Hugh Hefner‘s first child and only daughter is opening up about the late media icon — and how his family is coping with the loss.
In an interview appearing in the January/February 2018 issue of Playboy, the magazine her father founded in 1953, Christie Hefner, 65, touches on everything from their evolving relationship over the years to the complicated legacy the 91-year-old left behind when he died on Sept. 27 of cardiac arrest and respiratory failure after contracting septicemia — a blood infection — and drug-resistant e. coli.
Asked how she’s dealing with his death, Christie — who is the daughter of Hugh and his first wife, Northwestern University classmate Mildred “Millie” Williams — admitted it’s “still very new.”
“I don’t think I’m in a position to be helpful on coping strategies for grief,” she said. “I have been helped indirectly by the many things I have had to attend to, like planning the memorial celebration we had for close friends in Los Angeles and a memorial celebration here in Chicago. I was asked to write a tribute for the magazine, which I did. I’ve also been overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness in e-mails, cards and flowers. For a while there it looked like I could open a florist’s shop.”
Christie, who ran the business alongside her father for 26 years until 2009, said she’s been relying on her family for support.
“We’re fortunate in my family because we really have three families: my brother, David, and me; the two boys, Cooper and Marston, from my dad’s second marriage; and my dad’s wife, Crystal,” she explained. “There’s huge mutual respect and love among all of us, so that’s a kind of funny support system, even though everybody has a different kind of grief.”
“I feel for the boys, because they had their dad for far fewer years than David and I did, and of course Crystal lost a husband,” she said. “It’s not the same, but underlying it all we lost the same person whom we loved. The fact that we’re close and care so much about each other is a huge plus, and it’s something he knew when he was alive.”
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In recent years, Christie had been seeing her father “once a month,” when she would fly out to Los Angeles.
“So in a funny way I’m not having to face his absence on a day-to-day basis,” she reflected. “I know he’s gone, but it’s like, ‘Well, I’m coming back to Los Angeles next month, so…’ I’m not looking forward to going back to the house. On certain levels, the reality of it will sink in more over time, especially on occasions or at events I would have shared with him or have shared with him in the past, and now he won’t be there.”
As for what changes she observed in him in his later years, Christie said her father was “not a person of regrets.”
“Honestly, even when he sometimes behaved regrettably, he was not good that way,” she admitted. “Consequently, he wasn’t apt to have a would-have, could-have, should-have attitude about things. How he definitely changed was he found it much easier to express how important people were to him and how much he loved them — not just with family but with other people he was close to.”
“He was always a romantic, but that mostly manifested in his personal romantic relationships, as it would normally,” she continued. “That softer side didn’t manifest itself so much in his professional relationships. … He was always fundamentally a kind person, and I don’t want to say he became kinder or gentler, because he was never not those things. But as he got older, he became a softer version of himself. Maybe he came to realize how fundamental and essential human relationships are at the end of the day and how they’re to be honored and treasured, and part of that is expressing what they mean to you.”
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Hugh and Christie’s mother separated when Christie was 4 and her brother, David, was 1. Christie, David and her mother relocated to Wilmette, Illinois. Several times a year, a limousine would whisk Christie back to Chicago for a visit with her father — and for a long time, that was the extent of their face-to-face contact. (“I would see him a handful of times a year,” she explained. “We went for birthdays and Christmas.”)
Looking back, Christie said she thought of her father “kind of like a favorite uncle — someone I knew absolutely loved me and would be there for me but not someone who knew who my friends were or what I was interested in.”
As for her time spent at the 74-room, 20,000-sq.-ft. Playboy Mansion in Chicago, where he lived from 1959 through the mid-1970s before relocating to the Playboy Mansion West in Los Angeles, Christie said those visits “were lots of fun.”
