[Stuff magazine, UK edition, 1998]
TWO unusual things happened to Victor A Lownes III when he was 12. He smoked his first cigar and he shot his best friend. Neither act was his idea. His father gave him the cigar as aversion therapy. He loved it and demanded more. The shooting was an accident, resulting in Victor's forced enrollment at a military academy, where they teach you to shoot people on purpose. It didn't work. Victor Lownes went on to laconically pursue the least regimented career enjoyed by any man since the Turkish pashas gave up their day jobs. His was the life of the sybarite, dedicated to pleasure and entertainment. Even his name suggests a kind of louche yet triumphal aristocrat. Nobody, not even Hugh Hefner, embodied the spirit of Playboy the way Lownes did throughout the three decades he worked on its behalf.
“Worked” may be the wrong word. Lownes, the eternal dilettante, never so much toiled as dabbled. Born into a wealthy family, he grew up in Florida, where his classic rake's childhood involved a naughty teenage nanny who would give detailed accounts of her sexual liasions for his benefit. He married at 18 and toyed with a succession of mundane jobs, including the post of classified ads manager at Dog World magazine. He then found employment at the Silent Watchman industrial time lock firm of Illinois. “I was promoted to manager within a few months,” he would later say, “due solely to hard work, conscientiousness and the fact that my grandfather owned the company.”
In 1953 Lownes underwent what in an older man would be called a midlife crisis, abandoning his family in search of the bachelor lifestyle. He didn't have to look far. Once he had set himself up in a huge studio apartment, with a discreetly curtained boudoir, the bachelor lifestyle came sauntering up to his door - mostly in the form of the zaftig and willing young ladies of Chicago's nightlife. He was the archetypal swinger from Sixties sex comedies, years ahead of his fictional heirs. It was inevitable that he should run into Hefner, a man who had turned identical interests into a new magazine.
Playboy had narrowly escaped being titled Smart Set, but at the time it might as well have been called Gomorrah News Monthly (incorporating World of Sodom). Lownes set about drumming up advertising for the pariah publication. Soon he was boasting that he had “a cupboard full of ten foot poles” from once-reluctant businesses he had talked onto the pages. By 1960, he was overseeing the newly established Playboy clubs, and in 1966 he launched Playboy's hugely lucrative British gambling interests. Of the money which streamed out of the West and into the pockets of the oil sheiks, a fair portion promptly flowed back across the tables of Victor's casinos - a staggering £660 million of it, in fact, between 1975 and1981. “I've always thought,” he said, clearly having just thought of it, “that if the Israelis really wanted to get the Arabs to the peace table, it would be best to cover it in green baize.”
Lownes had no time for gambling himself. What he did have time for was Playboy Bunnies. It's amazing he had time for anything else, considering the dedication with which he fornicated his way through the ranks of British nymphets. London was swinging, and Victor swung with it. The strict “no dating” rule which forbade contact between Bunnies and clients or employees was void when it came to Victor. He often made contact with several in one go. One girl even lost her virginity to another man in order to induce the atypically hesitant Lownes to sleep with her. “How could I argue after that?” he selflessly enquired. Lownes flaunted his conquests; ever eager for publicity, he would be photographed with “official” girlfriends while his “spares” waited harem-like in the background. He made no apologies. “A promiscuous person,” he liked to say, “is someone who is getting more sex than you are.” And that was as good a definition of Victor as any. He was undoubtedly getting more sex than anyone else was, or ever will.
It ended, as a story like this must, in disaster - although not for Lownes so much as Playboy. By the early Eighties, Victor's casinos were propping up the entire corporation, and when their practices came under investigation from the British Gaming Board, the Playboy nabobs panicked and fired him. Even though it was Lownes' own hubris that had drawn the unwelcome attention, Playboy might have had half a chance with him at the wheel. Without him, they were scuppered and their licenses were withdrawn. It nearly killed the company.
Lownes himself suffered little more than wounded pride. Never short of a bob or too in the first place, he had accumulated a fortune during his years as Britain's best paid executive. He still had his wife, Marilyn, a former Playmate for whose affections he had fought with Hefner and won (While other magazines would soon pioneer the concept of the Reader's Wife, Playboy preferred to display the Boss's Wife. Frankly, there was no competition.) He still had his life as a country squire, which he indulged in the superlatively overblown fashion that makes the real English gentry squirm. And he still had his Hertfordshire mansion, Stocks (as pictured on the cover of the Oasis album Be Here Now.) Now, ironically, a health club, Stocks was the scene of legendary parties like Lownes's jamboree in 1979, when the printed RSVP slips read: “We are arriving by hot-air balloon or helicopter, please send us landing instructions.” Despite the presence of a battalion of journalists, no stories appeared until three days later, when the few hacks who could remember anything at all finally returned to full consciousness.
Lownes is 73 this year, and little is known of his activities apart from the fact that he watches Countdown every afternoon. After the life he's had, that should be excitement enough.
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