Mrs. Hef? : How a Canadian Centerfold Got America's Most Militant Bachelor to Say the 'M' Word

Times Staff Writer

They're as gooey and mushy as any lovebirds.

"After 10 months, it just gets better," she sighs.

"She's getting more and more beautiful," he coos.

He likes animals. She likes animals. They finish each other's sentences. They like to putter around the house.

It's enough to send a person into insulin shock.

But that's the kind of relationship Hugh Hefner and his fiancee, Kimberley Conrad, have. The 26-year-old Canadian Miss January got the 62-year-old founder of the Playboy empire to actually utter the "m" word.

Ready to Settle Down

The man who elevated bachelorhood to a state near nirvana says he has found "the one" and is ready to settle down.

When? Next year. Have they set a date? "Well, we're not talking about . . . it'll be sometime next year," says Hefner.

"We can't let the date be known yet," adds Conrad.

They sit on a worn sofa in the library of the Playboy Mansion West in Holmby Hills, close enough so he can rub her thigh and she can caress his shoulder.

They have just finished posing for a photograph next to the wishing well where Hefner popped the question last July during a stroll on the property. The picture taking over with, they quickly revert from street clothes back to their natural state: he in teal silk pajamas and a paisley robe, she in white shorts and a black sweat shirt decorated with the bunny logo. Her upper lip is still a bit puffy from recent dental work.

Conrad is half-obscured by Hefner whenever he leans forward, set to go on a rambling tangent while sipping a Diet Pepsi. Occasionally her blond head bobs up and she stares cautiously with tremendous blue eyes, as if she wants to trust you, but not sure if she should.

"I knew I was going to propose that night," Hefner recalls, "but I didn't have the notion as to where. As we came out of the game house, the wishing well was there, and I just took her by the hand and said, 'Take a little walk with me.' I think I simply said, 'Will you marry me?'

"We had talked around and about marriage together and with friends over the last several weeks," he explains. "And at one point she said to me, 'I don't want to hear any more about marriage . . .' "

"I said, 'I can't give you an answer unless you give me the question,' " says Conrad, mocking her own exasperation.

"And then I said to Kimberley, 'Do you remember the last time that we stood by this wishing well? And she said, 'This is what I wished.' And I said, 'This is what I wished, too.' "

He lets out a high-pitched giggle and squeezes her hand.

'I Just Knew in My Heart'

"I wished that we would be together forever, not necessarily the marriage thing," says Conrad, "because I didn't believe that Hef would get married. But you know what's funny? Whether or not we would get married, I just knew in my heart that we would be together forever. And I wanted to spend my life with him.

"I still don't believe it," she says, blinking her eyes. "No, I believe it. It's just too good to be true 'cause we're so happy together."

Their bliss is obvious to friends, including director Richard Brooks, who says that, pre-engagement, he noticed "an increased intensity on the part of Hef's romanticism. And here's a man who created a kind of new life for gentlemen with Playboy, and wouldn't it be interesting if people took up his new frontier: Why not get married and make your wife your playmate?"

For Hefner, it's a drastic change. He has made no secret of his disdain for matrimony since his 1949 marriage to Mildred Williams, which produced a daughter, Christie, and a son, David.

"Marriage is the death of hope," he is often quoted as saying, echoing a Woody Allen line that seemed to sum up his existence. Instead of marriage, there was a succession of women and relationships with playmates that lasted years: Sondra Theodore, Barbi Benton, Shannon Tweed. All now have children, are pregnant, or both.

In His 'September Years'

His engagement now also comes as Hefner gracefully slips into his "September years," three years after a stroke and shortly before he officially turns over control of Playboy Enterprises to the 35-year-old Christie, who will most likely be elected chairman and CEO, succeeding her father.

Hef continues to lord over the magazine and the social doings at the Tudor-style mansion with its heavy, masculine furnishings, immaculately manicured lawns and menagerie of exotic birds and primates. He's also working on his autobiography.

Conrad and Hefner met when she was staying at the mansion while shooting her Miss January 1988 centerfold layout last summer. They talked but didn't date at first.

The timing of her arrival was right--two weeks earlier, Hefner and former Playmate Carrie Leigh had called it quits. According to Hefner, that infamous relationship was already in a downward spiral, culminating in Leigh's $35 million palimony suit, followed by Hefner's countersuit, followed by a slander suit filed by Leigh and attorney Marvin Mitchelson. All suits were eventually dropped.

Not down for the count, Hefner came back with "The Great Palimony Caper," a controversial piece in the August Playboy that was a strong indictment of Leigh. The 25-year-old former model, in the process of divorcing her second husband and pursuing an acting career, was portrayed as a plastic surgery junkie with a fondness for drugs and alcohol, a 24-karat gold digger set on wringing big bucks out of Hefner.

"Like a spoiled child," read the non-bylined article, "Carrie has turned on her provider."

The barb-trading continues. Leigh participated in a November National Lampoon spoof of that piece.

'Just Yakking'

When Leigh was finally out of the picture, Hefner later pursued Conrad, unsuccessfully at first. She dodged his invitations to movie nights and kept a girlfriend close by so he wouldn't find her alone.

"In contrast to what a lot of people might assume, I'm rather shy," says Hefner, the man of a thousand bunnies. "In other words, if I don't get encouragement . . . I don't come on to the ladies because I've always found it very tasteless."

