Latin Obsession :
The Tragic Tale of a Pin-Up Artist

by Jorge Chino


On a Friday night at the Conga Room, one of L.A.’s hottest salsa-dancing spots, Ricardo Lemvo and His Makina Loca play to a crowd of hot dancers in slick clothes. The music is powerful and sensual, and on the floor a luscious blond dances with two men: one, a reincarnation of an Inca king, the other, an Antonio Banderas look-alike. More than a dozen men wait for the opportunity to dance with the breathtaking rubia. The blond knows she has their attention, and I wonder why so many of us Latino men are obsessed with the stereotype of the blond American woman.

But the stereotypical blond American woman has a history. Before there was the classic sex symbol like Marilyn Monroe, there was the Varga Girl, and before that, there was Joaquín Alberto Vargas y Chávez.

The life of Alberto Vargas is the tale of a Peruvian immigrant who came to this country to escape World War I. It is the story of an honest man who stumbled in a world of demands and obligations. Vargas’s life is the story of a great love affair and the story of passionate artist. It is also a tragedy, about a man who signed a contract with a handshake that was his demise.

Alberto Vargas, the “Pin-Up Art King” and the best American illustrator since Norman Rockwell, was a man whose art developed somewhere between his immense love for his wife and the betrayals of a world of greed and selfishness.

The Varga Girl meant more than an obsession with perfection in the female body. She was the product of an imperfect world, a fantasy American icon recognized everywhere.

Born in 1896, Alberto’s career started when he was very young, helping his father in his photography studio in his native Arequipa, Peru. His mother wanted Alberto to attend the best schools, and he ended up going with his father and younger brother to Paris. His father, Max Vargas, was to receive an award in Paris for his photography.

Once in the city of light, the young Peruvian became interested in the Parisian artists of the time, Monet and the other impressionists. Supported financially by his father, Alberto studied art in Switzerland and France while his brother, Max Jr., studied to become a banker.

Life was going well for the Vargases but World War I had started rumbling. In 1916, Alberto was told by his father to move to London, but the war kept him from reaching the English city. He was forced instead to go to New York, where he expected to continue home to Peru.

But once in New York, Alberto fell in love with the vibrant and electrifying city pace. Alberto was also deeply impressed by the sight of thousands of women rushing in and out of buildings. The impact was so strong that Alberto decided to stay in New York, even under threat from his father to cut his financial support.

The American women Alberto fell in love with in New York were very different from the ones he had seen in Europe or in Peru. American women of the time were independent and athletic, slender with an unsophisticated beauty. They were the same kind of women that Ayn Rand, the famous author and philosopher, saw upon her arrival from Soviet Union in the 1930s. Rand, author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” created characters who were strong women with expressions of confidence and determination.

Having lost his income from his father, Alberto held several odd jobs and eventually found work with a commercial photography company, retouching negatives with an airbrush. One afternoon, while walking on the street, Alberto came across the woman who would become the love of his life. He saw a beautiful redhead walking down Broadway, and followed her until she went inside a theater where she worked as a showgirl. He patiently waited until the show was over and she would come out.

Although he was shy, Alberto gathered enough courage to introduce himself and even dared to ask her to pose for him. To his surprise, she gladly accepted to pose for free. This was the beginning of a lifetime relationship with Anna Mae, a relationship that was the only source of strength to help them survive the countless problems they would face.

Alberto was hired by the Ziegfeld Follies to paint showgirls for announcements and signs to be displayed at the theater entrance. For twelve years, Vargas enjoyed painting a stream of beautiful women. What a job! He was on top of the world. This was a dream come true for Alberto, who was beginning to build a good reputation as an artist.

The entertainment industry began moving from Broadway to Hollywood, as the silver screen captured the public’s attention. The Ziegfeld Follies theater closed down and Alberto went back to doing freelance work. He worked for some prominent publications and was commissioned for small jobs.

