Barbara Nellis worked at Playboy for 33 years. Credit: Brittany Sowacke

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Barbara Nellis, 72, former Playboy editor.

Here’s the thing all you young folks need to understand: It was the late 60s, the early 70s, and nobody had the credentials to do anything. People were just looking for jobs. I moved to Chicago when I was 25 because my boyfriend was here, and I took a job in Playboy‘s marketing department even though I didn’t know anything about marketing, and within six months it was clear that the most interesting people were in the editorial department, and they were drinking every afternoon in the Knickerbocker Bar.

In all those 33 years that I was there, I did a ton of different things. I was the book review editor, the music editor, the fiction editor, the letters-to-the-editor editor. In the last five years I was on staff, I wrote the copy for the two pages that were in the magazine every month called “Are You Lying Down? Hanging With Hef.” It was pictures of things he was doing in his life, with caption copy.

In the early years, I encountered him only as wallpaper. Before he moved to California in ’75, on Sunday nights the editors were often invited to watch a movie at the mansion. He got first-run movies, he got good popcorn, some weeks he had a buffet. I’m sure the models were around. I wrote a little Playmate copy—everybody did. My brother married a Playmate; he is no longer married to her, but I have three nephews from that marriage.

It wasn’t about the models for me. The mystique of the world I was living in was the writers. I had lunch with Joan Didion. I have a wonderful poem Shel Silverstein did for my five-year-old daughter. William Styron once said to me, “I’ve always thought of you as Miss Chicago.” And he had written Nat Turner. He had written Sophie’s Choice. I mean, come on.

Once I went with a photographer to New Orleans, and he was going to shoot Playmates in places where there was hanging moss and all that stuff, and my job was to eat, shop, listen to music, and write a sidebar of what there was to do in New Orleans. That was tough, let me tell you.

What interested me about Playboy was that it was a completely egalitarian environment. There were people there who had MBAs, people who hadn’t finished college, people who started in some lowly place and worked their way up. The cartoon editor, who became a very powerful woman there, was Hefner’s secretary in the beginning. And she discovered Kliban!

Here’s the other thing about Hugh Hefner: He was a midwestern kid. One of the things I used to get at my job a lot was books, and we didn’t have room to review everything. I would get a great jazz book or great photography book and I would send it to him, and he always wrote a thank-you note: “Dear Barbara, thank you very much . . . ”   v