Victor Lownes: An American Playboy In London

A belated Happy New Year to any and all readers of The Eastern Terraces. I apologise for the dearth of new material late last year as I and fellow contributor Gunter Sacks were consumed by personal and professional requirements. I hope to redress that slightly with an article on one of the twentieth century’s greatest bon vivants and entrepreneurial visionaries…Victor Aubrey Lownes III.

Born in 1928 to wealthy parents in Buffalo New York, he and his family later moved to Florida. At the age of 12 he accidently shot and killed a friend of his and was sent to a military school to make amends. Moving quickly he married at 18 and had two children, before having a spiritual crisis in his late 20s which prompted him to abandon his family, embrace hedonism and move to Chicago to complete an MBA.

Not long after graduation, he met Hugh Hefner at a party and offered to contribute a few articles to the burgeoning Playboy magazine due to his endorsement and personal belief in the Playboy lifestyle (i.e. women, celebrities and the finer things in life). By the end of 1955 he was employed full time as a promotions manager and whilst attempting to improve Playboy’s bottom line and in light of reader response to an article about a key club in Chicago, came up with the idea of the Playboy Club.

Hefner and Lownes Circa 1966

Not knowing much about the restaurant/club scene Hefner and Lownes turned to Arnold Morton who had a local joint in Chicago called Walton Walk where they used to go and to troll for women. Morton who later went on to found the Morton’s steakhouse chain, agreed with Lownes that the bunny logo which featured so prominently in the magazine would be the best costume for the women who worked in the club. Lowne’s girlfriend at the time, a Latvian immigrant named Ilse Taurins offered to have her mother knock up an example, which Hefner modified further to include the cuffs and collar as well as a higher cut to reveal more of the wearer’s thighs.

A recruitment drive yielded many willing girls eager to become bunnies, and John T. Slania in his 2011 article The Real Playboy Club notes that, “Hefner and Lownes were afflicted with the Madonna-whore complex, seeking young women with a ‘girl-next-door’ face and a voluptious figure. Those lucky enough to be selected were asked their measurements and given a Bunny costume two sizes smaller”. 

Recruitment Advertisement for Chicago Playboy Club

Lownes came up with other ideas to help make the venture profitable such as the Camera Bunny who would take pictures of customers with a Polaroid camera and then request payment. Although the official fee for a photo was only 5 cents, if the subject of the picture paid only that much they would look bad in front of other guests, so many used to pay $10 or $100 for the cheap photographs in order to impress people or try and hook the bunny photographer herself.

Whilst the bunnies were resolutely not allowed to date customers (mainly to avoid accusations of prostitution), they were permitted to date ‘C1’ key holders which were basically Playboy executives (such as Lownes and Hefner) as well as visiting celebrity guests. Former London Bunny Elaine Murray recalls that Lownes “…wouldn’t warn you about himself! He wouldn’t say, “Don’t come to one of my parties!”

Page of the Bunny Manual distributed to Employees Warning of the Dangers of Mingling

International Playboy Key Card

In addition to his frequent ideas and business acumen, he was also in charge of booking the entertainment and would sometimes book them sight unseen based on Variety reviews or word of mouth. In 1961 the Playboy Club had Dick Gregory perform marking the first time a black comedian performed in front of a white audience. He also purportedly discovered Barbara Streisand and gave Aretha Franklin one of her first paying gigs.

Towards the end of 1963, Lownes travelled to London to establish the Playboy Club Casino and Clermont Club. Apparently, Lownes’ leaving of Chicago was quite rushed and his relationship with an underage television star helped decide his departure. He set up home in fashionable Montpelier Square opposite Harrods and began entertaining A-list celebrities such as Peter Sellers, Tony Curtis, Telly Savalas and Shirley MacClaine there, making himself a fixture of London’s increasingly diverse social scene.

