The Real Vargas

One hundred years after his birth, Alberto Vargas is still regarded as "The King of Pin-Up Art."

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As Vargas scratched around Manhattan publishers looking for work, one name kept surfacing: Esquire. Then one of the hottest magazines in America, Esquire was said to be in a spat with its star artist, George Petty, creator of a famous, often scantily clad pin-up known as The Petty Girl. According to reliable accounts, Petty had no formal contract with Esquire, but by 1940 he was earning about $1,800 a picture. His main income came from two big advertising contracts he had struck, one with Old Gold cigarettes, the other with Jantzen swimsuits. When David Smart, Esquire's owner-publisher, decided that Petty was getting too big for his britches, he dumped him and promptly hired Vargas, who had the necessary talent and another trait that may have appealed to Smart: he desperately needed the work.

This was a fateful moment in the life of Alberto Vargas. There are some accounts, possibly apocryphal, that say Vargas did not want to go knocking on Esquire's door but was tricked into it. If true, you can easily imagine that his artistic intuition was sending him a warning. For in his first meeting with Smart, Vargas signed a contract that would prove disastrous for his life and art.

The contract, signed June 20, 1940, stipulated that Vargas would be paid $75 a week for his work. The magazine also insisted on a verbal agreement that Vargas change the name on his work to Varga, without the final "s," and that name would belong to Esquire as well. Alberto would get 50 percent of the net receipts from any subsidiary sales, such as calendars or posters. If, in three years' time, Esquire wanted to continue the relationship, it would boost Vargas' salary to $150 a week.

"Alberto knew nothing about business. And he surely did not understand the contract he signed," says Astrid Vargas-Conte. Vargas was a courtly Old World gentleman; he kissed ladies' hands and he sealed friendships and deals with a shake of the hand. A handshake was the only contract he ever had with Ziegfeld, and their relationship had been harmonious and mutually rewarding; Vargas expected the same from Smart and Esquire.

But it did not turn out that way. The Varga Girl was an instant success with Esquire's readers. With the Second World War raging in Europe, and America moving into a major military buildup and an era of flag-waving patriotism, Esquire decided to use The Varga Girl as its primary attraction and defining emblem. Smart ordered his promotion department to start generating ads, mailers and posters to parade The Varga Girl before the public and use her to emblazon the magazine.

Smart, in a clever bit of marketing and promotion, also introduced a Varga calendar, and it proved to be a huge commercial and critical success. Selling by mail-order only, Esquire rapidly sold 320,000 calendars, at 25 cents apiece. In its "Talk of The Town" column of Jan. 11, 1941, even The New Yorker felt obliged to doff its hat, in a sniffish sort of way, to the emerging Vargas phenomenon. Noting that the artist "could make a girl look nude if she were rolled up in a rug," The New Yorker used withering irony to counterpoint the glossy optimism of The Varga Girl and the Esquire calendar with the grim realities of impending war:

"This may be just the thing we need right now. A little concentration and perhaps we can visualize each month as a separate and lovely encounter with a beautiful stranger, the whole year a harmless and joyous trip through the old seraglio. It is nice to think of Esquire readers joyfully awaiting the turn of each page, identifying each four weeks with a new delight.... August, the invasion month, is a cutie lying prone on a beach, covered slightly by a transparent hat. October, when the sky may be full of bombers, is a slip of a girl bared from toe to hip, shooting an arrow.... What may be the end of the world will be marked by a nice thigh, the beginning of chaos by the lift of a pretty hip."

Still, the power of The Varga Girl could not be belittled or brushed aside. Thanks in part to Esquire's promotional efforts, and thanks in part to her own powers of seduction, The Varga Girl became an integral part of the American war effort. She appeared on posters promoting patriotism and hawking war bonds, she was painted onto the noses of bombers and onto the backs of pilots' leather jackets. Vargas, now a fierce patriot in his adopted land, lent his brush to any Army or Navy unit that asked him, free of charge, and he toured military bases to help boost troop morale. Hollywood, eager to capitalize on the Vargas wave--and never a place to let principle stand in the way of profit--quickly forgot that little blacklisting episode and persuaded Vargas to come back and help promote its movies.

