The literary world gets squirrelly

Hefner's Viagra-enhanced salary; dirty secrets of Squirrel Nutkin

By Douglas Cruickshank

Published May 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The literary world has long been rife with betrayal and scandal, but of late it seems even rifer with hoop snake-like self-consumption than usual. It's always a little sad when, out of lust for money, revenge or both, privacy is breached and intimate correspondence is put up for bid like a litter of spring piglets, but it's especially tragic, I firmly believe, when the result is unnecessary damage and hurt imposed on a long-standing literary icon.

I refer, of course, to the report in the May 13 Times of London that reveals that a personal note sent in 1903 from Beatrix Potter to a 4-year-old fan, exposing the "dark past" of the real-life model for Potter's Squirrel Nutkin character, was recently sold for 9,200 pounds by the daughter of the letter's recipient. According to Times writer John Shaw, in the missive "Beatrix Potter admitted that the original for her Squirrel Nutkin character was a savage creature returned to a pet shop in disgrace."

It pains me to become complicit in this betrayal by quoting the letter, but the public's right to know must outweigh the personal feelings I'm struggling with. "I bought two squirrels," Potter wrote to little Marjery Spicer, "but the one called Nutkin -- who was much the handsomest -- was so very savage I was obliged to take him back to the shop." There you are, public. Now you know the truth at its ugliest. Hope you're real happy. As for the rumors of Peter Rabbit's philandering, the public's right to know be damned -- you shan't read a word about it here. What's more, the unconfirmed report that Joyce Maynard, using proceeds from the sale of J.D Salinger's romance-tinged letters to her, was the successful bidder for the scandalous Nutkin note, which she plans to use as a basis for a four-volume treatise on how to market intimate correspondence, is utterly (and nutterly) untrue. How do such rumors get started?

Isn't Joey Buttafuaco living in Los Angeles these days? Forget it. Just curious. The reason I ask has nothing to do with this next item. Read on and learn why Toto's always got that idiot grin on his face.

Last week was a heck of a one for the animal kingdom, both fictional and real. On the very same day that the Times of London exposed the Squirrel Nutkin unpleasantness, the Times of L.A. (doesn't that have a nice sound?) reported lurid and mysterious goings on at the Los Angeles Zoo. "The chimpanzees keep getting pregnant," the paper reported, "even though all the males thought capable of breeding have had vasectomies ... The zoo has never had this much publicity about anything," zoo keeper Vicki Bingaman said, as she hungrily eyed a banana.

Seriously now, it seems that over the past three months, two chimps have given birth and a third has become pregnant. "The real mystery," the article revealed, "is this: Three of the four adult males had vasectomies in 1996. And Toto, who is 45, has never shown sexual interest in anyone but himself." And, no, "Toto" as certain wisenheimers have suggested, is not an anagram for "Onan." (I know, I could have ended that with one of those "We're not in Kansas anymore" lines, but why go for the cheap shot?)

Isn't Hugh Hefner living in Los Angeles these days? Forget it. Just curious. The reason I ask has nothing to do with the previous item. In fact, Hef, as he prefers to be called (which is not, as certain wisenheimer A.A. Milne fans have suggested, short for Hefalump; indeed, Hef's a twig), is currently having his own problems -- not because the Viagra-fueled playgeezer is dating four fun galyoungins simultaneously, but because Playboy stockholders say he takes home way too much lettuce for whatever it is he does, especially since the company hasn't exactly been raking in the toad skins lately.

Last week, at the annual Playboy Enterprises Inc. stockholders meeting, one stockholder, Richard Ash, said that "Hugh Hefner's salary is outrageous," while another, Harry Korba (no relation to Michael Korda), noted that the Playboy founder was paid $868,916 last year, but hasn't attended an annual stockholders meeting since 1987. Hef (who just phoned to say he's changed his mind since the last paragraph and now wants to be called either Mopsy or Flopsy) was not available to defend himself as he had to go to the Cannes Film Festival, but his daughter, Christie Hefner, Playboy's CEO, hopped up to say that she'd be gosh-darned if she was going to allow daddy rabbit to be dragged down that same muddy bunny trail the forces of darkness have used to sully the reputation of Squirrel Nutkin. "It's the same old same old," she fumed while gnawing on a carrot, "I don't think it resonates." (That's good, Christie --"resonates" sounds tough.)

Playboy's still okey-dokey, however, with Cindy "Mama Bear" Crawford, who's begrudgingly doing the now obligatory turn and posing knude 'n' knocked-up on the cover of W magazine. A trouper if there ever was one, Crawford is allowing the shot even though, the Associated Press reports, "she isn't impressed with what pregnancy has done to her body." In a slight variation on the regulation Demi Moore stance, Crawford is seen in side view with one hand covering her breasts and the other resting on her hip. "It's a miracle, yes," Crawford told W. "But what can I say? I liked the way I looked in Playboy last year." Let's see, Cindy, that's two steps forward for feminism ... and three steps back.

The W magazine photographers were reportedly planning to shoot Crawford in a loose-fitting dress, but she "didn't look pregnant enough" clothed, so they had her dispense with the garment. "She looked like she might have had too many beers the night before," said photographer and diplomat Michael Thompson.

I know one little squirrel, Mike, that if he were around now, would tear your head right off if he heard you talking like that about a lady.

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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