The first British Playboy Bunny Dolly Read (who later went on to star in Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley of the Dolls) describes meeting Lownes after he tried to date her roommate:

“She had plans, but I didn’t, so he invited me to a lavish dinner at the Dorchester Hotel hosted by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. During dinner Victor told me that he was leaving for Chicago the following Monday and asked if I would like to join him… But I had no visa, only my British passport. Victor told me to be at his flat Monday morning, packed and ready to leave, and he would take care of everything.

“I showed up on his doorstep with a suitcase at 9am. Victor was in bed dictating letters to his secretary. My immediate thought was that he had only been bluffing, but off we went to the American Embassy, where Victor claimed I was his fiancée and he wanted to take me to America to meet his son.

“We left London that day.

“Within the week I discovered that Victor was cheating on me, sneaking down to the swimming pool (in the Playboy Mansion) with another girl in the middle of the night. But he was so charming, he could get away with anything.  When I accompanied Victor to the opening of the Boston Club, we flew up from New York in a small chartered craft. It was snowing heavily. By the time we reached Boston we were in a fierce storm. The airport was closed. When Victor heard we had been refused landing permission, he demanded that the pilot tell air traffic control that we were running out of fuel.  We were allowed to land and made it to the Boston Club in time for the opening”.

Victor Lownes Circa 1967 (Still taken from ‘Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London’)

As people from Europe and beyond began to gravitate towards London’s ever more famous swinging scene, he opened the seven storey tall Walter Gropious designed London Playboy Club at 44 Park Lane in Mayfair with backing from a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman named Bader Al Mulla and assistance from his second in command Tony Roma (who went on to open his own chain of rib restaurants). It directly overlooked Hyde Park and key cards were presold at 5 pounds a piece. The club featured restaurants, a nightclub and apartments and suites available to rent by the day, month or week to members. Attending the opening night were actors Sidney Poitier, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress and Laurence Harvey, directors like Roman Polanski and Michelangelo Antonioni as well as upper crust socialites such as Lee Radziwill (re-christened Princess Radish by Keith Richards when she later latched on to the Stones 1970s tour scene).

Woody Allen at the Opening Party  for the London Playboy Club 1966

Rodolf Nureyev and Princess Radzillwill at the Opening Party 1966

Jean Paul Belmondo and Ursula Andress at the Opening Party 1966

Unlike the American Clubs, the London Club benefited from Britain’s recent changes to gambling laws and large proportion of the venue was devoted to gambling and featured Bunny croupiers and games such as roulette and blackjack.  This understandably made the London Club the jewel in the crown of the Playboy empire and contributed enormously to the firms bottom line. The fact that London was regarded as the centre of the world at that time also ensured its visibility and helped provide it with an aura of cool that was enhanced by visits from one of the Beatles or Terrance Stamp. Woody Allen in addition to opening the club, fondly recalls gambling there (whilst making Casino Royale) with the cast of the Dirty Dozen (including Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and John Casavettes).

Gambling in the London Playboy Club Circa 1967

The Exterior of the London Playboy Club at 44 Park Lane, Mayfair

Another Exterior Shot of the London Playboy Club at 44 Park Lane, Mayfair

Playmates Cavorting on the Roof of the London Playboy Club Circa 1969

Indeed, socialising with celebrities was one of the tenets of the Playboy mystique and Lownes as its highest paid executive was more than able to demonstrate the lifestyle the Club’s members aspired to. Not wanting to socialise with the patrons of his own venue (and indeed not spending much time within its confines), he instead went skiing in St Moritz, hung out in the south of France and became the centre of a groovy group of like minded hep cats (known as the Ad Lib set after the club they frequented) that included Warren Beatty, David Bailey and Roman Polanski.

