He was, as he puts it, "off the scene for 10 years," adding, in almost an afterthought, "married." The word married falls with a thud. But surprisingly, Hef seemed to be happily married, the septuagenarian new daddy to two young sons, blissful in his matrimony, even as his burgeoning Mansion - filled with Playmates and now PlayStations - turned tamer. Hef had no longing to relight the fires of his "hutch," until his lady love left him there.

"Worked very hard at that," he says of the marriage. "And came out with a little bruise." Kimberly loved surfing in Hawaii and skiing in Colorado; Hef preferred the privacy of his Mansion with his pals. Mr. and Mrs. Hefner grew apart and attended marital counseling - the king of the Playboys in psychoanalysis! Then, 1997 turned to 1998, and the Mansion was decorated for the traditional New Year's Eve party, once a pajamas-and-lingerie affair, which, "at Kimberly's urging," had been toned down into an evening of old-time Gatsbyesque glamour, most of the guests fully clothed.

"Ahhhhh," says Hef, setting into a pause so pregnant you can almost hear the squirrel monkeys panting in the Mansion's zoo. "I spent it alone," he says. "Kimberly took the children and went to Hawaii."

Swinging through four decades with infinite Janes, Hef can tolerate anything except the solitary life. But there he was, at the height of the holidays, alone. "I think the writing, to some extent, was already on the wall," Hef explains. "The fact that she elected to go away over the holidays was hurtful. But at the same time, that itself does not properly describe the nature of the relationship. Because the reality is, we are closer now than we were in the last couple of years of the marriage."