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The Real Vargas

One hundred years after his birth, Alberto Vargas is still regarded as "The King of Pin-Up Art."
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 1)

Still, good son that he was, Alberto spent the next five years as his father intended: studying in elite schools in Switzerland, learning French and German in addition to his native Spanish, and beginning a photo apprenticeship in a prestigious studio in Geneva. A photo taken of Alberto at the age of 17 shows a shy, soulful young man with a Latin air, soft, delicate features, a wisp of a moustache and the tailoring of a fashionable young dandy, right down to the silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit and the jewelled stick-pin set just below the rakish knot in his tie.

Then came war. In 1916, with the gruesome battles of the First World War raging across Europe, a jittery Max Vargas sent an urgent cable instructing Alberto to immediately make his way to London. Alberto did as told, but wartime restrictions halted his journey in Paris. So, on new orders from his father, Alberto wound up on a ship bound for New York City, with a planned connection back to Peru. Max Jr. was to join him in New York as soon as possible. This would prove to be a fateful detour; from this point on, nothing in Alberto Vargas' life would go according to his father's plan.

Vargas arrived in the port of New York on a glorious autumn morning in October 1916. The sunlight was dazzling and the streets were a raucous swirl of color, movement and that raw vitality that is so unique to the island of Manhattan. Vargas had never felt such excitement. Everything he saw was so new, so exotic. The placid towns and lakes of Switzerland seemed an arid desert by comparison. Vargas spent his first days in America just walking the streets, taking in the sights and sounds and all the electricity in the air.

What excited him most were the American women. They were not shy and demure like the Latin women back home in Arequipa. They were not stolid and fleshy like the women in Geneva. They were not coy and coquettish like the women he had seen in Paris. No, to his eyes American women seemed unique. He liked their jaunty stride, their openness, their air of independence and their look of healthy, uncomplicated sensuality. At noon, when work stopped and women came rushing out of shops and office buildings for their midday break, Alberto fell into a complete romantic swoon.

"From every building came torrents of girls," he would later recall of his first days in America. "I had never seen anything like it.... Hundreds of girls with an air of self-assuredness and determination that said, 'Here I am, how do you like me?' This certainly was not the Spanish, Swiss or French girl!"

Within a few days of his arrival, Vargas had made up his mind: he was not going back to Peru. He was going to find a way to stay in America. In this same rush of independence, he made another decision: he would pursue his true love, painting. Did he have the necessary talent? Could he succeed as a painter? Was there any way he could stay in New York, amid all these fabulous women, and find a way to make a living? Vargas had no idea. Though he knew that following his dream might prove to be pure romantic folly, he was still determined to give it a try.

And then it happened. Just a short time later, Vargas was walking along Broadway, in the heart of the theater district, when something magical caught his eye. It was a mass of luscious red hair, bouncing along through the crowd. "It was so sunny her hair was shining like fire," says Astrid Vargas-Conte, Vargas' niece and his aide and confidante during the last eight years of his life. "Alberto followed that hair and saw that it belonged to a young woman. She looked warm and vivacious and Alberto fell in love right there. He followed the girl to a theater where she worked and he asked the doorman for her name."

The theater was the home of the Greenwich Village Follies, and Vargas learned that the girl with the flaming red hair was named Anna Mae Clift. As the artist later told his niece, he waited at the theater for several hours, until rehearsal was over. When Anna Mae came out, Vargas shyly approached her and, in his broken English, introduced himself. He told her he was an artist and that he would love to paint her portrait, but he had no money with which to pay her. Anna Mae liked him right away and agreed to pose for him, at no cost. Vargas, of course, was overjoyed.

For Anna Mae was a painter's dream: she had a lithe, delicate body, and under that mass of red hair she had the most extraordinary set of eyes. Most of the time they were the palest of blue, but if something triggered her volatile temper, that blue would turn dark and intense. Vargas adored her and was mesmerized by the quixotic nature of her moods and beauty. She came from the tiny backwoods town of Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, but to Vargas she seemed of noble blood and spirit; in fact, to him she was the dream embodiment of all the romanticized notions he had formed about The American Woman. Anna Mae began posing for him regularly, always declining payment, but Vargas never dared reveal to her his true feelings and passion. Instead, he poured them into his art and into his private diary.

"What a girl!" he wrote in one entry. "The more I see of her, the less I know of her. But why be down-hearted? You might spend a lifetime and not know one woman! Her haughtiness and regal allure confuse yet fascinate me, beyond my pals' comprehension. How am I so lucky, or is it my conceit that I alone seem to penetrate a trifle deeper, below her sphinx-like surface.... Her eyes overpower me; I've never been able to gaze at her for more than a second or two, even when I paint her. A feeling overwhelms me that she may contemplate my naked soul."

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