A version of this piece originally appeared on Rhonda Talbot'sOpen Salon blog.
It's impossible not to notice all the signs, billboards and ads for NBC's upcoming show "The Playboy Club." In fact, I can hardly go shopping without being confronted by a glossy photo of scantily clad girls wearing onesies, bunny ears and poofy rear-end tails, smiling as if it's fun to be pawed by sinister, alcohol-fueled men. I don't think that's how my mother remembers it.
I grew up in a splintered home. My mother was young and pretty, and since she had to make ends meet for her six kids, she took a job as a Playboy Bunny.
At the time, Playboy Clubs were common in the high-end areas of cities. We lived on the fringes of such wealth; we had so little of our own that my mother regularly lifted all sorts of items -- from glasses and plates to canned goods and oil paintings -- from her housekeeping jobs.
When Mom landed the Playboy gig, she was excited. She'd toiled as a secretary, housekeeper, baby sitter, factory worker and possibly a prostitute (that was never confirmed). We kids looked after ourselves, and I raised the younger ones.
Mom saw the Playboy opportunity as her ticket out, and was desperate to make the right impression. She already had the youth (she was 26), beauty, perfect white teeth, long, golden tresses, sexy figure (despite the kids), and an incredibly outgoing personality I can only now chalk up to bipolar disorder. One essential thing was missing: balance.
Unfortunately, balance was No. 1 on the Playboy Bunny cocktail waitress's list of instructions. Night after night, after I finished my homework, we trained. Mom would walk on sofa pillows, carrying a laundry basket filled with water glasses over her shoulder, wearing impossibly high heels. We broke all the glassware -- but she had stolen it anyway, so it didn't really count.
We would practice the balancing routine for two hours a night until finally Mom could negotiate the pillows without breaking more than one glass. Then she felt ready. Next up: a trip to the local drugstore to steal eye makeup, false lashes, push-up bras, fake tanning creams and four pairs of high heels. I was tasked with the actual stealing. "They will never suspect a 10-year old. I will cause a distraction," she'd say -- and that she did.
"HELP! SOMEONE! I'm having a stroke!" she would cry. People would rush to gather around, and I'd quietly slip out. On cue, my mother would rise, saying, "Oh, never mind. I think it was gas."
Mom was incredibly proud when she aced her audition and was invited to begin -- but I could never quite relax. On nights when she was working at the club, I would stay up into the early hours waiting for her to come home; it was often well past 2 a.m. before I could finally get to sleep. Although Mom didn't give me too many details, I had read the "Bunny Manual" for myself, and knew how hard the job must be for her. So many rules -- hell for a woman who loathed regulation in general.
One night, I peeked into her bedroom after she arrived home. Because Bunnies had to leave their satin corsets and pantyhose at the club, I never actually saw my mother entombed in her painfully tight uniform. What I did see was the outfit's devastating physical impact: deep gashes that ran down the sides of her waist, rope burns outlining the tops of her thighs, and bloody blisters on every toe. She walked like a cripple before falling into bed. Sometimes she had to peel dollar bills and coins off her naked body. She later explained that the Bunny Mother would take each girl, stuff her entire upper body in the corset, and yank out her breasts, all the while instructing, "Suck it in! More! Stand up straighter!" (The whole process was a miserable experience known as "suck, stuff and hook.") The girls referred to the Bunny Mother as Haggis the Meat Grinder.
"I lasted three months," Mom tells me now. It seemed longer to me at the time. "I broke four toes, probably had a hernia, possibly broke a rib, and never met an available man" (dating customers was technically off-limits anyway). "Because I was 'older,' I was never invited to the private parties. One married man did take a liking to me, and gave me a diamond bracelet, which I later pawned to get my car fixed. Funny thing is, there was nothing nefarious about the place -- no sex, no inappropriate behavior. We were just glorified waitresses in straitjackets. Hefner had an image to maintain."
Why did my mother, who had taught me never to let myself be put in a cage by a man, stick with the job (even only for a few months)? For one thing, she suffered from this delusion that she would meet Hugh Hefner -- not likely, given that we lived in Detroit -- or another rich man who would marry her and get us all squared away in some beach-side California paradise. Forget that she had six kids all under the age of 13, ranging from teenage heroin addicts to toddlers in diapers -- not to mention a Canadian goose she had dragged home, a litter of Siamese cats, and a couple of warrants out for her arrest.
