When the pitiful octogenarian Hugh Hefner got ditched by his scheming fiancée a few weeks back, it was a pitiful reminder that the only living “playboy” who can still be considered suave, debonair, sexually irresistible, and, well, cool, is the middle-aged man in the Dos Equis commercials.
With the primavera suicide of über-playboy Gunter Sachs, the passing of director Blake Edwards (whose films helped create “Gstaad Chic”), the dismal reception accorded the feeble Russell Brand remake of Arthur, Hefner’s ignominious repudiation by his runaway bride, and the low profiles kept by geriatric roués like Warren Beatty, Robert Evans, and George Hamilton, it seems that the age of the playboy—stretching all the way back into antiquity—has run its course.
The Most Interesting Man in the World is no longer Lord Byron or Beau Brummel or Porfirio Rubirosa. And it is certainly not Taki. It is an actor in a beer commercial. A Mexican beer commercial. Women will probably not mourn the passing of this golden age. But men will. Most men.
God, you ask yourself, what happened?
The term “playboy” traditionally refers to well-heeled predators who do not have to work for a living, whose primary concern is the pursuit of pleasure, and who are obsessed with beautiful women. If the women are not technically beautiful in the purest sense of the word, being rich will do. The classic, archetypal playboy has mysterious economic underpinnings, a preternaturally radiant tan, resplendent incisors, and fabulous hair—though sometimes veering a bit too far on the Waffen SS side.
Typical of the species is the first-century b.c. sybarite Mark Antony, who turned his back on a brilliant career as a tyrant in Imperial Rome so that he could frolic in the perfumed sheets of the roving slut Cleopatra, until recently his best friend’s girlfriend. Cleopatra—sultry, insanely wealthy, homicidal—was the prototypical playboy inamorata in that she was not especially good looking but had terrific bone structure, owned an entire country, and knew how to show a guy from out of town a good time. She also had a great asp.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, the young male American psyche was being shaped by the suave James Bond, and everyone I knew wanted to be a playboy. (Possibly not one boy named Aloysius.) We all wanted to drive a Lamborghini around the Arc de Triomphe in a Formula One competition hosted by the Aly Khan, toss back a few cocktails in Saint-Tropez with Rubirosa, spend the morning in bed in Monte Carlo with Brigitte Bardot and the afternoon in bed in Saint-Tropez with Claudia Cardinale. We might even slip in a quickie with Jeanne Moreau at lunch.
If we weren’t all tuckered out by sunset, we might fly one of our eight private jets to (pre-Castro) Havana to have a nightcap with charismatic gangsters and then seduce Rita Hayworth or bed down with a woman whose grandfather surrendered to the Soviets at Stalingrad. Or we might ask Warren Beatty to fly the plane while we dallied with someone named Bambou or Zsa Zsa or Miou-Miou or van der something in the cargo hold. It was a full, demanding day, but an awful lot of us were willing to give it a rip.
It is probably sexist to admit that young men used to entertain such fantasies, but at least it’s nice to know that there was a time in the not-too-distant past when men were more interested in women than they were in going public. The playboy’s three favorite letters were S-E-X, not I-P-O. Those days are gone; few young men entertain such fantasies now. It’s not just that playboys are a thing of the past—so are wannabe playboys and playboys manqués.
Everyone today is so . . . generic. Young men used to idolize sybaritic, muscular fashion plates who burned through their money, not spindly little men who hoarded it. Businessmen, by and large, were considered dull, unromantic, pathetic. In today’s world, where youth’s cultural icons are dweebs like Mark Zuckerberg or slobs like Mark Cuban, there is no place for the playboy of yore, the type who shoots rhinos, parachutes into the Alps, consumes champagne by the barrel, and never worries about what all the tobacco, alcohol, and barbiturates are doing to his health. The closest we get to a sun god like Marcello Mastroianni today is Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek. Or Donald Trump. Or Puff Daddy. Or the guy in the beer commercial. Take a gander at the 50th anniversary rerelease of La Dolce Vita and see if Russell or Donald or Diddy is in the same league as Marcello.
It is true that playboys often mistreated women, and worked in the employ of murderous dictators, and abandoned their kingdoms so they could cavort with daft floozies from Crabcake Corners, and inherited their fortunes from unprincipled oligarchs, and never did an honest day’s work in their lives. This is why so many of us wanted to be like them—especially if, like me, you were growing up in a housing project.
Playboys had glamour, class, brio. They seized life by the throat and grabbed for all the gusto. They took hours to get dressed, scant seconds to get undressed. They cut a fine figure and they did things with panache. My deepest personal regret is that I have never done anything with panache. I’ve never shot a lion or driven a Porsche to Dakar or run a line of credit in a brothel in Dar es Salaam. Just once in my life it would have been nice to do something with panache. Anything. Preferably in the company of Sophia Loren.
Playboys, though predators, are not necessarily pigs. Wilt Chamberlain, who claimed to have
bedded 10,000 women, was a playboy; Charlie Sheen is a pig. The world is full of men who take advantage of women, dawdle away years and years of time yachting, flying, carousing, and contributing nothing worthwhile to society. The difference is: Playboys contributed nothing worthwhile to mankind with style. They were a lot more fun than the guys who run the Blackstone Group, or the nerds who took Google public, or Bono.
