In December 1980, twenty-six large metal storage cases containing 40,000 works of graphic art from Esquire, "the magazine for men," were delivered to the University of Kansas.(1) K.U. Professor of Journalism Lee Young, who was instrumental in bringing the archive to the University of Kansas, recalls that the university's longstanding commitment to the study and collection of magazines led to the donation. The University's commitment to magazine lore can be traced back to Robert Gilbert's early gift of magazines to the School of Journalism. This was followed by another important gift by John Suhler (K.U. '65 Journalism), and it was Suhler who brought the collection to the attention of the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA). The collection was subsequently named The MPA Archive of First Issues. When the publishers of Esquire were looking for a repository for their archive of artwork, K.U. seemed a likely prospect because of the existence of the MPA Archive. (2) Young visited the Esquire archives, then housed in Chicago, and, convinced of their importance, arranged for their transfer to K.U. The gift comprises the great bulk of original drawings, paintings, and photographs that were used as illustrations for Esquire from its first issue in October, 1933, through September, 1977.
The Spencer Museum of Art at the University took on the responsibility of winnowing this enormous body of material after the nine-foot-tall metal containers were fork-lifted off of the tractor trailer and the contents temporarily stored in the History of Art library. Because the museum had a limited storage facility it was necessary to select only the most significant pieces to be accessioned into the permanent collection.(3) Among the many finds were an important body of photographs and proof sheets by Diane Arbus, paintings by Richard Lindner and science fiction illustrator Chesley Bonestell, caricatures by David Levine, works by pioneering African American cartoonist, E. Simms Campbell (inventor of "Esky," the Esquire mascot), nine pin-ups by George Petty (including the famous B-17 mascot, "the Memphis Belle"), and nearly 150 original watercolor pinups by Alberto Vargas.
Vargas’ remarkable professional trajectory took him from his native Peru to Europe, where he was educated, on to New York where he found work with Ziegfeld’s Follies, then on to the movie industry in Hollywood at Fox (and through his wife’s connections with Busby Berkely, at Warners), five years of intense work producing pinups for Esquire and a final period of work as a pinup artist for Playboy magazine.(4) Although ending in lawsuits and bitterness, the Esquire years were the apogee of Vargas’ career. The Varga Girl (Esquire preferred a shortened version of Vargas’ name which they eventually claimed legal ownership of) boosted Esquire sales, and a plethora of Varga Girl products netted millions for the magazine and fame for the artist. During the war years, the success of the Varga Girl had implications well beyond the financial wellbeing of a magazine; she became synonymous with the stateside war effort as well as an emblem of that to which solders overseas hoped to return. As Cecilia Rasmussen recently summarized, the Varga Girl was "as important to the war effort as Glenn Miller and Victory Bonds."(5) In addition to photographs that show soldiers hamming it up with Varga Girl gatefolds, there is a firsthand account of "a 20-year-old youth dying in his foxhole with a picture of Esquire’s Varga girl in his hand" and another of a slain U.S. soldier with "a picture of a Varga Girl clutched in his dead fingers."(6)
A stirring example of the intimate role of the Varga Girl in a military context has recently come to light: a 1945 Varga Girl calendar that doubled as a diary for Captain William J. Young of the 12th Air Force, 57th Bomb Wing, 321st and 445th Bomb Squadron. Young detailed the final months of the war, from January through May, 1945, with frank personal detail. B-25 bombardier Lou Harbor (Hrabko) found the calendar in an abandoned tent as the 57th Bomb Wing was moving out of Falconara, Italy, at the end of the war. Harbor describes the calendar as "virtually a diary of the owner and his friends’ missions, planes shot down, R&R dates, even a dog that flew on missions, promotions in rank, and who got stone drunk, etc."(7) For example, the entries written across and around the April Calendar Girl include "Laid around didn’t do a thing," "Flew mission from new field -- little flak at coast," "Poteete made Captain," "Mission up near Russian lines / lost one ship," "Lewis & Dentoni hit in elevators. Last time seen in spin," and "Everheart killed near Switzerland."
