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Victor Aubrey Lownes III (born 17 April 1928 in Buffalo, NY, USA) was an executive for HMH Publishing Company Inc. (later known as Playboy Enterprises) from 1955 through the early 1980s. After meeting Hugh Hefner in 1954 soon after Hefner had started of Playboy Magazine, Lownes eventually joined his publishing company, serving in various capacities with the title of vice president.
Lownes was a close confidant of Hefner, whose hedonistic lifestyle he matched. Lownes developed a reputation as serial philanderer and was known to date Playboy Playmates. Lownes headed Playboy Europe and the UK Playboy Clubs from the mid-sixties until his dismissal in the early eighties. He oversaw the most successful part of Hefner's attempt to diversify out of publishing and into motion pictures, hotels and casino gambling. During his time as head of Playboy Europe, he was Britain's highest paid executive, drawing a large salary and eventually becoming Playboy Enterprises's second biggest shareholder. Credited with creating Playboy Clubs in the United States, Lownes oversaw Playboy Enterprises's move into casino gambling in the UK in the 1960s, which became Playboy's most successful business other than its publishing until the advent of cable television. Eventually, he had to return to the United States in 1975 to help oversee the company.
Lownes was born to a wealthy family in Buffalo, New York that but that moved to Florida. At the age of 12, his father gave him a cigar to smoke as aversion therapy. The young Victor apparently asked for another. At the same age, he also accidentally shot and killed his best friend. This resulted in his forced enrollment at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, where he met Nicky Hilton, Conrad Hilton's son. From there he went on to the University of Chicago where he obtained an MBA and met his first wife.
Lownes got married at the age of 18 in 1946 and had two children. After several mundane jobs, he found employment at an industrial time lock firm. “I was promoted to manager within a few months,” he would later write, “due solely to hard work, conscientiousness and the fact that my grandfather owned the company.”
He seemed to have everything a man could want – a beautiful, loving wife (Judith Downs), two fine children (Victor "Val" Aubrey Lownes IV and Meredith Lownes), a magnificent home, and a good job. However, following his father's death, after seven years of marriage he had what in an older man would be called a mid-life crisis. He realized he hated the smug respectability of the middle class American dream. He felt trapped by marriage and green-lawn suburbia. He abandoned his family.
A New Beginning
Lownes moved to Chicago where he lived for several months entertaining scores of young women. At a party in 1954, Lownes met Hugh Hefner, a man whose almost identical interests had led him to recently create Playboy Magazine. Lownes was asked to write a couple of articles and in November 1955 he was offered a full-time job with the company as Promotions Director.
Lownes set about drumming up advertising for the pariah publication, most conservative companies wanting nothing to do with the magazine. He was quite successful in changing minds. Advertising for a club called Gaslight in Chicago, Lownes saw an opportunity to diversify the Playboy brand and suggested to Hefner that Playboy should open a club of its own. Hefner immediately saw the commercial and promotional benefits. Plans for a Playboy Club were begun in 1959. Victor Lownes' then girlfriend suggested to Hefner the idea of dressing the hostesses in the image of the tuxedoed Playboy Bunny character. Hefner took some persuading as he had always viewed the rabbit as a male character but once he saw a prototype of the outfit he changed his mind.
Under Lownes' management, the first Playboy Club opened in downtown Chicago on 116 E Walton Street. It was essentially a bar with entertainment featuring Playboy Bunnies serving drinks and performances by some big names in entertainment. The doors opened for the first time on the leap year night of February 29, 1960 and it was an immediate success. More clubs followed in cities over the USA.
Move to the UK
In 1963, Victor Lownes became restless and asked Hefner to be sent to London to open a British Playboy club. He placed an advertisement in The Times' personal columns that read: "American millionaire seeks a flat in the most fashionable part of London. Rents up to £100 a week." He found a house at 3 Montpellier Square, opposite Harrods which he rented for 75 guineas a week. He spent months in London working out how and where to open a club.
Gambling had recently been legalized in the UK and Lownes realized there was an opportunity to add the attraction of a casino to the nightclub. A Playboy Club was opened in the heart of the capital, at 45 Park Lane overlooking Hyde Park, on July 1, 1966 and was an immediate success. It was nicknamed the "Hutch on the Park."
"UK One", as Lownes became known, slid easily into the feverish atmosphere of "Swinging London". Regular parties were thrown at his house and the 1960s A-List went, the same cast list that played the tables at the club including The Beatles, George Best, Warren Beatty, Michael Caine, Judy Garland, Sean Connery, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.
He later moved to 1 Connaught Street in 1967 which had previously been the London residence of Mary Augusta Ward, a novelist of the late 19th and early 20th century. A massive Francis Bacon painting he acquired during this time was so hideous that it was exiled to hanging in the hall. A grandfather clock in the property was painted by Timothy Leary.
In the 1970s, Playboy magazine encountered competition and profits dropped, at the same time gaming profits from the London casino kept rising, making future expansion into gaming very attractive. In the spring of 1972 the Clermont Club in Berkley Square, famous for its high rollers and celebrity clientele, was purchased.
