WHO WON THE bloody war anyway? The Russians, mainly. And us. Even so, the Americans seem convinced that they did it single-handed, if Saving Private Ryan is anything to go by. They certainly didn't lack for encouragement. All else aside, they had the miraculous morale booster that was the Varga Girl. This blonde and peach-skinned Watusi goddess, the idealised emblem of everything that awaited the boys back home, made her way from the pages of America's Esquire magazine onto war planes, tanks, navy lockers, barracks walls, Zippo lighters and, by 1945, three million Varga calenders. Britain, on the other hand, had to make do with Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields and cheery girls in headscarves brandishing spanners; while the Russians were spurred on to unimaginable sacrifices by images of burly women atop heavy machinery. It takes all sorts.
The Varga behind the Varga Girl, the great American pin-up, was not himself American, nor was he called Varga. His name was Alberto Vargas. He was Peruvian by birth, Swiss by education and French by artistic instinct. The original Varga Girl was his wife, Anna Mae, who he met in 1916 as he stopped of in New York on his way back to Peru. Vargas fell in love with her, with New York and with the USA, and didn't go home. His own story is often a sad one. A promising portraitist, he turned his back on the fine art world to pursue his own idea of beauty. The snobbish art establishment, when it recognised his gift at all, thought of him as a sell-out. If he was, he didn't get much of a price. His pictures have generated millions of dollars over the years, but he saw little of it. He remains one of the keynote artists of modern America, yet no major US museum will consider exhibiting him.
Whatever was seen as the apogee of cheesecake at any given moment, Vargas would paint it. In the 1920s, he was the official artist of
the Ziegfeld Follies stage spectacular, the nearest thing jazz age America had to the Playboy Channel. From impresario Flo Ziegfeld he learned “the difference between nudes and lewds.” Come the Thirties, he served as court illustrator to the goddesses of Hollywood's “golden age” - Garbo, Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Dorothy Lamour. After he had the ill fortune to get blacklisted for taking part in a union walkout, Esquire took him on. Esquire was then the most daring publication Americans could buy without risking arrest, and between 1940 and 1946 Vargas grew to be its definitive contributor. His was arguably the best known and most popular artwork in the country and, during the war, around the world. In return, the magazine lopped the “s” off his name, commandeered his copyright, worked him like the proverbial bastard and paid him insultingly low wages.
Vargas's long-limbed, confident, sensual women became icons of the age. The Varga Girl could fly into combat spray-painted onto a bomber, but she couldn't travel through the mail; the puritanical US Post Office deemed her obscene. With the arrival of Playboy a few years later, she seemed suddenly quite innocent and quaint. Vargas, the “s” now back on his name, would eventually come to work for Playboy, creating far more explicit depictions of busty, submissive cuties which defied all his own instincts but delighted Hugh Hefner's.
In recent years British men's mags have rediscovered the pin-up in a big, celebrity-based way, but the painted version is a thing of the past. Varga Girls were rarely famous. They were dancers, showgirls, models, actresses - women who today would be headline material. Vargas, who knew that beauty is a talent in itself, would have found little to complain about in that. If they're serious about giving Page Three a bit more class, maybe the Sun should get his stuff in.