In addition to artwork, the Esquire gift to the University of Kansas also included archival and documentary material. Loose-leaf binders and extensive card catalogues detail Esquire’s transactions with hundreds of artists, and memoranda note the details of potential models:
Miss Helen Shelley, an agent, phoned about a Miss Donna Jean Larson, the girl who posed for the current Jantzen billboard, Coca-Cola and Doublmint ads. She is a beautiful girl, would be available for Varga or photography, if you are interested. She has had an RKO test, but was turned back as lacking acting experience. She has an MGM test coming up, but in meantime is in town for the summer -- in case you or Mr. Varga can use her.
The collection also includes the court records of the series of lawsuits between Vargas and Esquire that began on April 30, 1946. These lawsuits concerned that fact that Vargas had unwittingly signed a contract that bound him to an impossible workload and, in a separate case, Esquire successfully laid claim to the Varga name and the Varga signature.(8) The lawsuit between Esquire and the Postmaster General (who, on the grounds of obscenity, wished to deny a fourth class postage rate for the magazine because of the Varga Girl) is only documented in our files through articles from the press.
Esquire’s internal correspondence files are of considerable interest. These are especially extensive in the case of Vargas. This correspondence testifies to his activity in the full array of marketing and public relations efforts promoted by Esquire. For example, there are letters of invitation and thanks for Vargas’ frequent role as judge in college beauty pageants (12 in the first four months of 1943), as well as for his contributions to the war effort. There are numerous requests for images to boost morale in the armed forces, generally requests for mascots (which Vargas apparently never turned down). On one occasion, Vargas was asked to supply a painting to a Veterans Administration Hospital. The request (April 23, 1944) was sent by Lieutenant James P. Fitch in the tuberculosis ward at Fitzsimons General Hospitol in Denver to Robert Stack, the head of the Art Division of Paasche Airbrush Company in Chicago, who in turn forwarded the request to Vargas. Fitch argued that if Vargas could provide a work for the hospital that "it would be seen by about 3500 wounded and disabled patients and nothing is better for morale and the will to fight than our ‘No. 1 Pin Up Girl’ A Varga. They are Tops."(9)
Letters responding to Vargas’ creations range from fan mail to letters of protest. In the middle of this spectrum are reactions to Vargas’ famous gaff, a six-fingered Varga Girl gatefold that appeared in the November 1941 Esquire, as in this quip from a student at Skidmore College:
My dear Mr. Varga,
While making a copy of the patriotic miss you did for the November issue of Esquire, I noticed that she has five fingers on her right hand -- not including her thumb. Isn’t this a bit unusual? I am an Art major here at Skidmore and the sight of the surplus finger actually did something to my aesthetic soul.
Would you please send me the name of your Model? We might like to have her pose for some of our life classes here -- we get so tired of the same old thing.
Vargas replied that "This was a stunt to test reader observation and reaction." Reactions to the use of pinups in advertising could be outspokenly negative. The files include a sample of the "hundreds of complaints" received by Jergens protesting the use of a Vargas pinup to promote their cosmetic products. This advertisement, "this filth," as one writer put it, was cited as contrary to the "high standards of Christian morality," and objection was taken to the notion that the pin-up could boost the morale of soldiers, "I’m sure this can not be accomplished by lowering their minds by printing pictures that lower the dignity of womanhood as these do." The outcome was that Vargas was asked to "concentrate more on face and less on body." Surprisingly, none of the letters objected to the notion implicit in the Jergens slogan, "be his pin-up girl," that women should aspire to an unattainable stereotype.
In February, 1944, Douglas Cooper of the New York Post was preparing a profile on Vargas. To collect background material Cooper sent Esquire a questionnaire posing specific questions of Vargas. Julie Johnson of Esquire interviewed Vargas and filled in the questionnaire. The responses provide an intimate view of a shy and hard-working artist. We learn of his love of "Highly seasoned dishes," his abhorrence of "big social dinner parties and the more ostentatious gatherings," and the great pride he takes in his large collection of letters from "American service men." In a published interview, Jeanne Dean, Vargas’ model in 1941-42, provides a similar account of the artist’s character, "He was one of the purest men I’ve ever known, and I don’t just mean that he was intensely devoted and faithful to his wife. It was his thoughts, his gentleness. He was such a kind, soft-spoken man and so modest. He was very innocent, and I think that was translated to his pictures."(10) A few extracts from the questionnaire in the Esquire Collection:
What does he do when not working, play indoor or outdoor games:
No time these days to do much that takes him away from drawing board, because likes to devote what would be leisure to doing special insignia for fighting & bombing planes (gets many requests) from pilots and many a Varga girl is transferred to outside of US [on] ships going abroad. But Varga takes time out to care for the two family dogs -- he trims & brushes them. Two wire-haired terriers.
