Former Playboy magazine centerfold, Neda Gilbert. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Lake Worth's Neva Gilbert recalls her "lucky" life as one of Playboy magazine's original Playmates.
By Larry Aydlette
Palm Beach Post staff writer
She's been a catalog model, cigarette girl, Vegas cocktail waitress, New York theater actress and bit part player in an Oscar-winning movie.
But it was one unremarkable photo session in the early 1950s that sealed Neva Gilbert's claim to pop culture fame.
"I'm the oldest living Playboy Playmate," she proudly tells people.
Why shouldn't she boast a little? There she is, Miss July 1954, a beautiful, long-legged blonde posed alluringly across a tiger skin rug in an early centerfold from Hugh Hefner's iconic men's magazine.
Neva Gilbert's personal photo of her July 1954 centerfold with an autograph from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. To conform to Palm Beach Post standards, some of the nudity has been blurred.
And here she is, sipping a glass of wine in a Lake Worth restaurant, a friendly, frank-talking, 87-year-old who can't believe her story could be interesting after so many years.
"I never dreamed it would amount to anything," she said of her Playboy appearance. "It was just another photograph."
Neva Gilbert's life has been anything but ordinary. She's been on the go since she got kicked out of convent school for smoking and ran away from home at age 14. Even in the straight-laced, uptight '50s, she was an independent, liberated woman. She lived how she pleased and loved whom she wanted.
She's had tough breaks, but the word she keeps using is lucky.
"I've done everything I've ever wanted to do," she said. "I've had a ball. I've had the most wonderful life."
Just one hitch: She never expected to wind up in Lake Worth, where she resides in a building for seniors on a fixed income. Money is tight. So she's hoping publicity about her Playboy past will boost an online gallery sale of a small model sculpture she owns by her "last love," the abstract artist Clement Meadmore.
After decades of living and working in New York, Gilbert misses the bustle and noise of city streets, and being able to walk around the corner to get groceries. She hasn't quite adjusted to the slower pace of South Florida retirement.
And there's one other thing she wasn't expecting: She's probably not the oldest living Playboy Playmate.
‘Exciting new face and figure'
Neva Gilbert was born in New York in September 1929 — one month before the Wall Street crash. Her mother Hannah was a waitress and her father disappeared early. After her mother remarried a builder and tavern owner, they started a new family. Teenage Neva felt left out, unwanted.
So, in the '40s, she found a tiny apartment in the city that she shared with a roommate for $10 a month.
"I went to work at Sears and Roebuck, telling them I was 21," she recalled. "I've been lying about my age ever since."
She met her only husband, fresh out of the Navy, at "the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway." They married when she was 16, divorced a few years later, but she kept his last name.
Eventually, Gilbert made her way west, where her youthful looks were a natural for California photography studios and modeling agencies that provided fresh-faced images for the popular pinup girl industry. She modeled for catalogs and calendars, posing in bathing suits and cocktail dresses, wedding gowns and active wear.
Coming and going from jobs, she'd occasionally bump into Marilyn Monroe. Along with Monroe and others, Gilbert appeared in "Pinups," a classic photography book of '40s and '50s Hollywood glamour by Bruno Bernard, who was known as "Bernard of Hollywood."
"One of the most exciting new faces and figures to grace Hollywood's Sunset Strip this or any other season is taffy blonde, powder blue-eyed Neva," reads a caption on one sun-kissed magazine layout from the era.
In between modeling gigs, she worked in Las Vegas as a cocktail waitress. Gambler friends wouldn't roll the dice without her. One night, she brought home $5,000 in tips.
She had fun on the side, posing for poolside and nightclub photos with visiting celebrities. She'd meet everybody from singers to mobsters, and dated actors Hugh O'Brian and Dan Dailey.
She described it all as "playing at show business" — placing second in a Miss Sea and Ski contest, lounging in a bubble bath at a Los Angeles trade show. On the side of the tub, a sign read: "Neva Gilbert Takes Her Softwater Bath Here!"
"All the men gathered around," Gilbert said. "They wanted to see if I was naked. I wasn't."
‘I didn't think it was dirty'
Not that she had a problem with nudity. One day in the early '50s, Hollywood photographer Tom Kelley — a proper professional who always worked with his wife — called her into his studio. There was an animal rug. Gilbert doffed her clothes, strategically placed her red-painted nails on a tiger's head, stretched out her legs and gazed into the lens. She might have earned $20 an hour.
"I didn't think it was dirty," she said of the photos. "I felt they were in good taste. I thought nudes were lovely."
Kelley's images eventually made their way to the John Baumgarth Calendar Company in Chicago, where they might have ended up adorning a monthly marker on a gas jockey's wall. But Gilbert's picture was bought instead by a man who dreamed of starting an upscale gentleman's journal that tweaked the era's conformist tendencies. And if you weren't interested in that, there would be plenty of pictures of naked women.
His name was Hugh Marston Hefner.
