Out Partying With The Bunny Girls Again
Several years ago, I attended a Bunny Girls Reunion at The Grapes in Limehouse hosted by ex-Bunny Barbara Haigh and to my amazement I was invited back this year as a guest of honour …
Old friends, Bunny Cherry & Bunny Odette
On Sunday afternoon, while the rest of London was tidying up leaves in the garden, taking tea, visiting the markets or enjoying a bracing autumn walk, I was at the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Sq with Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven attending the Bunny Girls & Playboy Models Reunion.
The doorman gives you a deferential nod when you step from the milling tourist crowd over the threshold of the casino and the coat check woman bids you “Good afternoon!” as you pass through the passageway that leads into the vast gaming room. The proscenium and the elaborate plasterwork from the Edwardian theatre loom overhead, framing the auditorium that once hosted the “Talk of the Town,” where today excited gamblers throng around the roulette wheel and the baize tables where blackjack, craps and baccarat are played.
You ascend a winding staircase and acquire a glass of champagne, and you find yourself on another level and in another world. It is a poignant universe of nostalgia and recollection, where those who once based their public identities upon their youthful beauty gather to revisit and assess that experience, and rekindle the friendships and camaraderie forged a lifetime ago in the unlikely environment of the Playboy Club.
Presiding over the gathering of these evanescent spirits were the Oberon & Titania of this shadowy realm – Victor Lownes, the mythic lothario who opened the Playboy Club in Park Lane in 1966, now frail in his mid-eighties yet twinkling with genial humour, and his paramour, Marilyn Cole, the first full frontal Playboy centrefold, still sassy and commanding in physical presence.
In these more puritanical times, former Bunnies are aware of those who might judge them harshly yet they are unanimously unapologetic about their choice to become part of Playboy and their right to that choice. No-one voiced any regrets except one woman who confessed to me wistfully, “I wish I could go back and do it all over again.”
“Emmeline Pankhurst would have been proud of us!” asserted Marilyn with proud audacity, disarming me with her cultural reference while drawing raucous cheers from the crowd, “We were pioneers for equality – at the Playboy Club, the women all earned more than the men.”
A certain autumnal melancholy coloured the proceedings that afternoon, arising perhaps from a collective realisation of the transience of youth and physical beauty as commodified by Playboy. With unnecessary modesty, one woman confided to me that she was touched that anyone would be interested to take her portrait today and, as with other reunions, there were those who were absent never to return and quietly mourned by their fellows.
My enduring impression will be of astonishment at the vitality of these women. In spite of the changes that time has wrought and which are common to all humanity, they still have an abundance of spirit and charisma. Exhausted after a couple of hours chatting, I sat quietly in the corner to wonder at their stamina. Whatever life has dealt them, these women have not lost their star quality.
Regrettably, I do not think I could ever be a Bunny Girl because, alongside other obvious insufficiencies, I do not have the effervescence. When I confessed this weary realisation to Marilyn Cole at the end of Sunday’s long afternoon of mingling, she looked me in the eye and gave a surprising response. “That’s because you actually listen to what people say,” she informed me with a forgiving smile.
Marilyn Cole – “We were pioneers of equality!”
Bunny Marlon AKA Patricia Robson - “I was a cockney from Stepney and I went from there to the Bahamas!”
Bunny Monique AKA Mary Phillips -‘”I started as a Bunny at seventeen and was a croupier at eighteen. All the famous people were there and as a Bunny Girl you were a celebrity in your own right”
Bunny Kim AKA Therese Hyland – “I came from a boring office job and it opened my eyes”
Bunny Modesty AKA Bee Cassen - “I learnt Black Jack & was dealing roulette in the Officers’ Mess”
Bunny Sheen AKA Sheen Doran - “Forty years later, I still have so many friends from Playboy”
Danny Conti, Doorman - “I worked in the Car Park on Park Lane and they came over and asked me if I’d like to be doorman at the Playboy Club”
Bunnie Bobbie AKA Eileen Wilson
Bunny Zoe AKA Mary Sharina -”I’m a librarian now and no-one’s interested but if I tell them I was a Bunny, they say ‘Really?’”
Chris Shuter, Craps Dealer - “I used to have a big house with a swimming pool and all the girls came over”
Bunny Ruth AKA Elaine Murray
Bunny Elayne AKA Elaine Kingston – “I was the only Bunny DJ”
Kenny Houng, PR man - “I brought in all the big players from the Far East who would lose two or three million a night.”
Bunny Joni AKA Ann Oliver – “As a nice girl, I had a bit of trouble with my parents but they came in for dinner and thoroughly approved”
Bunny Joan AKA Joan Lawrence - “I was the first woman to manage a casino in Britain”
Bunny Cherry AKA Yvonne Johnson
Bunny Odette AKA Lorraine Palmer
Marilyn Cole & Victor Lownes
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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