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

Imagine the subject of this article, a woman in her late fifties or early sixties, five feet ten inches tall, with long white hair that falls onto a page exactly like this one as she examines each sentence with an unforgiving eye. A red pen is poised, ready to strike through any mistake or unflattering phrase. "White hair" is probably already history -- it should be "platinum blond" or maybe just "blond." Reference to her age has likely been given the ax, too -- Bunny Yeager does not like any mention of it.

In recent years, the red pen has strafed scores of sentences marching like tiny lines of troops against Yeager's fortified public image. Her reputation, as deserved as it is protected, is that of an energetic, courageous pioneer, a glamour model who refused to limit her work to one side of the camera. Instead she became one of the only female members of the club of "cheesecake" photographers who churned out pinup shots in the late Forties and Fifties. Her career is summed up concisely beneath the "About the Author" heading on one of her seventeen books: "She began in the glamour industry as a model and holds over a dozen beauty contest titles. From there she studied photography and is now recognized as one of the top glamour photographers in the United States. Her work has appeared in Life, Playboy, U.S. Camera, Cosmopolitan, and Redbook."

Yeager is not afraid to lambaste any lazy, uninformed, or just plain dimwitted person who doesn't report the details of that career correctly. She holds a low opinion, for example, of the man who wrote a profile of her for the July 1987 edition of American Photographer. To anyone interested in writing about her, she is likely to hand over a copy of the piece spattered with her markings. Though implied, the message is clear: do better or face similar humiliation.

That article's ill-fated author -- whose name, out of kindness, shall not be mentioned here A begins all right, gliding through Yeager's childhood in Pittsburgh and Miami, her early love of posing for the camera. But as the writer moves on to her photographic accomplishments, bursts of red appear on the page. "No! No!," reads Yeager's comment beside a paragraph describing how she would "overlight" her models to "blast away" their wrinkles and blemishes. "My exposures were perfect!" the red cursives exclaim. "Overlit exposures would be impossible to use or sell." As the narrative attempts to lock onto its target, the salvos become heavier -- words are crossed out and changed, information is added, flak such as "Never!", "No way!", and, simply, "Wrong," takes its toll, until finally the writer plummets into the crimson sea.

Obviously Yeager was not a person who would let herself be taken for granted in 1987, nor at the outset of her photography career in the early Fifties, nor now. Especially not now, when she is riding a wave of renewed interest in her photographic work, owing in no small part to the cult following of her most famous model, Betty Page, the Eisenhower-era pinup queen with the trademark jet-black bangs, who posed for Yeager and others in South Florida before disappearing into obscurity.

For years Page's unexplained exit from the cheesecake stage has intrigued a small band of worshipers. Some are middle-age men whose eyes first feasted on a Bunny Yeager photo of their fantasy when they were boys, clutching, perhaps with no more than one hand, Peepshow or some other magazine furtively swiped from their father's bureau. Page nostalgia has also blossomed among younger men who, following their hearts, a trend, or both, have opted to accessorize their lives with Fifties iconography. The Page craze has spawned fan clubs, trading cards, T-shirts, coffee mugs, comic books, and other publications featuring photographs by Yeager and others.

Yeager, who works in a small studio near her Miami Shores home, did not start the revival, and like many people, she may only vaguely understand it. Always alert to an opportunity, however, she is trying to to take full advantage of it, through a number of deals to supply Page pix. Indeed, she seems determined to capitalize on her past work, but not to dwell on it. More important, she feels, is that admirers understand and support her numerous plans for the future, plans that have nothing to do with Page nostalgia, and she is ready to rebuke anyone who doesn't get that straight.

The person least likely to get Bunny Yeager straight, though, is almost certainly Bunny Yeager. She jumps from one facet of her career to another with such enthusiasm that one is tempted to believe she really can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. But with her focus shifting so much A from Betty Page in the foreground to a dozen or so other projects further back -- the picture threatens to blur.

Yeager's undertakings have multiplied over the years so that now, in addition to selling prints of her vintage work, they include publishing and writing most of Florida Stage and Screen News, a monthly newspaper for the in-state film and television industry; serving on the board of the Metro-Dade Film, Print, and Broadcast Advisory Board; writing both an autobiography and an adventure novel set in the Caribbean (to be transformed, possibly, into a screenplay); organizing material for a book about her work to be published later this year; and, of course, maintaining her photography business, through which she shoots everything from family portraits in her studio to glamour shots on the beach.

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.

Page had already vacationed a number of times in Florida, hooking up with Yeager to produce what fans now consider classic black-and-white photographs of their dreamgirl. One series shows Page in her birthday suit on a yacht in the Keys, reeling in a fish. In another series, shot in what was then the Africa USA theme park in Boca Raton, Page frolics in the "jungle" clad in a skimpy leopardskin bodysuit. One famous photograph shows her hanging from a tree, a knife clenched between her teeth. She poses with chimpanzees, zebras, and, in the shots many fans cherish most, cheetahs.

