Playboy’s Nude Playmates hit the newsstands in April, a “Special Edition” bereft of ads, articles and executive gadgetry, nothing but page after page of naked women by the pool; in lakes, mansions and art studios; and on rooftops. Pages 69-71 belong to Elisa Bridges: six photos of her on a white couch in a white living room, wearing nothing more than a thin silver necklace, a similar ring over her left index finger and a look of professional nonchalance.
“The photos in the magazine might make some men look at me in a sexual way,” she’s quoted in the back of the magazine, “but I think most men do that as they pass me on the street anyway!”
Bridges was dead when the magazine was published. She died two months earlier in a luxurious Beverly Hills mansion owned by Edward Nahem, a longtime acquaintance of 76-year old Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
“Elisa Bridges, Miss December 1994, died Feb. 7 from natural causes in Los Angeles,” read an official Playboy web page posted a few days after her death. “She was 28. The entire Playboy family is stunned and saddened by this terrible loss, and our thoughts are with her family and friends.” Weeks later, the July 2002 issue of Playboy magazine reported, “The coroner has concluded that her death was due to natural causes.”
There was nothing natural about Bridges’ death. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office actually concluded that Bridges died of a massive accidental drug overdose. A drug overdose in a room where no drugs were found, in a house she didn’t live in. How could a person die from too much heroin and not have any needle tracks? What time did she die? Nobody, including the coroner, knows.
What kind of natural causes kills a healthy 28-year-old woman? Pretty much what you’d expect: big money, big parties, big drugs. Every now and then, it gets to be too much, and someone ends up dead and then quickly forgotten. Then again, wasn’t Bridges part of the famous Playboy promise that “Once a Playmate, always a Playmate”? One big, naked sorority stretching back to the first playmate, Marilyn Monroe, who died under mysterious circumstances.
So maybe Elisa Bridges wasn’t forgotten. Then again, not a lot of people are asking questions about her death. At least not out loud. No one wants to kill the party.
“Sorry, but no comment here,” said one Playmate. “It’s not my place to talk about what happened. I honestly would be surprised if anyone commented on it.”
Two days after Bridges’ body was discovered, LA Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Bethann Schaber performed an autopsy. Her findings were striking.
“This 28-year-old Caucasian woman died as a result of acute multiple-drug intoxication,” Schaber wrote. “Toxicology results are positive for heroin, methamphetamine, Alprazolam and meperidine.”
Bridges had been speedballing meth and heroin. It is similar to how John Belushi died. The Alprazolam in her blood was her Xanax prescription, and the meperidine in her urine was a heroin byproduct. But despite having enough heroin in her body to kill her, Schaber couldn’t find any needle tracks on Bridges. There are ways to ingest heroin besides shooting it directly into the veins, but right now no one will say what happened.
Schaber also located numerous bruises on Bridges’ body—”minor blunt impact injuries of the extremities”—was how she described them in her report. There was an abrasion on Bridges’ right elbow, left knee, right knee and right hip. How she got them is unknown, but Schaber did not figure them into cause of death conclusions.
“Based on the history, investigator’s report, police report and autopsy findings as currently known, the manner of death is accident,” concluded Schaber.
Why exactly Bridges was in Nahem’s house Feb. 7 is unknown. Her own spacious, two-bedroom Brentwood apartment was barely 15 minutes away. Nahem, 58, told police Bridges often stayed with him, always in the guest room.
Her death certificate lists her time of death as 5:58 p.m., but that’s just the time Nahem told the police he found her. There is no time of death estimated in her autopsy report.
Nahem’s home is not easily accessible. Two salmon-pink stories with white trim splayed out on a 41,000-square-foot lot, the house is hidden within the exclusive Benedict Canyon section of Beverly Hills. It’s tucked away on one of those tight, winding roads accessible only to the rich, famous and their immigrant gardeners. Everything about the multimillion-dollar home is big: massive garages, stables and swimming pool, four spacious bedrooms and just as many baths.
A few minutes before 6 p.m. on Feb. 7, Nahem said he drove up his steep, winding driveway, past his swimming pool and parked. He said he immediately noticed that Bridges’ car was still in the driveway.
Nahem did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But he told the Los Angeles Police Department he had last seen Bridges the night before, shortly after midnight.
Entering the guest room at 6 p.m., Nahem said he found Bridges still in bed, the blanket pulled up to her chin. Calling 911, Nahem said he and a man named Frank Lupera tried to revive Bridges by splashing water on her face and then with CPR. Nahem described Lupera as “another resident.” (The Weekly was unable to contact Lupera.) Nothing worked. Paramedics arrived a few minutes later, but all they could do was pronounce Bridges dead.
Nahem told the LAPD that Bridges had been a little depressed but certainly hadn’t been contemplating suicide. She never smoked and was only a social drinker. If she used drugs, he said he never saw it.
