After Hours: Marilyn Cole Lownes

Text and interview by Laura McLaws Helms

While the last episode focused on the food and gardening televisual world of Russell and Marian Morash, for this episode I sat down with Marilyn Cole Lownes, who is best known as the 1973 Playboy Playmate of the Year. I first met her a few years ago when my partner here at Lady, Susan Winget, was styling a story on Playboy Playmates of the past for New York magazine (included at the end of the slideshow). As a longtime aficionado of Playboy, I knew her centerfolds so I was unsurprised at her continued beauty but pleasantly surprised by how wonderfully warm and lovely she was.

In our discussion Marilyn vividly describes how she went from a dead-end civil service job in a small seaside town in England to her break as a Bunny at the Playboy Club in London in 1971. What I appreciate so much about Marilyn’s story is the agency she had in it—it was her choice to write to take a friend’s recommendation and write to the Playboy Club in London for work, her choice to take the train up for the interview and then her choice to take every opportunity that came her way. Her luscious beauty attracted attention as soon as she came in for Bunny training, leading to her becoming the January 1972 Playmate of the Month and 1973's Playmate of the Year. A successful glamour model, she segued into some fashion work as well as modeling for a Roxy Music album cover (which led to a short affair with singer Bryan Ferry).

A true woman of the 1970s, Marilyn was completely in her power then – owning her body, her sexuality, her decisions. This included enjoying a long on/off relationship with Playboy executive Victor Lownes. While Playboy magazine was based around what young Hugh Hefner aspired to be, it was who Victor Lownes truly was. Urbane, witty, handsome and a devilish Playboy, he started working as Promotions Director there in 1955, before rising to Vice President. It was Lownes who pushed Playboy to open clubs of their own. He managed the opening of the first in Chicago in 1960, and later went on to open and run the incredibly successful Playboy Casino in London from 1966 to 1981.

Marilyn and Victor met in 1971 when he chose her out of a line-up of trainee Bunnies to do a test shoot for the magazine. Then just 21-years old, Marilyn fell for the 43-year-old Victor quickly and they dated, but both also continued to have dalliances and relationships with others (Marilyn also dated Hugh Hefner briefly). When they finally married in 1984 they had been on and off for 13 years, and they stayed happily married until his death in 2017. Their life together allowed Marilyn to learn and grow culturally—eventually becoming a journalist specializing in boxing. 

I met with her in the fall, just a few weeks after Hugh Hefner’s death. With the media flush with both positive and negative articles about him, I tried to question Marilyn about some of the allegations made against Hef—she was very clear that her experience with Hefner and Playboy was strictly a positive one, and that any allegations had nothing to do with the Hefner she knew. Below are some links to articles I mention quickly in the interview—an essay in support of him by Camille Paglia and a long discussion on Vice of the many disturbing claims made against Hef. Marilyn’s experiences speak to a forty-six year history with the Playboy empire that was integral to her forming the life she desired. As a woman in touch with her body and comfortable with nudity, posing for Playboy was a way of improving her financial situation and improving her life; she never felt exploited or used, only celebrated and helped. With this podcast we have spoken about wanting to celebrate those “who have intentionally molded their lives around their passions. Each has created their ideal life in much the same way they produce their creative work—through decisive vision and action, through making decisions that allow them to succeed in the facets of life that are important to them.” Whatever anyone’s opinion of Playboy is, Marilyn Cole Lownes has followed her passions (modeling, boxing, tango) to mold and create the life of her dreams.

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Further reading and watching:

Marilyn talks extensively in the interview about the singer Mabel Mercer and her impact on Victor Lownes. Below is a PBS special from 1972 starring her and Bobby Short.

Shopping for Marilyn & Friends: