Selection of Anna Nicole Smith as a Playboy Playmate in 1992 made her a member of an exclusive sorority. Her death at 39 put her in a more grisly club — Playmates who haven’t reached their 50th birthday.
Automobile accidents, drug overdoses, homicides, a plane crash — all have claimed the lives of Playmates. The cause of Smith’s death is still unclear. “It’s sad how many girls we’ve lost,” said Peter Gowland, who photographed a number of centerfolds for Playboy in the 1950s and 60s with the help of his wife.
In 1968, Gowland photographed Paige Young. In 1974, she was dead of a drug overdose.
Jayne Mansfield, another Playmate he photographed, died in a car crash in 1967 at 34.
“It’s a curse to be beautiful,” Gowland said.
More than 600 women have graced Playboy’s centerfold since the magazine began publishing in the 1950s. Their lives after the magazine have been both in and out of the spotlight, but their limited number and Playboy’s wide circulation has meant that the death of one can become bombshell news.
Perhaps before Smith, the most headline-grabbing death of a Playmate was that of 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten. Just months after she became the magazine’s Playmate of the Year in 1980, she was murdered by her jealous estranged husband.
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has said he and others never really got over Stratten’s death. The magazine ran a tribute to her and movies were made about her life.
Eve Meyer, a 1955 Playmate, was one of more than 550 people killed when two airliners collided on takeoff at Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977. She was 46. More recently, Ellen Louise Maligo, known in Playboy as “Star Stowe,” was found murdered at 40 in Coral Springs in 1997.
Marilyn Monroe, the cover girl for the magazine’s inaugural issue, famously died at 36 from a 1962 overdose of sleeping pills.
Tonya Crews, Carol Willis and 1970 Playmate of the Year Claudia Jennings all died in car accidents in the 1960s and 70s while still in their 20s. Playmate Willy Rey, pictured on Playboy’s first stock certificates, was 23 when she died of a drug overdose in 1973.
Twenty-eight-year-old Playmate Elisa Bridges died in 2002 after being found unresponsive in bed. Playboy said she died of natural causes, but a coroner’s report said Bridges died of an accidental drug overdose.
“There’ve been some that do too much booze and too much drugs, just as in the general population,” said former Playboy editor Gretchen Edgren, author of “The Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfolds.”
A page on Playboy’s Web site is dedicated to remembering Smith.
“Perhaps Billy Joel should write a sequel to his song ‘Only the Good Die Young’ simply changing the last word to ‘Beautiful.’ We’ll miss you Vicki,” photo editor Gary Cole wrote on the site’s blog, using Smith’s real first name.