“He was upset that [reports] had been saying he didn’t have much time left. He said, ‘I’m not going anywhere just yet!’” Benton, 67, tells PEOPLE of her final conversation with the iconic Playboy founder, who died at his home in the Playboy Mansion Sept. 27 at the age of 91. “But he was humorous about it. He had bought a cemetery plot next to [the magazine’s first cover subject] Marilyn Monroe and he said he was looking forward to laying next to the gal who kicked off Playboy.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that the publishing icon, who founded Playboy in 1953 and became the embodiment of the brand, was motivated by a desire to be near beautiful women. In his final moments, Hefner was surrounded by his four adult children—and his 31-year-old wife, Crystal Hefner.
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“He was an American hero. A pioneer. A kind and humble soul who opened up his life and home to the world,” she adds. “I felt how much he loved me. I loved him so much. I am so grateful. He gave me life. He gave me direction. He taught me kindness. I will feel eternally grateful to have been by his side, holding his hand, and telling him how much I love him. He changed my life, he saved my life. He made me feel loved every single day. He was a beacon to the world, a force unlike anything else. There never has and never will be another Hugh M. Hefner.”
Watch the full episode of Hugh Hefner: A Bold Life, A Complicated Legacy, streaming now on PeopleTV. Go to ›People.com/peopletv, or download the app on your favorite streaming device.
On Tuesday Hefner’s death certificate revealed he died of cardiac arrest and respiratory failure after contracting septicema — a blood infection — and drug-resistant e. coli.
Hefner suffered from a long-term back condition that limited his mobility. Benton says she last saw him six months ago and noticed that his memory was “fading” — he admitted to being “in poor health.”
WATCH: Drug-Resistant E. Coli Infection Contributed to Hugh Hefner’s Death
Still, his high spirits remained.
In the years after their 2012 wedding, “Crystal was his constant companion,” a Playboy insider says. “She was extremely devoted to him.”
As the Mansion’s Grotto became a relic of Playboy‘s hedonistic heydey, Hefner settled into a quiet but rewarding family life.
Caya, the wife of Hefner’s late brother Keith, remembers the period fondly: Dinner was served at 5 p.m. on Thursday through Sunday, with a movie after.
“Monday was manly night,” she says. “The guys [would] eat from 6 to 7 p.m. and then watch movies, black-and-white movies.”
She adds of their old routine: “Wednesday is Keith, Hef and a couple of their friends playing gin rummy.”
Benton also says Hefner increasingly became a “homebody,” who lovingly cared for his menagerie of animals and stuck to a nightly routine consisting of dinner followed by a movie or game night of Uno or Dominos.
As Hefner’s health deteriorated, he and Crystal pulled back from the spotlight and the wild parties that made the Mansion famous. (In 2016, Playboy sold the Mansion to a private investor for $100 million, with the condition that Hefner be allowed to remain there until his death.)
In his final interview, with PEOPLE last year, Hefner said he still felt lucky. “I just think I’m very blessed,” he said. “Playboy is a fantasy life for a lot of people, including me.”