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Bernie Taupin on His Seventies Visit to the Playboy Mansion: ‘What a Dump’

For the past five decades, the incredible story of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s partnership has been told largely by Elton. That’s finally changing on September 12 with the release of Taupin’s memoir Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton, and Me. It’s a non-traditional work that leaps through time, focusing on the duo’s early struggles in the Sixties, the creation of some of their greatest songs, and Taupin’s private life on his California ranch, far from the searing spotlight of fame. “This is the most glorious of books,” John wrote in a statement. “I am besotted by the life I never knew he had.” In this exclusive excerpt, Taupin writes about a visit to the Playboy Mansion in 1976, and the seedier side of Hugh Hefner’s empire.

I didn’t know what Marilyn Grabowski did for a living. She was just another Le Dome regular who I got to know. I figured she held a position of some importance as she was chic, smart, and obviously the possessor of high intelligence. The only noticeable flaw in her trim and tidy presentability was a slight deformity. I learned that she’d had a facial injury that had been botched up by a careless plastic surgeon, almost resulting in her losing her nose. After countless skin grafts and surgeries it had been saved, but had left her slightly disfigured in that area. She carried herself remarkably well with this minor impediment, and in many ways she resembled a slightly contoured Joni Mitchell.

At a collective dinner one night, she asked me what I was doing the following weekend and, if I was free, did I want to go to a party at the Playboy Mansion. Let me tell you, “Playboy Mansion” are the last two words I would have ever expected out of her mouth. She just didn’t fit the composite of anyone who would have the slightest interest in that whole stridently fabricated concept. If that was a shock, the follow-up was a doozy. Ascertaining my perplexity, she realized immediately that I was unaware of her occupation and laughed. For the last twenty years she had been the photo editor for Playboy and was responsible for over- seeing every aspect of the layouts with complete ascendancy, answering only to the alpha bunny.

Before you jump to conclusions and think I might have been excited by this prospect, think again. Even in my younger years, the whole Playboy thing really didn’t do it for me. I’d certainly seen plenty of the magazines, but the only time I’ve ever bought one was, yes, for an article, the much-publicized Marlon Brando interview in the January 1979 issue. Even at its height, Playboy seemed to have a smug self-importance that gave the finger to the common man. There was nothing natural in the fantasy, just an airbrushed world of make-believe that demeaned femininity and created an unobtainable illusion. The fact that it was all the erotic visualization of a self-ordained libertine who smoked a pipe and lived in his pajamas only added to its camouflaged vulgarity.

Sometime during the Louder Than Concorde Tour in 1976, Elton and I had been invited to the Playboy Mansion in Chicago. Why did we go? If it wasn’t my scene, it certainly couldn’t have been Elton’s. I can only imagine there was some promotional connection somewhere and we’d simply gone along to honor a commitment. I brought along a six- foot-tall model named Cynthia Russell who was built like an Olympic athlete and rode a 500cc Harley. Cynthia wasn’t part of the Playboy stable, although she had done a layout, which featured her depicting strictly masculine, blue-collar roles: coal miner, oil rigger, construction worker, that sort of thing. Again, it reeked of male fantasy, but in contrast to the usual formulaic subservience and boudoir props, at least it had some edge to it.

Hefner, who was partnered up with the aptly named Barbi Benton at the time, was cordial and perfunctory if not a little bland and stiff. The thing I noticed most distinctly then and in any repeated encounters with him years later was that he was the possessor of a perpetual, passive smirk that I found unsettling. There was a degree of condescension in it that made any conversation with him seem like an exercise in futility; if he was listening at all, it was most likely falling on deaf ears.

Back in real time, I was loath to refuse Marilyn’s offer. I didn’t want to be rude and, besides, the ever-present sense of curiosity in me was adamant I attend. I’ve experienced many things in my life that have proved to be a letdown, including Graceland, the Orient Express, and blowfish, so believe me my hopes weren’t high for the Playboy Mansion. I wasn’t wrong. What a dump. Popular folklore might have built it up to be a louche Mecca preeminent in sensual sophistication, but I can assure you it was none of that and a lot less. Like a miniature House of Usher, it was a gray collision of Tudor and Gothic, all faux turrets, battlements, and way too busy in its attempt to be anything more than a kitsch architectural mess. Arguably, this could be a matter of taste, and if indeed the exterior might have thrilled a certain sector of impressionable fanboys, nobody could argue that the interior was anything but a huge disappointment.

Even glitzed up and lit like Knott’s Berry Farm at night, it wasn’t hard to tell that maintenance was not a priority and that the efficiency of cleaning crews was lacking. The place was like a courtier in the Palace of Versailles, constantly powdered and perfumed to mask the unpleasant odor beneath. The place simply had no style or character, the furniture looked old and ugly, the alcoves were murky, and the carpets were balding and frayed. The upper levels were cordoned off, and whatever went on up there most likely was also conducted in the infamous grotto. Imagining what went on in those furtive waters wasn’t something I wanted to dwell on while eating at the same time. Needless to say, all the chlorine in the world wouldn’t have got me to go commando in there.

I seemed to be surprisingly young in comparison to the majority of male attendees there, who varied from old Borscht Belt comedians in polyester suits to second-tier TV personalities and tough guy actors like James Caan and Hugh O’Brian. I’ll admit that everyone there looked like they belonged, a demographic certainly sculpted to be attracted to this form of thinly veiled debauchery. Lascivious older men in abundance looking to hook up, codes of honor be damned. In this garish cyclone of tertiary color, I imagined demand took precedence over any- thing consensual, a fact that proved to be correct in the ensuing years.

In fact, speaking of the House of Usher, the character of Roderick in Edgar Allan Poe’s novel suspects the house controls its inhabitants. Not a bad analogy for the Playboy Mansion. It wasn’t a prison, but it certainly held sway, mesmerizing generations of young women and marginalizing them into an army of fembots devout in their allegiance to one man.


As much as Hefner thought of himself as an avatar of the sexual revolution, I don’t believe he knew how to engage the emerging personalities of the counterculture. He certainly didn’t understand rock or its purveyors even while pandering to them. He may have made overtures, but in reality he never really emerged from the penthouse mentality of his syndicated TV shows such as Playboy After Dark. He was simply treading water, an anachronism forever inhabiting a sky-high man cave of chrome and Formica. Manhattans, old-fashioneds, shag carpeting, and Buddy Greco on the hi-fi . . . every day was Groundhog Day for Hugh Hefner.

Excerpted from Scattershot: Life, Music, Elton, and Me by Bernie Taupin. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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