The Pinup Circuit : Models of Decades Past Find That They're in Demand Again Among Long-Ago Admirers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The letter arrived in early August. More than 26 years later, Vietnam veteran William D. Hanes of Seattle, Wash., still remembers the pinup he left behind.

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Dear Cynthia,

I was delighted to receive a personal reply to my letter. . . . I told you of the wonderful effect that your '68 Playboy centerfold had on the morale of us chopper pilots in Vietnam. Although in all truth, you had more than a few of us banging our heads against the wall and muttering, "I've just GOT to get home!". . .

I've enclosed my money order for one of your photos. I feel somewhat awkward doing it, as if I'm somehow peeking at a friend, and I shouldn't. But most of the memories I have of Vietnam are of sweat, fear and pain. You were one of the rare bits of beauty that came into our lives, and I treasure the memory.

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Could Betty Grable have received such a letter a generation after World War II? Or was the image of a movie star, shared in barracks or on ship with scores of other men, too remote to have cast such a spell? Could a young soldier have seriously imagined that Rita Hayworth or someone just like her was waiting for him back home?

"It truly touched my heart," Cynthia Myers says of the letter.

To many Americans who fought in Vietnam in the late 1960s, Cynthia Myers was Betty and Rita and more. "Wholly Toledo!" crowed the headline heralding her appearance as Playboy's Miss December, 1968, a little wordplay on the fact that this 18-year-old "girl next door" hailed from Ohio, not Hollywood. It was an exclamation on the fact that nature had given this brown-haired, brown-eyed young woman the dimensions of 39DD-24-35, startling even by the standards of hubba, hubba.

Judging by the piles of letters she received--"thousands," she recalls--Myers is considered by many to be the most popular poster girl in America's longest, most unpopular war. Yet the pinup imagery of Vietnam, the fold outs so many men carried in their packs or used to wallpaper their hooches, would never be as famous as those glamour shots from World War II. There's an obvious reason for this, the same soft-core reason Myers' centerfold won't be reproduced in this newspaper.

But the Vietnam vets remember Cynthia Myers, and so do many other fans. Now a fortysomething homemaker and mother who lives in the Antelope Valley, Myers is one of a number of pinup models of decades past who are once again in demand among long-ago admirers and collectors of "cheesecake" portraiture. At a recent memorabilia show called Glamourcon V at the Burbank Hilton, Myers greeted fans and sold autographs and portraits like a retired baseball hero.

The public--mostly men, mostly toting cameras and videocams--paid $10 to enter a milieu that might best be described as a cleavage convention. At one booth, there was '50s pinup queen June Wilkinson, dubbed "The Bosom" by Hugh Hefner. At another, with flaming orange hair, was legendary burlesque performer Tempest Storm, still dancing and disrobing 45 years after she launched her career. Elsewhere, there was a gaggle of current hard-core porno stars. Nearby, representing a tamer kind of sex symbol, was Cynthia Myers and more than 20 other past Playboy Playmates, most of more recent vintage.

Myers was asking $20 for autographed photos and $75 for out-of-print videotapes of Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," in which she had a supporting role. And like a number of women, Myers promoted her mail-order business. For example, Hanes, the Vietnam helicopter pilot, placed an order for Myers' "teddy bear photo . . . with autograph & lip imprint." He enclosed $30, including shipping and handling.

Glamourcon co-producer Bob Schultz and memorabilia dealers such as Ken Ritchie of Memphis, Tenn., say nostalgia for vintage "glamour" art and vintage models has surged remarkably in the last few years.

Exactly why is open to speculation. Wilkinson suggests that men always remember their first love--or lust--even if it's just a two-dimensional image. Is the fad a collective midlife crisis among male baby boomers? A backlash against feminism? Or a backlash against today's coarseness and a yearning for more innocent thrills?

Think of the comparatively modest posters of Marilyn Monroe, considered by many to be the greatest pinup of all time.

"Marilyn was the most famous pinup," corrects Schultz. "Bettie Page was the greatest pinup of all time."