“It was like a child’s dream because the house had a huge game room,” she recalled. “To me it was a game house, with a pool table and a Ping-Pong table, and you didn’t have to put quarters in the pinball machines. Every game he owned had a board next to it where you put up the leading scores. Everybody competed to get on or move up the board. He would get the newest games, so that was the first time I saw Pong, Pac-Man, Frogger and Donkey Kong. We’d have a lovely dinner and conversation, and then we would play games. He was highly competitive with me and I with him.”
Asked if she ever felt the urge to have more time with him, among other things, Christie said she became more forgiving of her father’s “shortcomings” as she got older.
“I’ve had this conversation with friends who have had challenging relationships with one or another parent. The only thing I can say is what I feel: The other person isn’t going to change. That is who they are,” she said. “With someone who is genuinely abusive or a bad person, you should just get out of town. But if they’re being the best person they know how to be, then you have to decide if there isn’t much there you can love and not become consumed with what they’re not able to give you.”
Christie also gave her perspective on some of her father’s romantic relationships, including the one with his longtime love Barbi Benton, who is just two years older than Christie. (Hugh and Benton met in the late 1960s on the set of his TV show, Playboy After Dark. She was 18 and he was 42.)
“As a girl I was a little suspicious of her and slow to warm up,” admitted Christie, who found out about their relationship while she was at camp in Michigan, reading newspaper stories about him going to Europe, where Benton was shooting a movie.
“I don’t think it had to do with anything in particular that I didn’t like about her,” she said. “My dad was very youthful, so I don’t think it had much to do with the age difference. I just remember thinking, as I did when my mom began dating the wonderful man she has been with for 40 years now: Is this a good person and a good relationship?”
“It took 10 years, but I came to understand that she was a wonderful influence on him,” she continued, revealing that she and Benton “have actually become quite good friends.”
“She got him to travel and broaden his horizons in ways he hadn’t before,” said Christie. “I’ve told Barbi many times that he became a richer, better person in the years of that relationship. I used to tease her and say, ‘You know, we could borrow each other’s clothes.’ ”
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Given the ongoing conversation of sexual harassment and assault in today’s climate, Christie touched on her own experiences throughout her career, admitting that she doesn’t know any women who haven’t been sexually harassed in some way. (Post-Playboy, Christie has taken on advisory or executive roles at Canyon Ranch Enterprises, HatchBeauty and the $3 billion agricultural conglomerate RDO Equipment Co. She has also been involved with progressive political candidates, particularly women, and has worked with the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan think tank, since 2009.)
“Sexual harassment is a power issue by definition, so once I became president and CEO [of Playboy] I wasn’t likely to be targeted,” she said. “But was I in situations where men seemed to think I was dying to kiss them and have them put their tongues down my throat when I had no interest? Or they put me up against a wall? Or came pounding on my door in a hotel room? Absolutely. So in the broader sense of a lack of clear communication and understanding the difference between someone expressing interest and someone who is not interested, I have seen that, yes.”
As for the argument that Playboy contributes to the culture of harassment and toxic masculinity, Christie said that’s “a complete misapprehension of anything to do with Playboy.”
“In all the years I worked there we never had that problem, to my knowledge,” she said. “We never had to litigate a suit. And it was a highly sexualized environment by definition because of the creative content of the product. It was very clear that the culture was one of respect — respect on every level. We weren’t going to subject employees to drug tests or polygraphs, and the models were as respected as the writers or any of the magazine’s other contributors. All of the Playboy Clubs had Bunny mothers so the women working as Bunnies would have a woman, not a man, to go to if there was a problem.”
“Jared Leto has the bone structure for it,” said Christie. “I’m very impressed with him as an actor. I’m mostly rooting for a good script. The Amazon series American Playboy was so good, though, I’d kind of like it to be the last chapter.”
Last but not least, Christie was asked if she ever wished she’d been born to someone else.
“No,” she responded. “First of all, it’s the life you know. I’m not much of a ‘road not taken’ person. I’m still encouraged to run for office, and it’s one of the things I probably would have done if I hadn’t gone down the path that I did. But I didn’t feel burdened by it. It’s been a wonderful life.”