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Nov 20th
Famous All Over Again PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gaspar González   
January 2011

Sitting in Jimmy’s East Side Diner, contemplating a plate of eggs over medium, sliced tomato, and dry wheat toast, Ed Christin plots Bunny Yeager’s future. “The goal is to give Bunny her due among serious art collectors, serious collectors of photography,” he explains. “I want to get her into well-known galleries in Miami, New York, Los Angeles.”

Christin, slightly built with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair, is a natural salesman. In fact, selling is his day job. As an independent agent, he represents vitamin and health-food companies, helping them get their products onto the shelves at Whole Foods. “It’s the future of healthcare,” he offers. “Personalized vitamin regimens to offset your genetic deficiencies.”

So how exactly did a vitamin rep get involved with one of Miami’s greatest living icons, the woman who helped popularize the bikini, made Bettie Page famous, inspired generations of photographers, and virtually invented the concept of Miami as the sun-and-fun capital, long before that became a catchphrase?

CoverStory_9“I’m a serious amateur photographer,” says Christin. “One day my photo-lab guy calls me and says, ‘Bunny Yeager was just here dropping off some contact sheets. You’ve got to meet her!’”

A lifelong fan of Yeager’s work, Christin took up the offer of an introduction from his friend, Randy Mitchel of Darkroom & Digital in Little Haiti. He learned that Yeager’s current business model consisted of selling prints of her work from the 1950s and 1960s on eBay for as little as ten dollars apiece. Christin was floored, and immediately hatched a plan to help the fiercely independent -- and often irascible -- 80-year-old Yeager make the kind of money he thought she should be making. “I figured the best way to get on Bunny’s good side was to buy a couple of her photos,” he says. “Over the course of a few meetings, I said, ‘Bunny, I’d like to sell your photos [for you].’”

Yeager, long wary of ceding control of her archive -- hence her do-it-yourself eBay strategy -- reluctantly agreed. After a couple of private sales, including one to the artist Carlos Betancourt, Christin realized that, “to do it right, I needed to get her into [the galleries].” The project now consumes a good deal of his time. “I paid for these scans,” he says, holding up a contact sheet of never-before-seen pictures of Bettie Page while Jimmy’s waitresses, armed with coffee pots, hustle past, oblivious to the historical unveiling. “If I hadn’t paid for them, they wouldn’t have gotten made. Bunny doesn’t understand the importance of these images.” The thought makes Christin crazy.

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The timing of Christin’s involvement with Yeager is fortuitous. Others are in the process of rediscovering Yeager as well. Last May the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh devoted an entire exhibition to Yeager’s work, and this year her photos will be the subject of a lush new book.

More than five decades after she first made a splash as a fashion-model-turned-photographer, 2011 may be the year Bunny Yeager becomes famous all over again. But then, she never planned on being anything else.

Yeager grew up in Wilkinsburg, a small community outside of Pittsburgh, where her father worked for Westinghouse. When his doctor told him he needed a warmer climate, the elder Yeager and his wife moved the family to Miami, bringing their reluctant 17-year-old daughter with them. “I had a boyfriend; it was my senior year of high school,” remembers Yeager. “But they wouldn’t let me stay up there.” When she got here, she was instantly smitten with the surroundings. “I hadn’t been anywhere except Pittsburgh,” she says. “Miami was so beautiful. It was like a movie set.”

That’s when the striking five-foot, ten-inch brunette, who was born Linnea Eleanor Yeager, decided she needed a more glamorous name to go with the new locale. She remembered a movie she’d seen a few years earlier, Week-End at the Waldorf. It was a remake of the classic Grand Hotel, and in it, Lana Turner, then in her sweater-girl ascent, played a stenographer who dreams of bigger things. The character was called Bunny Smith.

“When I heard that name…,” sighs Yeager. “I had never heard anything like that before. So when I came down to Miami, I said, ‘That’s going to be my name. I’m going to become something else.’ I just remodeled myself into what I wanted to be.”

