12 Facts About Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone 30 Years After the Disaster

It was 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986, that disaster struck nuclear reactor number 4 in Chernobyl. At first, Soviet officials attempted to hide the cataclysmic events unfolding in Ukraine, but when radioactive clouds were detected as far away as Sweden, news spread that the unthinkable had happened: a lethal explosion at a nuclear power plant.

Residents at the neighboring workers’ town of Pripyat weren’t told of the deadly radiation covering their homes at first. As official buses began evacuating the area, people were instructed to bring only a suitcase, since they would be able to return in a few days. But as the extent of the explosion became clear, the Soviet military established an official Exclusion Zone, a roughly 18-mile radius around the stricken power plant. About 115,000 people were evacuated in 1986, and another 220,000 in the following years, creating a desolate landscape of abandoned towns and villages.

Thirty years after the disaster, much of the Exclusion Zone—now encompassing 1000 miles and also called the Zone of Alienation—is still strictly off-limits. The area remains a chilling reminder of nuclear disaster, while at the same time drawing thousands of tourists each year and demonstrating the resiliency of nature.

1. YOU CAN STAY THERE ...

Hotel Chernobyl. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yes, there’s a hotel. It’s simple, best described as being in the “Soviet” style. According to the website Chernobyl-Tour.com, "visitors are provided with the iron-starched linen stamped by the Chernobyl special industrial complex." There is, however, Wi-Fi, enabling explorers the unique experience of being able to email friends and relatives from deep inside the Zone. The hotel is the only place for intrepid explorers to the Zone to stay, but its staff are only allowed to work on a strict rotation of 15 days in the Zone and 15 outside, to keep radiation levels to a minimum. Workers inside the Zone live in basic dormitories in the town of Chernobyl.

2. ... BUT YOU HAVE TO GET PERMISSION IN ADVANCE TO VISIT.


The first checkpoint. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Chernobyl is still impossible for tourists to get to without an official guide. There are strict military-style checkpoints at the 30km zone, at 10km, and at the entrance to the ghostly worker's town of Pripyat. Your name and passport have to be submitted to controlling authorities seven to 10 days in advance, and the guards check you and your passport numbers at each checkpoint. The early days of the Zone saw a large problem with local intruders who infiltrated the vast perimeter to ransack Pripyat and other areas, but since 2007 the Ukrainian government has severely clamped down on illegal intruders.

3. THE ZONE INCLUDES MORE THAN JUST CHERNOBYL.


The gymnasium at Pripyat. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Chernobyl was the largest town in what’s now the zone. Dating back to the 12th century, it was once a vibrant, largely Jewish town. The peaceful farming town, however, suffered at the start of the 20th century, when many of the inhabitants were murdered by first the Red Army and then during the Nazi occupation. At the time of the disaster, the population had increased, largely due to the nuclear industry, to approximately 14,000.


A deserted house in Chernobyl. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Today, the ghost town of Pripyat attracts the most attention. Opened in 1970, Pripyat was designed as a model example of Communist city life. It was also surprisingly youthful: The average age of the roughly 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat was about 26. The now-empty town had a discotheque, gymnasium, movie theatre, sports field, and the famous amusement park. One of the most-frequented parts of Pripyat, according to tour guides there, was the maternity ward, with the youthful population of Pripyat producing around 1000 babies each year.

As roads have steadily deteriorated, the smaller towns deep in the Exclusion Zone have become cut off and remain mostly unvisited to even the seasoned tour guides. Across the border in Belarus, the effects of the explosion were similarly catastrophic, if not more so. An estimated 70 percent of the fallout descended on Belarus, contaminating approximately a quarter of the country. The most heavily hit areas in Belarus are now part of the 834-square mile Polesie State Radiation Ecological Reserve, a mixture of forests and deserted industrialized areas.

4. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WORK IN THE ZONE …


A worker in the zone. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roughly 5000 people still work in the Exclusion Zone: mostly sentry guards, workers on the massive new sarcophagus, firemen protecting the still-volatile area from deadly forest fires, and service staff for the workers. Like the hotel staff, they live in the Zone on a rotation pattern of 15 days in, 15 days out, to keep their radiation levels manageable, staying in dilapidated concrete dormitories next to the hotel.

5. ... AND SOME PEOPLE LIVE THERE.


About 180 older residents

also live full-time in the zone, having returned to their ancestral villages despite warnings from the Ukranian government, which has now largely allowed them to return to their homes to die in peace. A recent documentary, The Babushka of Chernobyl, tells their story.

