. In my mind the clubs were an entertainment, a kind of variation on the Ziegfeld Follies. Nobody expected the Ziegfeld girls to be available with the orange drink at intermission.”

“Women are the major beneficiaries of getting rid of the hypocritical old notions about sex,” says Hefner, who believes he played a large part in burying those notions. “Now some people are acting as if the sexual revolution was a male plot to get laid. One of the unintended by-products of the women’s movement is the association of the erotic impulse with wanting to hurt somebody.”

Steinem strongly demurs. “I do not find Playboy magazine and the clubs erotic,” she says. “I find them pornographic. Women are presented as objects and men are represented as people. I guess that’s the nicest way to put it.”

Playboy Enterprises is still a large and strong company, its income rising (153 percent from 1982 to 1984) after a period of troubles. It has been a bad half decade in the same sense that December 1941 was a bad month for the United States Navy. The company was kicked out of London for gaming violations, then banned from Atlantic City because it had been kicked out of London. Major Playboy clubs—including the one in New York—have folded, and Playboy’s soft-core cable television channel has until recently hemorrhaged money. Worst of all, perhaps, has been the personal publicity disaster for Hugh Hefner. In two books published just last year—Peter Bogdanovich’s The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980, and Wired, Bob Woodward’s story about the death of John Belushi—the Playboy mansion is depicted as a drug-ridden den of iniquity. Still, Hefner finds a silver lining: “The remarkable thing about Playboy is that it remains so viable and controversial after 32 years. It’s still so much a matter of headlines and controversy. When they want the ratings on television, they do Playboy.”

The Playboy presence in Chicago is shrunken now. The old mansion where Hefner began the business is a dormitory at the School of the Art Institute. Hef’s old suede-and-velour loveseats are piled in the drained swimming pool, and a poetry seminar meets at a small table that stands in the place of the famous circular bed in what was once the world’s most photographed boudoir.

The office of the president is on the eighth floor. You reach it by walking along a corridor decorated with illustrations from past issues of the magazine. The second picture on the left is a full-length portrait of Gloria Steinem. You turn left past a water closet labeled “Persons Room,” and you ask about the art.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” says Christie Hefner, 32, the self-described feminist who was named president of Playboy Enterprises Inc. in 1982 and chief operating officer last year. She is now in day-to-day control of the company her father began. “I like Gloria, we have a friendly relationship. I just put those illustrations out there because they are some of my favorites.”

She has the poise of an executive 20 years her senior and the kind of enthusiasm for her company that would put a yuppie to shame. Her corner office is personalized by a hanging plant; she’s sure enough of herself to fetch coffee for a visitor rather than sending a secretary for it. She will talk about the past if she has to and defend her father’s stewardship of the company. “I know women who worked in the club, in the same period as Gloria, who had very positive experiences,” she says. “It was the early 1960s instead of the 1980s. I’m sure that the people at Playboy were less enlightened than they are now. But Gloria was going in with a certain perspective, to write a certain kind of piece. I’m not saying she made things up, but I suspect that all these factors combined to create the piece that she wrote.”

When they speak of each other—and they do—Christie Hefner and Gloria Steinem are respectful. “I admire the contribution Gloria has made to social change,” says Christie. Says Steinem of Christie: “She is struggling, working very hard. It’s like being the Jewish child of an anti-Semitic parent.”

One of Christie Hefner’s most impressive traits is her determination to emphasize the positive, rather than criticize the past. “One of the things we’re going to do is to make the environment of the clubs a place where men don’t go to watch women, but where couples or men together, or women together, go to be with each other,” she says. In recent years the Playboy clubs have lost their allure. Having failed in larger cities, they are thriving now only in places like Lansing, Mich. and Des Moines, where the women’s movement may not have the force it has in Manhattan. Japan, which has virtually no women’s movement, has four flourishing clubs. Christie Hefner is determined to return to New York, reopen a club in the city where Steinem worked and make Playboy a name in town again. The opening is scheduled for this summer, and the club will consist of two parts: one open to the public, the other only to key-holders.

“We’re going to have male and female waiters, at least in the public part,” Christie says. “It would be premature to say more than that now.” She won’t say that feminism is the motivation for this decision, only that she wants to make both men and women comfortable as customers in the clubs, but she will allow, “The sensitivity of people in this company today to women’s issues is much higher than in the world out there.”

The afternoon turns to twilight as Hugh Hefner explains his life. “The women’s movement is not an isolated thing,” he says. “It’s part of a changing set of social, sexual, political values. Playboy clubs are not just a place for men. I heard on TV the other day that there are going to be male bunnies.”

It would be inaccurate to suggest that Christie had not discussed male waiters with her father—or even that he does not have complete control over the company. But the new ideas at Playboy are coming from a new generation. And perhaps the world is changing.

Gloria Steinem isn’t yet sure. “They have to call the men bunnies too,” she says.

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