Playboy magazine was a success from its first issue in December 1953, with Kelley's red velvet nude photo of Marilyn Monroe as "Sweetheart of the Month." Controversial, too. Over the years, feminists have derided its objectification of women, especially Hefner's creation of the centerfold "Playmate of the Month," which began in January 1954.
Gilbert was Playmate No. 7, one of the first, but claiming the title of "oldest living Playboy Playmate" is trickier.
Little verifiable information is available about Playboy Playmates' birth dates. According to birth dates listed online, Gilbert is the oldest living Playmate in the magazine's inaugural class of 1954. But Playboy's website and other Internet sites credit Miss August 1957, Dolores Donlon, as being alive at 90.
"You're kidding," Gilbert said when told she likely isn't the oldest Playmate. "I'm surprised. How about that? I can't have my claim to fame anymore."
Not quite. She's still, according to all searchable evidence, the second oldest living Playmate. Whatever the ranking, Playboy's senior director of public relations, Teri Thomerson, wrote in an email to The Palm Beach Post that she wished Gilbert well on behalf of the magazine.
"Unfortunately I can't provide you with any specific information as to why Neva Gilbert was selected to be a Playboy Playmate back in 1954 but I can tell you that Hugh Hefner's fond memories of the pin-up art of his youth helped guide his instincts when choosing the Playmates for the magazine…As brand ambassadors, the Playmates will forever be a cherished part of the Playboy family and its legacy."
Gilbert was blessed in one respect: She squeaked into the Playboy family while Hefner was still crafting his magazine's vision. He was determined to find everyday women who embodied his Playmate philosophy of the (naked) girl next door.
In his 2008 biography, "Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream," author Steven Watts said that meant Hefner soon discarded his early reliance on professional models shot by outside photographers. According to Wikipedia, Gilbert's photo was the last one Hefner used that was purchased from the Baumgarth Calendar Co.
Amazingly, Gilbert said she never owned or saw a copy of her Playboy issue until decades later. People sometimes mentioned her appearance in a magazine, but she was used to being recognized from photographs and didn't think anything of it.
‘I had a line or two'
Along with modeling and waitress jobs, Gilbert also dabbled in the movies. Briefly. Blink and you'd miss her scenes.
She was in a 1954 Jane Russell 3-D musical, produced by Howard Hughes, called "The French Line."
"I just remember a bunch of women sitting in a boat."
She played a U.S.O. hostess in a Korean War drama, "Combat Squad." She got that gig because she was dating star John Ireland's brother.
"I had a line or two. I sat on a bench and said something."
Finally, she had a one-line, uncredited cameo in a prestige picture, 1954's "The Country Girl," a Paramount film starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and William Holden.
Dressed in a chic coat and black blouse, and taking puffs from a cigarette holder, she stands outside a theater and critiques a play directed by Holden's character in the movie. Director George Seaton's camera pans from her to Holden to Grace Kelly, who would win an Oscar for her performance as the de-glamorized wife of Crosby's washed-up alcoholic actor.
Gilbert was only in the movie because she was visiting a friend at Paramount. "He just shoved me in there and said ‘Do the line.' That's been my life. They shove me here, they shove me there."
Neva Gilbert in a publicity shot for the 1950s TV show, "Colgate Comedy Hour."
She never actively pursued a movie career. She did a screen test once with Dan Dailey, and a musical audition for a Jerry Lewis film at Paramount. The song she selected was unknown to the accompanist. "Jerry Lewis came down and screamed, ‘Everybody knows that song.'" He played piano while Gilbert sang.
She didn't get the part. And with the passing of years, she can't recall the tune.
‘I've never seen so many beautiful women'
Gilbert finally returned home to New York, where she resided for four decades. Playboy seemed buried in her past, until she got an unexpected summons from Hugh Hefner. At age 50, when most people would think about covering up, she was about to get naked again.
In 1979, the magazine sent a plane ticket and an invitation to spend two nights at Hefner's fabled L.A. mansion for the magazine's 25th anniversary and Playmate reunion. She posed for a small picture in a feature on Playmates then and now, part of December's holiday issue with Raquel Welch on the cover. She was the only Playmate re-shot from that inaugural year, and she revealed slightly more than she did in 1954.
The photo didn't faze her. Staying at the mansion, and mingling with dozens of former centerfolds, is what she remembers most from the trip.
"It was such fun," Gilbert said. "The house is so beautiful. Every photographer, every producer was there. They all wanted to see the women. I've never seen so many beautiful women in my life."
Back in New York, she acted in some "way-the-hell-off-Broadway" productions. She got her bachelor's degree from New York University. She managed a restaurant. She worked as an office assistant at The Collectors Club, a prestigious society for stamp enthusiasts that is housed in a historic Stanford White-designed brownstone at 35th Street and Madison Avenue.
Neva Gilbert in her acting days in New York.
There were prominent boyfriends, including the late sculptor Meadmore and a long relationship with stockbroker Louis Stone, the father of director Oliver Stone.