Page, believed to be the most photographed figure model of the '50s, was a dark-haired beauty who could look like the all-American girl in one photo and a dominatrix in another. She disappeared from public view long ago, but 40 years after her heyday, Page developed a campy cult following, spawned by a fan who published a tribute magazine called "The Bettie Pages." Page was tracked down a few years ago and, though she does interviews by phone, Schultz says she is unwilling to make personal appearances.

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The Page phenomenon helped spawn a renewed fascination for '50s glamour girls in general. Steve Sullivan, a Virginia publisher of real estate newsletters, was such a fan of the era that he penned "Va Va Voom," a softcover coffee table book. Published this summer by General Publishing Group Inc., "Va Va Voom" features more than 200 photos of "bombshells, pinups, sexpots and glamour girls." While researching the book, Sullivan met Bunny Yeager, a famed model-turned-photographer. Even before his book was out, Sullivan and Yeager teamed up to publish a monthly newsletter called "Glamour Girls: Then and Now."

The December, 1994, issue featured a cover story on Myers, described by Sullivan as "The Ultimate Playmate."

"Cynthia was kind of that for me," explains Sullivan, who was 13 when Myers was Miss December. "She was the first pinup I had on my wall. My first fantasy. . . . I'll never forget the moment I met her. She's still so beautiful and one of the sweetest persons I've ever met."

Circulated mostly to collectors and dealers, the "Glamour Girls" newsletter was instrumental in renewing interest in Myers and some other favorites of the Vietnam vets.

At the Burbank event, Myers sat between two other Vietnam era playmates, DeDe Lind (August, '67) and Patti Reynolds (September, '65). All recalled how they were deeply affected by the letters from servicemen--how it made them think about high school classmates who had gone off to fight that strange war.

Almost always the letters were respectful; some were shy and respectful. Some sent their own picture and asked for one in return.

"It made me feel really important and necessary," says Reynolds, a 48-year-old Laguna Niguel resident. "And it made me sad that they were over there. And it frightened me because I would wonder whether they would come home."

Reynolds said one veteran at the Burbank event approached her with a copy of the magazine in which she was featured. He had it with him in Vietnam and had kept it all these years. He told Reynolds that he'd seen her name in an advertisement and just wanted to meet her and express his appreciation.

Lind shook her head as she recalled a veteran she met at another event. He showed up with a centerfold torn in half and explained how, back in Vietnam, a mortar shell had destroyed his quarters. He salvaged her tattered portrait and now, some 25 years later, he wanted her to sign it.

That autograph was rendered free of charge. "It was an honor," Lind says. "You hear things like that, and it's so nice to think you made a difference."

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Myers received so much mail she hired a temp to help her respond--and, she says, she responded to every letter. She learned that she had been adopted as a mascot by artillery companies and at least one submarine.

Years later, Myers would learn that her nude portraits were used in one soldier's idea of psychological warfare. The soldier was Doug Tracy, now the owner of the Centerfold Shop in San Diego. In Vietnam, Tracy says, he served as "tunnel rat," searching through the old subterranean fortifications that the Viet Cong had used to fight the French before the Americans. After he saw Myers' photo, he managed to obtain dozens of copies of her nude portraits.

Inside the tunnels of Cu Chi, Tracy says, he left behind Miss December's image as a kind of calling card to be found by the enemy, just to mess with their minds. Once, Tracy discovered a 500-pound bomb, taped Myers' portrait to it and posed proudly for a photo. Although Myers may not have conformed to Vietnamese notions of beauty, Tracy figured they'd be impressed.

Myers laughs when she hears the story. But when she remembers the letters she received during the war, she expresses a sense of awe, pride--and sympathy.

"It wasn't like a victory for America. . . . What was it for? That was the sad part. . . . They couldn't come home and display their medals proudly. And they didn't deserve that. . . . Can you imagine the torture they went through? They're in my heart, these guys."

Myers says the revival of interest has helped her land a role in a movie expected to begin production soon, her first acting job in years. She says she passed up lucrative offers to tell tales about life inside the Chicago Playboy mansion during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Tattling, she says, isn't her style.

And Myers says she's hoping to someday meet Bill Hanes, who now flies for the U.S. Forest Service. He wrote her another letter offering her a helicopter ride on his next visit to Southern California. His pinup accepted this invitation.

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