So Long, Victor Lownes
My friend Barbara Haigh, ex-bunny girl and former landlady of The Grapes in Limehouse contacted me with the news that Victor Lownes, the man who brought Playboy to London in 1965, died yesterday morning in his sleep aged eighty-eight and so today I publish this account of my visit for tea with Victor & Marilyn Cole at their West End home
Victor Lownes & Marilyn Cole
The glamorous Barbara Haigh – ex-Bunny & ex-landlady of The Grapes in Limehouse – drove me up to the West End in her nippy two-seater sports car to have tea with Victor Lownes – who ran the British Playboy Club between 1965 & 1981 – and his wife Marilyn Cole – the first full-frontal centrefold Playmate – in their palatial white stucco mansion at Hyde Park Corner.
Sprightly and lithe at eighty-seven, Victor was a sovereign example to any moralist who might assume that the life of a committed playboy inevitably leads to dissipation and despair. After bedding thousands of women in his long career as a lothario, Victor met his match in Marilyn, the Playmate with more than the rest.
Barbara & I discovered Victor & Marilyn happily inhabiting the small basement rooms of their vast townhouse, cosy down there like two bunnies in a burrow. The unlikely conversation that ensued was shot through with ironies and contradictions – and, thanks to a fly on the wall, you can read it for yourself. Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven joined the party too and even followed Marilyn & me into the bedroom to admire Marilyn’s centrefold.
Victor: I’ve got rather tired of living upstairs.
Marilyn: Well it’s big upstairs.
Victor: Too many stairs and things.
The Gentle Author: I wanted to ask you, “Are you a playboy?”
Victor: Not really, I’m a happily married man.
The Gentle Author: But were you once?
Victor: Oh yes, I was. Ask them. “Was I a playboy?”
Barbara: Yes, dear. The opening gambit was, “Wanna fool around?”
The Gentle Author: I’m told that you invented ‘the bunny girl.’
Victor: The Playboy bunny was the trademark of the company from the start.
The Gentle Author: So that already existed?
Victor: Oh yes. In Playboy magazine, there was a tall figure dressed as a bunny.
Barbara: But it was a male bunny, wasn’t it?
Victor: Yeah, it was a male bunny.
Barbara: Smoking jacket…
Victor: Tuxedo and whatever … the idea grew out of that.
The Gentle Author: Was it your idea?
Victor: I don’t remember whose idea it was. It may have been mine or Hugh Hefner’s. We opened the first Playboy Club there and there was a line waiting to get in every night.
The Gentle Author: What I want to know is what drew you into that world?
Victor: A photographer friend of mine brought Hefner to a party at my bachelor apartment. And Hefner started telling me about his magazine, that he was just starting. At that time there was no Playboy Club, I was interested in clubs and what have you, so he asked me if I’d like to join in the venture. So I did.
The Gentle Author: What is it about the clubs that appealed to you?
Victor: First of all, in those days I drank a bit. I was about twenty-one years old and I had just come of age where I could legally buy a drink at a bar. I was curious about that. And I also saw it as a big money-making opportunity. Twenty five dollars got you a lifetime membership of the playboy club. We advertised in Playboy Magazine. Enormous success.
Marilyn: It was a lot to do with the music too, wasn’t Victor? You liked jazz very much.
Victor: We had jazz groups in there. And several floors with different cabarets and it was very successful. After Chicago, we went to New York, San Francisco followed, and Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas. We had clubs all over the country, about forty of them altogether.
The Gentle Author: And this was a source of joy to you…
Victor:V. The joy of making money. That’s a nice joy.
The Gentle Author: And?
Victor: And the joy of being able to date any of these girls.
[Barbara & Marilyn laughing]
Victor: We had a strict rule that the bunnies were not allowed to date the customers but…
Barbara: That was the first rule they said to us when we started at Playboy, “You’re not allowed to go out with customers. You’re not allowed to date any of the staff members. However Mr. Lownes is single.” [Laughing]
Victor: Actually when we came to opening the London club, we didn’t enforce this rule.
