By Kenneth LaFave
She was Bunny Bobbie for five years, and Mrs. Jules Rufoff for 30. But when she wanted to tell her story to the world, Barbara “Bobbie” Walters knew those five years would get peoples’ attention.
Walters’ memoir, Ageless (available at amazon.com), traces the history of a remarkable marriage back to her days as a Bunny at the Playboy Club in New York City during the halcyon era of the 1970s. Despite the sexy hook, it’s more a book about love than it is about serving cocktails in skimpy outfits. But while true love lasts, it’s sex that sells. And the Playboy Club was all about sex.
“You had to serve drinks backwards in five-inch heels,” Walters recalls of her duties as a Playboy Bunny. “It was called the Bunny Dip.”
It was demanding work that put her on the front lines of the sexual revolution. But she loved being a cultural icon.
“The Playboy Club was magical, a life unto itself,” Walters recalls. “When you walked into the club, you left yourself outside and became a Bunny. You were on display and everyone was there to see you. It was your show. I was on Cloud Nine.”
For a year at New York’s six-story Playboy Club, and for four years at the Miami location, Walters lived the dream of being the center of attention every time she walked onto the floor. Her very first night prepared her for the roller coaster to come:
“The first time I went onto the floor, the girl training me didn’t show up. I didn’t care. I thought, ‘I’ll do it on my own.’ I was a gutsy kid,” says Walters, who was born Barbara Barbella. “I went to the floor going through the protocol in my head – ‘Good evening, I’m your bunny, Bobbie.’ I was set.”
Walters approached her first table and began to speak. “I didn’t get anything further than, ‘Good evening, I’m your bun….”
She stopped as she stared at the customer in front of her. “You’re Johnny Carson!” she said.
He was. And the shock didn’t stop there. As Walters concluded her service to Carson’s table, the famed host of The Tonight Show said to her, “Say, my limo’s downstairs. Why don’t we go for a ride through Central Park when you get off?”
Walters declined, and found out later that Carson made a habit of hitting on every new Bunny at the club. Her encounter with Carson prepared her to deal with many celebrities over the years, ranging from Sammy Davis Jr. to Elton John.
From among the thousands of customers she waited on over the years, it was not a celebrity, but a quiet older gentleman who made the ultimate difference in her life.
“One night, Jules came in to the club with his wife. He was an older, married man but something about the way we looked at each other was… well, you could call it love at first sight. I’ve always been attracted to older men, because they know how to treat a woman.”
Thinking there was nothing to be done about a married man, Walters put him out of her mind. But he came back alone the next night, and soon the two of them were secretly violating the Playboy Club’s rule that Bunnies were not allowed to date members.
Two years later, Walters, 25, married 65-year-old Jules Rufoff. The marriage lasted 30 years, until Rufoff’s death 11 years ago at the age of 95.
Walters has since remarried and lives in North Scottsdale. At age 70, her Bunny costume still fits.