To the world, Hugh Hefner was a bon vivant in a velvet bathrobe who created the “Playboy” lifestyle, full of beautiful women and tastefully hedonistic pleasures.
To Neva Gilbert, the Lake Worth retiree who at age 88 is the oldest living Playmate centerfold, he was the man who kickstarted her career.
“He never made the girls look terrible,” recalled Gilbert. “He made the naked body beautiful, not vulgar. He made women much more beautiful than they are, including me.”
To Donn Davenport, a Boynton Beach art director who worked closely with the late publisher, he was something much more deep and revolutionary.
“He was an education, a mind-blowing intellectual in many, many ways,” says Davenport, who was in art direction at Oui, an international offshoot of “Playboy” in the 1970s.
Gilbert, who was Miss July 1954 and the magazine’s seventh Playmate, was shocked to learn of Hefner’s death in a call Thursday morning from The Palm Beach Post. He bought her centerfold picture from a calendar company in his inaugural year of the magazine. In 1979, she stayed at Hefner’s fabled L.A. mansion for the magazine’s 25th anniversary, where she again posed nude at age 50.
“He was so kind and sweet, he couldn’t do enough for you,” said Gilbert. “He gave me my start on my modeling career. He was the push.”
Davenport, who also worked for Cosmopolitan and was one of the people behind Burt Reynolds’ legendary centerfold for that magazine, said that Hefner made Playboy something much more than a platform for nudes. It was also, he said, about writing, about culture and jazz, and about the advancement of thinking.
Back in 2008, he described Hefner as “one of my favorite executives to work with, a brilliant, brilliant man…He was so enamored of his creative talent that the artists were the only (staff) people invited to the Playboy mansion on Sundays. We had access to the pool, to the bowling alley, everywhere except the individual Playmates’ rooms. There would be a five-course dinner every other Sunday, with a full feature film flown in that hadn’t been distributed yet. You could bring a guest…That seldom occurred, as the Playmates were abounding. But you could if you wanted to.”
Nearly a decade later, his high opinion of Hefner hasn’t diminished.
“It was a phenomenal thing. Between he and Clive Davis, both of them were mentors in strength for my development and foresight into the world, not just in magazines and in records but in life,” said Davenport, who ran the art department for a while at Davis’ Arista Records. “(Hefner) was a genius in his own right, and the world is lessened by (the loss) of his talent. This is terrible.”