She never married again. "I've been so lucky with my men," she said. "They've all been loves. I had four proposals. But I was busy. I was working."
Gilbert adored New York, where she had a rent-controlled apartment at 70th and Lexington Avenue with a terrace, fireplace and a large shelf of books. But she gave it up about a year ago to move to Palm Beach County to live with a family member. She says that arrangement didn't work out. Now, she's staying in a room at the affordable Lake Worth Towers west of downtown.
She never learned to drive, so a friend takes her to appointments. Twice a week, she does exercise therapy for a bad back. While she likes her neighbors, she doesn't socialize that much and admitted she spends too much time "sitting in this bloody room."
Neva Gilbert in a modeling shot from her portfolio.
She stays busy jotting down memories for a possible book. She thinks about what will happen to all her photos when she's gone — the glamorous black-and-white images she keeps in a black portfolio case, charting her progress from teen bathing suit model to Playboy centerfold to mature actress. The reminders of a long, lucky life.
As for that longevity, Gilbert credits independence forced upon her at an early age and a positive attitude.
"I'm the same size as when I was a young woman," she noted. "This face is pretty good for an old broad. My mother's genes were good."
When Gilbert was Miss July 1954, the magazine didn't feature a Playmate fact sheet, listing turn-ons and turn-offs.
"I've had very few turn-offs," she said.
"A man that loves," she said. "That would be nice. I wish I'd had a child, but that didn't happen, unfortunately. A good man, I miss. But I've outlived them all."
Video by Jennifer Podis / Palm Beach Post staff.
Lake Worth woman confirmed as oldest Playmate
By Larry Aydlette
Palm Beach Post staff writer
It's official: Lake Worth's Neva Gilbert is the oldest living Playboy centerfold.
An apology and a correction are in order. Or, to put it more bluntly, she was right, and I was wrong.
In December, I profiled Gilbert's long and fascinating life in an article titled "The Centerfold Next Door."
Gilbert, 87, who lives in the Lake Worth Towers west of downtown, was Miss July 1954, one of the first centerfolds in Hugh Hefner's magazine, "a beautiful, long-legged blonde posed alluringly across a tiger skin rug," as I wrote in the story.
She began as a catalog and pinup model in the late 1940s, and even appeared in a few movies, including "The Country Girl," starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. But she is most proud of her association with Playboy. She was the magazine's seventh Playmate (Marilyn Monroe, whom Gilbert knew when they both modeled, was the magazine's "Sweetheart of the Month," in the inaugural December 1953 issue).
When I first talked to her on the phone, Gilbert told me, "I'm the oldest living Playboy Playmate." She repeated it emphatically several times during our interviews.
But when I searched the Internet, another Playboy Playmate's name kept surfacing: Dolores Donlon, Miss August 1957. If Donlon was alive, she would be 90, making Gilbert the second oldest living Playmate. Donlon's Wikipedia entry, and entries about her on Playboy.com and other sites, said nothing about her death. Every other Playmate of that era had either passed on, or had birth dates that made them younger than Gilbert, according to online sites.
Of course, there is little to no verifiable information about Playboy centerfolds' actual birth dates, or deaths. (Even Gilbert admits she's fudged her age over the years.) Our staff researcher Melanie Mena also could find no evidence that Donlon was dead, so I broke the news to Gilbert.
She was disappointed. "You're kidding," Gilbert said when I told her. "I'm surprised. How about that? I can't have my claim to fame anymore."
Our original story said Gilbert "probably" wasn't the oldest living Playmate. But the uncertainty kept nagging at me. I wanted verifiable proof, one way or the other. When I Googled Donlon's name last week on a lark, a website came up that I hadn't seen before. It indicated Donlon had died, and that her last husband was named Fernando Mendez.
Armed with that information, our researcher was able to find a brief obituary notice for Patricia Dolores Mendez, of Philadephia. (Donlon's real name was Patricia, or Pat, Vaniver. She had also been a pinup model and appeared in some movies and TV shows.) It did not mention Playboy, but said she died five years ago, at the age of 92.
I called Fernando Mendez in Philadelphia, who graciously confirmed that Patricia Mendez was indeed Dolores Donlon, the Playboy Playmate. "She passed in November 2012," he said.
The next call was to Gilbert. Feeling a little sheepish, I told her I had some news: She'd been right all along. "That's too much," she said with a big laugh. "How wonderful can I feel? It's my claim to fame."
Since the original story came out, Gilbert said she's gotten nothing but positive comments from her neighbors and friends. "I got two letters from people I don't even know, who wished me well and told me how good I looked," she said. "It's just been delightful."
She had talked about writing a memoir on her life and times, but admits she hasn't gotten very far. "I've been procrastinating all over the place," she said.
She also rubbed in my mistake, good-naturedly, wanting to know if I was planning to set the record straight: "Are you going to write one of those things, a correction?"
Here it is, Neva.