Playboys allowed men the world around to vicariously experience their thrilling, glamorous lives, much the way the elegant Cary Grant’s exploits in a fistful of classy films helped pull the Great Unwashed through the Great Depression. You could vicariously participate in the exciting life of someone named Porfirio Rubirosa or Beau Brummel or Lord Byron. You can’t vicariously participate in the glamorous life of a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg. There isn’t any glamour. As for panache and brio? Forget it.
The age of the playboy began to slip away in the 1960s when everyone started dressing as if they were affiliated with Three Dog Night, and people felt it imperative to contribute something worthwhile to society. That just wrecked everything. Things got worse when the entire planet started exercising, watching their weight, ditching nicotine, wearing belted shorts, reading books by Thomas L. Friedman. It has reached unimaginably hideous new depths in the age of the gated community, the speed dater, the Charlie Sheen victory tour, and the virtual dink.
Rubirosa would not care that the Droid has 200,000 fewer apps than the iPhone. He just wouldn’t. Rubirosa would not play Final Fantasy XI. He would have never gotten past Final Fantasy I, the one with Elizabeth Taylor. Rubirosa would not be seen dead texting or playing World of Warcraft or sucking on a Power Drink. And Rubirosa would never tweet.
It is often thought that playboys only drink and race speedboats and garrote jaguars and bed gorgeous women and contribute absolutely nothing of value to society. But this is not true. Casanova bequeathed the world his memoirs. The Marquis de Sade is still regarded as a brilliant writer, though mostly in France. Franz Liszt, who taught Mick Jagger and David Bowie and Keith Richards the ropes about stardom, screwed everything that moved as a young man; yet he was a brilliant, influential composer and the greatest pianist ever. (Warren Beatty made Bonnie and Clyde. But that was about it.)
Playboys are famous for making dramatic exits. Thomas Becket, playboy emeritus, got hacked to pieces in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, by King Henry II’s freelance henchmen. Lord Byron died fighting Turks, always a nice way to go. The Emperor Commodus—the one in Gladiator—got strangled by a wrestler. Freddie (“Suicide Freddy”) McEvoy drowned while trying to save his wife from drowning. Errol Flynn had a heart attack while taking a five-minute break during an impromptu party in Vancouver. Gunter Sachs blew his brains out. These guys knew how to make a grand exit. Again: panache.
The classic way for a playboy to check out is in an automotive disaster. Three playboys—Rubirosa, Dodi Fayed, and the Aly Khan—went up in flames in car crashes in France. Porfirio actually wrapped his car around a tree in the Bois de Boulogne. That is so cool. It is, in fact, the way most men of my generation would like to die: wrapping a sports car around a tree, preferably in the Bois de Boulogne. Or if that Bois were not available, then the Bois de Vincennes.
This drives home the point that all men who are not dorks or twerps or bloggers or Michael Moore at some point in their lives harbor a secret desire to both live and die like playboys. There is a part of the male psyche that wants to believe that were there world enough and time and money, each of us would be a gourmand, a globetrotter, a babe magnet, and perhaps even a falconer. It is important that young women know this: A man who does not secretly want to wrap his sports car around a tree in the Bois de Boulogne is a dork, a liar, or the kind of guy who trades vintage Pete Seeger LPs on eBay. (On a personal note: I really would have liked to shoot a rhino at some point in my life. Maybe even a white one. Wouldn’t have to be at point-blank range, either. In a pinch, a decrepit hyena would do.)
Feminists despise playboys, as do men who purport to be in league with feminists; yet it is a curious fact that the greatest American novel, The Great Gatsby, lionizes a mysterious playboy. Jay Gatsby, of course, makes today’s faux playboys seem like hopeless amateurs. The Middle East is filled with spoiled scions of wealthy sheikhdoms who hang out on the Riviera. No one thinks of them as playboys. To be a playboy you have to wear clothes well and cut a fine figure. Sons of sheikhs rarely cut a fine figure. And then there is the case of Newt Gingrich, wannabe playboy, who honestly believed that opening a charge account at Tiffany’s would put him in the same weight class as Marcello Mastroianni and Charles II and Serge Gainsbourg and Gatsby. Ugh.
My own experience with jet-setting international playboys is relatively limited. Basically just a few daydreams about having lunch with Dominique Sanda or Anita Ekberg. But a few years ago I was having coffee with Mort Sahl in a Beverly Hills Starbucks when he pointed out that George Hamilton was sitting directly across from us. George Hamilton made a lot of movies, none of them memorable, but he was revered in American society during the Tonight Show era as a genial, carefree layabout playboy with fantastic hair and an amazing tan and a million girlfriends.
When Sahl pointed him out, I turned and looked, but refused to believe that it was George Hamilton. George Hamilton, in my mind, would forever be sunning himself on his yacht, working on his tan, a stiff breeze blowing through his fabulous hair. Either that or he would be getting the Lamborghini ready for a fast spin around the Bois de Boulogne.
If we had reached the point where George Hamilton was having coffee in Starbucks, the age of the classic playboy was over, and my own dreams were dead.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.