'Secrets of Playboy' : How Dorothy Stratten's Murder Exposed Hugh Hefner's Top-Down Toxic Culture

In August 1980, the Playmate of the Year was brutally killed by her estranged husband — insiders with Playboy at the time look back on Stratten's death as a "wakeup call" about Playboy's rape culture

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A&E's Secrets of Playboy has exposed numerous allegations of sexual violence and exploitation that people close to Hugh Hefner claim happened inside the Playboy Mansions' walls — but one of the most shocking crimes to ever cast a shadow on the Playboy empire was outside Hefner's wrought-iron gate.

In August 1980, Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten was horrifically imprisoned, raped and murdered by her estranged husband Paul Snider.

Miki Garcia, who was at that time the brand's director of promotions arranging public appearances by Playmates, said on Monday's Secrets of Playboy: "Dorothy Stratten's death was the final straw. That did it. It was so shocking to me."

Garcia had been the Playmate of the Month in January 1973 and over the next nine years made her way into Playboy's corporate office. When Stratten died at just 20 years old, Garcia said she could no longer ignore the culture of toxic objectification and sexual abuse that permeated Playboy at every level.

In fact, Garcia had personally tried to intervene on Stratten's behalf when she discovered Snider had been "arrested in Vancouver for dope peddling and pimping." Those are the words she wrote in a memo to Hefner on Aug. 24, 1979 — nearly a year to the day before Stratten's murder and Snider's suicide.

"I wanted to warn Hef that Dorothy Stratten was with a very dangerous man," explained Garcia.

"No one ever answered me," she claimed, "and security came back [saying] they knew nothing. Really? That's impossible, is impossible."

She continued, "Hef didn't care, he just didn't care." Instead, said Garcia, Hefner looked the other way because he viewed Stratten as "someone who could sell an incredible amount of magazines. She was his meal ticket." And getting involved in her personal life with the controlling Snider might complicate the two men's mutually beneficial relationship.


Garcia sobbed thinking back on Stratten's death — what's more, she recoiled at how the immediate aftermath was "handled so poorly. When I got the call around 6:30 in the morning, I was told, 'Call all the Playmates and make sure that they understand that they are not to speak to any newspaper people.' You could not do any interviews. Again, my job was to go in there and silence them. And I did."

Garcia had experienced how Playboy's code of silence enshrouded seemingly all wrongdoing by men. She also claimed to have been personally subject to the consequences of refusing to gain status by having sex with Hefner.

After her introduction to the world of Playboy in January 1973, Garcia had caught Hefner's attention. By the end of the year, she claimed, she had been promised the title of Playmate of the Year — under one unspoken condition.

Garcia said she received a call from Marilyn Grabowski, one of Hefner's top female executives ("It was crazy how much power this woman wielded," according to former Playmate Rebekka Armstrong).

"She said that Hefner wanted to meet me. I was worried. I had been asked to go to the Mansion. I avoided it, but I really had no more excuses left," recalled Garcia. "I just simply knew that if I didn't go to bed with him, I wasn't going to get Playmate of the Year."

Hefner's ex-girlfriend Holly Madison, who covered two issues of Playboy during their relationship from 2001–08, said that was still the pervasive understanding when she was at the Mansion.

Secrets of Playboy
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"Most of the women who were coming through and testing for Playmate felt like they had to sleep with him to get Playmate of the Year," she confirmed.

PJ Masten, who worked with Playboy from 1972–82, also corroborated the set-up: "Yeah, in order to get Playmate of the Year, you had to do some pretty wild things up in the bedroom with Hef and his friends. You had to vie for that position."

Garcia ultimately rejected Hefner, marking in her mind a make-or-break moment. She says Grabowski took her to her office, where there were other women and glasses of champagne being passed around. She then announced the 1974 Playmate of the Year: Cindy Wood.

"That was my first business lesson, so to speak, from Hugh Hefner," said Garcia.

(For her part, A&E included two statements in episode 6 of Secrets of Playboy, "The Corporation:" "Marilyn Grabowski has stated that these allegations are 'totally untrue,'" and "This series contains allegations of wrongdoing over decades by Hugh Hefner and others associated with him. The vast majority of allegations have not been the subject of criminal investigations or charges, and they do not constitute proof of guilt.")

Miki Garcia
Miki Garcia. A&E

Garcia became determined to keep tapping at Playboy's glass ceiling, saying of Hefner: "I wasn't going to be a bed partner to him, but he was going to damn well respect me."