To keep up with the Varga Phenomenon, Vargas worked like a slave. Now living in Chicago, to be near Esquire headquarters, in 1944 alone he turned out some 40 paintings for the magazine and for calendars, posters and other promotional needs. In May 1944, after working a year without a new contract at the same rate of pay, Vargas, along with his wife, again sat down with Smart, with a revised contract on the desk between them. According to later testimony in court, Smart assured them the contract was much better for them than the earlier one. Again Vargas signed on the dotted line, reportedly without even reading the contract. Nor was a copy sent to him and his wife; it was kept on file for them at Esquire.

This contract, now a matter of public record, gave Vargas the status of an independent contractor. But it nonetheless bound him to work for Esquire for "a period of ten years and six months, beginning January 1, 1944." Ten years. Worse, the contract demanded a superhuman rate of artistic output: Vargas was to supply Esquire "with not less than twenty-six (26) during each six-month period." Yes, 52 paintings a year. With ownership of all the Vargas drawings to belong, of course, exclusively to Esquire.

What was to be Vargas' compensation for producing this minimum of 52 paintings a year, for the next 10 years? Exactly $12,000 a year, $1,000 a month. That works out to the munificent sum of $230.77 per painting, for the most popular illustrator of the time and for the magazine's signature attraction. Was this just pure exploitation and greed? Or was Esquire strapped at the time? No. According to figures cited by Reed Austin in Vargas' autobiography, in 1945 Esquire's gross sales of Varga spin-offs alone amounted to more than $1 million.

In his naivete, Vargas left Smart's office delighted and went back to work as before, turning out pictures at a furious pace. But when Smart became irritated with the rate of Vargas' output, and demanded his artist churn out one picture a week, as stipulated in the new contract, the artist sunk into doubt and confusion. Anna Mae finally secured a copy of the contract, and when they saw the clause demanding 26 drawings each six months, the impact was devastating. Feeling exploited, and above all betrayed, the Vargases began what would prove to be a long, costly and thoroughly frustrating legal battle. They won their case in front of a jury, lost on appeal, and then came the counterappeals and countersuits.

The legal battle crippled the Vargases financially and left their spirits crushed. Their stay in Chicago ruined, they moved back to Los Angeles and tried to mount various projects. But each time they made a little headway, Esquire quashed the deal, claiming it owned the Varga name and all his artistic output, at least pending final resolution of the legal case. Vargas took out a third mortgage on their house, and he tried to raise money by designing scarves, neckties, toiletries and whatever else he could think of to generate cash. According to his autobiography, in the wake of their profound turmoil and misery, Anna Mae needed to have a radical mastectomy in 1950. Since the Vargases were penniless, their doctor loaned them the money for the operation.

Hardship, though, only seemed to deepen the love and devotion between Alberto and Anna Mae. "They were so close," recalls Art Paul, who would later become Vargas' art director at Playboy. "She just doted on him, and he worshipped her. They nursed each other.... I hate to use the word 'sweet,' but Alberto was absolutely marvelous. There was not a hint of a bad disposition. They were both cheerful, wonderful people to meet, especially if you were feeling gloomy."

In 1953, Hugh Hefner left his job as an ad man at Esquire, also in a dispute over money, and created Playboy. Three years later, this new voice espousing sexual freedom began publishing Vargas' work, though only on an occasional basis. In 1960, thanks in large measure to Austin, a young Playboy associate art director who had revered Vargas for years, The Vargas Girl became a monthly feature. Over the next 16 years, Playboy would publish 152 Vargas paintings. According to his niece, Playboy was more generous to Vargas than Esquire, but not overly so: "In the beginning, they paid Alberto $500 a painting. By the end, as I recall, it was up to about $1,500 per piece."

Again, though, The Vargas Girl, with the "s" on Vargas now restored, became a signature attraction for her home publication. Through Playboy, she stirred the imagination and the young loins of the baby boomer generation and the countless others seduced by the intoxicating spirit of "The Swinging 60s." Playboy now became a fixture on college campuses across America, as each month Hefner's "Playboy Philosophy" paid homage to the unbridled joys of sexual liberation. In the tribal rites of millions of red-blooded adolescent boys coming of age in America, there were now three secret talismans of male prowess and social cool: the Trojan in the wallet, the Playboy centerfold and The Vargas Girl. Vargas was back on top, The King of Pin-up, and his Vargas Girl now reclaimed her place in America's popular culture and collective imagination.

