How Hugh Hefner, suburban James Bond author became good friends
Buffalo Grove resident Raymond Benson and his wife, Randi Frank, received a phone call from concerned officials at their son's school.
When asked what he had done during the summer, 8-year-old Max Benson told his teacher and classmates, "I went to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles!"
"And it was true," Raymond Benson said.
It was one of many times that playboy-in-chief Hugh Hefner invited Benson to his storied Playboy Mansion West.
Yes, Benson and Frank partied with Hef in their jammies. (No, little Max didn't attend, and yes, they had a great time.)
They attended the mansion's legendary Sunday "movie nights" when about 50 invitees would be treated to private screenings of motion pictures playing at local theaters.
Hefner, who called Chicago home for many years and a University of Illinois alum, died Tuesday at the age of 91.
I called Benson, my partner in our lecture series Dann & Raymond's Movie Club, to ask him the question people have asked for years: So what was Hef really like?
"He was a really nice guy and he easily could have not been one," Benson said. "He was always very friendly and very generous."
He called Hefner "a true American innovator and icon."
Benson was at the mansion for Playboy's 45th anniversary celebration attended by an estimated 300 Playmates. Feminists have frequently criticized the Playboy philosophy and its objectification of women.
"I always felt that he (Hefner) respected women," Benson said. "Look at all the Facebook postings from women who worked with him. They all worshipped him. They loved him. I think because he treated them with respect."
What about the mansion?
"It was always beautiful," he said. "It was always well-maintained. You felt like you were walking through a part of history. I remember thinking, 'I can't believe I'm here!'"
Hefner first invited Benson to the mansion in 1994 after Benson sent him a copy of his book "The James Bond Bedside Companion."
The two men were bonded by their interest in Ian Fleming's 007.
After Benson became the first American writer authorized to pen James Bond novels (he wrote six, plus three novelizations of 007 movies), he proposed creating original Bond stories for Playboy. The magazine published six Benson/Bond pieces from 1997 to 2000.
"He loved to talk about movies," Benson said of Hefner. "And that's what we talked about a lot."
His most personal experience with the Playboy founder?
"I spent three hours alone with him in his library, both of us sitting ... on the floor," Benson said.
Benson was interviewing Hefner for a Cinema Retro magazine feature story about the history of Playboy Enterprises' involvement with movie productions during the 1970s.
"People don't realize Playboy backed a lot of movies," Benson said, "among them Monty Python's 'And Now For Something Completely Different' and Roman Polanski's 'MacBeth.' Sitting in the library with Hugh Hefner, well, that was really cool."