She believed that if she could accrue power in the organization, if she could climb to the heights of Grabowski or Hefner's daughter, Christie, she'd use that power to provide greater opportunity for other Playmates, Bunnies and even female executives.

But as soon as she secured her director position, she learned the climb had a lot of stumbling blocks — most notably when her superiors assigned her menial tasks and "seated me right in the reception area, like a secretary."

Garcia and Masten both told stories of sexual predation during their time with the company.

"There is always a situation where you become powerless," said Garcia. "Somebody comes in, and they can do what they want to with you because in their mind they're living this fantasy of what Hefner projected."

Garcia claimed she was raped by "a very popular actor on a very well-known series" when they were both hired by Playboy to attend an auto show. When she initially told the actor she would call the police, he responded, "You've invited me in your room, you wear the rabbit head logo on your sweater, who are they going to believe — you or me?"

Not wanting to "become a problem to Playboy," someone who "couldn't handle" the hyper-sexualized world, she relented — and she worked next to her rapist the entire next day.

After that incident, her resolve was even stronger "to get in a position of power so that no woman would ever have to put up with that kind of behavior from any man just because she had a rabbit head logo on her."

Secrets of Playboy
PJ Masten. A&E

Masten's assault was even closer to the centers of Playboy power. She claimed how an unnamed executive in the Chicago office offered to walk her home, then asked if he could come inside for a glass of water. He quickly began to kiss her.

She begged, "'Please, don't do this.' And he said, 'Why do you think you came to work in corporate?' He said, 'You have to play the game if you want to do anything in corporate,'" then he raped her.

She says the sexual abuse "was rampant in Chicago. ... They could do whatever they wanted to do, and they didn't answer to anybody — that's the thing."

Lisa Loving Barrett, Hefner's secretary in the late '70s, alleged the same underlying sense of sexual entitlement was commonplace in Los Angeles.

"I worked for a man in silk pajamas," she said. "That automatically lended itself to a degree of casualness that you would never experience in any other office atmosphere. You know, it was nothing to be loading the Xerox machine and have someone come up and grind you from behind."

Masten, who was a "Bunny Mother" beginning in 1976, tried to protect the women under her supervision. She called a meeting and had them register complaints anonymously so they wouldn't be "attacked." The vast majority of the complaints implicated one man, so Masten took them to her manager, a woman.

"She got angry," recalled Masten. "She said, 'This can't be true,' and took all my notes and turned around and sided with the general manager. He denied everything and everybody believed him. Forget about the 30 Bunnies that had complaints against him. They just wanted me out of the picture and shut me up."

She continued, "I really cared about these girls, and I tried to protect them. Instead, they told me that they were transferring me out ... and they kept him. I had so many plans and dreams. None of it was true. There was no power there. I thought I broke the glass ceiling when I went to corporate, but I didn't. I was silenced."

Said Masten, "Women were disposable."

Garcia looks back on her time with Playboy as a series of lost opportunities — and a source of guilt.

"I believed that I could take that woman from the centerfold and give her opportunities. I thought that's what Playboy was about. And it was so hard, it was so hard, because I carried the stories, the heartbreaks, the pain, the desperation [of] these women," she said.

But over time, "My job required making sure that nothing negative was printed in the media that would hurt the brand or Hugh Hefner. I did damage control. If a girl got in trouble, I protected Playboy and squelched it."

hugh hefner
Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

Finally, in late August 1980, when she saw another woman's spark extinguished after such a short time with Playboy, she couldn't take it anymore.

"I began hating myself," she said. "It was a wakeup call to me. I was one of Hefner's best ambassadors. ... I had to reevaluate everything, everything in my life. I had to look at everything, I had to look at who I was. I had to look at who I worked for. Most of all, I had to look at the Playmates."

She continued, "I knew that there were others and that they had no power. They had no voice they had no one to go to. But they had me."

Garcia went on to appear before the U.S. Attorney General's commission on pornography in 1985 to share all her allegations against Playboy, saying, "I hope that my testimony will bring to light the inherent evils within the Playboy organization."

She said, "I believe that for the most part the Playmates' problems were as a result of their association with Hugh Hefner, his friends and Playboy magazine."

In a statement released just before the docuseries' premiere on Jan. 24, Playboy's current leadership denounced Hefner's alleged "abhorrent actions."

"We trust and validate women and their stories, and we strongly support the individuals who have come forward to share their experiences," the statement read. "As a brand with sex positivity at its core, we believe safety, security and accountability are paramount, and anything less is inexcusable."

The statement also noted, "Today's Playboy is not Hugh Hefner's Playboy."

Secrets of Playboy airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to rainn.org.

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