But in 1957, Page had not come to Florida to pose. Not only did she retire that year at the ripe old age of 34, but she dropped utterly out of sight.

And, at least at first, out of mind.
Although Page's pinup photographs and bondage films were coveted collectors' items as early as the Seventies, the number of aficionados remained small. "There was no way for other people to discover her unless they were indoctrinated by this tiny group of people," says Greg Theakston, who has spent years researching the topic. The situation, he explains, changed in 1981, after David Stevens launched his Rocketeer comic book series, featuring a character named Betty who had a sweet smile and long black hair with bangs. "Interest started climbing after that," Theakston recalls. "Dave was enamored of Betty Page and his art was so impressive, people wanted to know who this woman was."

It was an information gap that Theakston and his collaborator, Joe Anderko, were determined to fill. Launched in the fall of 1987, their fanzine, The Betty Pages, was an immediate hit -- the first printing of 2500 copies sold out in a few weeks. "I guess people were fascinated with all the tidbits I was discovering piecemeal about [Page's] career," Theakston says.

The publication, whose ninth and final edition is on newsstands now, has also helped revive an interest in Bunny Yeager's work. "In The Betty Pages we've reproduced dozens of Bunny Yeager photographs, more than anyone else in the past two decades," Theakston boasts. "Thousands of readers now know who she is."

Yeager herself had sought her former model by running a newspaper ad in the late Seventies asking for information. "I was considering doing a book on her, using a lot of my old photographs," she says. "I thought it was interesting how she had disappeared so suddenly." Page's ex-husband responded to the ad and supplied a telephone number and the fact that Page was living in a cottage on one of his Hialeah properties but refused to disclose the exact location. "I called her up and told her I wanted to write her life story, but she turned me down," Yeager remembers. "And I said, 'Well, could I just come over and see you someday and we'll just talk about the past?' She said no. She didn't want to pursue the friendship. She was polite, but she was into a whole new life. There were a lot of references to the Lord." Yeager would learn in a subsequent telephone conversation with Page that the model had experienced a Christian rebirth on Key Biscayne in 1959 and moved to California.

But Yeager had no idea there was any Page cult when Eric Kroll approached her in the mid-Eighties with the idea of putting together a series of her shots for sale to the public. She had the good sense to insist on the inclusion of two nudes of Page. "I wanted her included because she was absolutely the best model I had ever worked with," Yeager says. "I wasn't aware at the time of all the renewed interest in her."

Kroll subsequently became Yeager's agent. Though he had loved her work ever since coming across one of her old photography books, he wasn't enamored of Betty Page. "When I was starting to put together the portfolio, I said to myself, 'Gee, all I can remember about Betty Page is that she was this bitchy, nasty-looking woman,'" he recalls. "I associated her with all the bondage stuff. But then Bunny sent me a couple of images and I saw they were quite beautiful and glamorous. There's a softer edge to Betty Page that Bunny captured marvelously. So I put them in the brochure, and bam, out of nowhere comes this amazing reaction of people saying, 'Give me more -- give me anything you have of Betty Page."

If Yeager didn't know about Page's following then, she certainly knows now. Page mania has broken into mainstream pop culture, and while the mystery woman still refuses to come out of hiding from her home in California, she has begun talking. And not just to cognoscenti -- last year she granted a telephone interview to the syndicated television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, thus giving Robin Leach the opportunity to bellow her name to millions of viewers.

Also last year, Yeager self-published "Betty Page in Jungleland," a $4.95 souvenir in comic-book format, filled with many of the black-and-white images from the Africa USA shoot. Yeager's own chatty telephone interview with Page ran in the July 1993 issue of Interview. And she just signed two contracts to provide Betty Page photos A 52 for a series of pinup trading cards, and others for a set of lithograph prints.

"She wants to capitalize on the Betty Page interest," Kroll says dismissively. "It's not that interesting to me. I would much prefer to see the Museum of Modern Art seeking one of those prints for their permanent collection than the making of tea kettles with a Betty Page photo taken by Bunny Yeager.

"There is a fascination with Betty Page that has something to do with Bunny's photography but it really has more to do with the nature of [Page] as a model," continues Kroll, a photographer himself. "She could be the girl next door or the bitch down the street. When you've photographed as many models as I have, you realize that that versatility is unique and greatly prized. A lot of that success belongs to Betty. Bunny's work and talent, on the other hand, are much broader than Betty Page."

A number of people with a knowledge of both women's careers agree with Kroll's assessment. "I wouldn't give the Page phenomenon too much credit for a renewed interest in Bunny's work," Greg Theakston advises by phone from his New York office. "With the AIDS tragedy, many people now want to pull back from hardcore representations of sex. Madonna and MTV have spawned a new generation of women in sexy underwear. A lot of men want to see more of it. The pinup pose has made a comeback, and Bunny's work is a prime example of what it's all about. It's clean and sexy and fun."

