Passing a newsstand not long ago on K Street in Washington, I was startled to spot the cover of a recent issue of Playboy. "Red-Hot Russian Sex Bombs" proclaimed the cover line above a photograph of a slim blonde-headed young woman wearing a white fur chapka, and demurely holding a large matching muff over her private parts.
I was startled because, in March 1964, Playboy's cover featured a pensive young blonde clad in just a voluminous black cashmere sweater. The only text on the cover, other than the name of the magazine, were these words: "Girls of Russia and the Iron Curtain Countries."
During the summer and fall of 1963, my husband Richard and I and a photographer traveled on assignment from Playboy to the old Soviet Union, then on to what was then Yugoslavia, then to Poland, and then to Hungary. It was in Budapest that our photographer defected, as it were, to get back to his Danish bride in Copenhagen. A few weeks later I set off again alone--by then Richard had signed on with the Financial Times in Paris--with another photographer to cover the terrain in Czechoslovakia and catch up with some well-recommended Polish candidates for Playboy (the recommender was Roman Polanski).
Actually, it was Polanski who had advised us to start our travels in Moscow. "See Moscow first, then you'll really appreciate Warsaw," he said. And was he ever right. Despite being under the same political regime as Russia, the Poles proved infinitely more sophisticated and oriented to Western culture--Parisian culture, to be exact. This proved to be true of Hungary as well.
So how did we get involved with Playboy and the likes of Hugh Hefner? First, you need to know that Richard and I were passionate movie buffs--our first date was seeing Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible at Harvard's Fogg Museum--and in Paris, where we were to spend the first 30 years of our marriage, we became regulars at the Cinémathèque Française, a weird and wonderful institution that screened three different films every night of the week, 52 weeks of the year.
In those days its director, Henri Langlois, an icon today of the film world, showed movies from all the major and most of the minor movie-producing countries, with the first silent films working up to the most recent. Many a night we would be seated next to François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and the other young film devotees who, in a few years, would be introducing the Nouvelle Vague to the world.
Then, too, Europeans were passionate and deeply serious about cinema, far more than Americans were at the time. In the warm months of the year you could go from one film festival to another: Cannes, Berlin, Karlovy Vary, San Sebastian, Venice, Moscow. I wanted desperately to get to Cannes, the queen of festivals, where you not only saw the latest films but got to meet all the directors, actors, actresses, screenwriters, and producers. Talk about networking!
A friend at UNESCO asked, why don't you try to get that new American publication to accredit you? I promptly sent off a letter to Playboy, citing some articles I'd written for the British film publication Sight and Sound, and a few days later was flabbergasted to hear Hugh Hefner himself calling me from Chicago. He informed me that not only was I accredited, but he would be coming to attend the festival as well.
So what can one say about the young Hef? He was bright, hardworking, good company, and never missed a single screening. Every morning he was out on the beach with his Dictaphone. A lot of the European players at the festival were let down by Hef's flying in his current girlfriend--a quiet, pretty, young, Midwestern woman, something of a prom queen--when they were expecting a Playmate of the Month at the least.
As one sign of the shift in the Zeitgeist over the decades, I recollect occasionally using the term "nookie" in conversation with Hefner. I should explain that I had grown up almost excruciatingly innocent, and it was not until I met up with one Richard Grenier in my senior year at Harvard that I enthusiastically, and perchance innocently, adopted his naval vocabulary. But after hearing "nookie" fall from my lips a few times, Hef very gently placed a hand on my arm and said, in a kind, big brotherly tone: "Cynthia, you know that's not a word that a nice girl like yourself should be using."
(When my article on the Cannes Film Festival appeared in Playboy it ran under the byline of "C.B. Grenier" because, as one of the editors explained to me, "Our readers wouldn't understand a woman giving advice to men in our pages about picking up girls." But I'm happy to report that, a few years later when the piece was anthologized in The Best of Playboy, my proper byline was restored.)
In any case, having seen more than a few films from Iron Curtain countries featuring naked young women, and wanting to get to see more of those lands myself, I wrote to Hef suggesting it could make for a different sort of "Girls of" feature. He agreed, and we were off, starting at the Moscow Film Festival.
Having the festival in Moscow meant that all the attractive young actresses from Eastern Europe would be available to us--although we were on our honor to take no nude shots of any daughter of the Soviet Union. We knew none would be condemned to the gulag for posing, but life could be made exceedingly uncomfortable for a long time. So we settled for scantily clad or bikini shots.
It was interesting to observe how the young women responded to our copy of Playboy. It was equally interesting to deal with customs officials. (One uniformed Russian at the border, turning its pages, staring goggle-eyed at the riot of material goodies on display, asked, "Playboy? Is for boys who play?") The young women, however, thoroughly enjoyed studying the photographs of the Playmate of the Month: "Oh look! She's making cookies with her mother!" or "What a darling little puppy!" To a woman, however, they were knocked over by the abundance of products: automobiles, record players, tape recorders, and radios--all inaccessible to the average Soviet citizen in 1964.
All 12 of our pages of Eastern European pulchritude were pictures of totally nonprofessional women from a fairly wide range of activities, with a decent share of actresses, students, and airline hostesses. Of course, we got lots of offers of help from young (and not-so-young) males eager to get acquainted with our lasses, and we met mothers and sisters and aunts, were served innumerable glasses of tea, fed all manner of cookies, and for a decade or more would receive greeting cards. We were later told that our Czech cover girl, Olga Schoberová, had married a vice president of Warner Brothers and was embarrassed when the director Jean-Claude Tramont recognized her from the Playboy spread on a yacht trip.
Today, of course, just about all the onetime Iron Curtain countries have their own editions of Playboy, so the task of rounding up models for this latest issue was surely simplified compared to our adventure. "The Women of Putin's Russia"--they're "women" now, not "girls"--ran to 10 full pages of undeniably attractive young females, all shot by photographer Marlena Bielinska. Minimal identifying information was furnished to readers. Say what you will, and with all due respect to this year's crop: Looking over our collection, I can't help feeling that, while some may be grandmothers now, they look more spontaneous and, well, happier, even if their homelands were decidedly less pleasant 45 years ago.
Cynthia Grenier is a writer in Washington.