Queen of the Centerfold

Bunny Yeager was a Miami model -- and an innovative pioneer who conquered the male-dominated world of cheesecake photography in the Fifties

As if all that weren't enough, Yeager insists that she never gave up modeling. "You see, models these days appear on television and in the movies, and so do I," she says. "I'm just a little older and no longer wearing my bathing suit." Her bit-part movie credits include Dogs of War, Absence of Malice, The Mean Season, and Harry & Son, in which she had a few lines as a waitress. Glittering in the golden future is yet another career path. "I'm going to produce films," she pronounces without further explanation.

Yeager has little time for interviews, or even short chats on the phone. The best time to catch her, she says, is during a brief lunch or dinner. She often eats at the Piccadilly cafeteria on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami, because "it's fast -- you can get in and get out." Wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a cotton shirt, her hair fastened in back with a purple clip, Yeager marches quickly through the restaurant's food line. She places her order in sharp bursts, drawing startled glances from servers accustomed to spooning out watery green beans to a more sedate, geriatric crowd.

Her New York agent, Eric Kroll, can attest to the fact that Yeager hasn't got time to spare. He managed to put together a 1987 portfolio of her "Girls of the Fifties," thirteen photographs sold individually or as a set to collectors. But he complains that a wealth of cheesecake photos is gathering dust in her archives because she is too busy to sort through them. Stressing that the last thing he wants to do is criticize his client, he nevertheless expresses his opinion that Yeager might simply have too much on her plate.

"I do think her priorities are a little off," he says cautiously. "I wish she would put more energy into work she's done in the Fifties and Sixties. She does sound hassled a lot, and it seems to me the anxiety and time consumption of putting together that newspaper, for example, affects her.

"I could be completely wrong," he adds. "I wouldn't want to sound like I think she's a curmudgeon or anything."

Yeager is much less reluctant to criticize Kroll. "Eric has a problem," she says. "He's living in the Fifties. I'm living now. He keeps forgetting that. He wants me to devote my time to the past, and I have to fight against that."

When asked why he doesn't just help Yeager review her material, Kroll laughs just short of maniacally. "She would never let me do that," he says, still chuckling. "She's very secretive and protective in some ways. She wants to control things."

Yeager concedes the point. "The trouble with Eric is that he wants to go through my files, like everyone else," she groans. "And I won't let anyone look at my files."

Such minor disagreements aside, Kroll says his biggest concern about Yeager is that she doesn't seem to grasp her own stature. "I mean, here is this woman whose work is admired all over the United States and Europe, and yet you can go into her studio and have your photograph taken by her for less than a hundred bucks," he explains. "She has always been real aggressive, and when she puts her mind to something, she will go right to it. But sometimes I don't think she has a real hip viewpoint about what's going on and how good she is."

While resisting the manacles of the past, Yeager nevertheless concedes that the old images of Betty Page, buoyed by the storied Page legend, have had a big impact on her career. Born and raised in Tennessee, Page moved first to California and then to New York City to break into acting. Instead, she wound up working for Irving Klaw, a pinup impresario whose tastes tended toward the fetishistic. Klaw snapped hundreds of photographs of Page in various states of undress and included her in several bondage and stag movies. In the eight- and sixteen-millimeter black-and-white films, mild by today's standards, Page tied up and spanked other women, or was tied up and spanked by them. She wore enormously high heels and hose with dark elastic bands tightening around white thighs. She later told Yeager that Klaw made her cover up her nipples and pubic hair with several pairs of panties and bras; it was the mid-Fifties, after all. Despite the precautions, Klaw was targeted by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, in the investigation of pornography he initiated several years after his more high-profile inquiry into organized crime.

Several cartoon representations of Page show her fleeing men who want to use her for one purpose or another, and indeed she left New York for Florida in 1957, after being called to testify before Kefauver's committee. Yeager says Page never appeared on the stand but told committee members in private that Klaw was not guilty of pornography. Her statement did not help her boss A he was forced to destroy thousands of photographs as part of a deal with the feds, and his business began a slow decline that ended with his death a few years later.

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