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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 6)

When Anna Mae died, Vargas was heartbroken. In some profound and poignant way, he refused to let her go. Barbara Hoffman, who knew the couple well during the Playboy years and now oversees the magazine's art collection, which includes 165 original Vargas watercolors, still remembers the unusual love they shared. "He was a kind, generous, wonderful man, and very talented at that," Hoffman says. In the years Vargas worked for Playboy, Hoffman would send him correspondence or tearsheets, and in reply Anna Mae would always send her a note of thanks. After Anna Mae died, Hoffman said, it was Vargas who would send her the thank-you note: "And he would always add, 'And Anna Mae sends her love too,' even long after her death."

Without Anna Mae to care for him, Vargas was almost helpless. His niece Astrid, who lived nearby in Los Angeles with her husband and three children, began coming over regularly and doing some of the things Anna Mae did for Vargas, including paying his bills and helping with the shopping and cooking. She also took on the management of his business affairs and estate, a job she continues today. It's full-time work: The Vargas Girl and the artist's other artwork is constantly appearing in unauthorized reproductions, on posters, calendars, T-shirts, golf balls, pen knives and in international catalogs hawking erotic art of the most vulgar nature. There seems to be no end to this sad history of exploitation and greed.

For eight years Astrid Vargas-Conte was her uncle's aide and confidante, and often at night they would sit and talk, just as he always did with Anna Mae. They'd talk about his life's passions: Anna Mae, politics and fast cars, and all evening Vargas would smoke cigarettes or an occasional cigar. "I felt his pain," Astrid says. "The way he was treated by Esquire and the way his life turned out left him very bitter."

After Anna Mae's death, Vargas never regained his old energy or his passion for painting. In 1979, he did get a lift: he returned to Europe with Astrid for major exhibitions of his work and memory-rich trips to Geneva, Paris, London, Amsterdam and several cities in Germany. He was able to use all the languages he had learned during his youth in Switzerland, and across Europe he was treated as a serious and gifted artist, a compliment and a recognition he never received in America. Vargas continued to paint after that, but his hand was shaky and the old inspiration just wasn't there. Bitter and dispirited, he died of a stroke on Dec. 30, 1982, at the age of 86.

Still, Alberto Vargas' art lives on. And so does the spirit of the artist and the enduring love he had for his Anna Mae. Gaze now at the way he painted her, see all the artistry and devotion he summoned to pay her homage, sense the purity and depth of feeling he brought forth to create an image of her that he hoped would live forever. His life may not have turned out the way he had dreamed, but Vargas left behind an enduring American icon and a testament of love that few painters or poets can ever hope to match.

To a true artist, Alberto, reputation and money are of scant importance; what you created no one can sully.

Paul Chutkow, a freelance writer based in northern California, is the author of Depardieu, a biography of French actor Gerard Depardieu.

Vargas and Alberto Vargas are registered trademarks of the Vargas Partnership.

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