By Gail Buchalter
Updated December 06, 1982 12:00 PM

There’s been all that talk about how Hugh Hefner, bachelor daddy of the Playboy empire, makes women into sex objects. Now the ears, so to speak, are on the other head. “I’ve wound up being one myself,” says Hef, 56, talking about how 1982’s Playmate of the Year has become greatly enamored of him. She is Shannon Lee Tweed, 25, leading lady at Hefner’s Los Angeles mansion and tall (5’10”) blond starlet on CBS’ nighttime soap Falcon Crest. Her run at the mansion has already lasted 14 months—longer than most TV series. “He’s got a real special feeling for this one,” confides a friend. “She’s bright, beautiful, and big,” Hefner beams. She’s also powerful; backstairs gossip has her usurping authority from Hef’s staff. Among his aides even the dread word marriage is being mentioned.

But not by Hef. “When Shannon says ‘Why don’t we get married?’ and I say no, she punches me,” Hef laughs. “I think having kids is a reason for getting married. I’ve had two.” Shannon professes understanding. “Marriage is not natural for Hef,” she explains. “It’s natural for me to think in those terms since it’s the first time I’ve known it’s right. But it’s going to take him longer, since he’s been through it before.”

Indeed. Hef managed to get through liaisons with former playmates Sondra Theodore (five years), Karen Christy (three years) and Barbi Benton (eight and a half years) without even getting near an altar. So Shannon isn’t holding her breath. She stays busy on Falcon Crest playing publisher Richard Channing’s beauteous executive secretary Diana Hunter. She also co-hosts the celebrity news segment on the weekly cable show Playboy on the Air. In fact, she works harder than any of Hef’s previous serious girlfriends, and he likes that. “If they’re not pursuing some kind of career, they are thinking about getting married,” he quips. “For me that makes it a less likely relationship.” He also likes the fact that Shannon pursued him. “I find the way she dropped the net over me enchanting,” he says.

And therein lies a tale. Not too long ago Tweed was a $40,000-to-$60,000-a-year Toronto model who had been rejected—three times—for a Playboy spread because she was judged to be too slim. Then last year she went on a Canadian game show called Thrill of a Lifetime and won another try. On the data sheet she included with her Playmate application she listed Hefner as a “role model.” Lo and behold, she was introduced to Hef, and became the November 1981 Playmate of the Month. Last June she was promoted to Playmate of the Year, as well as queen of Hef’s calloused old heart. “Once Shannon and I met, things happened fairly quickly,” he allows. “It’s a good lesson in never underestimating the power of a woman.”

Of their 31-year age difference Hefner says, “Shannon is unusually mature and I’m not the average 56-year-old. A lot of the boy is left in me.” Others agree. “Hef has always been attracted to younger women,” says Barbi Benton, now 32. “He loves to see the world through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time. That way, he relives everything. If Shannon can keep him interested for a year and a half, more power to her.”

Thirty years after he scraped up $10,600 to start what he fondly describes as “a magazine about romance from the male point of view,” Hefner has a lot to relive. As a child in Chicago he was raised as a middle-class Methodist, who managed to express his personal dreams and fantasies in comic strips he drew for his school paper. After just two and a half years at the University of Illinois, he graduated in 1949 with a B.S. in psychology and married his high school sweetheart, Millie Williams (they divorced in 1959). Among other jobs, he wrote subscription promotion copy for Esquire and headed up circulation at a monthly called Children’s Activities. Then in 1953 he launched his major fantasy: The first issue of Playboy hit the newsstands that December. By 1981 the bunny power generated from that beginning had grown into a $389 million business embracing not only Playboy but other magazines and ventures in book publishing, clubs, resorts and casinos.

Hefner transferred his personal headquarters from Chicago to L.A. in mid-1970. “I like the life out here,” he says. His company (Hef owns 67 percent of the stock) bought his 30-room mansion on five and a half acres in the Holmby Hills area for a little over $1 million. Playboy spent almost $9 million more refurbishing it and installing such amenities as a tennis court, several Jacuzzi baths, an outdoor hot tub and a zoo stocked with monkeys, rabbits and more than $60,000 worth of exotic birds. Hef pays $15,500 a month rent for his personal digs, which include a large bedroom that is also his office. It is fitted out with eight video systems and two movie screens, among other gadgets.