Theakston says he plans to start a new pinup magazine, Tease, and dedicate an entire issue next year to Yeager's work. "She's that important in the scheme of the pinup world," he says. The magazine, he predicts, will fill an erotic vacuum. "There is no middle ground in America," he maintains. "It's either hard-core porn or very, very soft. You don't see a nipple in Newsweek or Time. Bunny Yeager is one of the best practitioners of titillation. When you want to re-educate the public about an unfamiliar genre, you bring out the masters and let people see someone whose photographs don't just present the image of a woman, but truly affect you."

How Yeager manages to do that is just as fascinating to members of the mainstream art world as it is to an underground editor like Theakston. Eric Kroll points out that Yeager's work demonstrates, among other technical touches, an early understanding of "fill flash," using a camera flash outdoors to fill in shadows, like those under a model's eyes, for example. "These days fill flash is no big deal," he comments. "Bunny's achievement was doing it early on."

Gallery director Barry Fellman, who organized a 1992 exhibition of Yeager's work at the Center for Visual Communication in Coral Gables, maintains that Yeager's artistry springs from her unique perspective. "She was a consummate technician who knew her equipment and craft just as well as any man but had an outlook and sensitivity about her models that no man could match," he offers. "In Bunny's work there is a special quality of relationship between two women that a man can't achieve. There is a direct, positive way of seeing the female form. The photographs are innocent, lively, up-front, and smiling. She understood that part of capturing the soul and essence of a person is to make people feel at ease and shine through as they are."

As a model, Yeager recalls, she learned what was painful about a photography session and tried to eliminate it when she was behind the camera. "One thing I hated was those big solar reflectors, because it was like taking a mirror and shining it in your eyes," she says. "I wouldn't use them because they hurt me so badly, and I didn't want to do that to someone else. Another thing photographers did to me was to make me hold the pose too long, until my arm or some other part of my body ached. I kept thinking to myself, 'Why do they have to be so slow?' Well, I got a reputation for shooting very quickly. One or two hours with me was like working all day for somebody else. It was very relaxed."

Curator of the photographic collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Anne Tucker is no great devotee of cheesecake photography, but she says Yeager's work nevertheless strikes her as special. "I look at cheesecake pictures by men and it makes my back hurt," she says. "The women are holding the most inconceivable poses. You rarely see that in Bunny's work."

Tucker is in the process of acquiring at least one, perhaps two, of Yeager's self-portraits, first published in the 1964 book, How I Photograph Myself, for her museum's permanent collection. "I think the book is an important early example of a woman trying to control her own image," Tucker says. The photograph she covets most shows Yeager seated on a stool beside her Burke and James eight-by-ten-inch camera, her teased platinum-blond hair falling over her shoulder onto a tight red body stocking that is pinched at the waist by a gold lame belt. She wears only one garish high-heeled shoe; the other one rests in front of her, kicked off. A cord tied in a bow on her big toe leads to the camera's shutter. Yeager is about to take a picture of herself, and yet she looks away from the camera connected to her foot toward the one she doesn't touch, the one we don't see, which of course is the one actually photographing her. Her expression clearly aims for sex kitten, but falls closer to devouring lioness. "The photograph is hilariously tongue-in-cheek," Tucker laughs. "It's just a delightful image."

It is also significant historically, she adds. As early as the 1890s, women were earning a living from photography, which they could learn through books, without the help of academies that wouldn't admit them. The trade became a respectable alternative to the traditional female jobs of schoolteacher and nanny. "Bunny Yeager's books are part of that larger story," asserts Tucker. "They even include patterns for making women's clothes, how to cut a cleavage blouse, for example. They are wonderfully direct, unlike anything a man would ever do, because they take the mystery out of photography. They also show that Bunny Yeager was a good, practical businesswoman as well as a great photographer."

The book was published at the peak of Bunny's career as a glamour photographer, a career that can be traced back to the late Forties, when Yeager began modeling on Miami Beach for pinup shutterbugs such as Hans Hannau. His garish color postcards of Yeager, clad in one of her own bikini creations and reclining against a piece of driftwood or standing ankle-deep in the surf, sold rapidly during the postwar years not only in Miami, with its large population of former servicemen, but outside Florida as part of the promotion of the state as a subtropical paradise with an abundance of ripe fruit.

Yeager proved early on that she was far too self-willed to spend her life as a beach lollipop. She enrolled with her bodybuilder boyfriend in a photography course at Lindsey-Hopkins, a vocational school located downtown until its demise in the early Fifties. There she quickly acquired the basics of the craft while continuing to model on the side. Her big break came when photographer Roy Pinney learned about her studies and proclaimed her "the world's prettiest photographer" on the August 1952 cover of U.S. Camera magazine. After the article appeared, agents and photo magazines began clamoring for examples of her work, and Yeager was happy to oblige.

