Though it was more than 20 years ago, I'll never forget my first glimpse of Playboy Mansion West. The lush, green lawns, the exotic birds and animals wandering around, the waterfall cascading into the swimming pool, the stately House That Hef Built.
All of which were nothing compared to the gaggle of eye-popping ladies strewn about like pneumatic party favors. They were languishing on deck chairs, tossing beachballs, standing with heads thrown back--guffawing to the heavens--arms around fabulous celebrities like Don Adams, Jimmy Caan, Jim Brown. Everybody had cocktails; all were having the time of their lives. And those ladies, those bunnies, were wearing virtually nothing. I was transfixed, really digging the scene.
Then I heard my mother yelling for me.
I closed the magazine, thrust it back into the bottom drawer of my father's desk and feigned concentration on Samuel Gompers. Or the industrial age, or geometry or whatever pointless homework I was supposed to be working on. Thus ended my 2-D trip to the Mansion, but it had left an impression. I knew I had to go back. Back to that place of liquor, love and laughs, where unabashed hedonism went hand in hand with riches and splendor. Back to that place in the bottom drawer.
And I made it. All it took was a couple of decades. And Nancy Sinatra deciding to revive her career with an album of new material, a show-all spread in Playboy and a party to celebrate this magnificent moment at Hef's. A trip to the Mansion was one thing, but to actually witness Nancy and her boots--live and in person--hissing and snarling in that sultry talk-sing voice from the past was simply too much. All I had to do was scam an invitation. Easy.
Hollywood no longer exists. It's a dream that went sour long ago, an utterly phony place that has all the false allure of a Roach Motel. Where stars once roamed the boulevards amid swank restaurants and exclusive nightspots, there are now hordes of tourists from other lands, bums, madmen, bag ladies and losers trying to eke out a living selling trinkets and twisting balloons into shapes that are supposed to look like poodles. Keep that Instamatic ready, but it's not likely that you'll see Brad Pitt out shopping for a "Hollywood U.S.A.--I Wanna Sex You Up" tee shirt.
Hollywood is a place short in miles, but far in glamour, from Hef's Holmby Hills hideaway; it's also the place where I was staying. Hell, it was cheap, especially the rooms at the Magic Hotel, where the most magical thing was that the 30-year-old refrigerator could keep a six-pack slightly cooler than room temperature. I checked in and left in search of food, walked a couple blocks down by the legendary Mann's Chinese Theater, where the footprints of movie greats live on in concrete.
And that's where I saw her.
No, not Nancy. Angelene. She is the perfect welcoming committee to the Capital of Fake, a woman with a big, blond wig, pounds of makeup, a skintight vinyl dress, and breasts enhanced to the size of the heads of monster octopuses. Angelene doesn't act, doesn't sing or dance or tell jokes; she is a nobody who has made herself a somebody simply by existing. There are billboards of her along Hollywood Boulevard, huge likenesses of this bodacious creature spilling out to passers-by with wickedly pointless intent.
But there she was in the flesh--lots of it--posing against a pink Corvette in front of the theatre while a throng of pathetic, thrill-hungry sightseers clicked away. Naturally, I whipped out my camera and ran full tilt, elbowing my way in on the action. Angelene looked bored and coy, delicately gnawing her sunglasses as the traffic rolled by. "Hey, Angelene," I gushed, "where's a good place to eat around here?" With innuendo way too deep for me to fathom, she squeaked, "I'm not telling you!"
Head reeling and film used up, it was all I could do to make my way down to a souvenir shop run by a Muslim woman from Sweden and purchase a "Pray for O.J.--Don't Squeeze the Juice" shirt. She wouldn't recommend any place to eat, either, but the sun was setting and I had a date to keep. Over at Hef's, and I did not want to keep Ms. Sinatra waiting.
A young woman in a crushed-velvet dress the color of a smoggy sunset is leaning into the window of my rented Cougar. She has a clipboard, a band of intertwined snakes tattooed around her right wrist and a smile that says, "Welcome to the Playboy Mansion." Then she actually says, "Welcome to the Playboy Mansion," and asks my name. That's all it takes, and I'm tooling up the driveway. Past immaculate hedges and yellow traffic signs that say "Children at Play." Right on.
I park, a valet spirits the Cougar away and I enter the sacred backyard of Hef. But there are no bunnies. There are no celebs. There is nobody in the pool. There aren't even any beachballs. But there are some flamingos standing around on one leg, and a peacock. Actually, I think there were two peacocks.
There is also a bunch of people, many of whom are press, but many more of whom are some of the scariest-looking Hollywood stereotypes imaginable. Older men sporting expensive suits and bizarre hair weaves cruise past, trailing robust women who look young enough to be junior-varsity cheerleaders. People tanned to the point of cancer grope at hors d'oeuvres trays, line up at the bar for free drinks and mingle about in the smooth, oft-repeated ritual of embrace, peck cheek, smile and move on.
Nancy is nowhere to be seen. I head through a stone archway into a faux-subterranean passage looking for a bathroom, keen on any secrets it may reveal. Of course, all the cans at Hef's are unisex; I enter one, and gently shut the heavy, wooden door behind me. The lighting is soft and intimate, the air flowing from a small, tasteful duct is warm and lightly caresses my face as I stand before the bowl. The mood is sensuous, enveloping and classy; perfect for a night of tender lovemaking. Or going to the bathroom, which I proceed to do. And on the shelf, Hef--ever the thoughtful host--has provided Glade air freshener and Tampax. I flush, step out, calm, fulfilled. I have consummated an act at Playboy Mansion West.