Sinatra at the London Playboy Club Circa 1966 (Check Where His Eyes Are Going…)

Famed Critic and Writer Kenneth Tynan (who co-wrote Polanski’s adaptation of Macbeth) at the London Playboy Club

Lownes met Polanski at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, welcomed him into his social circle and according to Christopher Sanford’s biography of Polanski introduced him to LSD. The night before Polanski married Sharon Tate, Lownes threw him a bachelor party. Attending along with the likes of Michael Caine, Terrance Stamp and Richard Harris, was Iain Quarrier an actor who had appeared in Polanski’s 1966 movie Cul-de-sac and 1967’s Dance of the Vampires. He recalled the scene in the book Diary of a Teddy Boy by Mim Scala:

“At this time Roman Polanski was getting married to the beautiful Sharon Tate, and Victor Lownes offered to host his stag-night at the Playboy Club and later at Victor’s town house. The guests included Richard Harris, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Harry Baird, Gene Gutowski and myself.

Our party started off in the normal fashion, drinks, a joint or two, small talk. We all knew each other pretty well. We were being waited on by the pick of the Playboy Bunnies and a dozen other gorgeous girls. The higher and drunker we got, the more outrageous the party became. I was sharing the sauna with Michael Caine and Gene Gutowski, and several of the girls, when the door opened and Richard Harris (drunkenly) staggered in. We all carried on with what we were doing. ‘Come on you filthy bastards, come with me. I know where the real action is’– whereupon he staggered out of the heat. Michael, Gene and I were not about to leave. As morning came and Roman had to prepare for his wedding, we discovered what had happened to Richard. He had burgled Sharon’s hen party (bachelorette party), the only male present at that gathering of about twenty of the most beautiful girls in London. He was unable to remember a thing.”

Iain Quierrier Hiding Behind The Far Prettier Jane Birkin

Polish-American producer Gene Gutowski in his own book, With Balls and Chutzpah: A Story of Survival remembered the party beginning to get boring when, “… a flock of beautiful girls invaded the house giving the party new life, so to speak. Soon everybody had paired off and, while observing the action in various rooms, I got to the top floor where there was a sauna. To my amazement I found inside, oblivious to the heat and steam, there were three couples busy making love. I was alarmed and worried that they may die in there so I managed to pull out one couple. The others told me to fuck off and mind my own business. “

Tate & Polanski Wedding Reception At The London Playboy Club 1968                (17th Century Style Cravats Seemingly Optional)

Sharon Tate & Roman Polanski Wedding Reception At The London Playboy Club January 1968

David Bailey’s Photographic Interpretation of Their Honeymoon

Following the wedding the next day, Lownes again provided the location to party by holding the wedding reception for the happy couple and hundreds of attendees at the Playboy Club until 5am. He was later given a solid gold 22 carat penis statue by way of thanks by Polanski for his hosting duties, which was duly displayed in a glass cabinet and a party given to ceremoniously celebrate its arrival. This golden cock was later returned to Polanski following the acrimony that developed during the financing and production of 1972’s Playboy funded film of Macbeth with a note that read, “In view of recent developments, I no longer care to have this full sized, life sized portrait of you around the house. I am sure you’ll have no difficulty finding some ‘friend’ you can shove it up”.

For in addition to characteristically running way over budget and schedule during the filming of the Macbeth picture, during an interview with the London Evening Standard held at the London Playboy Club, Polanski remarked that “he doesn’t really like it here” (i.e. the club). When asked by the interviewer why he then accepted financing from Playboy Enterprises, he quipped that “…money doesn’t smell”. Upon reading the interview, Lownes was livid and ex-communicated Polanski for a decade.

Lownes Introducing Princess Anne To Polanski at the Macbeth Premiere February 1972

Prior to this however, they were great friends, with Lownes reportedly organising an emergency visa to enable him to immediately fly  to the US when news of Sharon Tate’s murder broke, accompanying him on skiing trips and partying together around the world.

