“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” she tells PEOPLE. “They heydey of the grotto’s glory days was the ’70s. That’s when I think all the swinging or activities took place in the grotto.”
“When I was there, I think we got Hef to go into the grotto one time in two years. We were all drunk after a party and we were like, ‘Let’s go to the grotto,’ and he said, ‘You girls have fun,’ and we said, ‘Come with us!’ He didn’t stay long, maybe 15 minutes and then he went to bed,” she adds.
“No one was having fun in the grotto when I was there,” she continues. “We sometimes enjoyed the jets as a therapeutic massage! I think the most fun was by people at parties who would jump in so they could say that they did. There is an aura about it. But that was always entertaining to us, because they were having more fun than we did! Nothing freaky or exciting was happening in the grotto for us.”
Asked how she began dating the Playboy mogul — who died at the age of 91 from natural causes last week — St. James says, “He pursued me. It was an old-fashioned pursuit. I got seduced by the Playboy lifestyle. It was so unlike anything I had ever done.”
“It was all about having fun,” she adds. “Hef was 75, and he had more energy than us girls! He enjoyed going out, and he enjoyed being seen. We had table service and the best tables in the clubs, and champagne was flowing. The parties were incredible. It was going out to dinners, parties, laying by the pool and no responsibilities.”
St. James met Hefner when she was 26 — and was one of seven girlfriends at the time.
RELATED VIDEO: WATCH: Hugh Hefner’s Most Iconic ‘Playboy’ Covers
St. James, who wrote a book about her experiences called Bunny Tales: Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion, told The Telegraph in 2009 that she probably spent “less than 15 intimate minutes” with Hefner in her years at the Mansion. He spent much more time with his No. 1 girlfriend, Holly Maddison.
Hefner’s ex also addresses his complicated legacy.
“He was flawed absolutely. Hef was a very complex individual that you can admire on so many levels,” she explains. “The magazine was revolutionary in so many ways. What he was able to do was pretty remarkable.”
“On a personal level, you’re dealing with a man who is very aware that he is an icon and a legend. There is an ego there. And he very much wanted to live his life a certain way. If you became part of his life, you had to play by his rules. He created a life that he loved. It was his dream life. If you wanted to be part of it, it was you accommodating to him and being part of his world,” she adds.
“So in a sense he was selfish, but every girl moving in there knew that. As far as whether he exploited or empowered women, I’m undecided. In some ways, I saw some empowerment. Women at the Mansion were comfortable with their bodies and very comfortable with themselves,” St. James continues. “But on the other hand, who is benefitting the most from that? The whole business he built was on the bodies of nude women. They were objectified. He’s a multifaceted person with a multifaceted business, and I don’t know that there’s an easy answer.”
Hefner’s storied Holmby Hills mansion was sold in 2016 for $100 million to Daren Metropoulos, the co-owner of Hostess Brands .
Metropoulos bought the home next door to Hefner in 2009, announcing his plans to renovate both residences and connect them to form an expansive 7.3-acre compound, Curbed LA reported.
— WITH MARIA PASQUINI