Eventually he caught up with her. "I said, 'Would you like to spend some time with me?' And she said, 'Well, I don't really know you.' And she said, 'How are you going to get to know me if you don't spend some time with me?' "

The logic was overwhelming; Conrad and Hefner spent the next three hours together "Just yakking," she says.

"And by the end of the evening," Hefner claims, "we knew that we cared about one another."

Before you could say, "significant other," the two were living together.

How did they know this was it? "Despite the disparity in terms of our ages," says Hefner, "we have very common interests. We enjoy the same activities. We spend almost all our time at home with a small coterie of friends. We'll watch a film, play games, have conversations."

Hefner, even more self-interested since working on his life story, pauses for a moment and says, "I think I ran away from the traditional life into the magazine, and I ran away from that into the mansion, and I ran away from the responsibilities from all of that into the West Coast and all the dreams that were created in the movies, et cetera.

'Like a Second Chance'

"This is the way you'd like it to be," he continues. "There's a line in the original film 'Pennies From Heaven' which goes goes something like, 'Somewhere there must be a world where the words to the songs are true.' And it's very difficult for me to even say that line without getting a little silly, a little teary-eyed."

Conrad moved into the mansion with her two dogs and a cat. She thought of becoming a legal secretary before she was discovered at a model search at a local mall. John Casablancas of Elite signed her up and Conrad spent two brief stints modeling in New York but found the life there "too fast" and headed back to Canada.

She continued to model and managed a hotel boutique but refused repeated offers from a photographer who wanted to send shots to Playboy.

But after breaking off a 4-year relationship where she felt "controlled," she relented. "I just needed a change," she says. "I felt like being radical and taking charge of my life. It's been like a second chance."

Few were surprised by the couple's engagement, not even Leigh.

"I knew he wanted to get married before," she said by telephone from a friend's apartment in New York. "At this point in his life, it's probably the best thing, and the smartest thing he could do right now because of the life he's lived and the parties and all the different women. He's in his 60s now, and it's really smart that he decided to settle down."

Leigh claims their breakup occurred not so much because she wanted a family but "because I wanted to have a career. He's very old-fashioned in the way that he believes a woman should be by his side all the time. But this is the '80s."

Former playmate and Hefner companion Shannon Tweed concurs.

"It was really culture shock coming to the mansion after living in a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto," she says. "Pleasantly so. But mind you, after six months of leisurely living in the mansion, I really had to get to work. And that was our demise."

Of Hefner and Conrads' impending marriage, Tweed says, "I don't know. I'll believe it when I see it. It's nothing against her, but I just don't see why he has to get married. Especially in California. Wealthy men who get married are out of their minds if they do. It's like saying, 'Here, take half my money.' I really don't know about this. I'm still friends with Hef, and I love him to death. I just wish he'd wait. He hasn't known her for very long."

For all of her parental concern, Tweed can understand Hef's new desire for wedded bliss.

"He's getting older," she says, "and he's not working as much, and all his friends are married and having babies. Maybe it's rubbing off. And because of the AIDS scare monogamy is in fashion, and there's not as much partying anymore. . . . Obviously he doesn't want to be alone. But the way I look at it, it's not natural for Hef.

"I just really hate to see him get hurt. When it comes to love, he's an all-day sucker on a stick. I want him to be married and happy but have a long engagement--get to know the girl. 'Cause he's really a sweet guy. He's just so stupid when it comes to love."

For all of his largess, the downside of their relationship was that Hefner didn't want Tweed to stray too far from his side. Conrad is getting a taste of that, too.

On the Downside

"I don't feel trapped," she says, "but it's no secret that Hef doesn't like me to go away. It's hard, in that I feel bad about leaving, even if it's for three days to visit my mother. Sometimes you just need to go home for a mom fix. But in a way it's nice because he loves me so much and doesn't want me to go. Isn't that great? I would hate it if he didn't care."

On the subject of prenuptial agreements, Conrad asserts, "Yeah, we have one. And guess who suggested it? You're talking to her! But it's nothing, it's no big deal. In the news in Vancouver, they made it sound like Hef is making me sign something I don't want to sign. And as soon as we figure it out and sign it, then we're just going to put it behind us . . . As far as reality goes, what if we split up? At least it's right out in the open. Hef has worked his life for what he has now. The mansion--that's his. And I don't want half the mansion, you know what I'm saying? Hopefully we'll never have to look at the prenuptial. It has created stress, that's no secret. But I would advise it for anybody, I don't care how wealthy. It doesn't mean you don't love that person, but it's protecting you both."

Conrad insists she has no ambitions to further her modeling career or act. She's content being a homebody with Hef and strolling the enchanted forest-like estate. What she'd like to do is take a few finance classes at UCLA to learn how to manage her income and take a fitness instructors' program "and maybe teach a couple of classes in fitness somewhere."

Will there be the pitter-patter of little feet in the Playboy Mansion West?

"We've talking about it, but only in passing," says Hefner.

"Maybe we'll have one," Conrad adds. "One little Hefner running around."

"I said to her that I've had one of each, so if we have one more . . . "

" . . . He's worried about me focusing all my attention on the baby and not on our relationship," she says bluntly.

Clearly, as Hefner once thought that marriage was the death of hope, so children may be the death of romantic love.

"I want to be at home and enjoy our life together and be with our friends. That's the main focus in my life," says Conrad. "Hef is my priority. We are not going to be in divorce court. We'll fight it out at home if we have to."

"The commitment," Hefner adds, "is really to the relationship. Because among other things we really don't want to be apart."

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