6. SO IT’S NOT EXACTLY DESERTED.

Aside from the hotel, there is one bar, a post office that still makes one daily noon collection, and a supermarket, where produce is scarce but with the shelves are filled with alcohol. There is even a museum (never open) and something virtually non-existent in post-1991 Ukraine: a statue of Lenin. Because it remains frozen in time, Chernobyl is one of the few places where hammer and sickles can still be seen.

7. TOURISM IS BIG BUSINESS.


Nikolai, a tour guide in the zone. Photo by Luke Spencer.

The Exclusion Zone began allowing officially sanctioned visits, mostly for scientists and reporters, almost as soon as it was created. In recent years, tour groups have begun organizing brief, strictly controlled visits. One tour guide mental_floss interviewed, named Nikolai, says a couple has even gotten engaged on one of his tours. Beforehand, the proposer asked Nikolai if he could take them to the most contaminated area possible for the big moment. This year, the 30th anniversary, it’s thought that an estimated 10,000 visitors will step inside the Exclusion Zone.

8. THERE’S A CURFEW.

Inside Chernobyl, there is a strict curfew of 8 p.m. At night in the town square, one of the only things you can hear aside from the stray dogs barking is a strange sequence of rising electronic beeps coming from the forest somewhere to the north, which sounds a bit like the famous 5-note sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A tour guide said they come from the scientist's camp, which is constantly monitoring radiation levels.

9. EVERYONE GETS THEIR RADIATION MONITORED—EVEN THE TOUR GUIDES.


Every visitor coming out of the Exclusion Zone goes through a radiation screening at each checkpoint. If your levels are too high, clothes and boots are either washed or left behind. Taking anything out of Chernobyl is forbidden. Tour guides like Nikolai are checked regularly, and say they don’t receive anywhere near the annual levels of radiation deemed too dangerous.

10. TOURISM THERE MAY NOT LAST.


Luke Spencer

Despite the growing numbers of tourists, the Zone is still highly toxic and dangerous. The landscape is dotted with warning signs indicating where the “hot spots” are. Walking around is for the most part safe, but the greatest danger comes from ingesting radioactive particles. Nikolai has had to warn visitors against posing for photographs licking trees, eating berries, and rolling around in the earth. He particularly warns against following in the footsteps of “Bionerd23,” who posts videos of herself online fearlessly eating Chernobyl’s apples. Radiation levels in many places are safe, but parts of the Zone, particularly near reactor 4, and in basements of buildings such as Pripyat’s hospital, remain dangerously high.

11. THE REACTORS AREN’T THE CREEPIEST PART.


The eerie Duga-3 radar base. Photo by Luke Spencer.

One of the most remarkable parts of the Exclusion Zone is southeast of the reactors: the eerie Duga-3 radar station. Once one of the most secretive spots in the old Soviet Union, this vast construction of antennae and aerials was once pointed in the direction of the United States, listening in for incoming planes and missiles. On maps, it was marked down as a children's summer camp, while the locals were told it was a radio tower. Around 1500 high-grade technicians, scientists, and military personnel worked and lived here, wrapped in the highest levels of Cold War secrecy. There was even a kindergarten. Today, there is just one soldier guarding the peculiar complex, the propaganda murals on the walls decayed and long-forgotten.


Inside the abandoned military compound of Duga -3. Photo by Luke Spencer.

12. THE FUTURE OF THE ZONE IS UNCLEAR.

The zone will continue to be contaminated by the radiation from the disaster for about 300 years. Without many humans around, wildlife has returned to the area, which now teems with foxes, wolves, lynx, boar, moose, and rabbits, among other creatures.

While some would like to turn the area into a nature preserve, its future remains a divisive topic in the Ukrainian government, with such plans under threat from Ukraine’s nuclear industry, which would prefer to use the toxic landscape as a fuel dump for radioactive waste. Today, Ukraine remains one of the countries most dependent on nuclear power for their electricity—which means all that waste has to go somewhere.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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30 Fascinating Facts About Marilyn Monroe

Keystone Features/Getty Images
Keystone Features/Getty Images

Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1, 1926. Had she not passed away in 1962 at the age of 36, what might she be doing now? Would she have continued acting? Become Mrs. Joe DiMaggio for the second time, as he claimed? Carved out an Oscar-winning career for herself? What could have been remains a mystery, much like Monroe herself. But here are some facts we do know.