Lownes Helping Polanski Get on The Plane At Heathrow in the Immediate Aftermath of the Tate/Manson Killings August 1969

Lownes was also a frequent visitor to the World Psychedelic Centre (WPC) run from an apartment in Belgravia. The WPC was set up and run by a man named Michael Hollishead who had ‘worked’ with Tim Leary in upstate New York turning people on to acid. In his flat lined with rugs and pillows, Hollishead attempted to turn on as many influential people as he could to the enlightenment of LSD in an attempt to facilitate debate and discussion of the still legal drug before it inevitably got banned. Tastemakers and scenesters used to frequently drop by such as Christopher Gibbs, Robert Fraser, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and William Burroughs amongst others and Lownes accompanied many visiting Americans. Lownes not only introduced Polanski to acid, he also turned on his dentist… who in turn dosed his famous patients John Lennon and George Harrison who immortalised him on the 1966s Revolver track ‘Dr Robert’.

Revolver Side 2 – Featuring Doctor Robert

It seems you cannot be a big man in England and not own a country pile (no pun intended). Mick Jagger had Stargroves, Jimmy Page had Boleskin House and Michael Caine owned Old Mill House. So in 1972 Lownes purchased ‘Stocks’, a 42 room Georgian style mansion in Hertfordshire with 19 bedrooms, 4 cottages, several outbuildings and a stable. As soon as he had settled, he installed the largest Jacuzzi in England within the house, made it the centre for bunny training and began hosting lavish parties such as a 25 hour party to celebrate 25 years of Playboy. Regular visitors to his home included actor Peter Sellers, Polanski, comedian Peter Cook and members of Monty Python such as John Cleese (who’s Now For Something Completely Different film Lownes went on to produce) .

Distant Shot of Stocks

Stocks in All Its Sepia Tinged Glory

Serena Williams who was a London Playboy Bunny at the time recollects, “At the weekends I used to go to house parties at Victor Lownes’ mansion, Stocks, in Hertfordshire. They were pretty wild. I’ll never forget being at one of Victor’s parties when the news broke that Sharon Tate had been killed. Victor had financed a few of [her husband, Roman] Polanski’s films, and they were good friends. Everyone was very shocked and sad.”

Donald von Wiedenman in a 1971 Time Magazine article describes Lownes as having boxes of poppers (amyl nitrate) in very room of his house, even in the kitchen and according to Peter Cook’s then wife she was not happy about her husband’s visits. “… But I put aside my displeasure a month later when Peter said he had found a place for us not far from Stocks. He looked pleased, saying: ‘I’ve got us the perfect cottage, and I can go to Stocks for the weekend and then come and see you. It’s all sorted.”

By operating the Bunny training school from the mansion, Lownes also saw to it that most of the costs of running such a large stately home were covered as operating expenses of Playboy Enterprises and there were always heaps of hot women around. This enabled him to be able to bed as many as 5 women a day as he would spot them training and turn his attentions towards the ones he liked.

Playmate Marilyn Cole (who also featured on the cover of Roxy music’s ‘Stranded’ album) remembers, “I moved into a bedsit in Muswell Hill and started training. Days later, after Victor Lownes had noticed me in the club, I was chauffeur-driven to his house at 1 Connaught Square to be test photographed for Playboy.

As soon as I entered the house I knew I’d arrived at the home of someone very sexy. Erotic works by Egon Schiele, Balthus and Francis Bacon lined the walls; my eyes were on stalks, not that I knew who they were by, of course.

In those days I didn’t know much, although I had worked out that I would have to take my clothes off for the photos, and I did, while making an effort to put on a sexy act I wasn’t really feeling. Next thing I knew I was on the plane to Chicago, where I became the first ever full-frontal playmate.

That issue of Playboy sold seven million copies. My life turned into a huge pink blob of Playboy prizes and promotions and merchandise. I started going out with Hugh Hefner, and then Victor. In those days everybody went out with whoever they wanted to. We didn’t realise it then but we were at the vanguard of the sexual revolution.”

Marilyn Cole Unleashes The Fuzz Circa 1972

Marilyn Cole Performing Her Bunny Duties

Marilyn Cole As Featured on Roxy Music’s ‘Stranded’ Album

The mansion was later featured on the album cover of Oasis’ “Be Here Now and also used as the background for the Madness video of ‘It Must Be Love’.