A large rural property a few miles from London was added to the organization in 1972. Stocks House, a 42 room Georgian Mansion located outside Aldbury in Hertfordshire which, coincidentally, had previously been the country home of Mary Augusta Ward. At the time of Lownes' purchase it had been in use as a Catholic girls' school since 1944. As well as being Victor Lownes residence the mansion was used as a training camp for Playboy bunnies and was well known for hosting extravagant parties, including the infamous 1978 25-hour party (to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of Playboy Magazine), when guests and Bunny Girls who were given green dots to wear, were allowed upstairs to Stocks' many bedrooms. Guests included Jim Henson and Don Oz (the Muppets), Barbara Parkins (Peyton Place), and Janine Paule.
In 1973, the Manchester and Portsmouth Casino Clubs were opened. With the gaming license approval for the Victoria Sporting Club in February 1981, Playboy Enterprises became the largest, and, table for table, one of the most profitable gaming operators in the UK. They had three London casinos, two provincial casinos, interests in two others, 72 off track betting parlors, and six bingo parlors. In these casinos they attracted some of the highest of the high rollers and societies’ upper crust.
In 1975, Hefner's penchant for becoming involved in various ventures and then losing interest led to unprofitability in many areas of Playboy. Lownes was brought back to Chicago by Hefner personally as a hatchet man to trim the fat off the corporation. He was given virtually unlimited powers and on the job, Lownes was so dedicated to cutting expenses that he was known within the company as "Attila" or "Jaws".
Lownes was the executive producer for And Now For Something Completely Different (1971), the first Monty Python film. He was a fan and proposed the idea of a film specifically designed to introduce the British comedy troupe to a U.S. audience. He was very egotistical. According to Terry Gilliam, Lownes insisted on getting an animated executive producer credit equal in size to those of the group members. Gilliam refused and so Lownes had the credit made elsewhere at his own cost. Gilliam then created a different style of credit for the Pythons so Lownes' credit is the only one that appears in this way.
Lownes was out partying with Roman Polanski when his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family in August 1969. Later, Lownes persuaded Hefner to provide $1,500,000 to finance Polanski's first film since the murder through Playboy when no other movie studio would touch it. Macbeth (1971) was influenced heavily by Polanski's personal experience, which included being a Holocaust survivor. Polanski proceeded to go $600,000 over budget and then mock Playboy's generosity.
Lownes terminated his friendship with Polanski over his behavior. Angrily, he returned a cherished gift to Polanski, the life-sized gold penis Polanski had modeled for during happier days. Lownes wrote that "I'm sure you'll have no difficulty finding some friend you can shove it up".
By 1981, Lownes was back in London, serving as senior vice president at Playboy Enterprises in charge of the casinos worldwide, the moneymaking part of the whole Playboy empire. He was leading the effort to open up Atlantic City, New Jersey, for gambling from his London base. Work was started on the future Atlantic City Casino building.
However the British had always been uneasy with a foreign controlled casino operating in London. Lownes was accused of irregularities by the British gaming authorities, falsely, he claimed. Hefner panicked and before Lownes even appeared before the authorities he was fired in an obvious attempt to save the New Jersey deal. Without him, the British gaming license was revoked and Playboy lost their most valuable assets. Playboy's temporary gaming license in Atlantic City was not renewed.
Playboy, which made $31 million in the year ending June 30, 1981, lost more than $51 million in the year ending June 30, 1982. With the loss of its gaming assets, Playboy barely survived.
Lownes himself suffered little more than wounded pride. He had accumulated a fortune during his years as Britain's best paid executive and he still had his wife, Marilyn Cole, whose affections he and Hefner had both attempted to gain. Marilyn was the first full frontal Playboy Playmate of the Month, in January 1972, and the Playmate of the Year 1973. She had continued to pose for Playboy until 1984. Marilyn is now a journalist who has written for the London Observer, Irish America, Esquire magazine, and the British GQ.
Lownes reconciled with Polanski following his dismissal. During the Roman Polanski libel case against Vanity Fair in July 2005, Victor Lownes was ill and could not attend the trial in support of his old chum, and so his wife came in his place.
Lownes is a now reclusive figure and little is known about his current activities. Cole and Lownes maintain homes in New York, London, and Fuengirola, Spain.
“What is a playboy? It is usually someone who is getting more sex than you are.”
- Lownes, Victor (autobiography). Playboy Extraordinary (London : Granada, 1982)
- Miller, Russell. Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy (London : Corgi, 1985. ISBN 0-03-063748-1)
- Secret History: The Bunny Girl (UK documentary)
- Lownes, Victor. "The Day The Bunny Died" (Secaucus, New Jersey,1983. ISBN 0-8184-0340-3)
- The Genealogy of Richard L. Aronoff: LOWNES Family
- Bunny Redux - TIME
- Lownes, Victor (autobiography). Playboy Extraordinary (London : Granada, 1982)
- Victor Lownes quotes