Her photograph of Betty Page wearing only a Santa's hat and kneeling beside a Christmas tree was chosen by Playboy for its January 1954 centerfold. In all, Yeager shot eight centerfolds for the magazine, working directly under Hugh Hefner's supervision and entertaining the magnate on a 1958 visit to Miami. In the Fifties Yeager also began publishing books, including The Art of Glamour Photography, Bunny Yeager's Photo Studies, and Photographing the Female Figure (which went into three printings and sold more than 300,000 copies). But it was How I Photograph Myself that landed her on the Tonight Show in 1966, to chat with Johnny Carson:

YEAGER: I started out as a model, but I'm the curious type, and every time I had my photographs taken, I wanted to see what they looked like, so I'd go in the darkroom with the photographer [laughter] and see how they came out.

CARSON: See how things developed, right?
Playing the good-natured sex kitten, Yeager laughed along with the audience, once again offering an image of herself to suit the situation. But even as she basked in brief television fame, her work with Playboy was falling off. "Photographs of women were becoming more explicit, and I just couldn't keep up with it," she says now. "Didn't want to, either. It didn't matter -- I still had my photography studio. It just meant I wasn't shooting for major magazines."

While raising her two daughters, Yeager continued to supply occasional glamour photographs to smaller magazines. The work finally dried up in the late Seventies, at about the same time her husband of more than 27 years, Bud Irwin, died. A year later Yeager remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle far removed from Playboy parties and television appearances. These days she and her husband are most likely to turn up singing in the choir at Faith Lutheran Church in Hialeah.

Call Bunny Yeager's Miami Shores studio and you're likely to get an answering machine with a message urging you to "have a sunshiny day, okay?" Those who know Yeager say she takes her own advice. "She's always smiling and upbeat, and it shows in her work," says the Center for Visual Communication's Barry Fellman. Several women who have been encouraged over the years by Yeager couldn't speak more fondly of her. "Bunny started me out in this business," offers Dana Mark, a former model for Yeager. "At the time I started modeling, women just stayed home and had babies. Bunny taught me that I could have anything. She was a real inspiration to me and made a big difference in my life."

But Yeager, so adept at manipulating images -- including her own -- in front of a lens, seems to be having a harder time framing her life behind the camera. She was obviously trying to shape her future earlier this year when she began talking with representatives of the German publishing house Benedikt Taschen about a book of her work. "I was trying to push photographs of girls of the 90s that I'm working on," she remembers, "but they said, 'No, we want to re-establish your name with the older photographs.' So here we go again -- I'm just dying to show off new things and everybody wants the old photographs. I don't get it. I haven't changed my method of shooting -- it's the same old style."

The warring of the past and future appears to be disrupting Yeager's present, creating confusion where there should be continuity for a successful artist -- even one who doesn't necessarily grasp the power of nostalgia when it comes to enhancing public appreciation of her work. Last month Yeager was under pressure both to put out her newspaper and to put together a collection of photographs for Playboy, which was planning a retrospective of her work this year. She managed to produce the paper, but missed the Playboy deadline. As a result the retrospective was postponed, says Beth Mullins, an assistant photo editor for Playboy. "We work four months in advance, and Bunny is still putting together stuff for us, so we're looking at a publication date of March of next year."

Mullins says she and other editors are enthusiastic about the project, which grew out of a Betty Page pictorial in last December's Playboy. Entitled "The Betty Boom," the spread featured several Yeager shots of Page and a tribute to the cult goddess written by Buck Henry. "The response was so positive that we decided that we should do something specifically on Yeager and include, not just the Page photos, but all the work she's done for Playboy."

Despite the missed deadline, Yeager is fully committed to the project, Mullins says. "Oh, sometimes I have a hard time reaching her," she adds. "But Bunny's very fond of the magazine, and she's eager to work with us."

Yeager is no doubt eager to do many things, but time is so limited, far too limited for long contemplation of a groundbreaking career, or of halcyon days on the beach, or of a pinup dream with bangs and a warm smile. She must instead concentrate on moving forward, in a light she understands. And on some inarticulate level, she seems to understand that no woman at any age should ever fear that light, which any woman can at least try to manipulate -- reflect, refract, splinter, and reconstruct into a perfect image of herself. And this, finally, leads to the problem Bunny Yeager has with Betty Page, cloistered as she is, in California, a state just as sunshiny as her own.

"She will never come out," Yeager says of her old acquaintance. "In the last conversation I had with her, she said she wanted to forget the past and not be reminded of it all the time." Of course Yeager admits she, too, has expressed that sentiment: "Yeah, sure. But I'm not hiding.

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