Lownes and Comedian Kenny Lynch See In the New Year at Stocks 1980/1981

Lownes at a Party at Stocks (and Presumbably on The Sauce Given The Hat)

Stocks As Featured On The Cover of Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ Album

In the late 1970s Playboy’s gambling business was still going strong, catering mainly to Middle Eastern men and Iranians in particular. This business would see a decline after the 1979 Iranian revolution, leading Lownes to comment that ‘Petrodollars were flowing a little less freely than hitherto’.

Victor Lownes Circa 1979 (In a Photo Obviously Pinched From the Web)

The competition for casino dollars lead to rivalry between various competitors on the London gambling scene and when licence renewals were being handed out, Playboy objected to the granting of them to one of their competitors, the Ladbroke Group, accusing them of having sent employees and private detectives to their operations to illegally recruit customers. British law prohibited the inducement of gambling clientele and these accusations likely cost them the right to operate. The government’s refusal to grant Ladbrokes a licence created a strong enmity between that firm and Playboy Enterprises and a significant amount of antipathy was personally directed towards Lownes by the CEO of Ladbroke Cyril Stein.

Ladbroke CEO Cyril Stein

Stein decided to get his own back by trying to get Playboy’s gambling licences revoked in a similar manner. He provided information to the cops and elsewhere that Playboy also recruited customers via non-legal means such as hotel porters, allowed company directors to gamble in their own facility and had provided credit in a way not allowed by the legislation, eventually succeeding in getting Playboy’s casino licences similarly revoked.

Concerned by the shadow forming over this section of the business and the fearful of it tarnishing their chances at getting gambling licences at the then new re-developments going on in Atlantic City, Playboy decided to terminate Lownes in April 1981. A fool move by any standard, this sealed the fate of Playboy’s English gaming operations as it showed that the company was under foreign control and removed the erudite captain who could have steered them through the storm.

Further reasons for his sacking almost always cite the fact Hefner held a candle for Lowne’s wife Marilyn Cole. She had dated Hefner prior to hooking up with and eventually marrying Lownes and her rejection of Hefner in favour of his partner apparently provided a source of shame for the aging head of Playboy. Steven Watts in his book, Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, also mentions that Lownes had introduced Hefner to Dexedrine back in 1957 in order to combat the founders fatigue and that Hefner’s increasing consumption of amphetamine contributed to a decline in his faculties making him both increasingly reclusive and according to a self penned 1958 memo, “…the total operation of Playboy [was] now dependent on those little orange pills”.

Furthermore Hefner has been frequently described as a frumpy rube in comparison with his stylish and outgoing European based executive and the knowledge of such in conjuction with numerous hatchet men clamouring for Lownes position and undoubtedly whispering in his ear would have further contributed to his choice to end a 27 year relationship.

Following his firing, Lownes went on to pen his history of Playboy’s rise and fall titled, The Day The Bunny Died and incorporated his own eponymous company Victor Lownes Enterprises Limited in July 1982. The dissolution of the British casino business hit Playboy hard and whilst it had made $31 million in the year ending June 30, 1981, it lost over $50 million in 1982.

Cover of First Edition of The Day The Bunny Died Circa 1983

In a lifestyle about face, Lownes has taken a low profile in his twilight years. In the late 1980s he was running Backgammon Mondays at the Stocks Club in Kings Road in Chelsea, in 1993 he was described as “still living in style in Belgravia and trying to make money from ten pin bowling alleys” with his company South West Bowling PLC. Apart from popping up at the 2011 opening of the new London Playboy Club he has remained out of the public limelight in the past 20 years or so and remains married to Marilyn Cole who herself is a reporter for various magazines. Indeed any more anecodotes or knowledge of Lownes would be very welcome as a biography of this titanic man is long overdue.

Marilyn Cole and Victor Lownes at the 2011 (Re-) Opening of the London Playboy Club

Written and posted by Horatio Cornblower. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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