What she wanted to be was just that -- a model. After graduating from Miami Edison Senior High School, she enrolled at the Coronet Modeling School and Agency in downtown Miami. From the very beginning, there was something about Yeager that captivated the camera -- a kind of small-town innocence to go with the curvy, voluptuous figure.

She drew attention. In 1949 she entered a local beauty pageant and attracted a very famous admirer. “It was some charitable thing and they had this ‘Sports Queen’ contest and I won,” she remembers. “Joe DiMaggio crowned me.” This was during the Yankee Clipper’s bachelor days, pre-Marilyn Monroe. “I went out with him one time,” says Yeager. Then, so that nobody thinks she unduly influenced the judges, she adds: “After the contest!”

She did have one unfair advantage: a homemade bikini. “You couldn’t buy one in the store,” she says of the two-piece suit just then coming into vogue. “So I made my own. All of the other girls were dressed more conservatively, but I felt right at home in my homemade bikini.”

Bikinis became a signature of sorts for Yeager. Over the next few years, she’d fashion literally hundreds of them by hand -- first for herself and later, when she became a photographer, for her models. Some had flowers sewn on; others had animal prints painted on. All were original creations. “I never wore the same suit twice,” she boasts. “It made it easier for me to sell my work to men’s magazines.”

She’s quick, though, to point out that she was far from your average slice of cheesecake: “I was a high-fashion model with a legitimate agency. I was Coronet’s most popular model for years. It’s just that I happened to do bathing-suit modeling. I was always posing for the City of Miami Beach or the City of Miami. I think I was in more newspapers than any other girl.”

All these years later, Yeager still keeps a clipping of a feature that ran in a local newspaper. “It was one of those ‘famous faces’ quizzes, where you had to identify the people pictured,” she says, pointing to the spread. “Most of them were politicians or people like that, except for me.”

The journey from model to photographer began almost by accident for Yeager: “[Famed photographer] Roy Pinney used to come down here. I mentioned to him that I was taking a photography class. I just wanted to be able to make copies of my modeling photos; I didn’t really want to be a photographer. But Roy said, ‘No, no, that’s a good story,’ so he took my picture and put it on the cover of U.S. Camera magazine, with the caption ‘The World’s Prettiest Photographer.’”

It was yet another nickname that would stick, and one that would prove to be good for business. A female photographer in the early 1950s was, like Yeager’s one-of-a-kind swimsuits, a novelty that few magazines could pass up.

“Bunny wanted to look nice in her photos, and that’s how she came to photograph herself,” says friend and former model Mary Robbins. “She felt like she could do a better job [than any man]. Usually people don’t photograph themselves. But she did.”

Yeager quickly trained her camera on others. “She was very professional, she was fast, and she liked taking action pictures, where you were moving around,” recalls Robbins. “Nothing was ever pornographic or suggestive. She always managed to place her photos in very artful magazines.”

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CoverStory_17Yeager’s first sale came in 1954. It was a cover shot of a Miami model named Maria Stinger for Eye magazine. Dubbed “Miami’s Marilyn Monroe” after winning a local beauty contest, Stinger would become a men’s magazine sensation in the mid-1950s before fading from view. She died from a drug overdose in the 1960s. “She was a really beautiful girl,” Yeager says of her one-time model and friend. “Beautiful on the inside, too. She wouldn’t model for anybody else.”

Not content to just shoot away, Yeager would place her subjects in interesting settings or situations. “I learned by being a model that people always wanted something different,” she says. “So I would constantly look for ideas.”

One of these involved taking ten models, dressing them in sweaters and shorts, and invading the local firefighter school. “We had the girls jumping off the building into a safety net, sitting in class, sliding down the pole at the station,” laughs Yeager. It was pretty inventive stuff for the 1950s, and Yeager knew it. “You had to have a little more talent to do that than the [typical] leg shot,” she says with obvious satisfaction.