Anna Mae had been posing for Alberto for many years now. With a warm, loving friendship between them, they finally decided to get married. Alberto had guarded his love for her, his first model, like a treasure. Still, he was so shy that he never dared ask her, and Anna Mae had to be the one to suggest marriage.

Alberto was a man tormented by the demons of his own inspiration and imagination. He was incapable of dealing with everyday obligations and he constantly stumbled in the world of practical demands. It was Anna Mae who would pay the bills, manage the business, take care of household affairs. She even kept people away from Alberto’s studio so he could concentrate on his work. Alberto revered women, but he was not the stereotypical Latin lover. He was truly in love with Anna Mae and only cared about his art.

In 1934, Alberto and Anna Mae moved to Hollywood to work for Twentieth Century Fox Studios. His job consisted of painting movie star portraits, including the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck and Shirley Temple. In a few years, Alberto had painted a considerable number of beauties who trailed into his studio to pose for him.

In 1939, he joined a group of studio artists in a picket line. The strike had been called to fight for better salaries and working conditions, and was part of a union movement that was going through Hollywood at the time.

“He had a passion and was committed to a higher good,” says Theron Kabrick, owner of the San Francisco Art Exchange, a gallery that specializes in Vargas’s work. “He lived in a time when sacrifice was part of life. Nowadays, no one wants to sacrifice anything.”

In fact, Alberto was not interested in politics and had only joined the strike as an act of solidarity. Vargas was immediately branded a communist.

“He had strong convictions and a sense of honor. A desire to do the right thing. He probably knew he was going to be blacklisted,” says Kabrick.

For eight months, Vargas could not find work. The studio producers had made sure of that. With no source of income, the Vargases decided to return to Manhattan. In New York, a publication’s name kept popping up: Esquire. At that time, Esquire had George Petty painting the “Petty Girl” for the publication. Petty was paid $1,800 for each painting submitted. This amount seemed too high for Esquire’s publisher David Smart, who fired Petty and tried to get Vargas on board.

In June of 1940, Alberto Vargas signed a three-year contract with Esquire, at the rate of $75 per week. David Smart managed to get a verbal agreement from Alberto to change his name from Vargas to Varga. In addition, he insisted all rights for the work would belong to the publication. Alberto would get fifty percent of net receipts from ancillary sales such as calendars and posters.

The “Varga Girl” in the pages of Esquire was an instant success. Soon Esquire was selling 320,000 calendars for 25 cents apiece. The Varga Girl’s powers of seduction, along with ambitious marketing efforts, made her an internationally-recognized icon.

It was World War II. The United States was a nation in a fight for world supremacy, and the government found in the Varga Girl’s uncomplicated beauty the perfect tool for telling its troops that, if successful, they would return to find their own, real Varga Girl.

The Varga Girl was riding high, painted on the peaks of hundreds of W.W.II bombers and fighters, gracing millions of calendars, magazine centerfolds, ships, advertisements, and she was cherished by soldiers would fold up her picture and put it in their helmets before going into battle.

The Varga Girl’s success was such that Alberto got bags of fan mail, and the government flew him around the country to visit his GI admirers. Alberto Vargas worked for free any time the Armed Forces needed him.

To keep up with the Varga Girl demand, Alberto and Anna Mae moved to Chicago, wanting to be closer to Esquire headquarters. In 1944, after working a year without a contract, the couple sat down with David Smart to sign a new contract. This time, Smart told them, the contract was going to be better than the one before. Alberto, eager to work, signed without reading it. The Vargases did not even get a copy.

All Alberto wanted was to work, and he pushed himself to produce as much as he could. But his output was not enough for Smart, whose contract stipulated that Alberto produce fifty-two paintings per year and twenty-six drawings every six months.

Disbelieving, Vargas felt betrayed and heartbroken. He initiated the first of a series of lawsuits that virtually bankrupted him and his wife.

At the time, Esquire was making around one million dollars gross annually on the Varga ancillaries, while Alberto would get $230 per painting, or around $12,000 a year. “David Smart had been very disrespectful and rude to Vargas,” says Theron Kabrick.