Barbara: Well, you lifted it. I think your exact words were “I will not stand in the way of true romance.”
Victor: Was that right?
Barbara: If we met someone through our work that we fell in love with, but what they didn’t want was us going out with a different customer every night.
Victor: We were especially not interested in being accused of running a prostitution ring or anything.
The Gentle Author: How did you meet Barbara?
Victor: She was a bunny.
The Gentle Author: What was your first impression of Barbara?
Victor: I thought she was a bit overweight.
Barbara: I am now! But I was skinny as a rake in those days. You’re horrible to me. He introduced me to Tony Curtis and he said, “This is Barbara, the oldest and fattest bunny.”
The Gentle Author: (Asks Victor) Do you remember that?
Victor: The oldest…?
Barbara: (adopts Victor’s accent) “This is Barbara, one of our oldest and fattest bunnies.”
Marilyn: Oh, I can’t believe he would’ve said that.
Barbara: He did! I swear to God.
Victor: I introduced her to Tony Curtis!
Marilyn: I can’t believe he did that.
Barbara:. He did! He thought it was very funny.
Victor: I’m guilty!
Marilyn: Apologise now.
Victor: I apologise.
The Gentle Author: What did Tony Curtis say?
Barbara: He just scowled at Victor, then he kissed my hand and said “I’m very pleased to meet you, Barbara.”
The Gentle Author: Well, that was decent of him.
Barbara: I mean he was gorgeous. He looked as if he’d just walked straight out of a movie set. He was so impossibly handsome in the flesh.
The Gentle Author: (Asks Victor) So how was it that Marilyn stole your heart then?
Barbara: This is why he doesn’t remember me because Marilyn & I started on the same day.
Marilyn: (To The Gentle Author) Come here and I’ll show you something. Inner sanctum!
[Marilyn leads The Gentle Author to the bedroom]
The Gentle Author: We’re going next door! I was asking how did Marilyn steal your heart?
Marilyn: There – that’s how. That’s my centerfold! Let me turn the light on.
[Lights go on to reveal framed copy of Marilyn's Playboy centrefold picture on the bedroom wall]
The Gentle Author: Wow!
Marilyn: Victor was my mentor. In Playboy terms, he discovered me. He sent me to Chicago and I became the first Playboy full frontal.
The Gentle Author: Who’s idea was that?!
[Marilyn leads The Gentle Author back to Victor]
Victor: It was called the Pubic Wars. And Hefner had to decide whether to do it or not. He didn’t really want to. It was Guccione who started it – Guccione was coming up, up, up with Penthouse. So Hefner had to take a serious decision and they decided to do that.
The Gentle Author: (To Marilyn) Did they ask you or did you volunteer?
Marilyn: That’s another story.
The Gentle Author: (To Victor) I don’t believe it was only because of the centerfold that Marilyn stole your heart.
Victor: No, I don’t think it was either.
The Gentle Author: So what it is about Marilyn? After all these women, why Marilyn?
Victor: Well she was amazing, she was a standout in personality and looks.
Barbara: I was there when you first clapped eyes on her on the day we started. Obviously word had got round, someone said, “Get Victor up here quick” [laughs] His jaw dropped and he was just taken with her immediately.
Victor: I was.
Barbara: I think your exact words to me were, “She’s unusually beautiful.”
Victor: I said that?
Victor: Well there you are, you see. And she still is, in my mind.
The Gentle Author: Do you think the Playboy experience changed your view of humanity?
Victor: Perhaps it changed my view of what humanity can be – because the Playboy thing was very sympatico, wasn’t it?
Barbara: I think so.
Victor: I mean everybody got along with everybody. And they all made money at it – our Bunnies made at least thirty pounds a week when they started in 1966.
Barbara: Thirty-five actually.
Victor: I mean it doesn’t sound like anything today…
Barbara: I think I was earning more than my father. I was working as many hours as I could because I was saving up to get a deposit to buy a flat, and I think I did it within about six weeks. I was working sixty, seventy, eighty hours a week.
Victor: What are we talking about?