What does he drink? Does he like a cocktail before dinner? Which one?
Varga -- almost a total teetotaler himself -- simply because he doesn’t care much for taste of liquors, but he serves them to guests who want wine or a cocktail. He is addicted to fruit juices, sherbets.
Has he a hobby? What is it?
Several: raises rare cacti. Is an expert with Kodachrome photography; Listens to music while he works -- especially fond of Beethoven and has some fine recordings.
How did he get into art work:
Because he wanted to eat; he was smitten by the extreme beauty of the American girl as compared with the average of women in other parts of the world, and soon began majoring in paintings of lovely women for his own satisfaction as an artist before he realized there was anything in it commercially for himself.
If Wishing made it so, what three things would he wish for most?
1st, to see every American boy on the fighting front come back safely & quickly.
2nd, to do a really fine painting of the perfect picture of the glamorous American girl.
3rd, to die of old age at his easel. He thinks this is pretty likely to happen, his family having a fine record of longevity.
A little-known bit of documentary material now at the University of Kansas caps off Vargas’ Esquire career and underscores the fame he had acquired by the end of the war. A flurry of correspondence between August and November 1944 and two typescript manuscripts by Jack Moffitt (John C. Moffitt) reveal that there were plans for a movie about the Varga Girl.(11) A draft of a press release from Charles R. Rogers Enterprises announces a talent search:
VARGA GIRL WILL COME TO LIFE
The first and foremost and Number One Pin-up Girl of the world will come to life in an epical motion picture and a nationwide hunt for the epitome of men’s wildest dreams will begin at once, to end in the stardom of an unknown girl who will be symbolic of perfection in womanhood.
This is the announcement of Film Producer Charles R. Rogers today, the first step toward eventual filming of "The Varga Girl".
At a cost as overwhelming as any price ever paid for a Broadway hit, Rogers has completed arrangements with David Smart of Esquire and with Varga for reproduction on the screen of the original pin-up Venus. The Varga Girl, whose gorgeous symmetry peers out at you through scanties from calendars and picture-frames everywhere, is the creation of Varga made famous by Smart.
Varga himself will lend his artistic efforts in the discovery and stardom of his "perfect woman" brought to life.
In addition, the ethereal maiden who will be the object of the womanhunt will emerge in Technicolor in a two-million dollar production. She must be as much like the favorite of 11 million servicemen as is humanly possible.
Her voluptuous photogenic requirements now grace submarine conning towers, armored tanks, fighting airships, navy bunks and mess halls in every war zone.
The Varga Girl will be a "natural" undertaking for starmaker Rogers, recognized as a prime discoverer of talent.(12)
The two typescripts by Moffitt in the Esquire Collection are for a story outline (June, 1945), and a screenplay (undated). The two texts have nothing in common. The story outline, "Varga Girl" (identified as the property of Charles Rogers), is a preposterous tale that features the owner-publisher of Esquire, David Smart, as well as "Varga" and his model, "Gale." Smart roars around in his car and gallantly promotes the careers of Varga and Gale. Varga ends up enlisting in the army and supplying Varga Girls from exotic places during his tour of combat duty. Ultimately Varga damages his right hand pulling his pals from a burning plane and is no longer able to paint. Returning home he wins back the love of Gale (who had been distracted by the affections of a war hero) and the two are married. There is little to promote this text other than the irony of depicting Smart as a defender of Varga when it was apparently he who bound the artist to impossible contractual obligations that eventually led to the lawsuits mentioned above.
