From Jefferson County to the Playboy Mansion

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

The building on Dale Avenue between the interstate and the chemical plant long known as Rohm & Haas is a pile of rubble now, and the tenants who called it home in its last incarnation as Volunteer Studios are long gone.

The building had a mixed past—home to a Job Corps group involved in a grisly murder and later occupied as a kind of halfway house by registered sex offenders.

But the building was built as a Holiday Inn, and as such occasionally played host to the famous. One such celebrity occupant for a couple of days in the fall of 1971 was one of Playboy magazine’s most popular Playmates—a native of Jefferson County who was returning to her home turf for a few days.

How, you may ask, did a girl from East Tennessee become not only a centerfold, but the 1962 Playmate of the Year?

That was the question I put to my editors when I discovered that June Cochran was coming to Knoxville as an ambassador of Hugh Hefner’s magazine, to grace a car show at the Civic Coliseum. My boss at The Knoxville Journal decided to indulge me and agreed that I should interview her and find out.

So, accompanied by photographer Al Roberts, I met with Miss Cochran and her traveling companion, a woman from Playboy who described herself as the chaperone. The resulting story—and Al’s photo—was published in early December of 1971.

What did I find out? How did she escape small-town Appalachia and get to the big city of Chicago and its spacious and ornate and notorious Playboy Mansion? Well, there was an early appearance on the Cas Walker TV show with her grandfather, a Jefferson County constable, but it is not likely that Playboy representatives were familiar with the Farm & Home Hour’s reputation as a talent showcase. It was Miss Cochran’s showing as Miss Indiana in the Miss Universe pageant in Miami that caught the attention of Hefner. (She had moved to Indianapolis after her sophomore year in high school.)

After Hefner found her through the director of the Miss Indiana pageant, Miss Cochran told me, “my mother talked me into posing” for the Playboy photographer.

There followed a reader contest to determine the ’63 Playmate of the Year, the first-ever runoff for the title. In announcing the contest, the magazine’s writer described Miss Cochran as a “silver-haired Hoosier with a modeling-and-movie career in mind.” She received, according to the magazine, “the lioness’ share of reader votes” with her “perfect blend of little-girl charm and big-girl proportions.”

After spending a couple of hours talking with her, I can attest to that description—I was certainly charmed, as was Al Roberts, who did not want to leave even though he had other assignments.

During my interview, she said that Warner Brothers had offered her a seven-year movie contract, but she had turned it down because of the restrictions it would have placed on her time. But the modeling career move came easy for Miss December, and she became one of the magazine’s most in-demand Playmates.

Reportedly, she was the basis for artist Harvey Kurtzman’s long-running “Little Annie Fanny” cartoon strips in Playboy. And, nine years later, she was still representing the magazine at such events as the car show that brought her to Knoxville.

One question that I put to her at the time, which did not make the published story, involved the more explicit photos that Playboy’s chief competition, Penthouse, was featuring. “Would you pose nude today, when the pictures are more revealing?” I wanted to know. Her answer reflected the standard answer of the time. It was something like, “Why should we be ashamed of our bodies—that’s the way God created us?” My editor decided against using that part of the story.

Many years later, a friend from her hometown told me that Miss December’s successful move from the hills of Appalachia caused a bit of scandal at the time. But as far as she was concerned when I met her, she had no regrets.

And four decades after her Playboy debut, June Cochran was still a popular former Playmate, easily making the transition to the Internet. When she died in 2003, she had more than 1,000 followers on her Yahoo page.

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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