Whanganui man shares memories of time as butler to Hugh Hefner
Hugh Hefner may be remembered by some as a silk-pyjama clad purveyor of soft porn, but Whanganui-based Charlie Ryan says that's not a true reflection of his former boss.
Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, passed away at the age of 91 on Thursday, at his luxurious Holmby Hills mansion in Los Angeles.
Ryan describes himself as a "gangly" 19-year-old when he was first hired parking cars there, and then as a butler in the 80s.
"It was just after high school and I had gotten a job with a caterer who then turned out to have been the head butler there," said Ryan, who grew up in California.
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"It was probably a rough job to have gotten as my third job, because it didn't prepare me for the rest of the world. It was an incredibly nice place to work."
"Nice" might seem like an understatement, as chatting to celebrities like Robin Williams, not to mention Playboy bunnies, was all in a day's work for the then-teenager.
But it wasn't always glamorous.
"It was basically setting tables, making the bed, setting up his toothbrushes, making sure everything was ready and orderly."
Hefner was "probably one of the most regular people I've met in my life, he always had a very regular routine, getting up, having breakfast, getting down to business then entertaining in the evenings".
Ryan served Hefner for three-and-a-half years, despite an inauspicious first encounter with the Playboy mogul.
"I think because they'd hired me off the back of the ex-head butler's say-so, they assumed I was probably a bit better trained than I was," Ryan said.
"They sent me upstairs from the kitchen with a couple of champagnes for the room, again, assuming I knew what I was doing but I didn't. I got up the stairs shaking a little bit, went down the hallway to the door of his room. He answered the door, it was the first time I'd ever seen him.
"He was like, 'Oh yes, just put them over there by the bedside'. And so I went to go to the room, and I didn't realise that there was maybe a 5-centimetre threshold there, and I tripped over it, poured the champagnes right down the front of him.
"But apparently he thought, I found out later, it was just about the funniest thing that had happened to him in years. It was really comical the way it happened."
Ryan grew to regard Hefner as a father figure.
"He was just about the most genuine, real nice guy you could ever imagine. He was a huge fundraiser and donator to womens' causes, race relations, he would hold charity events two or three times a week."
And as for his sexual morality?
"He was probably the liberal opposition to the Victorian values in the religious right at the time. There was nothing he espoused that isn't just sort of a regular value in most people these days," Ryan said.
"The whole time I was there, all the other employees we talked about it, but no-one had actually seen him go off with more than one woman, and it was usually the one he was dating.
"He was not in any way shape or form sexist or derogatory," insists Ryan, adding that most of the senior staff at the magazine were women.
"His magazine opened up - it was the first venue for black writers to get their works published. The good outweighed any potential bad, tenfold. He was a non-drinker, just smoked his pipe, and that was about it."
Ryan recalls board games and movie nights rather than hedonistic partying.
"The movie nights, whenever Hollywood released a new movie, it would go to the Playboy mansion for viewing before it went to the theatres, usually. And I just made popcorn and would take it out to everybody."
Of the centrefolds, "most of them were just incredibly regular women, that were just the girls next door for real", says Ryan, referring to the reality TV show The Girls Next Door, which was first broadcast in 2005, showcasing Hefner's libertine lifestyle.
"The latest series he had with those blondes... it was not the man I ever knew of, or the women."
Ryan left the Playboy mansion to become his own boss.
"At the end of the day it was a great job but it was still a job in service to another."
Charlie Ryan followed his mother over to New Zealand, where he worked in a bakery in Nelson for about eight years.
Now in Whanganui, he and his wife Donna are looking at restoring houses and selling them on.