The plot of Moffitt’s unproduced screenplay, That Varga Girl (identified as the property of David Smart) is a kooky comedy. This appears to be the story line that was accepted for the movie. The tale revolves around the blurring and ultimately the convergence of the identities of the wealthy and available Joan Murdock and the Varga Girl. The convergence, marvelously pronounced later in the script, "don’t envy the pinups! be one!"(13) starts when Joan falls into a vat of beer and in the ensuing wet tee-shirt scene she is recognized as an ideal Varga aircraft mascot, which, by the end of the story, she becomes. There are gender reversals as well, as in a scene in which men end up posing for Varga in loin clothes, claiming to be "masculine pin-ups" for Ladies’ Home Journal. In the scene just prior to the Beer dunking Varga reflects on the changing fashion of his Varga Girl:
The type may be changing -- I get many letters from lonely men in far-away places. When the war first started, they wanted exciting creatures -- "hot numbers" --
(studies [Joan] appreciatively)
Bur now they’re thinking of someone to come home to -- (14)
In another scene, a stage show that announces the blurring of highbrow and lowbrow, we are introduced to the distinguished antecedents of the Varga Girl:
The curtains part and after Esky’s introduction, we go into the Pageant of Beauty number. The setting for this is a magnificent production number -- revealing the inspiration which feminine beauty has given to art through the ages. As the song develops, it is illustrated with a series of an eye-filling tableaux in which we see Praxiteles carving his statue of Aphrodite, Cellini modeling the lovely figures of young girls into a Florentine goblet, Titian painting one of his famous redheads, Watteau doing a seductive French courtesan, Goya painting La Maja Nude, etc. The last of these tableaux will show Varga, with Joan as his model, and the climax of this routine will stress the pin-up angle which has made the Varga Girl a part of modern history.(15)
Plans to produce this motion picture underscore the degree to which the Varga Girl had become engrained in the public mind during the war years. The artist’s activities trying to eke out an existence during the difficult years following his falling out with Esquire are are just as clear a testimonial to the end of the most vivid period of his career. As Maria Buszek articulates in her essay, the work undertaken by Vargas for Playboy (beginning with a March 1957 pictorial and followed by pin-ups in the 1960s and 1970s) reached a more emphatically male audience and never entered the mainstream the way the Esquire pin-up did. In the years between his employment by Equire and Playboy Vargas found time to make paintings entirely from his own imagination, including paintings inspired by Dante’s Inferno, astrological themes, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.(16)
Two unusual examples of imaginative works were made in conjunction with Vargas’ appearance at the Seventh Annual California Hobby Show at the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles in the spring of 1955. Vargas was enlisted to "help dramatize art as a hobby" and toward this end he created two paintings, "Woman of Tomorrow" and "Atomic Tragedy," accompanied by a "Fact Sheet."(17) "Woman of Tomorrow," Vargas’ vision of "the woman of the year 2005" shows a figure clad in a scant vine with an apple in her raised hand and a noose in her right (this image later appeared in the March 1957 Playboy). "Atomic Tragedy" -- a remarkable visualization of cold war anxiety, shows "what tomorrow’s women will look like in the event of an atomic war" -- the noose has become a dead tree, the apple an atomic model, and the woman is now "shockingly disfigured." The fact sheet tells us what Vargas "has to say about the woman of 2005," relative to the woman of 1955: she is taller, slimmer, and stronger, her feet are larger, she spends more time outdoors, she has discarded foundation garments and wears fewer clothes, she outnumbers men and is in "constant -- and more obvious -- pursuit of the male" (as her noose indicates). The fact sheet also details her dimensions and her vanity, but by and large, the description of the "Woman of Tomorrow" (more than the painting itself) offers a surprising anticipation of the empowered woman of the future. The woman of "Atomic Tragedy" is an unanticipated fantasy that serves to remind us that the artist who had time to do little more than design pin-ups during the war years was not the naïve and simple-minded person he is sometimes made out to be. This work seems to draw equally from a vague familiarity with the exponents of international surrealism (such as Kurt Seligmann and Hans Bellmer) and from the covers of science fiction paperbacks. While it would be a mistake to realign Vargas’ artistic career on the basis of such work, it is nonetheless a valuable indicator that following the intense period of work for Esquire the artist found time for, or was indeed forced into experimenting and soul-searching. However, this and other works of the 1950s, as well as the subsequent work for Playboy, underscores that however exhausting and uncompromising the Esquire years may have been, they clearly constituted the most significant episode in the artist’s career.
