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There are worse things women have been asked to do. St James's description of a decrepit time-warp, old, stale, and with a stench of wee from Archie the house dog allegedly relieving himself on the curtains, isn't what I find.There is exquisitely carved wood in the hallway and up the staircase; stained glass looking out onto the magnificent grounds; and the tiniest dog that greets me like ...Home to dozens of charity events (Hefner raises millions for many different causes), it is a Tudor style house, homely rather than ostentatious, and set in beautifully kept grounds that also house a waterfall and a zoo.Hefner is a big animal lover, and visitors must take heed of the sign on the road leading in, warning "Playmates at play".Both men stood up for the free expression of sexuality at a time when it was not only unfashionable, but illegal, to do so.Far from being a slap in the face to feminism, both men, it seemed to me, allowed women to celebrate their sexuality in the same way that men always had.I had always been keen to meet Hugh Hefner, the man behind these iconic creations and who was something of a hero to me in the sexual wasteland of my youth.

In the just-published autobiography (at six volumes and over 3,500 pages, it begins with childhood and covers Playboy's first 25 years), a much fuller picture of this extraordinary man's life emerges.

I don't see any playmates, but know they are there. Holly Madison, Kendra Wilkinson and Bridget Marquardt departed in October 2008, after starring in the TV series The Girls Next Door, about life for Hefner's girlfriends living at the Mansion.

In their place, Hefner has installed his new "Number One" girlfriend, 22-year-old Crystal Harris, and identical 19-year-old twin models, Karissa and Kristina Shannon, who are starring in the new series.

A direct spin-off of the magazine of the same name, Hefner established the clubs and bunnies after he founded the men's magazine Playboy in 1953, with just ,000.

To earn their floppy ears, prospective bunnies had to undergo intense audition procedures and, if successful, adhere to strict guidelines.

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In Playboy, that sexuality went hand in hand with other aspects of a traditionally male lifestyle – drinking, smoking, having fun – and far from being exploited, women were finally competing on the same terms as the men who had been doing the exploiting.