My Night Out With The Bunny Girls
Today is the day the Bunny Girls have their annual reunion and I publish my account of joining them at the Grapes in Limehouse. To my astonishment, I find myself a guest of honour at this year’s reunion which is at the Hippodrome, Leicester Sq, and you may expect a further report next week.
One Sunday night, I attended the most glamorous party of my life. It was a Bunny Girls & Playboy Models’ reunion hosted by ex-Bunny Barbara Haigh, esteemed landlady of The Grapes in Limehouse. Never have I encountered more voluptuous charismatic ladies per square metre than were crammed joyfully together in the tiny bar-rooms of this historic riverside pub that night. With Sarah Ainslie, Spitalfields Life contributing photographer, as my chaperone, I was thrilled to join this exuberant sisterhood of more than a hundred garrulous alpha females for a knees-up. Squeezing my way through the curvy bodies – fine specimens of their sex who have all got what it takes to succeed in life – I arrived on the river frontage where waves were crashing theatrically over the verandah as if, in reenactment of Botticelli’s Venus, each of these goddesses had just emerged triumphant from the Thames’ spray to delight the souls of mere mortals like myself.
The first Aphrodite to catch my eye was cheeky Bunny Sandie (pictured above), the seventh Bunny to join the newly opened Playboy Club in Park Lane in 1966, who is more formally known these days as Lady Sandra Bates. Within seconds of our introduction, Sandie gleefully revealed she had bedded Sean Connery, Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty and Telly Savalas, emphasising that her most important conquest was Sir Charles Clore, owner of Selfridges and Mappin & Webb. “I was living in a house in Mayfair at the time, but the owner put it up for sale and wanted to throw me out, so I told Charles and he bought it for me!” she declared with a glittering smile, rolling her chestnut eyes, batting her eyelashes and clutching her hands in girlish pleasure. “You should see my art collection!” she proposed recklessly now that her husband Sir Charles is no more, as we shared a glass of wine on the verandah and the setting sun lit up the clouds, turning the river livid pink.
It was a remarkable overture to an unforgettable evening, because these girls all know how to party. Bunnies had flown in from all over the world, Tasmania, Las Vegas, the Bahamas, Egypt and as far away as Australia to celebrate the glory days of the British Playboy Club that ran from 1966 until 1980. As Marilyn Cole (the first full frontal nude in the history of Playboy in 1972) put it so elegantly in her speech of welcome, “When people ask ‘Where did you go to school?’ I say, ‘Fuck that, I went to the University of Playboy! You learn much more about life.’” An astute comment that drew roars of approval from the assembled Bunnies.
Marilyn, resplendent in a quilted leather miniskirt and thigh length high-heeled boots, ushered me over to meet her famously reclusive husband Victor Lownes, who opened the London Playboy Club. Formerly in charge of all Playboy’s gaming operations, Victor Lownes is a bon-viveur who was once Britain’s highest paid executive, counted Francis Bacon and Roman Polanski as friends and reputedly had five girls a day, sometimes two at once. He looked at me benignly from under a mop of white hair across the chasm of our different experiences of life. “Do you miss it?” I enquired tentatively, and Victor rolled his twinkly eyes in good-humoured irony. “What do you think? I am eighty-two years old!” he replied with dignified restraint.
There was a giddy atmosphere in the Grapes that night and so I chose to embrace the spirit of the occasion and mingle with as many Bunnies as possible. “I was a young girl from a very religious strict background in Birmingham who ran away from home.”admitted Bobbie, one of first black Bunnies, who worked at the Playboy Club from 1975-80, “I was shopping one day and I went along to ‘a cattle drive’ and out of fifty girls was one of a handful accepted to be a Bunny. I had four wonderful years that totally changed my life. It was a terrific experience. I have run my own business for the past twenty years and the things I learnt at Playboy set me on the road to be able to do that.”
“There was only one rule,’Don’t touch the Bunnies!’”explained Bunny Erica, raising a finger of authority,“Membership of the Playboy Club came with a key, which members handed in when they arrived and collected when they left. If somebody went too far the management took away their key. So the men always behaved respectfully. You were never forced to do anything. It’s made to seem cheap now – but we wore two pair of tights, our costumes were fitted and stiffened with whalebone, we even put toilet rolls down the front as padding – it was an illusion. We were supposed to share tips, but I put mine down my costume and when I took it off all the banknotes would fall out. The money was fabulous. Playboy gave us the most amazing part of our lives. It gave us freedom. It gave us a love of humanity. It enlightened us.”
“I was the very first UK Bunny to be hired in 1966,” declared Bunny Alexis, still glowing with pride over forty years later, “I was a dancer at the Talk of the Town in Leicester Sq on £12 a week, but at Playboy I earned £200. I was already married with a child and on the strength of my two years as a Bunny I was able to buy our first house in Wood Green. It was the hardest work, eight hours a day on five-inch heels with just one half hour break. But it was good fun and we met all the most amazing people. 1966 was a very good year!”
People often ask what happened to the nineteen sixties, yet here the evidence was all around me. It was a buzz to be in a room full of such self-confident women who knew who they were and were supremely comfortable with it too, women with their wits about them, who counted brains amongst other natural assets when it came to interactions with the opposite sex. Women who knew how to make the best of the situation they found themselves in at the Playboy Club – unashamedly constructed as an arena of male fantasy yet, paradoxically, as all these women testify thirty years on, provided opportunities for them to take control of their lives.
Undoubtably there were those that, as Bunny Serena put it succinctly, “screwed their way to the top,” but equally there were many who, as Bunny Lara confirmed, found it, “An empowering experience. They sent us on management training courses, and I learnt how to handle people and manage staff. All of which has come in useful ever since in everything I have done.” She now runs a young offenders’ programme, training staff in conflict management. Many women I spoke with occupy senior management roles in the gaming and entertainment industry today – including one who manages a chain of casinos – in jobs that would have been closed to them previously.
Above all, these were women who were full of life, they had seen so much life and had so many stories to tell, that it was wonderful simply to be amongst them, confirming Bunny Lara’s fond verdict on her experience working at the Playboy Club, “The camaraderie was phenomenal.”
Bunny Cleo, with evidence of her encounter with Sid James at The Playboy Club.
Marilyn Cole, “Whatever else happens in life, good, bad or indifferent, we can always say we had this!”
Bunny Maretta & Bunny friend
Bunny Marisa is now an artist painting in oils.
Bunny Dilys & Bunny friend.
Bunny Alexis, ex-Windmill Girl was the very first UK Bunny to be recruited in 1966.
Bunny Serena & Bunny Jane.
Bunny Brenda, Bunny Nancy & Bunny Marion
Victor Lownes, “What is a playboy? It is someone who is getting more sex than you are.”
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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