In recent years a large population of Vargas admirers has become aware that the Spencer Museum of Art houses almost the entire body of graphic art produced by Vargas for Esquire. For these enthusiasts the Print Study Room at the Spencer is a kind of mecca. Some have come expecting to find the "Vargas Museum," and many expect that the paintings will be on permanent display. Because they are works of art on paper, and especially because they are watercolors, which fade quickly, the Varga Girls are stored in light-tight boxes, like the rest of the museum’s extensive collection of prints, drawings, and photographs. Visitors who call ahead of time can make arrangements to see at least part of the collection.
The Esquire Collection has been featured in numerous exhibitions at the Spencer Museum of Art since 1980, and figured exclusively in Diane Arbus, Magazine Work, curated by Tom Southall in 1983, The Esquire Woman: Airbrush and Ideology, curated by Andrew Stevens and Beth Bailey in 1988, and Esquire: Pin-Up Girls, Hairy Men - and Art, curated by Karal Ann Marling in conjunction with the 1997 Franklin Murphy Seminar in art history at the University of Kansas, co-taught by professors Marling, Eldredge, and Cateforis. Until now, however, there has been no exhibition drawn from our holdings dedicated exclusively to the Varga Girls.
The range of visitors who have traveled to the Spencer Museum of Art specifically to view the Varga Girls is impressive. In the 1980s most of the visitors were late middle-aged men who more or less fit the "Esky" stereotype. Their secretaries sometimes scheduled their visits and prurient remarks were the norm. In recent years such visitors, for whom the artwork still seems naughty in some way, have given way to those with genuine interest in the cultural value of the paintings. Such visitors have included a fashion designer who took his summer vacation to drive from Los Angeles to admire the footwear in Vargas' works, a group of fifteen illustrators for Americas Best Comics who spent a spirited day culling through the collection, and many academics, both students and professors, who have made arrangements to study the original works and the archival material. Recently there have also been a number of tattoo enthusiasts who have come to the museum to compare the Varga Girls tattooed on their bodies or embroidered on their jackets with the original prototypes.
Another large population of our visitors include those who come with their families and approach the works as a kind of talismanic conduit to the past, a way to share wartime memories. For example, a woman who had been trying to locate the original art for the July 1943 gatefold for forty years called while in transit between Florida and Colorado. She was thrilled to learn that in fact we did house the original artwork and by that afternoon she was viewing Vargas' painting of a soldier and his bride. I asked her what significance the work had for her and she explained "I was a war bride," the work was emblematic of her own anxious waiting for the return of her fiancée.
Visitors’ specific reactions upon seeing the Varga Girls in person are usually immediate. Some have been negative: "Oh my God, they are absolutely hideous! I’ve never seen them before and now I wish I hadn’t," "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the museum," and "They all look alike!" However, the great majority of reactions have been full of praise -- a woman to her husband, "Oh my gosh they are so wonderful. I remember them all. Aren’t they beautiful?" and "Oh my Lord they are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen," from a tattoo artist: "I’m in heaven. Anyone in my profession would kill to be in my shoes right now. If you guys did a show everyone in my profession in the country would be here," and, from a tattooed man: "For me, this stuff is better than Michelangelo or da Vinci or any of those Guys."(18)
Vargas provided a careful discussion of his technique for Reid Austin’s monograph.(19) From this source we learn that there were four major stages to the making of a Vargas pin-up: three sketches and the final work. First he set down a quick sketch on a "cheap little pad." This sketch was then worked up on a larger piece of tracing paper (24 x 36 inches, similar to the January 1943 promotional drawing for the film DuBarry was Lady exhibited here). It was at this juncture that Vargas had recourse to a model if he had "serious doubts about anatomy" or to check how light falls on the body. A final preparatory sketch was done in chalk on a heavier stock, usually heavy vellum. Some watercolor for lips and eyes was sometimes added to this chalk study. This drawing could then be transferred to the watercolor board (Whatman, whenever possible) using a hand-made "carbon paper" (tracing paper covered with chalk on one side). After tracing the major features of the drawing with a hard pencil Vargas washed the watercolor board and allowed it to partially dry, and then he began painting with Windsor Newton watercolors mixed with a small amount of glycerin. The figure was worked up in a series of subtle washes. Clothing and props were drawn in chalk or pencil on the finished figure and were also completed in watercolor. As can be seen in the exhibition, sometimes cloths were applied as cut-outs and attached to a finished figural work (see the April 1943 gatefold exhibited here).