I linger for a moment in the darkened stone hallway, and hear voices around the corner. Just visible on a nearby door is a sign that says, "Reserved for Ms. Sinatra." It opens, and three handlers emerge. They seem to be in some kind of heated, show-biz debate: "She looks fabulous!" "Nancy wants her hair flat--I like it big!" "No, it's perfect the way it is--sensational!"
Outside, there is a refreshing beverage with my name on it, compliments of Hugh Hefner. I feel that now is the time to go and get it.
Apparently, the hair debate is settled, and Nancy joins the party. She is instantly surrounded by the crowd, cameras strobing nonstop, hands thrust out to touch her. Now, I'm not gonna sit here and say she looks good for a 54-year-old, but she looks good for a 54-year-old. Glamorous. Foxy, dammit. The trademark black eyeliner is there, the dirty-blond hair, diabolically full red lips and--you better believe it--the boots. Big, black leather boots that reach up to her thighs. These boots were made for more than just walking; they were created for strutting, for humbling the mighty, for world-comeback domination.
And look--there's Mel Torm! The aging crooner with the sagging face embraces Nancy as the photographers go to work, and here comes somebody else, Ray Anthony. Ray, in case you didn't know, played trumpet for Glenn Miller (Miller used to be famous, too, kids), was married to bombshell Mamie Van Doren, became a bandleader, had a Top 10 hit with "Peter Gunn" in 1955 and took "Melody of Love" to No. 19 later that year, dueting with the man who sired Nancy. But all of that was a long time ago. Now he's a guy at a party in a burgundy toupee eating a piece of chicken on a stick.
I look across the lawn and see the Man Who Put Sex As We Know It on the Map. It's Hefner himself striding out to join the fun, wry grin and tousled hair perfectly in place. But wait--he's not wearing silk pajamas, he's not drinking a Coke, there's no pipe jutting from his mouth. In fact, he's got his wife, ex-Playmate Kimberly Conrad, and young daughter in tow. (Later, I was peeping through a Mansion window at the grand, wooden stairway railing in the paneled entry hall. The same one that a nude, apparently friction-resistant Barbi Benton was sliding down so many years ago in my dad's desk drawer. Next to it was a wall of Lego.) What gives?
My boyhood images are falling away like needles from a parched Christmas tree, but still, it's Hef. He descends into the melee for a little spotlight quality time with Nance. After things calm down a bit, I sidle over to the corner of the garden where Hef is hanging with Mel and Ray for a little eavesdropping. What could these legends be saying to each other? Torm moves his head forward until it's perhaps an inch away from Hef's, locks eyes with the Playboy kingpin. "I just wanna ask you one thing," says Mel, his wattle bobbling slightly.
"What's that?" says Hef.
The Velvet Fog, the man who penned the beloved lines "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/Jack Frost nipping at your nose," leans in even closer and says, "Who the fuck are these people?!"
And now. Nancy Sinatra takes a dainty step into the midstage spotlight--the first time she's done so in 20 years--and begins to sing "How Does That Grab You, Darlin'?" If you like "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," you'll like "Darlin'"--they're pretty much the same song. She's gyrating a bit, and the voice is a little ragged, but powerful. Thirty years ago, she had that feisty-kitten thing going, but this is a more mature, experienced song vixen. Nancy's really trying; she's not overdoing it with smarmy Vegas shtick, nor is she playing to the obvious camp/joke potential. She goes into the Beatles tune "Run for Your Life," taking out the word "boy" in one verse and snarling, "You know that I'm a wicked chick and I was born with a jealous mind," then launches into some material from her new CD. The band of L.A. studio pros is slick, and the music is pretty generic.
But there's enough of a beat for Hef. He's standing back in the shadows, grinning away and doing a little side-to-side boogie. Kind of like the way Herman Munster used to dance.
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"This one's a tribute to my dad," says Nance, gazing out at the crowd through those black-rimmed eyes. It's a light-samba take on "One for My Baby," and her voice is just weathered and lived-in enough to do justice to the classic Frank saloon ballad. But let's face it, if Nancy doesn't do "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" each time the curtain goes up, she might as well kiss this whole comeback thing goodbye. No fool she, NS closes the short set with "Boots." The clouds part, the planets align, truth is revealed, we are as one, God is love, praise Allah, make mine a double.
A waiter bearing a silver tray with two lonely artichoke croquettes passes in front of me as the crowd thins out. I ask him what he thought of the show. "She's all right," he says conspiratorially, "but I'm a singer, too. And I'm a Louis Armstrong look-alike." The guy proceeds to sing half of "Ain't Misbehavin'" into my ear as some record-industry type walks by and shoves a croquette into his mouth. He pauses to give us the once-over as Satchmo keeps bellowing, then scuttles away. You know, that waiter really did sound like Louis Armstrong. Looked like him, too.
Nancy is once again surrounded; everybody wants a piece of her. Hef has disappeared, the bar is closed, it's time to go. Will the children of Cobain--the same ones whom MTV tells us are digging Tony Bennett--welcome Nancy with open arms? Will she bloom on the retro circuit--something she's said she's not interested in--like the Monkees? Or will she slip off those boots and go back to a comfortable existence as the mother of two grown girls, a woman with a famous dad and enough coin to live nicely for the rest of her natural life? I don't know, but this much is certain: Nancy Sinatra has earned a permanent paragraph or two in the big book of American pop culture; she had a look and a song that are still downright cool.
As for Nancy today? At the very least, there will always be the, uh, inspirational May '95 issue of Playboy, which, if treated with proper care, will last for quite a long time in the bottom of a desk drawer.