At the Playboy mansion in Beverly Hills, four doors from Hugh Hefner’s master bedroom, Max Lerner—distinguished professor of American civilization, syndicated political columnist and would-be de Tocqueville of the 1970s—snuggles between the sheets.
Outside, on the 20 acres of rolling lawns and man-made wilderness, most of the wildlife except for the peacocks are in cages. At 9:45 on this Sunday, Lemer struts into the breakfast room. His red sport shirt is unbuttoned down to the shock of white hairs on his chest. He deftly adjusts his hearing aid and hits the bell for service.
His shrub of white hair appears rabbinical and unbrushed. (“I get my sense of style,” he clucks, “from Thoreau.”) The hazel eyes are intent, slightly bloodshot. The ruddy complexion, the pugnacious mien of a prizefighter, is etched like a map that reveals a wanderlust of 76 years.
Lerner orders dollar-size pancakes automatically, but when told there is a new cook in the kitchen, he asks the waiter to “back it up with a Cream of Wheat.” To Lerner’s left, former Rams wide receiver Lance Rentzel, who in bad times in 1970 was charged with indecent exposure, voices concern over the worsening situation in Iran. The pancakes arrive, Lerner samples one and dismisses the plate. “They’re not really good enough.” He focuses on the Cream of Wheat. Rentzel questions him about the why of political revolution. Lerner nods his head gravely between bites and places his hand inside his shirt to reflect. Moments later he swallows and offers his final judgments. Rentzel listens reverently and says, “Hef calls Max the in-house guru.”
Lerner’s unofficial appointment as the Henry Kissinger of the Playboy empire is only the latest phase of his peripatetic career. “I lead five lives which intertwine,” he explains. He became a liberal pundit in his first major job in 1936 as editor of The Nation (author Barbara Tuchman, whose father owned the publication, got her early training from Max). Lerner’s column for the New York Post, which began in 1949, is now syndicated in about 90 newspapers around the world. Though criticized for the obviousness and superficiality of some of his recent writing, he is still a tireless and often quoted interpreter of the traditional left. “Max is the most energetic man I know,” sighs his wife, Edna. “All through our marriage he has been compulsive about his work, but now it’s getting even worse.”
“My energy is a flow,” philosophizes Max. “If I don’t use it, it dwindles. And if I do use it, it gets regenerated.”
He began using it in academia 47 years ago on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College. He relocated to Harvard, then to Williams and finally to Brandeis University, from which he retired as professor of American civilization in 1973. The next year, instead of just collecting his pension, he flew West to become distinguished professor of human behavior at the graduate school of the United States International University in San Diego. “I have to say at the end of one of my three-hour seminars I have far more energy than I had when I started.”
He has published more than a dozen books and “I am generally working on two books with a third on the back burner.” America as a Civilization, his answer to de Tocqueville, has sold nearly 100,000 copies since publication in 1957 and, now translated into five languages, has become an international classroom classic. “Some people are girl-watchers. Others are birdwatchers and stock market-watchers. I’m a civilization-watcher,” he intones.
Lerner’s next book, on the psycho-history of six Presidents, has a price tag of a quarter of a million dollars. Swifty Lazar is his agent. And Hugh Hefner has given Lerner the key to bedroom No. 5 in the Playboy mansion to work, supposedly without distraction. There, amidst such courtiers of Hef’s kingdom as Warren Beatty, Jimmy Caan, Robert Culp, Jim Brown, Peter Bogdanovich and a producer whose name Max can never remember, he discusses the affairs of state.
At this moment Sondra Theodore, Hef’s blond current playmate, breezes into the breakfast room and throws her arms around Lerner. He puts down his cup of tea to squeeze her hands against his chest. “How are you feeling, darling?” She sniffles, “I’ve had a cold for a month.”
“Must be an epidemic of colds in Los Angeles,” Lerner observes. “Everybody around here has a runny nose.”
As the sun climbs Lerner grabs his yellow pad and ballpoint and moves out to a table by a waterfall to write. Overhead parrots chatter. A telephone is plugged into the shrubbery. Peter Lawford disappears into the cavern that houses the Jacuzzi. And Lerner writes busily. At 1 p.m. he moves over to the tennis court. “My only real exercise is constant walking,” he admits. “I used to play tennis, but now I play other games.” On the court is Harry Reems, star of the porno classic Deep Throat. He and Max share a bathroom in the mansion. “Actually Harry and I have quite a lot in common,” Lerner observes. “He is the sex symbol of the 70s, and I’m a sex symbol in my 70s.”