Barbara: You’re talking about Playboy’s ethos, I think you call it.
Victor: We had bunnies of every colour. We had Indian bunnies too, African and Indian bunnies.
Barbara: It was frowned upon in the States, wasn’t it?
Marilyn: Playboy was very important in Race Relations, they were the first to hire black comedians in white clubs.
Victor: That’s right. Hefner of course, Equal Rights, you know his history with… Equal Rights?
The Gentle Author: … Civil Rights.
Marilyn: Civil Rights, that was part of his philosophy, and Victor’s, and everyone who worked there. I mean – and black bunnies. So there was never any racial discrimination - the opposite actually.
Victor: It was a good policy and it worked well. It didn’t drive any customers away. And we opened up clubs in the South, New Orleans and in Memphis, Tennessee. It was unique in those places but we got them to accept it and we adopted the same policy everywhere.
The Gentle Author: So it was about equality of race within the clubs and about equality of gender too, that women worked on an equal level as men?
Victor: Equal? They were making more than the men! [Laughs]
The Gentle Author: Tell me about opening up in London. What were the challenges here?
Victor: I don’t remember that there were any challenges. We had co-operation of everybody the minute we set foot in the country. I remember I came with a huge box of Playboy cigarette lighters that were all primed and ready to go. And as I came through customs, I kept handing them out to the people who were inspecting me – I said, “I’ve got all these things and you’re entitled to one of them.” In those days everybody smoked, now nobody smokes. You don’t see any ashtrays around here, I don’t think anybody we know smokes.
The Gentle Author: Do you think you’ve been lucky?
Victor: With everyone in the world, chance plays a big part in what happens to you and there isn’t anything that can change that. I think most people just fall into situations.
The Gentle Author: There’s circumstances and there’s character. There’s being in the situation and there’s rising to it. It sounds like you took to it like a duck to water – or like a rabbit out of a hole.
Marilyn: But he’s got the brain for it. He’s scarily clever.
Victor: I’m pretty clever.
Victor: There’s a photo up there on the wall – it says “Merry Christmas Pooky” or something.
Marilyn: [indicates the picture] That’s Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
Victor: That’s when the Beatles were just starting out and they were at my house.
Barbara: (To The Gentle Author) Pooky’s his daughter.
Victor: I put them on the phone to her….
Marilyn: When Barbara and I joined the Playboy Club in 1971 it was already different to when it opened in 1966. We loved the stories of the opening night, when they had Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Ursula Andress at the club on Park Lane. And Mia Farrow, of course. Then Francis Bacon was a friend of Victor. He used to come and gamble at Playboy.
Victor: Yeah, I had a couple of his paintings but unfortunately I sold them when the price got too attractive. They were offering me a quarter of a million pounds each for them, so I sold them. They’d be worth ten million now.
Barbara: Isn’t it sick?
Victor: One was a big portrait of Lucien Freud.
Barbara: (to Marilyn) We came from such different walks of life and then all a sudden we were thrown into this world of glamour….
Marilyn: We weren’t thrown into it, we went to it.
Barbara: You thought, hang on a minute, I feel like a duck out of water – but then after a while you got used to it.
Marilyn: The fact that Victor was like he was – we knew we were in good hands. We could have gone to the Penthouse Club – and we would not have been in good hands with Guccione. He lost his licence very quickly.
The Gentle Author: What was the difference?
Marilyn: Playboy abided by the law in everything they did. Actually there’s a real conservatism about Victor and Hefner. Whereas Guccione – I’m not putting him down – he did something good for himself.
Victor: Who you talking about?
Marilyn: Bob Guccione. Penthouse. He was a different type of person. He had a gold medallion. I’d never have gone out with anyone with a gold medallion.
The Gentle Author: I’ve got a medallion.
Victor in the sixties when he opened the London Playboy Club
Victor’s portrait on horseback
One of Victor’s many headlines
Victor’s portrait from the seventies
Marilyn and her centrefold
Victor & Marilyn in the seventies
Victor Lownes & Marilyn Cole
Photographs copyright ©Patricia Niven
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