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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 3)

During this period, Vargas guarded his love for Anna Mae Clift, without daring to declare his affections. He was an artist, she was his muse and inspiration, and he did not want to do anything that might jeopardize this rapturous connection. Besides, Anna Mae was a beautiful showgirl and a bit of a gadfly and party girl; Alberto never dared imagine she might want to settle in with him. According to his niece, though, in 1930, after many years of friendship, Anna Mae had made up her own mind; she suggested to Vargas the idea of marriage. Of course, he agreed. "Alberto was so shy he could never ask her," his niece says. "He was afraid she might say no."

The 1930s were the era of Art Deco and Hollywood glamour queens, and Vargas was swept up into both. His illustrations of the period have a definite Art Deco look, and in 1934 Twentieth Century Fox Movie Studios brought the Vargases out to Hollywood. He painted portraits of Fox's leading women and men, helped design movie sets and painted renditions or direct portraits of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Lamour, Paulette Goddard, Barbara Stanwyck and even the child star Shirley Temple.

With such beauties posing in the intimacy of their studios, many painters might have become sexually rambunctious. Not Vargas, by all accounts. His heart and his affections were totally consumed by Anna Mae. Now a full-time wife, she rained affection on Vargas. She cooked for him, she doted on him, she did all the shopping, paid all the bills, answered the phone and steered visitors away from the small studio where he worked, just behind the bungalow they had bought in Westwood. They never had children; their lives totally revolved around each other. In essence, Anna Mae spun a cocoon around her husband, so he could devote himself to his art.

"I've never seen such compassion between two people," says Austin, who often went out to California and stayed with the Vargases when he was working at Playboy. "I had never seen such ease or grace between a couple, such mutual respect."

In 1939, their idyllic cocoon was ripped open. Vargas, then working at Warner Brothers Studios, joined a small band of studio artists in a union walkout. As a result, he was promptly blacklisted, not just at Warner Brothers but at every studio in town. The word went out in Hollywood that Vargas was a communist. For eight months the Vargases had no income. Friends chipped in, and the couple took in boarders and borrowed on insurance policies. But none of it was enough. Finally, in May 1940, Vargas took a bus back to Manhattan, with his portfolio under his arm and only one suit left to his name.

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.

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