Marilyn Grabowski, Playboy magazine's West Coast photography editor, stands in a bright studio in Santa Monica and takes the measure of Miss September.
The young woman, a slender redhead, is perched on a narrow chaise, naked but for a chartreuse crinoline, lavender thigh-highs and lime-green stilettos. Grabowski is wearing leggings, Ugg boots and a fitted Armani blazer, all of them black, and as she steps over a tangle of electrical cords that power 10 huge bulbs (each focused so tightly that the crew refers to them variously as "the fanny light," "the face light," and "the thigh light") she is both nimble and watchful, like a judge at a dog show.
The centerfold model's right calf is too low, Grabowski observes, prompting a photo assistant to prop it up with a sandbag.
"Open those eyes!" Grabowski commands cheerfully, and Miss September complies. Still, something is lacking.
"Some girls have natural perk. Other girls, you don't know what you'll get," Grabowski explains, dispatching a wardrobe stylist to a nearby kitchen. The stylist returns with two frigid cans of Coca-Cola, which the Playmate dutifully presses to her chest, creating instant perk.
"Hey, that's much better," Grabowski says, turning to the photographer. "Go. Shoot it."
Last May, Grabowski, who will only say she's "over 60," celebrated her 40th anniversary at Playboy, which itself had just turned 50. That means that she, as much as any woman, has helped define what generations of Americans think of as sexy.
Over the years, Grabowski has talked movie stars such as Sharon Stone and Kim Basinger into posing for the magazine--and in so doing, telegraphed her view that on the Eros scale, classy definitely trumps trashy. She's celebrated musculature, accentuating the Amazon-like qualities of athletes such as Gabrielle Reece. To look at Reece's torso--bronzed, trophy-like--is to understand why strong is sexy.
Grabowski's no snob, however. It was she who first spotted Pamela Anderson and urged Hugh Hefner, Playboy's pajama-clad founder, to put her on the cover. "I said, 'Pam, you can be a big celebrity. All you have to do is go after it,' " she recalls. "Men had held Pam down for a long time."
Hefner says he realized years ago that "Mo," as he calls her, was his secret weapon. "When I started Playboy, what I was interested in was the romantic connection between the sexes rather than buddies in the locker room," Hefner says, explaining that even as "laddie books" such as Maxim, Stuff and FHM try to steal his youngest readers, Grabowski sets Playboy apart. Left to a man, what's sexy would be a brasher formula. Grabowski brings a sense of humor--even a little mischief to the job. "A woman's input is key," Hefner says. "If you don't have that in mind, then you're going to be spending a lot of time in the locker room. Alone."
Grabowski's role as an arbiter of what is hot is even more notable considering the discomfiting relationship she has to her own appearance. Thanks to a careless plastic surgeon, she says, an operation to correct a facial injury resulted in her nearly losing her nose altogether. Forty surgeries and skin grafts later, Grabowski now looks strikingly like Joni Mitchell, but when she points to the middle of her face and says, "It's not a perfect nose, but it's a nose," it is easy to see what she means.
Grabowski believes her self-consciousness makes her good at her job. "The plus side is I identify with some of these girls," she says--and not just with the many who have undergone surgery themselves. Some women try out to be Playmates again and again after they don't make the first cut. "This is Miss America to a lot of girls," Grabowski says. "I have a rapport with them. They know I'm in charge and they know I'm the boss, but they know I identify with them."
Moreover, Grabowski knows what it's like to be on the business end of the camera. Over the years, many photographers have insisted on taking her portrait. The late Helmut Newton, a close friend, even included her face in one of his books, right next to Sophia Loren's.
Everything that Grabowski thinks is sexy does not appear in Playboy. She'd love, for example, to photograph a Playmate coming out of a men's room or jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed. But that's not Hef. "He likes the quintessential glamour girl," she says. "Hef likes brandy glasses. Snifters. Sometimes I say, 'Well, it's your magazine.' And he says, 'Yep.' "
Hefner favors pictures with easy-to-read plots. One recent issue, for example, featured a woman sprawled on top of what looked like a businessman's desk, a necktie draped around her shoulders, with a datebook open to a page that said, in loopy feminine handwriting, "Office cocktails!" Less successful was another shoot of a woman posed in front of what appeared to be her front door, at night, with a pile of letters and postcards strewn at her feet.
"The plot was she came home from this party and stopped to read her mail," Grabowski says, grimacing. "Even saying it, it sounds so feeble." The model was repositioned in a place where the narrative was easier to comprehend: a boudoir.
During her early years at Playboy (she remembers a time before the advent of radical bikini waxing--a trend that she finds ugly and insists that Playboy didn't start), Grabowski wouldn't tell her Roman Catholic mother where she worked. She finally sent her a subscription--after being there 20 years. Now that she's completed her second 20 years, she says, "I threaten to retire every week." But she doesn't mean it. The Playboy team is her family.
"I never married, never had children," she says, thumbing through a pile of photographs of her with George Plimpton, George Hamilton, Jacqueline Bisset, Dudley Moore and Steve Martin. She laughs. "These are OLD pictures. There's a photo in here where I'm actually wearing PRESSED jeans!"
Two years ago, when Playboy's corporate bean counters proposed shutting down the Santa Monica studio where Grabowski works, she thought it was all over. "I said, 'Hef, I'm leaving at Thanksgiving. I love you, but I'm leaving,' " recalls Grabowski, who lives less than a mile from the office and starts each day with a two-hour workout at the Playboy Mansion. His response: "It ain't over 'til it's over." The studio remained open.
Arny Freytag, a Playboy photographer, recently met her there to discuss where to shoot a blond from the University of Houston who was a centerfold candidate.
"How about a shower?" Freytag asked.
"I don't think she'd look good with her hair wet," Grabowski replied. "I'd love to do it at the racetrack, with a horse running back and forth behind her."
"How about a Ferrari?" Freytag suggested.
Grabowski shook her head, considering the woman's proof sheets. "She looks like the kind of girl who plays tennis badly but nobody cares."