1. Norma Jeane Baker's first marriage was arranged.

Portrait of a young Marilyn Monroe
Sotheby's/Getty Images

As a child, Norma Jean Baker (originally spelled as Norma Jeane) was in and out of foster homes, state care, and the guardianship of various family friends. She never knew her father, and her mother had been committed to a psychiatric facility. A 15-year-old Baker had been staying with family friend Grace Goddard, but they decided to move to West Virginia, and couldn’t take Baker. Unless she married, the teenager would have been turned back over to an orphanage. So they turned to 20-year-old James Dougherty next door and suggested a marriage. "I thought she was awful young," he later said, but "we talked and we got on pretty good." They were married just 18 days after she turned 16.

2. Norma Jean Baker was named after a movie star.

Norma Jean Baker's mother had fame on the brain early on for her daughter. She chose "Norma" as her first name after actress Norma Talmadge.

3. “Marilyn Monroe” wasn’t her first choice for a stage name.

If Norma Jean Baker had gone with her first choice of stage name, "Jean Adair" would be the household name today. According to Baker's sister, Baker's original stage name of choice played off of Norma Jeane, her real name.

4. "Monroe" was the maiden name of Marilyn Monroe's mother.

Baker chose Monroe as her surname because it was her mother's maiden name. In her ghost-written autobiography, Monroe said she was told that she was somehow related to President James Monroe, but no evidence has ever been found to support that. "Marilyn" came from a studio executive who thought she resembled Marilyn Miller, an actress who died at the age of 37 (Monroe was 36 when she passed away).

5. When Gladys Baker told people she was Marilyn Monroe’s mother, no one believed her.

Marilyn Monroe in June 1949.
Marilyn Monroe in June 1949.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Gladys Baker, Marilyn's mother, told people Marilyn Monroe was her daughter, no one believed her. Gladys, once a film cutter at RKO, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was in and out of psychiatric care for years. Gladys took Norma Jean to a foster family when she was just two weeks old, which resulted in a series of orphanages and foster care homes for the rest of her childhood—so she didn’t have a close relationship with her mother. When Marilyn hit it big and Gladys told friends and co-workers that her daughter was the Marilyn Monroe, they dismissed it as one of her paranoid schizophrenic delusions.

6. Marilyn Monroe often referred to "Marilyn Monroe" in the third person.

Actor Eli Wallach once recalled that Monroe seemed to flip an inner switch and turn "Marilyn" on and off. He had been walking on Broadway with her one evening, totally incognito, and the next minute, she was swarmed with attention. "'I just felt like being Marilyn for a minute,'" Wallach remembers her saying. Photographer Sam Shaw often heard her critiquing "Marilyn's" performances in movies or at photo shoots, making comments like, "She wouldn't do this. Marilyn would say that."

7. Marilyn Monroe was Truman Capote's first choice to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Truman Capote had Monroe in mind for the lead role in Breakfast at Tiffany's—and she even performed two scenes for him. "She was terrifically good," Capote later said. In the end, she didn't take the part because her advisor and acting coach didn't think it was the type of character she should be playing. Either way, Capote wasn't at all thrilled with the studio's choice of Audrey Hepburn, saying, "Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey."

8. Marilyn Monroe reportedly hated being in front of the camera.

After working with Monroe on Bus Stop, Oscar-nominated actor Don Murray noted that while her talent was undeniable, she was never fully comfortable in front of the camera. “She was a very experienced film actress, but she could forget so many of the mechanical techniques. She would constantly miss her marks, so she would be out of focus or out of the light or in a shadow,” Murray said. “I think it was a lack of confidence. For somebody who the camera loved, she was still terrified of going before the camera and broke out in a rash all over her body.”

9. Marilyn Monroe's on-camera glow wasn't exactly natural.

Before her makeup was applied, Marilyn slathered on a layer of Nivea Creme or Vaseline, believing it made her look more luminous on film. And she tried to stay out of the sun. “Despite its great vogue in California, I don’t think suntanned skin is any more attractive ... or any healthier, for that matter," Monroe once said. "I’m personally opposed to a deep tan because I like to feel blond all over.”

10. Marilyn Monroe had a thing for intellectual men.

Marylin Monroe waves to the camera with husband Arthur Miller on her arm in 1958.
Marylin Monroe waves to the camera with husband Arthur Miller on her arm in 1958.
Votava/Imagno/Getty Images

Monroe's marriage to writer Arthur Miller probably tells you that, but there's more evidence. Monroe was once roommates with actress Shelley Winters, who said they made a list of men they wanted to sleep with, just for fun. "There was no one under 50 on hers," Winters later reported. "I never got to ask her before she died how much of her list she had achieved, but on her list was Albert Einstein, and after her death, I noticed that there was a silver-framed photograph of him on her white piano."

