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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 4)

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."

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