In fact, my mother and I did move out to Marin County shortly after she left the Playboy Club (but by ourselves, since the others had disappeared into various state-appointed facilities). At age 15, I too finally left, determined to make something out of my life. I had grown tired of being Mom's drinking buddy, bailing her out of jail, being late for class.
After I emancipated myself, she changed. Maybe she merely got too old for her insane Marin County lifestyle: falling off bar stools, going home with complete strangers, jumping naked out of sailboats, getting arrested for drunk walking. ("We all have our bad decades, honey," is the best advice she ever gave me.) After I left for college, Mom even started a number of successful businesses; somehow, all of her kids got out of Detroit alive.
My mother had her delusions -- meeting Hugh Hefner among them -- and I have mine. For the past 15 years, I've dreamed of living in a pristine, minimalistic Cape Cod home with a lovely white interior (complete, of course, with assistant, personal chef, a few nannies and an on-call masseuse); instead, my life takes place in a crowded, unkempt house, filled to the brim with three kids, two dogs, 25 fish and half a dozen reptiles. Add to that a challenging job, low funds and no help, and you get one woman's recipe for discontent. It's nothing like the hand-to-mouth existence I knew as a child -- but somehow, it's still not enough.
It doesn't take much to set me on edge these days. That may be why, as I passed a "Playboy Club" ad in town recently, I was hit with a tsunami wave of memory, dissatisfaction and grief. Naturally, my immediate impulse was to call my mom.
After our familiar back-and-forth -- my litany of complaints followed by her rant about struggles of her own, troubled years of parenthood ("Take your head out of your ass. You think you have it bad?!") -- I changed the subject.
"Did you know they are making a series about the Playboy Clubs?"
"Oh, I saw. They play ads on TV all day. It's the 'Mad Men' syndrome -- anything from that period surely has to be interesting. I think there is one about Pan Am stewardesses, too. I applied there, but they didn't think I was tall enough."
Abruptly, my thoughts adjusted. I looked around town, taking in the "Playboy Club" ad and more, and realized that I have an awful lot to be grateful for. I'll never have to jiggle my boobs and wear a bunny tail -- or work in a factory, or clean toilets -- to make money, even though my mother accepted these jobs as a matter of course. I probably won't get to live my Cape Cod dream either, but it's only because Mom was willing to make significant sacrifices that the memories dredged up by "The Playboy Club" represent her past and not my future.
When did she start? This timeline sounds close to impossible. Say she has her first kid at sixteen. She has five more in the next 10 years? And you were old enough to read the material from the club at that point? How old could you have been when this was happening? Even if you were the oldest, you would have been maybe ten. And your mom faked a stroke while you took stuff from the store? At age 10? really? And you remember it well enough to write about it? Color me skeptical.
Well, let's see. According to this fairy tale, your Mom was 26, and had six kids under thirteen, including one teen-ager. That means she was thirteen when her oldest was born, and twelve when she was conceived. If true, your problem with your family was far greater than any job your Mother had at the Playboy Club. But I suspect this is another of these Oprah-type whining stories for which Salon is becoming notorious.
I popped on to see the article... my mom looked much older at 13, (a whole other story) and hooked up with my dad, was pregnant. She was pregnant the entire time until we left...she had a baby a year, in fact, in one year, she had two... it was the times...some of these families on this Catholic street had 9 kids or 10...and the moms were very young. Of course I could read at 10... and the thing that possibly some don't understand is when you grow up in a difficult household, you become a caretaker, and incredibly intuitive, that was my role, I never judged my mom, never judged my dad, in fact still have good relationships with both; she is still a very pretty woman, and I know it's hard to believe but she always had a great figure...but as I said in the article, the reason for her taking the job was honestly to find a way out, because the family was falling apart.. I did a lot of things with her (much in my first book) that one might consider illegal..but I became a stronger person for it, I didn't want it, and she eventually grew up too..of all the jobs she had before she went back to school, this was honestly the most difficult for her because it was going against everything she wanted to believe in, women's rights, freedom, and so on...it was hard and frankly, sad. No matter what many women did back then, the result was there was no limit to what I could accomplish... she did not have that choice....I hope this clears things up...thanks!
Marin County lifestyle: falling off bar stools, going home with complete strangers, jumping naked out of sailboats, getting arrested for drunk walking.
My parents have told me tons of interesting stories and details about their childhoods & young adulthood in the San Rafael hills of Marin County. None of that description sounds remotely like even their wild hippie days.