If Yeager had spent the rest of the decade doing similar work, we still might know of her today, but a fateful phone call all but guaranteed her place in pop history. “Bettie called me -- everybody had my number back then -- and told me she was a New York model,” recalls Yeager. “I took her sight unseen. I figured any New York model had to be something special. I didn’t know she was doing bondage [photos].”

CoverStory_16Bettie, of course, was Bettie Page, the model whose black bangs, wayward schoolgirl looks, and come-what-may sexual posturing would eventually make her the most famous pinup of the Twentieth Century. To Yeager, only one thing mattered: “I found out she didn’t mind posing nude.” The fledgling photographer had never had a model willing to pose in the buff.

It being late 1954, Yeager decided to spice up the holiday season by putting Page in a Santa hat -- and nothing else. The resulting photos, including one of Page winking knowingly at the camera while she hangs ornaments on a Christmas tree, were just the right mix of playful and provocative.

Yeager had some great shots; the only question was what to do with them. “It was near the end of the year and so I thought maybe I could sell a calendar for the new year,” she says. “But I didn’t have the mailing address of any calendar company. Instead I sent [the photos] to Playboy.”

Hugh Hefner’s magazine was in its infancy, but already shaking up American mores. A naked, naughty Santa was an early Christmas wish come true for the young publisher. Hefner called Yeager and told her he’d buy the photos for $100. Page made her Playboy debut in the January 1955 issue and a legend was born; two, if you count her photographer.

Yeager would become one of Hefner’s regular shooters, piling up eight centerfolds over the years. Page would become Bunny’s most famous collaborator. Together the two trekked up to Africa U.S.A., a wildlife theme park in Boca Raton where animals roamed free. Opened in 1953 (and closed in 1961), the 300-acre park’s star attraction was a pair of trained cheetahs named Moja and Mbili (“One” and “Two” in Swahili). It was rumored the cats had been featured in the 1951 Hollywood spectacular Quo Vadis, as the personal pets of Emperor Nero’s wife.

Why not make them Bettie Page’s pets in a pictorial? Yeager outfitted Page in a custom-made, leopard-patterned jungle suit and posed her with the two cheetahs, as well as monkeys, other animals, and even actors portraying African cannibals. (The cannibal shots, in which Page is often tied to a tree, are a sly nod to Page’s bondage roots.) The resulting photos are among the most iconic images of Page.

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(Yeager and Page tried to replicate the magic of the Africa U.S.A. shoot at Miami’s Funland, a now defunct kiddie park located at NW 79th Street and 27th Avenue. Those photos, in which Page takes in the park’s various rides and attractions in a skimpy two-piece, while not as well known, are perhaps an even more powerful distillation of the combination of innocence and allure that made Page such a hot commodity.)

CoverStory_11While Page would soon gravitate away from pinups and toward religion -- she found God in, of all places, Key West -- Yeager’s star continued to rise. She appeared on the television shows What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth, where, in both cases, the source of the fun was the same: reconciling the fact that the beautiful Yeager was also an accomplished photographer, and the creator of all those racy pictures everyone was talking about. Then there was her guest spot on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. There to plug her book, How I Photograph Myself, Yeager ended up stealing the show. “I was on for 23 minutes,” she says. “Today you get five minutes -- if they’ll even let you on to talk about a book.”

She also, quite naturally, became involved with the “nudie-cutie” film industry in South Florida. Typically marked by cheap sets, shaky cameras, and even shakier acting, with enough exposed female flesh to keep male audiences in their seats, nudie cuties were staples of drive-ins and grindhouses nationwide. Doris Wishman, the soon-to-be-legendary B-movie queen, was an early practitioner. On two of her earliest films, Hideout in the Sun, about bank-robbing brothers who seek refuge in a South Florida nudist colony, and Nude on the Moon, in which astronauts land on the lunar surface (Homestead’s Coral Castle) only to discover that the place is populated by topless natives, Yeager worked as the set photographer as well as unofficial casting agent. “I helped [Wishman] find girls,” she says. “I knew every pretty girl in town. My girls weren’t modeling agency girls. They were beautiful, but they were naïve-looking,” which worked well in the movies.