Vargas used an airbrush (which applies a soft mist of aspirated pigment) over the finished watercolor to soften and blend the features. He cautioned against overuse of the airbrush, "Don’t try to make it do what you should have done with your watercolors and sable brushes. If you do, it will look mechanical and have no warmth."(20) However, he used airbrush extensively for the Esquire pin-ups "because of the heavy demands on [his] time."(21)
Vargas testified in an advertisement in Airbrush World, "By strange coincidence, the first airbrush I used when I landed in New York in 1916 was a Wold that launched my career. I still have a Wold in my studio that has never given any trouble."(22) Vargas probably used the Wold airbrush for photo retouching early in his career, but as we have seen, he had connections with Paasche Airbrush, and by the 1950s a promotional image states that Vargas used a Paasche airbrush exclusively.(23) Vargas used a thin stencil, or "frisket" to mask the contours of the figure before using the airbrush. These were glued to the watercolor board to prevent overspraying and in most cases they have left a yellow residue that haloes the figure. On other occasions he used curved templates, his "favorite old friends," in place of frisket.(24) These could be held up off the surface of the painting where hard edges were not needed (rather like "dodging and burning" in photography).
The watercolors in this exhibition have many of the traits of "magazine art." While they are works of art in themselves, they were produced as a means to an end, as "process art" whose final forms were the gatefolds, calendars, and playing cards published by Esquire. Vestiges of the process remain on the drawings, such as registration marks (sometimes called "printers targets") or the glue stains that remain if the marks have come loose and printer’s notations (see the June 1943 gatefold, for example). The blue stamp of a court clerk even appears on the first Varga Girl gatefold (October, 1940), apparently when the work was entered into one of the many court cases between Vargas and his publishers. We have used face-mats in order to protect the watercolors in their frames. These face-mats cover some of the most distracting glue stains but our intention has not been cosmetic. The evidence of the registration marks, photographer’s notations, stamps and other marks, are now an essential aspect of their history.
This exhibition would not have happened without the energy of two doctoral candidates in the History of Art at the University of Kansas, Maria Elena Buszek and Scott Shields. They emphatically promoted the idea of a Vargas exhibition and got the idea onto the museum’s curatorial agenda. Maria, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on the art of the pinup, has been an indefatigable colleague and a source of inspiration and knowledge. Her expertise and insight were critical to our planning process, and she joined me in selecting the works for the exhibition from the museum’s holdings.
We are grateful to our authors, who knew that their essays would appear next to those by colleagues with whom they do not necessarily agree: Susie Bright, Maria Buszek, Andrea Dworkin, Maureen Honey.
Reid Austin, Michael Broadfoot, Barbara Coleman, Astrid Vargas Conté, Lou Harbor (Hrabko), Jim Hartley, Bill Leisk, Vallie Pettersen, Edward Reed, Mark Roeyer, Elizabeth Schultz, and Dominque Taddei openly shared their expertise and insights.
At the Spencer Museum of Art we are grateful to Joni Murphy and Carla Tilghman, interns in the department of prints and drawings, and to curatorial assistant, Cori Sherman. They all helped in countless ways with the logistics of the exhibition. Sofia Galarza Liu, Michael Chavez, and Julie van Deun did expert work matting and framing the original works and preparing them for exhibition. Assistant Directors Wesley Jessup and Joe Lampo helped with many of the logistical problems we encountered in organizing the exhibition and essays. We are also grateful to Director, Andrea Norris (who raised an eyebrow when she saw the Varga Girls on exhibit the first time she set foot in the Spencer Museum of Art), for her enthusiastic support of the exhibition.