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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)

You can see it in the way he painted the nape of a neck, the flush of a cheek, the sensuous curve of a voluptuous breast. Stand in front of one of Alberto Vargas' paintings of a beautiful woman, such as "Reflection in Mirror," and what you see is a man in love, passionately in love, and trying to use his art to express the depth and delicacy of his feelings. Gaze at the way he always rendered women, so glorified, so idealized, and you cannot help but wonder: Who was the real-life woman who could inspire such eloquent testaments of love and adoration?

Her name was Anna Mae Clift, and for the six decades Vargas was one of America's most celebrated and distinctive illustrators, she was his one true love. She was also Vargas' first model, his inspiration for "Reflection in Mirror" and countless other paintings, and she was the archetype for his fabled Vargas Girl, the luscious pin-up published each month in Esquire in the 1940s and early 1950s and then for 16 years in Playboy. But Anna Mae was far more. For 44 years, she was Vargas' wife, his business manager, his confidante and his devoted companion. Anna Mae was also Vargas' fiercest protector in the long, nasty legal battle the couple waged with Esquire over money, contracts and, above all, the rightful ownership of Vargas' name and artistic output.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of her creator's birth, it is appropriate to pay tribute, via the accompanying photos, to The Vargas Girl, a unique and enduring American icon. So beautiful, so accessible, The Vargas Girl made her way from the Ziegfeld Follies to magazines, posters, calendars, even decks of cards. In the Second World War, she made her way onto posters supporting the war effort, onto the noses of the bombers and fighter planes going into battle, and she went right to the front lines, tucked in the knapsacks of men far away from their homes and sweethearts. With his Vargas Girls, and the seductive portraits he did of many of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, Vargas came to occupy a permanent space in the male imagination and in our popular culture as a whole. With a style and subject matter as distinctive and easily recognized as those of Norman Rockwell, Vargas will long be remembered, like Rockwell, as one of the twentieth century's premier figures in American magazine illustration and commercial art.

But this is also an appropriate time to pay tribute to Anna Mae and to bring Alberto Vargas and his art into a whole new light. In a cruel irony, the sexy image and the fabulous success of his Vargas Girl have totally obscured far richer dimensions of Vargas' life and work. Indeed, while Vargas is known the world over as "The King of Pin-up Art," his gift for portraiture and his exceptional mastery of the medium of watercolor have been almost completely overlooked. His idealized Vargas Girl has stirred the hearts of millions of American men, and yet even her beauty pales next to the real-life, little-known love story Alberto shared with his Anna Mae. While Vargas' work has often been praised as capturing and reflecting the wholesome zest and openness of The American Girl and the national spirit, the course of Vargas' life and work--and the troubles he had with the magazines that made him famous--reflect something darker and probably closer to the truth. Indeed, when seen in a fuller light, the life of Alberto Vargas stands out as a tragic story of exploitation, greed and genius wasted.

Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez was born on Feb. 9, 1896, in the mountain city of Arequipa, Peru. Alberto was the first of six children born to Margarita and Max Vargas, a prominent photo-grapher known throughout Peru for his portraits and landscapes. As a young boy, when he wasn't in school, Alberto often spent time in his father's studio, getting to know the equipment and the basics of the craft.

Like many well-to-do Peruvian families, Max and Margarita wanted their children to have a first-rate education, preferably in one of Europe's finest schools. When Alberto reached adolescence, the family plan was for him to go to Switzerland to complete his studies and then do apprenticeships at the best photo studios in Geneva and London. Afterwards, he was to return to Arequipa and work with his father. Max Jr., his younger brother, would go with Alberto to Europe and begin preparing for a career in banking.

Though he agreed to the plan, in his heart Alberto harbored a different ambition. Since he was a young boy, his real love had been drawing. In quiet moments in the photo studio, he taught himself to sketch and do caricatures. According to many accounts, even as a boy Alberto had an evident gift for art and drawing.

In 1911, as planned, Max Vargas sailed for Europe with Alberto and Max Jr., en route for Switzerland. Their father took them by way of Paris, where he was to be awarded a gold medal for a photo study he had done of Inca ruins.

For young Alberto, then 15, the museums of Paris were a revelation. The art of Ingres and other great masters thrilled him, and Alberto threw himself into trying to emulate their work. In later trips to Paris he would spend entire days in the Louvre, sketching the classical Greek statues and teaching himself how to draw the human form and give it life. Parisian museums, galleries and magazines were filled with paintings celebrating the female form--without clothes or any other inhibitions--and Alberto was deeply inspired by them as well.

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."

The early art born of this chance encounter comes as shock today, especially for anyone who knows Vargas only through his pin-up art and the Vargas Girls published in Esquire and Playboy. His early paintings of Anna Mae and other young showgirls in New York show a master's touch, and many have echoes of Ingres, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec's renderings of Parisian dance halls and cabarets. His 1920 portrait of Lila Lee, also known as "Yellow Canary," reveals his gift for rendering and animating the nude female body. Likewise, his soulful 1930 portrait of the Ziegfeld Girl Caja Eric, with its shades of Rembrandt and Vermeer, reveals his depth and sensitivity as a portraitist.

Seeing these early works in the original is cause for both joy and sadness. The originals are high art, and yet the world knows Vargas' art almost exclusively via magazine reproductions, which suggest nothing of the sort. For while Vargas sometimes worked in oil, pastels or pen and ink, his preferred medium was watercolor, and no magazine reproduction can do a watercolor justice. Seen in their original form, Vargas' watercolors reveal a technique and grace that few artists can even approach. Examine some of his best originals and all you can do is gaze in awe and wonder: "How in the world did he do it?" Somehow Vargas found ways to use watercolor to achieve the subtlest effects: a nuance of skin tone, the texture of the hair at the nape of a woman's neck, the intricate detail and shading of the heel of a stocking or the tip of a breast. Clearly, even in his early 20s, Vargas was already a master watercolorist.

His stunning portrait "Spanish Lace," painted in 1928 and also known as "Spanish Gypsy," is a perfect illustration of the prodigious talent evident in Vargas' early work. The beauty of the gypsy woman, the rich color of her eyes and lips, the play of light on the raven black of her hair, the extraordinary delicacy of the lace shawl draped over her shoulder--few artists can achieve these effects in any medium. And as his "Spanish Lace" makes clear, few artists this century could convey feminine beauty with as much feeling and reverence as Alberto Vargas.

Seeing Vargas' early work in its original form raises two disturbing questions about the way his life and career unfolded. In his 20s, Vargas was clearly a very serious painter of enormous promise, driven by a desire to emulate the great European masters. What became of this prodigious talent? And how did Alberto Vargas wind up being known not as one of the great painters of the twentieth century, but as The King of Pin-up Art?

Necessity is a mother. When Vargas chose to stay in New York, and not return to Peru to work for his father, Max Vargas extended his best wishes to his wayward son and told him there would be no more financial support. The young man was left to fend for himself, with no command of the English language and no evident means of support. Worse, in a high-flying showgirl he knew he had found his muse and one true love, and he simply did not have the means to hire her to pose for him, much less to court her. So, like many immigrants to America, Vargas went out to find whatever work he could.

According to his autobiography, produced in collaboration with Reed Austin, an art director at Playboy, and published in 1978, Vargas first found work retouching negatives for a photographer on Fifth Avenue. His first art-related job was at Butterick Patterns, where he drew hats and heads for its sewing books. In late 1917, he sold three pen-and-ink drawings for five dollars each. When he sold five more for $30 each, he quit Butterick to try his luck as a freelance artist.

His timing was good. The First World War was drawing to a close, the Jazz Age was not far off and New York was a thriving center of fashion, publishing and commercial art. Vargas got freelance work from several New York-based newspapers and magazines, and he worked hard to develop his command of watercolors. By now, his subject matter was almost exclusively women. To achieve an unusual softness and finish to his portraits, he worked with an airbrush, a tool with which he had much earlier experimented in his father's studio.

Soon, Vargas' work caught the eye of the theatrical producer Florenz Ziegfeld, whose Ziegfeld Follies were then in their heyday. In 1919, Ziegfeld offered him a full-time position to paint lush, idealized promotional portraits of his fabled Ziegfeld Girls. It was a huge break for Vargas, and with a single handshake, he and Ziegfeld sealed a verbal agreement that would soon turn Vargas into the official portrait painter of the Ziegfeld Girls. For the next 12 years, the job would provide him money, stature and an endless array of beautiful women to paint. The shy, diminutive immigrant from Peru had landed in clover. Or so it would seem.

While Vargas provided the artistry, it was Ziegfeld who set down the aesthetic and moral standards. Sensuality and allure were the aim; sex should be suggested, but never declared. As Vargas later put it, from Ziegfeld he learned "the delicate borderline between a nude picture and a wonderful portrait with style and class." Or, as he also put it, he learned "the difference between nudes and lewds." Vargas' temple now was Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre, not the Louvre, and Ziegfeld set the standard, not Ingres. Unfortunately, much of Vargas' work from the 1920s was destroyed in a fire at a warehouse used by Ziegfeld.

Throughout the 1920s, alongside his work for Ziegfeld, Vargas took on major assignments from the most prominent newspapers and magazines in America. He also did advertisements, brochures, covers for sheet music and portraits on a commission basis. His income grew, and so did his collections of books and fine clothes. Beyond that, though, Vargas was never self-indulgent or interested in money. "Alberto lived to paint," says his niece, Astrid Vargas-Conte. "He didn't paint to live."

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.


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