He was born Mikhail Lerner in Minsk, Russia. “One of my earliest memories was of my mother talking about Tolstoy’s novels. She was a very brilliant woman without formal schooling, but she was the prime force in the family,” Lerner recalls. “My father was a very gentle man, an itinerant Hebrew scholar who filled the house with books in Hebrew and Yiddish. It was my brother Hyman who was brilliant,” says Max. “I was pretty good.”
In 1907 they joined the wave of immigrants to the U.S. For a short while Benjamin Lerner stitched in a New York garment loft, then later bought a Cats-kills farm and took in boarders. There, older brother Hyman developed a rheumatic heart and died, and Max bore the Lerner flag.
When Benjamin went bankrupt, the family moved to New Haven to open a modest grocery store and deliver milk. Max worked in a dairy and won a scholarship to a local university—Yale. Although he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1923, he felt he underachieved socially. “There was a decided gap between the boys from New Haven and the boys from outside,” he says. “I was not…You just didn’t get into the clubs. You didn’t become editor of the Yale Daily News.” He pauses. “I was short and Jewish, and the beautiful girls didn’t want anything to do with me. But I’ve certainly made up for it since.”
To support himself at school, he tutored the “sons and daughters of the rich” to take exams and played poker for serious money. Upon graduation, “I thought I was going to be a professor of literature until they told me that a Jewish boy wasn’t going to make it teaching in the Ivy League.” Ever resilient, Max recharted his course into Yale Law School, but “I didn’t last a year. I couldn’t bear the thought of spending my life fighting for somebody’s house deed.” It was around this time that he discovered Veblen’s revolutionary book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. “I dropped out of law school to reform the world.”
In the next years he picked up a fellowship to Washington University in St. Louis in economics and earned his M.A. in 1925. There he met a brilliant young student, Anita Marburg, whom he married in 1928. In the meantime he completed a doctorate at the Robert Brookings Graduate School of Economics and Government. He was 25.
Shortly after that he settled in New York, where he became managing editor of the 15-volume, 1930 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. He and his wife both joined the faculty of progressive Sarah Lawrence in 1932. And there in the classroom, “I fell deeply in love with the most brilliant and beautiful student—Edna Albers.” She was a lit major, but he led her into the field of psychology. “Her father was a distinguished surgeon,” Lerner says, “and she was only 17…”
Unfortunately, the love-struck Lerner by then had three small daughters—Constance, Pamela (who died of cancer in 1960) and Joanna. So Edna married a Princeton man. “It was a very intense love affair, as my first marriage had not been,” Max remembers, “Edna was my greatest love.”
“Well, at least I was his longest love,” Edna cracks today. For 10 years they kept in touch and then both filed for divorce. When they eloped to New Hampshire in 1941, “Nobody was talking to us,” says Edna. “Even my own mother would not attend my wedding. They were all very angry at us for divorcing our husband and wife. In fact,” she adds, “the justice of the peace did not even look at us as he was performing the ceremony.”
For the past 37 years they have, says Max, “maintained a continual intellectual dialogue. My wife is probably a better critic of my thinking than anyone I know. She often takes different positions from me on key issues. But it doesn’t trouble us too much.”
A crucial area of controversy is the issue of sexual freedom. “She takes the opposite view from mine,” he explains unnecessarily. “Her views are basically that society has to stay together and be knit together. She feels what often happens with these revolutionary ideas is that they become forms of just running wild and trying to live out fantasies. She takes a very strong position on that and a good deal of my thinking has had to be tested.”
While Edna tended the home fires, bought his wardrobe at Brooks Brothers and raised their three sons —Michael, 35, Stephen, 33, and Adam, 22—Lerner struck up a friendship with Hefner, whom he first met on a panel in the early 1960s. “Once we realized we had the same view of sexuality, we found ourselves always taking similar positions against the repressive society,” notes Lerner. “We found in talking together both of us were stretched on different issues. We found ourselves talking late into the night on political issues. Hef has a very philosophical mind.” Testifies Hef: “I think our friendship is greatly misunderstood. I’m really the authority on public affairs. Max is the expert on sex.”
These days Lerner is spending more time chez Hefner than in his apartment on East End Avenue in Manhattan. “I’ve never been to the Playboy mansion,” Edna says, “but Max seems to enjoy it.” Now that the children are grown, she works as a clinical assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at New York’s Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital and Clinic. “She is very independent,” says Lerner with pride.
Max presently is studying the civilization of California. “This is the area of growth,” he explains, “and I want to be where it is happening.” Commuting every other week between the coasts on United Airlines first class (“They give me more room for working,” Lerner claims) is hectic, but he finds the pressures of dual-coast existence a natural way to live.
Max Lerner is not afraid of flying.