For Vargas, though, this new wave of success and recognition was small consolation when considered against what could have been. The cute, kittenish, inhumanly buxom Vargas Girls being ordered up by Playboy carried only the faintest echoes of the artistry of "Spanish Lace" and "Caja Eric," those early works that had announced the arrival in America of a gifted young painter from Peru. The serious artistic ambitions Vargas had cultivated at the Louvre and evident in his early work were now only a distant, fading memory. The essence of tragedy is great talent or potential wasted; that surely applies to Alberto Vargas.

Still, Vargas had his accolades and his glory. In 1958, his hometown of Arequipa showered him with honors, and Esquire and Playboy still pay him periodic--and self-serving--tributes. Playboy once even enlisted John Updike to pay homage to Vargas and his work. A sub-headline hailed the piece, "The legendary man of letters pays tribute to the Prometheus of pinup." But Vargas has not gotten any comparable tributes or recognition from America's arts establishment. No prominent museum has ever done a serious retrospective of his art or his impact on American illustration.

"Alberto's a very neglected artist," says Paul. "Alberto just doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Norman Rockwell had museum exhibitions, but not Alberto." A few years ago, Paul approached Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art about putting on a retrospective of Vargas' work. But the "Swinging 60s" are long gone, and Vargas' art is just not compatible with today's conservative attitudes, Paul says. "The response I got was, 'Oh, no, how can you show Alberto?'"

The ironies here are tragic. Vargas was a profoundly moral man. He was faithful to his wife, stayed away from alcohol and, as a Latin gentleman of the old school, believed in codes of honor and was always as good as his word. He worked hard, became a U.S. citizen, and when war came, he selflessly devoted his art and his time to the war effort. He was always discreet and polite with the women who posed for him, and his paintings reveal nothing but the deepest respect and reverence for women. In fact, one of his most difficult moments at Playboy concerned the issue of pubic hair; he just did not feel comfortable putting it on his Vargas Girl. "I was a little bashful about it at the beginning because of Anna Mae," he was quoted as saying.

What happened to this shy, quiet, honorable man? Hollywood blacklisted him and Esquire exploited him. In 1943, while U.S. bombers were flying into battle with The Vargas Girl proudly on their beak, bureaucrats at the U.S. Post Office were busy branding Vargas' art obscene. And after spending his entire life paying homage to The American Woman, imagine how Vargas must have felt in the 1970s and '80s when some feminist groups denounced his art as demeaning to women. And why, when many art critics and historians put him on a level with Norman Rockwell, has there been no major retrospective of Vargas' work? The problem, of course, is his subject matter; while almost every conceivable form of violence and human degradation is regularly displayed on TV, and at times in our museums, no one seems inclined to celebrate the open sensuality of the Vargas nude.

"If Alberto had painted landscapes with the same love as he painted women, he would be recognized today as one of the great landscape artists," says San Francisco gallery owner Theron Kabrich, who has been championing Vargas' work for more than a decade. "If you eliminate the subject and just look at his brilliance as a technician, his reputation would be assured. But the form of his subject just does not allow people to understand his brilliance as an artist and his skill as a painter."

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Vargas' birth, Kabrich and his partner, James Hartley, have put together a show of Vargas originals and high-quality reproductions at their gallery, The San Francisco Art Exchange. They present Vargas work spanning six decades, beginning with the brilliant early paintings such as "Spanish Lace," "Caja Eric," and several views of Anna Mae as she really was, before Vargas turned her into his prototypical Vargas girl. Since 1985, when they began selling Vargas originals and high-quality reproductions, Kabrich and Hartley have registered sales of $14 million. The original "Spanish Lace" is now on sale for $165,000, an original 1947 watercolor of Ava Gardner is on sale for $195,000 and Vargas' famous "Diana," with the goddess flanked by two Borzois, is available for $325,000. More than half the gallery's Vargas sales have been prints, the rest originals.

For two men with backgrounds as dealers in fine art, their relationship with Vargas' work and reputation has been at times one of frustration but always a labor of love. "When we started displaying Alberto's work, people said to us, 'Are you crazy? You're doing girlie art!' " says Hartley. "But from the beginning, we saw Vargas' women as icons and very important to twentieth century art."

Some of the biggest sellers at the gallery are from a series of exquisite paintings known as "The Legacy Nudes," a group of 12 paintings Vargas did as both an homage to Anna Mae and a guarantee of her financial security. But Anna Mae did not outlive Alberto. In 1974, she suffered a terrible fall in their bungalow in Westwood and never fully recovered.

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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