Nahem’s story, that Bridges died quietly in bed, appears in the LAPD report. That report, written by Detective John Kades, raises more questions than it answers.
Kades arrived at Nahem’s house at 9:45 the night Bridges died. Once in the house, Kades talked with police officers who had arrived hours before. He talked to Nahem and Lupera. Then he headed to the guest room. He found no sign of forced entry or a struggle.
Instead Kades found Bridges’ body in the bed, just as Nahem said he found her.
“The decedent’s clothing and personal effects are seen piled on a chair near the bed,” he later reported. Then Kades made an extraordinary discovery: except for her prescription bottle of Xanax, the room contained “no illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia.”
Here was a dead girl, killed by drug overdose in a room with no drugs. If Kades asked Nahem how this was possible, he didn’t include it in his report.
Kades poked Bridges’ skin. The rigor mortis level was listed as 4+; she had been dead for 12 to 48 hours. She’d been dead a long time. Kades pulled back the blanket from the bed. She was wearing an orange top and matching orange thong underwear. The detective noted that her thong was “pulled down slightly on the left side and the back.”
There was a bathroom next to the room. In a wastebasket next to the sink, Kades found a plastic cup containing a white powdery substance, which he booked into evidence. If the Los Angeles Coroner’s office examined the residue, the results never made it into the final toxicology report.
At 1:45 a.m., Kades called Bridges’ father in Houston. After telling him his daughter was dead, Kades asked if he had any possible explanation. Bridges’ father said Elisa had been depressed at times, did drink alcohol and use drugs, including marijuana and possibly cocaine. But he said that he’d last talked to his daughter three days earlier and she relayed no complaints.
Elisa Rebeca Bridges was born in Texas on May 24, 1973, to a Florida-native father and a Cuban-born mother. Twenty-one years later, Bridges fondly recalled her home in her Playboy Playmate video profile.
“My parents are still married to each other and still in love,” said Bridges. “It seems in this day and age, that’s something to be proud of. Some of my favorite memories are of camping trips with my family.”
Bridges bore little resemblance to the bottle-blond, siliconed Playmates that usually rotated through Baywatch. Her centerfold Playmate Data Sheet listed her height at 5 feet 6 inches, but Bridges was a tiny woman, described in her autopsy report as just 5 feet tall. At her death, she weighed 90 pounds. She had soft, light brown hair with blond highlights and brown eyes. Her chest was naturally flat. She had no tattoos and, other than in her earlobes, no piercings.
Her video footage shows her capable of sweet vivaciousness: dancing nude and roller-skating around an apartment. Throughout it all, she’s smiling. But when the cameras were off, Bridges was quiet, even around her Playmate sisters.
“I hardly knew Elisa, and what I did know of her was that she was a very private person,” said Neriah Davis, Miss March 1994, who appeared in Playboy nine months before Bridges.
“I am sorry to say that I did not know Elisa very well,” said Shae Marks, Miss May 1994. “We worked together a few times, but she was very quiet and reserved in large groups.”
“I always thought Elisa was very sweet,” said Cindy Rakowitz, who spent 15 years as vice president of public relations and promotions for Playboy Enterprises. “I had to have a working relationship with every Playmate alive, so I got to know Elisa. Some Playmates are more outgoing than others. It seems most are either loud and in your face and boisterous or quiet and shy. I would say Elisa was more on the quiet side—not loud and always very quiet and sweet. She had a very sweet smile. She was a real nice girl.”
According to Nahem, he met Bridges four or five years ago. Often dressing in black, Nahem has associated with Hefner and Playboy since the early 1980s. “I’m not a great friend of Hefner’s,” Nahem once told a reporter, “but we certainly get a kick out of each other.”
In 1983, his wooing of the 21-year-old blond Scandinavian model and sometime actress Merete van Kamp earned him a write-up in People magazine. Six months after meeting him in Paris, van Kamp moved into Nahem’s then-Coldwater Canyon home.
“He knows how to take care of the spirit of a woman,” van Kamp said in the July 11, 1983, issue of People. She added that “horse breeding is what he’s into, heart and soul.”
But by 2000, van Kamp was out of the life of Nahem, who was now a regular fixture at the Playboy Mansion. It was also the year Nahem finally succeeded in pulling off a marketing gimmick by getting Hefner to lend his famous name to a racehorse.
“The first time I tried, he said no,” said Nahem in the May 18, 2000 Baltimore Sun. “But then I wrote him a letter embellishing the horse, saying that the horse was a champion and his father was a champion and so forth.”
When asked by police if he and Bridges were romantically involved, Nahem said Bridges always stayed in his guest room.
In fact, Bridges never really made a home in Southern California. From the time she became a Playmate until her death, Bridges jumped back and forth between Miami—where she told her apartment manager she had modeling work—and LA.