Sometimes Yeager’s work brought her in close proximity to the Hollywood dream factory that first inspired her. In 1962 she traveled to Jamaica to shoot behind-the-scenes photos on the set of Dr. No, the first James Bond film. Her beach shots of original Bond girl Ursula Andress in bikini were probably as instrumental as the film in making the Swiss bombshell an international star.

Yeager even managed to make it into the movies herself. When Frank Sinatra came to town to film his tough-guy detective flicks Tony Rome and Lady in Cement in the late 1960s, Yeager, by this time a blonde, scored a couple of bit parts.

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The 1950s and 1960s went by in a whirl for Yeager. “She was a celebrity,” says Robbins, and her imprint was everywhere in Miami. In fact it would be no stretch to suggest that the dominant image most people had of Miami -- beautiful girls and palm trees, a beguiling mixture of sun, fun, and implied sin -- came straight from Yeager’s camera. It was a grand moment in time.

But unlike in a photo, time doesn’t stand still, and the world kept turning. In the 1970s, the relatively tame girl-next-door quality of Playboy’s early centerfolds gave way to the all-you-can-see-and-then-some spreads in Hustler and Penthouse. Nudie cuties were supplanted by hardcore. And Yeager’s style, so indebted to postwar pinups and Classical Hollywood, all of a sudden seemed passé. As the culture became more crass, Yeager was done in by what she calls her “tasteful” approach.

cover_edchristin_0043Maybe that’s the reason her office, located in a one-story building next to the railroad tracks in Miami Shores, feels like a paean to the past. Stacks of black-and-white photos piled so high visitors can hardly move about, notebooks labeled “Bikini Girls 1960s,” a box tagged “Camping trip -- Bettie Page and 2 models.” All are, in a way, reminders of a simpler, better time, when Yeager was at the center of the action.

Not that cultural relevance translated into a lot of money for Yeager (who, for most of her career, was the working mother of two girls). If anybody ever got rich shooting centerfolds for Hugh Hefner, it wasn’t her. And although she won’t talk much about it, she’s been taken for her share of rides.

There was the bathing-suit line with her name on it that was supposed to take off and never did. The fashion spreads, clearly mimicking her work, which showed up in magazines with no acknowledgment or payment forthcoming. The photos she took of (and with) Bettie Page that have been copied and sold by others. The 2005 film The Notorious Bettie Page did much to resurrect interest in the pinup idol, but almost nothing for Yeager.

But that’s starting to change. Last year’s show at the Warhol, “Bunny Yeager: The Legendary Queen of the Pin-Up,” a collection of 28 Yeager self-portraits, was her inaugural museum exhibit. “Her first museum show -- can you even believe that?” asks an incredulous Christin. “That was a big deal for Bunny.”

It certainly was. Citing Yeager as an influence on such renowned self-portrait photographers as Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, the show was a key first step in elevating her oeuvre beyond the realm of pop culture.

Christin hopes to keep that conversation going, and has some prominent friends pitching in. “Being the relentless promoter that I am, every time I saw [Books & Books owner] Mitchell Kaplan, I’d say, ‘I just got some new photos from Bunny,’” relates Christin. “I made sure Mitch saw every photo until he approached me one day and said, ‘Let’s do something.’”

That ‘something’ has turned out to be the tentatively titled Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom, a volume of rare and never-before-seen photos being put together by publishing pros formerly affiliated with high-end Assouline Publishing and scheduled for release in December of this year. “What we hope to do is celebrate Bunny’s creativity, her artistry, and the diversity of her work,” says Kaplan. “Not just Bettie Page, but all of her work.”

And of course there’s Christin’s plan to get Yeager’s photos into top-tier galleries, where he believes her large-scale, limited-edition prints could fetch between $1500 and $2000 each.

Looks like the World’s Prettiest Photographer is ready for her close-up. Again.

 

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