11. Marilyn Monroe was loyal to Arthur Miller, even thought it put her career in jeopardy.

In 1956, Marilyn’s future husband—The Crucible playwright Arthur Miller—was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When this happened, celebrities were expected to name names of people who had allegedly been involved in Communist activities. Miller refused to do so, which could have landed him in prison. Marilyn’s steadfast commitment to Miller probably kept the playwright from being sentenced. (It probably didn’t hurt that he announced their wedding plans in the middle of his testimony.)

12. The FBI had a file on Marilyn Monroe.

The FBI's file on Monroe was probably opened due to her relationship with Miller and his “un-American” activities, coupled with a request she made to visit the Soviet Union in 1955. (She never actually made the trip.) If you’re so inclined, you can peruse the file online.

13. Marilyn Monroe's house was bugged.

The only house Monroe ever owned, a modest hacienda in Brentwood, California, was purchased by married actors Michael Irving and Veronica Hamel in the early 1970s, roughly a decade after Marilyn had died there. During a remodel, the couple discovered a sophisticated, government-grade phone tapping system that extended throughout the house.

14. According to Shelley Winters, Marilyn Monroe wasn't much of a cook.

Winters says she once asked the actress to wash lettuce so they could have salad for dinner. When she walked into the kitchen, Winters found Monroe washing each individual lettuce leaf “with a Brillo pad.”

15. But Marilyn Monroe eventually found her footing in the kitchen.

Marilyn Monroe circa 1954.
Marilyn Monroe circa 1954.
Baron/Getty Images

Several of Monroe's recipes were discovered after her death, and in 2010, The New York Times tried making her stuffing recipe for Thanksgiving. They found it surprisingly complex and theorized that “she not only cooked, but cooked confidently and with flair.”

16. Marilyn Monroe was well-read.

Monroe's bookshelf was exceedingly impressive. At the time of her death, she owned more than 400 volumes, including several first editions. Of the thousands of photographs taken of her, she was especially fond of ones that showed her reading. When a director once found her reading R.M. Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, he asked her how she chose it. "[On] nights when I've got nothing else to do I go to the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard," she told him. "And I just open books at random—or when I come to a page or a paragraph I like, I buy that book. So last night I bought this one. Is that wrong?"

17. Marilyn Monroe helped Ella Fitzgerald book the Mocambo Club.

The rumor has long circulated that Ella Fitzgerald was originally denied due to her race, but according to one biographer, race wasn't the deterrent for nightclub owner Charlie Morrison; Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge had already played there. The problem was that Morrison didn't believe Fitzgerald was glamorous enough for his patrons. A huge Fitzgerald fan, Monroe promised to be in the front row every night if Morrison would book her, guaranteeing massive amounts of press for the club. He agreed, and Monroe was true to her word. "After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again," Fitzgerald said. "She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it."

18. Marilyn Monroe had a hard time memorizing lines.

"The joke was, she couldn't make two sentences meet," said Don Murray, an actor who co-starred with Monroe in the 1956 film Bus Stop. Though some chalked it up to a lack of professionalism, others—including Murray—believed it was nerves.

19. Marilyn Monroe's wardrobe is worth a fortune.

Marilyn Monroe's famous "Happy Birthday" dress.
DAN CALLISTER Online USA, Inc./Hulton Archive

At $1,267,500, the sheer, spangled dress Monroe wore to sing "Happy Birthday" to JFK in 1962 set the world record for the most expensive piece of clothing ever sold. A collectible company purchased it. The famous Seven Year Itch dress set a record, too, selling for $4.6 million in 2011. Casual attire goes for less, but still fetches more than your average pair of Levi's: Tommy Hilfiger bought her jeans from Otto Preminger's River of No Return for $37,000—and gave them to Britney Spears as a gift.

20. Frank Sinatra gifted Marilyn Monroe with a dog named Maf.

The Maltese Terrier was a gift from Frank Sinatra, and the dog's full name was “Mafia Honey,” which was apparently a nod to Sinatra’s supposed criminal ties. After Monroe's death, Maf was taken in by Sinatra’s secretary, Gloria Lovell.

21. Maf the dog “wrote” a book in 2010.

In 2010, author Andrew O’Hagan wrote The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe—a work of fiction written from Maf’s perspective.

22. Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra once attempted to catch Marilyn Monroe cheating with another man.

In 1954, Joltin’ Joe and Ol’ Blue Eyes were having dinner together when a private investigator that DiMaggio had hired tipped them off that Marilyn was with another man—right that second—in a house not far away. They assembled a crowd—yes, a crowd—and broke into the house where she was allegedly having her tryst.

It wasn’t until they broke the lock on the door and stormed inside snapping photos that they realized it was the wrong house entirely. The whole thing blew up when the homeowner sued; Sinatra had to testify before the California State Senate two years later. The homeowner, secretary Florence Kotz, was awarded $7,500 for her trauma.

23. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were only married for 8 months.

Marilyn Monroe stars in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
Marilyn Monroe stars in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Their romance is infamous, but Monroe was only married to second husband Joe DiMaggio for a mere 274 days. Though many things contributed to their divorce, the infamous "subway scene" in The Seven Year Itch—where the skirt of Marilyn's white dress billows up—was said to have been the last straw. The scene was shot in front of a large crowd of media and bystanders, and DiMaggio became irate over how much she was exposing herself. They fought over it, and according to some reports, DiMaggio got physical.

24. Marilyn Monroe divorced Joe DiMaggio over "mental cruelty."

Whether or not DiMaggio did get physical with Monroe, their marriage came to an end shortly after The Seven Year Itch incident. Monroe filed for divorce on the grounds of "mental cruelty" not long after.

The kicker? That particular fight was completely unnecessary. The crowd made enough noise that the footage shot that day was completely unusable, so Monroe had to re-shoot her scenes on a closed sound stage.

25. Joe DiMaggio remained devoted to Marilyn Monroe, even after their divorce.

DiMaggio continued to be there when Monroe needed him, including bringing her to spring training with him so that she could get away from Hollywood for a while. Shortly before her death, DiMaggio had been telling friends that they were going to get remarried. When she died, he was in charge of the funeral, and he refused to allow almost anyone from Hollywood to attend. "Tell them, if it wasn't for them, she'd still be here," he said. He had roses delivered to her grave twice a week for 20 years following her death.

26. Marilyn Monroe had been in discussions to star in a biopic about Jean Harlow, one of her heroes, for years.

Marilyn and her friend Sidney Skolsky had long been hatching plans for a biopic of Jean Harlow, which Marilyn would star in and Skolsky would produce. Harlow, another blonde bombshell and Hollywood starlet who died young, was one of Marilyn’s idols—so the self-casting would have been poetic.

27. Even in death, Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow had a lot in common.

About DiMaggio having roses delivered to Monroe’s grave several times a week for 20 years following her death? The tradition was taken from Jean Harlow’s untimely death: When she died, fiance William Powell had flowers delivered to her grave every week for years. One account says that Monroe actually asked DiMaggio to deliver on this same morbid promise on their wedding day.

28. Warren Beatty was one of the last people to see Marilyn Monroe alive.

A 25-year-old Warren Beatty was attending a party at actor (and JFK’s brother-in-law) Peter Lawford’s house when he met Monroe for the first time. She asked him to take a walk along the beach with her; he later recalled that “It was more soulful than romantic.” Her death was announced the next day.

29. Marilyn Monroe’s estate earned much more money following Monroe’s passing.

At the height of her career, Marilyn had a million-dollar contract for two films. During the same time frame, Elizabeth Taylor was paid $1 million for her role in Cleopatra alone. It’s estimated that Marilyn was worth about $20 million at the time of her death, which is nothing to sneeze at—but these days, her estate is making $30 million a year.

30. being buried near Marilyn Monroe is a big deal.

Marilyn Monroe's gravesite.
Mel Bouzad/Getty Images

After her death, Monroe was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. DiMaggio originally owned the crypt above hers, but sold it when they divorced. The buyer was Richard Poncher, a fan who requested that he be flipped over when he was buried so he could lay face down on top of Monroe for eternity. Charming. Though his wife obliged the request, she changed her mind in 2009 and put the plot up for sale on eBay. It brought in a whopping $4.6 million, but the buyer later backed out.

Hugh Hefner famously purchased the plot right next to hers. Though she graced the first cover of Playboy, the two never met. "I feel a double connection to her because she was the launching key to the beginning of Playboy," he said. When Hefner died in 2017, he was buried in the plot he'd bought for $75,000 in 1992.

This story was updated in 2020.