Vargas’ Pinups Inspired GIs, Became Icons of U.S. Culture
She was every man’s fantasy, torn from the pages of Esquire magazine, emblazoned on the noses of military aircraft and in the hearts and minds of servicemen during World War II.
These provocative, morale-boosting wartime “pinups” were as important to the war effort as Glenn Miller and Victory Bonds. This American icon--long legs, narrow waist and impossibly sumptuous figure, the trademark of the “Varga Girl"--was first sketched more than 60 years ago by artist Joaquin Alberto Vargas, and thereafter shaped the fantasies of three generations of countless young men.
The Peru-born Vargas first displayed his drawing talents while being punished by his father. Sitting in a corner, facing the wall, the boy complained of being bored. The elder Vargas gave him a crayon and a piece of paper, and the results were so promising that his father sent him to art school in Switzerland.
After he finished his European education, he deceived his father into thinking he would return home to enter his wealthy family’s photography business. Instead, landing in New York in 1916, he was inspired by the beauty of American women to make a career of painting them.
“When the office doors on Broadway opened at noon, boom! Out they poured, more and more. I’d never seen so many beautiful girls in one spot in my life,” he once said. Their air of self-confidence and determination, he would later explain, virtually shouted, “Here I am! How do you like me?”
Only 23, the dapper, chain-smoking, slender artist, with an uncanny instinct for the time and the subject, began creating an idealized “American girl.” His work was soon spotted by the flamboyant showman Flo Ziegfeld, who enlisted Vargas to create large, sexy artwork for his posters and theater programs.
Immersed in a world of stage stars and beautiful women who paraded in feather boas, high heels and push-up brassieres, Vargas worked at an arduous pace; in one 10-day period, he completed seven promotional portraits of such stars as Fanny Brice and Paulette Goddard.
“I learned from Ziegfeld the difference between nudes and lewds,” he liked to say. “The drawings are a thing of beauty.” Vargas, who stood only 5-feet-3, looked up to these women in more than the literal sense.
He practiced old-school manners and displayed a great regard for women. After a 10-year courtship, he married Anna Mae Clifton, a former actress and Follies girl who chose love over money. Vargas had to borrow money for the marriage license.
His wife not only brought order to their finances, she also modeled for countless drawings by him. Over the next 48 years, the devoted, childless couple were seldom apart and referred to their dogs as “the kids.”
When the Follies faded in the 1930s, the couple moved to California, to a Spanish-style bungalow on Greenfield Avenue in West Los Angeles. Working for Warner Bros. and Fox Studios, Vargas painted set designs and portraits of such actresses as Ava Gardner, Jane Russell, Shelley Winters and Shirley Temple. When he refused to cross a picket line in 1939, though, he ran afoul of management. He was fired and blackballed from films.
Thereafter, he took whatever art work came his way. The Vargases took in boarders. His luck changed in 1940, when a friend from his wife’s chorus days introduced him to David Smart, the publisher of Esquire magazine.
Looking to replace a temperamental artist named George Petty whose “Petty Girls” were a regular feature, Smart hired Vargas. He also insisted on dropping the S from the artist’s surname--for reasons of euphony, Smart said.
The Vargases then moved to Chicago, where the magazine was headquartered. Vargas was soon pulling in $75 a week. His first famous model was petite, red-haired, 15-year-old Jeanne Dean, who did not mind lying about her age. She began posing in flesh-colored bodysuits and soon became the prototype of “the Varga Girl.”
The pinups went to war that same year, painted on the noses of many B-17 bombers and appearing on 320,000 1941 calendars. In Vargas’ haste to meet the demand, he sometimes painted six fingers on a girl’s hand, or left out some detail on others. In 1944 alone, he churned out 49 illustrations, for $12,000.
His wartime efforts promoting bond sales won him a citation from the U.S. government--and a knighthood from his native Peru. But despite Vargas’ ability to make a froth of chiffon go a long way, the postmaster general declared the September 1943 cheesecake foldout to be obscene, and sued Esquire.
GIs responded with fury. A Navy lieutenant in the Pacific wrote his congressman that “Esquire magazine is an aid to morale among fighting men.” He also told of a young man under his command who was killed in a foxhole and found clutching a picture of a “Varga girl.”
“He had not wanted to risk leaving his picture in his tent for fear the enemy would get it. These boys have so little; they have and hold foremost their memories. . . . “
As newspapers splashed the offending pinup across their front pages to accompany their stories, Esquire’s sales more than doubled. The magazine eventually won, but shortly thereafter, Vargas himself would lose--his name, a small fortune and the signature women he loved to draw.
After his publisher leveraged a small clause into Vargas’ contract guaranteeing Esquire the ownership of the “Varga Girl,” Vargas sued and lost. During the four-year court battle that nearly bankrupted Vargas, sales of “Varga Girl” calendars topped 3 million.
Then the couple returned to their West Los Angeles home, which by then was heavily weighted by three mortgages. In time, Vargas refined his airbrush art, producing private paintings and supporting his wife through a radical mastectomy.
In 1959, Playboy magazine snatched him up and once again he made a living painting nearly naked ladies, but with less chiffon drapery this time. Vargas came close to hanging up his airbrush over Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner’s insistence on more explicit detail.
Devastated after the death of his wife in 1975, he gave up painting for a while, then retired from Playboy in 1977, having produced about 150 illustrations. He last picked up his brush in 1981, painting songstress/actress Bernadette Peters for two record album covers.
In 1982, the man who sketched stars and showgirls and ornamented the pages of Esquire and Playboy died of a heart attack. Today, with or without the S, Vargas’ legendary paintings are worth between $200,000 and $300,000, and they are as emblematic of one aspect of American life as Norman Rockwell’s are of another.