On Sept. 15, 2001, Bridges moved into a spacious, two-bedroom apartment in a charming 50-year-old building just off San Vicente in Brentwood. But she never really got comfortable, filling one bedroom with unpacked boxes and suitcases. Her neighbors saw her occasionally—a tiny woman walking quietly through the complex—but never really got to know her.
“I saw her five, maybe six times,” said Bogi, her apartment manager who preferred to go by his first name only. “She was very quiet, very nice. She didn’t throw any parties and didn’t have that many visitors. I knew she was in Playboy because she had a refrigerator magnet that said Playmate of the Month, but she never talked about it.”
Bogi said Bridges traveled often to Florida, sometimes asking him to water her plants.
“I’m always on the go, especially whenever I feel there’s an opportunity to work,” Bridges had said seven years before in her video profile. “I’ve pursued my dreams and desires all over the world. Playboy has given me the opportunity to travel all over the United States. Right now, I’m very happy and looking forward to a life filled with opportunity.”
Of course, it wasn’t all happy. There was the 1997 DUI arrest in Hollywood. There were always the parties. Sometimes, all Bridges would have to do was squeeze into a cocktail dress and mingle with guys like Drew Carey or Bill Maher. Other times, Playmates had more work-related roles, depending on the seniority of who appeared in the magazine when.
A typical party boasted a 10-to-1 ratio of guys to girls, producing the rare combination of a line outside the men’s room. Dozens of Playmates would float in a sea of suits, cigars and vodka-Red Bulls. In one corner, a pair of Playmates dressed in old Bunny costumes would pose for Polaroids with whoever wanted an evening souvenir. Hefner himself might show for a few minutes, his seven-Playmate harem in tow, posing for photos before retreating to his cavernous Mansion. If there was a pool, a few giggling Playmates might play topless beach ball like a television program the host left on for anyone not otherwise engaged.
“Elisa did a lot of work with Playmate Promotions when I was in charge of it,” said Rakowitz, who left Playboy in 2001 to form her own LA-based PR firm, Rak & Roll Entertainment. “I was fine with her on jobs. She was on time, and I never got any complaints about her.”
Of course, there was that party, four or five years ago, when Bridges got drunk and Rakowitz’s assistant had to take away her car keys and send her home in a cab. “I don’t think Elisa was working as a Playmate that night,” Rakowitz recalled. “I thought [calling a cab] was the responsible thing to do.”
Bridges may not have been easy to know, but at least one associate noticed her substance-abuse troubles. “She partied a lot,” said one Playmate who requested anonymity, “and I don’t think I ever had a sober conversation with her.”
Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park—the cemetery that holds the graves and crypts of Marilyn Monroe, George C. Scott, Frank Zappa, and numerous other celebrities and stars—handled Bridges’ body. The mortuary cremated her, then split her ashes into thirds. The three urns were then mailed to Bridges’ mother and two other relatives in Florida and North Carolina. A Pierce Brothers spokesman called the procedure “not uncommon.”
Fan response to Bridges’ death has been a mixture of sadness and opportunism. “Her Centerfold has been hanging in my home for years,” wrote Peter Heinemann of Wuppertal, Germany, in a letter published in the July 2002 issue of Playboy. Brent Ross of Huntington Beach wrote, “Although I never met her, she seemed like the perfect woman.”
Bridges’ death brought an end to Playboy fantasies about her life, but she still has value as a pure commodity. On July 10, bidding on eBay began for a one-piece swimsuit worn by Bridges during a photo shoot for the modeling agency Mac & Bumble. The suit, posted by the agency, eventually sold for $356.01 to a buyer known only as gb2366.
“Was saddened by her very untimely departure,” said gb2366 in an e-mail after the auction ended. “Have had some rare autographed articles and need/wanted to add to the collection. Probably will sell one day soon.”
Playboy never corrected its “natural causes” obituary and has no plans to do so. But Playboy spokesman Bill Farley concedes Playboy‘s “natural causes” explanation was a mistake, caused by advanced publishing schedules and reading too much into an initial police report routinely identifying Bridges’ “apparent mode” of death as “natural.”
“I’m probably as much at fault as anyone for that,” said Farley. “We did ultimately know about the coroner’s report, but we publish three to five months in advance. Maybe we should have put out more flowery tributes, but the truth is she wasn’t that close to us.”
Of course, we now know Bridges was still part of the Playboy world even after her death. She was still modeling for the magazine, still partying with Hef’s friends when she died. But Farley spoke of Bridges as if she were unknown to Playboy, ignoring that her photos appeared in that special edition after her death.
“She hadn’t worked for our [modeling] agency for two to three years,” he said. “Her family wasn’t in our database. Sure, Playmates are forever in Hef’s eyes, but they have to make their own livings. Like many girls, Elisa went off on her own. Remember, she was a Playmate some years ago. One of the realities these girls have to deal with is that after a few years have passed since they’ve been in the magazine, their currency drops off. A lot of people think that every Playmate lives at the Mansion, that we’re all one big happy family. It’s just not true.”
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.