The Vargases were broke, unable to pay for their basic needs. To make matters worse, Anna Mae got sick and needed an operation. Their doctor had to lend them money for her mastectomy.

Despite the struggles, his monthly deadlines and the pressure to produce at Esquire made Vargas develop skills that otherwise he would not have. Artistically, this was his most significant period. He developed fast studies of his models, on deadline and quickly. He concentrated in his subject, the human body. He did not paint his models sitting on a chair, sofa or table. He painted women in a void, floating, with perfect weight distribution and proportions, symbols of purity isolated from the cruel world.

In 1956, three years after leaving Esquire, Hugh Hefner founded Playboy. Vargas was invited to contribute to Playboy, beginning a relationship that would last sixteen years. Alberto came to secure regular paychecks, beginning with $500 and going up to around $1,500 per piece. The Varga Girl, now re-named the Vargas Girl, had been rescued from the 40s and delivered via Playboy into the intoxicating 60s. Playboy made the Vargas Girl contemporary, sporting hot pants and mod, floppy hats.

Alberto Vargas, whose early dream was to become like one of the European masters of painting, a Picasso, Dalí or a Monet, had instead become the Pin-Up Art King.

According to Theron Kabrick, during World War II, the soldiers dreamed of the Varga Girl, who was two-dimensional. Their hope was to go back home and find their real, three-dimensional Varga Girl. Kabrick believes that when they saw Marilyn Monroe on the screen, young men saw the Varga Girl in her. “In fact, the Varga Girl was a blueprint of what Marilyn Monroe was going to become,” he claims.

Bruno Bernard, a famous Hollywood photographer and a friend of Vargas, used to say that Marilyn Monroe told him: “I know that you are trying to pose me like the Varga girl. All legs and no head.” Vargas painted Marilyn Monroe once, apparently from a photo by his friend Bruno Bernard.

“Hollywood studios tried unconsciously to give Marilyn Monroe the same innocent look and expression as the Varga Girl,” says Kabrick.

Vargas created a trend and a concept, using airbrush techniques he developed. His women seemed to be real, even though they were suspended in the air. He delivered an art that became an intrinsic part of American culture and history.

Towards the end of his life, Vargas worked more from his imagination than from models. He was most likely remembering Anna Mae, who had been a dancer and had a very athletic body. Still, all his pieces were different and distinct from one another. “If one were to put one hundred pieces of his work in a row,” Kabrick says, “there will be very little repetition: different hair colors, different eyes, different hair styles. This sets him apart from other pin-up artists of his time.”

After a fall in their Westwood home in 1974, Anna Mae Clift died. Alberto Vargas was heartbroken. He would die of a stroke eight years later, at the age of 86.

“With his death, America lost not only one of its greatest illustrators, but one of the men who truly shaped the national character,” said Elizabeth Broun, Director of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institute.

Today, after 53 years, the legal problems continue. Now they involve the Hearst Corporation, owners of Esquire, and Astrid Vargas-Conte, Alberto’s niece. The Hearst and the Vargas are presently in litigation, and according to Astrid, the ordeal could be over by early next year.

In 1983, Theron Kabrick, along with his partner James Hartley, began dealing Alberto’s art. People in the business thought that selling Vargas’ work would be professional suicide. But the opposite was true. The partners have been very successful and have sold over $15 million of Vargas art. “I believe that you take a hold of something you love and nothing will stop you. Just like Carlos Santana with his music,” says Kabrick.

Recognition from the country’s major institutions is hard to come by for the Pin-Up Art King. Norman Rockwell has a museum in Massachusetts, and Salvador Dalí has his in Florida. But not Vargas. Nearly twenty years after his death, Vargas has not had an exhibit in any major museum, no celebrations or tributes. Instead, his work suffers attacks by both conservatives and feminists who believe his art is obscene or denigrates women. To many men of his time, Alberto’s art reached a level of celestial sophistication, but above all, his is a very complex story about an uncomplicated beauty.

© 2000 El Andar Magazine