By Sophia Du Brul
When one hears the name Hugh Hefner, immediately an image of a bon vivant in a dressing gown with a blonde is conjured up, but Hefner was once just a Chicago kid, attending Steinmetz High School and hanging out with his friends. This is the Hugh Hefner that I got a chance to see.
A few months ago, I got a call from a gentleman living in Lincoln Square who said that he had some Hugh Hefner materials that he was interested in selling. He said that he had some letters, cartoons and photographs that all belonged to his mother. We meet and it is several binders of material that start in high school and end a few weeks before Hefner’s death, all addressed to Jane Borson Sellers.
Jane Borson Sellers was never famous. She wasn’t a Bunny or a Girlfriend. Jane Borson Sellers was a high school buddy, part of “the gang” and “one of the sweetest, swellest [sic]…gals”. The gang consisted of all of Hefner’s old high school friends, and he never lost touch with them. The albums of photographs that Jane assembled show the gang throughout the years at various gettogethers, while the letters detail a lifelong friendship.
The letters start during WW2 when Jane’s father is sent to San Diego to train Marines. Almost all the letters are typed (Hef had terrible handwriting) and decorated with funny cartoons of their friends in the margins.
Sometimes Hef sent cartoon strips like “My Typical Day at Steinmetz” done on the reverse of his zoology homework. The letters are funny and touching. Hef comforts Jane and offers advice when a boy that she a crush on does not return her affections and then he cheers her up with a funny story. Hef continues to write to Jane after he is drafted, and his letters are filled with entertaining anecdotes about the monotony of army base life. I became intrigued and entranced by this Hugh Hefner, the loyal friend and witty correspondent who would type out eight page letters with illustrations. This was a private, pre-Playboy Hugh Hefner.
But then the letters stop, because Hef moves back to Chicago. And then we all know the story: Hef writes for Esquire and asks for a raise, which is denied, so he quits and starts Playboy in 1953. But many of the original guys at Playboy are the gang from Steinmetz, including Eldon Sellers and his wife Jane.
The correspondence starts again when Hef moves to the Mansion in LA. This later group of letters is less personal and less lengthy; Hef is much busier in this period and one gets the impression that there are also phone calls and other types of communication occurring. This group also included the famous Christmas cards and party invitations. But then suddenly, in one of the last letters, dated just a few weeks before his death, Hef thanks Jane for their lifelong friendship.
Evaluating this archive presented an interesting challenge, as I had to consider not only monetary but also the historical value of the material and figure out where would be the best venue to sell these pieces. After a couple of false starts, I was very lucky to find Gabe Fajuri of Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago. Potter & Potter ended up being the right fit because they specialize in books, manuscripts and entertainment memorabilia, basically all things on paper. Gabe Fajuri ended up being the right fit because he also was concerned about preserving the historical nature of the archive. As Fajuri eloquently puts it, “The archive shows a personal, private side of a man who was anything but private. In fact, he did more to expose the hidden sides of people (literally and figuratively) than nearly anyone else in his generation…. Because the letters and cartoons tell a story about Hugh Hefner that would be essential to any biography of the man, we were especially careful in how the material was grouped together in the auction and how it has been presented for sale.”
After working with this archive, I learned that underneath the bravado and the flash, Hugh Hefner was a loyal and kind friend who never forgot where he came from or his friends.
Potter & Potter will be auctioning off this collection of letters, cartoons, invitations and photographs on July 28th in Chicago. The letters are being offered in one large lot of over 60 letters. Cartoons are listed in individual lots. Christmas cards and invitations are grouped together in various lots. The complete catalogue is available at http://auctions.potterauctions.com/Catalog.aspx and the archive can be viewed by appointment.
Sophia du Brul is the owner of Sophia’s Room, specializing in appraisals and estate sales. You can find her at sophiadubrul.com. Coming up, Sophia has a sale in Northfield, starting July 21st, and a sale in Rolling Meadows, starting August 3rd, and details can be viewed at https://www.sophiadubrul.com/sophia-estate-sales.