I can only imagine that the author's mother was living in the then-dangerous part of Marin City and/or she was living a fucked-up lifestyle while coincidentally being in Marin. Either way, her actions weren't part of the regional lifestyle -- they were that of a deeply troubled individual within Marin County.
actually it was a lifestyle...I lived there... it was the times, people drank everywhere, Sams, the Yacht club, my mom was incredibly gregarious, fun, lovely, and also extremely bright, which often go hand in hand... she had a highly successful business, and her long term partners were of great stature, we lived in Tiburon on the bay; but as a kid watching, it's not what you want your mom to be. I knew the kind of life she herself had, thus would never judge her... she now teaches writing, helps others, life is just a long journey.. anyway, the point of the article was those clubs were NOT glamorous..in anyway...@Dusty...thanks for kind comments!
I've dated a variety of women. Dated one who had had numerous children. She had an amazing figure except for her belly stretch marks, which made her look like a supermodel with a flattened raisin on her stomach. Obviously this wasn't visible to anybody but her and those with whom she was intimate, who had plenty to distract them elsewhere.
Enjoyed your tale and your writing, reminded me of lots of crazy fond memories and characters from back when:+) and an inspiration to write about some of those times... they were priceless and we thought they would go on forever --
I had become the first emancipated minor in Suffolk County at age 16. How that happened is a story unto itself, but why I became emancipated was exactly why I was now auditioning to be a bunny. It took years of therapy to define and process the hell from which I had run away more times than I can count. Every time I was returned until, finally, the game was over. No one came to get me. I had never been more relieved, or more frightened. Now, woefully unprepared to make my way in the world—I was emancipated. And after a year of surviving in NYC on my own, here I was, nervously waiting to be called to audition.
After sleeping behind a shopping center heating vent when I could not find an unlocked car, I finally accepted an offer to crash at Mark’s cockroach-ridden Manhattan basement apartment in exchange for being his girlfriend. I got a job in a department store for minimum wage, then about $2.10 an hour. For the first time in my life, I felt safe.
This happened in the early sixties. What birth control was available for women - other than abstinence? There was no sex education in schools in the early sixties, and the pill was not widely available until the the mid sixties. On top of that, Michigan is a highly Catholic state, so the mom may have been brought up in a household where any kind of family planning (other than abstinence) was considered sinful. And, if she had a 13-year-old at the age of 26, the mother got pregnant for the first time when she was just 13. Chances are she was kicked out of her home and had to scramble as best she could. It certainly did not sound as if she was living with her parents as she was raising her brood of six.
No birth control. No legal abortions. No one to really raise her while she was raising her kids. How thoughtless of her.
I agree, it is totally the fault of the Catholic curch, the state of Michigan, and shrill moralizers everywhere that this woman's mother had 6 children she couldn't care for and got addicted to heroin and alcohol. None of it is her fault.
Your mom sounds, in her way, wonderful. You don't sound angry. Whatever other people are saying, I think that's great.
Now my own grandmother, also from MI, had thirteen children before the age of 35, and was also beautiful and had no trouble getting married--twice!-- after her alcoholic husband died--even with the thirteen kids--so I know what you're saying is possible.
My mother raised us with many of the issues and none of the fabulousness or Siamese cats. She was just mean and grasping and horrible.
Being happy and loving can erase so many other "crimes", can't it?
I think your mother's stint of three months was probably about average given the physical strain--does anyone know how long most of them last?
Anyway, much thanks for the well written article. I hope the whole Playboy bunny thing blows over soon--it's as bad as you say it is, I'm sure.
This happened in the early sixties. What birth control was available for women - other than abstinence?
There was no sex education in schools in the early sixties, and the pill was not widely available until the the mid sixties.
Condoms and diaphragms were widely available in the 1950s.
On top of that, Michigan is a highly Catholic state, so the mom may have been brought up in a household where any kind of family planning (other than abstinence) was considered sinful. And, if she had a 13-year-old at the age of 26, the mother got pregnant for the first time when she was just 13.
So it was "sinful" to use a condom but OK to have unprotected sex at 13? Or 12?
Chances are she was kicked out of her home and had to scramble as best she could. It certainly did not sound as if she was living with her parents as she was raising her brood of six.
It also sounds as if there was a lot going on that isn't mentioned. Such as "where was Dad?"
In the early 1960s it was common for girls who got "in trouble" to be sent away to have the baby, which was then given up for adoption. This was particularly common in "highly Catholic areas".
If mom was kicked out of the house at 13, that says a whole bunch about the situation.