His pipe-puffing peace was disturbed in the past year when the firm lost $51 million, partly because it had to sell its very profitable British casinos. Because Hef decided that “morale was down” in the firm after that loss and after some marginal operations were shucked off, he promoted his bright 30-year-old daughter, Christie, from veep to president (ex-wife Millie works in the magazine’s Chicago personnel office; their son, David, 27, is taking film classes at the University of Southern California). Hef’s main preoccupations now are a new venture with CBS/ Fox involving the marketing of videocassette shows based on the Playboy format and the Playboy Channel, a pay-TV operation launched in mid-November to offer such fare as “adult” feature films and advice on “psychosexual matters.”

Shannon grew up on a mink ranch in Saint John’s, Newfoundland and spent her childhood horseback riding and fishing. The fun ended when her father fell into a coma for over a year following a car accident. “My mother couldn’t take care of the ranch by herself, so she moved us to her mother’s house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan,” says Shannon. The family went on welfare while Mom (now a Saskatchewan hospital administrator) studied nursing. Her father recovered, but the Tweeds divorced when Shannon was 20 (he died last year).

Shannon began thinking about modeling as a kid. The catalogs that came in the mail “showed such a wonderful way of life,” she recalls. She left home at 14 to share an apartment with a girlfriend, and lied about her age to hostess at a Saskatoon nightclub while finishing high school. “School seemed unimportant, since I learned so much more on my own,” she says. She moved to Ottawa with her beau of the moment at 18 and worked as a restaurant manager. At 20, she had the breast surgery that plumped and evened out the chest that once embarrassed her. “I had an A and a B,” she laughs. “Now I’m a B-plus.”

The next year, 1978, she was third runner-up in the Miss Ottawa Pageant and won the Miss Canada talent competition (her specialty: singing). She and a partner subsequently opened an Ottawa bar called Shannon’s. But a year later, weary of the 18-hour days that the business required, she started modeling and soon hit the big time in Montreal and Toronto. By 22, she says, “I had most of what I wanted in Canada and was ready for the U.S.” She sought exposure in Playboy “because it was tasteful.”

Life at the mansion really has “very few disadvantages,” says Shannon, though the large staff and Hef’s nearly constant entertaining have taken some getting used to: “I like to cook and rearrange my furniture, and you can’t do that here.” She has her own three-bedroom apartment, but mainly just keeps her clothes there. When she doesn’t have an early Falcon Crest call, she and Hef snooze until 2 p.m. Then he slips on one of his dozen silk robes over one of his 100 pairs of silk pajamas. Hef wears little else unless he’s going out, which he seldom does. “The things I enjoy don’t require my leaving here,” he says.

After she made Playmate of the Year, Shannon thought she might retire with her sudden wealth—$100,000 in cash and a $45,000 Porsche—but found that “I felt so guilty about not doing anything. I never really decided to be an actress, but I got an agent, was called back on every show I auditioned for, and finally decided I was meant to be an actress.” Though she and Hef don’t work together, “I throw him my ideas,” she says. “Hef listens, and God knows that’s a really hard thing for people to do.” Shannon feels “this is probably the first time Hef’s had a one-on-one relationship. That’s a compliment to me. I have beauty, intelligence, individuality, sensuality and sexuality.”

Despite their playful punching and slapping, there’s a problem. She’s got a supporting role in a feature film being made in Montreal, which means that she’ll be commuting to Canada for several weeks. “He’s taking it well,” says Shannon, observing the classic dilemma of the working woman’s man. “He wants me with him, but he also wants me to be successful and independent.” Still, that is not her dilemma. She has plans. Sure, she observes, with all she already has “and Hef too, I must say that enough is more than enough.” But she’d also like to keep making movies, and even cut an album of torch songs. “I realize I can never take my success for granted,” she says. “It’s not attractive for anyone to be like that.”