Irving Klaw - King of the Pinups
By Leah Minadeo
Bettie Page had long vanished from the public eye when she died over a decade ago, yet she remains forever-thirty-something through her extensively-reproduced likeness. Her ability to convince us in one moment that she is naughty and to equally convince us the next that she is nice has proved timelessly captivating. By all accounts, she was quite the girl next door, a side of her captured in some of her tamer “cheesecake” shots. It’s a stark contrast compared to those produced by Irving Klaw, the man responsible for some of the most controversial shots of Page—bound, gagged, and scared.
Isadore “Irving” Klaw was a Jewish Brooklynite who owned and operated a used book shop in Manhattan with his younger sister Paula Kramer. Kramer described her brother as a bookworm who filled the shop with rare and first editions. The public didn’t share his enthusiasm, showing more interest in the movie stills Klaw put on the shelf after a junk dealer dropped off a couple cartons of them. They sold far better than books, so the siblings shifted their business to movie memorabilia, christening the shop Movie Star News. Klaw was apparently a cinephile too.
Around the same time, Klaw was operating another business, the Nutrix Novelty Library, which sold mail order magic kits. Like used books, the magic kits were a flop, but mail order became the mainstay of Movie Star News and, later, a smut production ring.
Sometime in the late ‘40s, Klaw was approached by a wealthy client willing to bankroll the production of some more taboo photographs and films—clients had already been purchasing stills of distressed damsels tied to railroad tracks for similar reasons. Klaw and Kramer converted some of their commercial space into a studio and started producing by request bondage and fetish material. They retained ownership of their materials, offering prints via mail order catalogs. Klaw was a businessman and creative director, while Kramer was behind the camera.
He may have been a smut peddler, but Klaw was a class-act perfectionist. If a model showed up with her stocking seams crooked, they were straightened out. If she showed up with runs in those stockings, the shoot was cancelled, but Klaw made sure the models were still paid and fed. Bettie Page would become their most famous and beloved model, and in 1955, the venture would attract the scrutiny of a Senate determined to curb juvenile delinquency by any means necessary—but mostly via censorship.
The operation wasn’t illegal. In fact, Klaw was painstakingly careful to work within legal constraints. Models’ bodies were covered in compliance with laws stipulating no nude images could be sent through the mail. If men were in the shot, it counted as pornography, so Page is only seen with other women. The official reason Klaw was summoned by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was that his materials were not just ending up in the hands of minors, but also inspiring their criminal behavior. It was an argument not unlike those that peg violent video games as the inspiration for mass shootings today.
“For the children” has long been a rallying cry for censors and stuffy adults. J. Edgar Hoover, one of the key orchestrators of the massive post-war fear campaign, minced no words on the matter: “the publication and distribution of salacious material is a peculiarly vicious evil: the destruction of moral character caused by it among young people cannot be overestimated. The circulation of periodicals containing such material plays an important part in the development of crime among the youth of our country.” Hoover’s words were invoked in the case against Klaw.
Perhaps like all eras, the 1950s are defined most by what we were afraid of; difference and nonconformity of all varieties ranked high among Americans’ fears in the mid-twentieth century. It’s hard to see through all the campy parodies (see: Ed Wood, Cry-Baby, Pleasantville…) that there was a very real fear campaign associated with accomplishing the ideal family and society. The spoofs ridicule the ideal, but rarely show just how much force the government was willing to exert to attain it. Mail order helped Klaw accomplish considerably wide reach, becoming “one of the largest distributors of obscene, lewd, and fetish photographs throughout the country by mail,” so his production ring was a sizable threat to a squeaky-clean society.
The hearings in which Klaw was questioned became known as The Kefauver Hearings, named for Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat who chaired the subcommittee. They consisted of all the pulpy hysteria associated with the 1950s in one neat package. The year prior, the subcommittee also went after comic books for their alleged contributions to teenage misbehavior, giving us the now defunct Comics Code Authority and those little stamps of approval on every mainstream comic book. Page was summoned too, but never questioned.
Klaw wasn’t charged with a crime, but after pleading the fifth a whopping 40 times in what couldn’t have amounted to more than twenty minutes of questioning, he was held in contempt of court. The siblings later got nabbed for sending pornography through the mail, but they appealed and won. As Kramer recalled, the judge reluctantly overturned it, saying, “I wouldn’t want it in my house. However, I don’t think it’s pornographic.” Under pressure, Klaw set fire to most of his materials deemed obscene. The siblings were repeatedly harassed and raided until Klaw’s sudden death in 1966.
The surviving Klaw-Kramer shots of Page couldn’t be more different than those by Bunny Yeager. Yeager’s are professional and often colorful; a series in which Page is clad in a leopard print bathing suit and flanked by two cheetahs are among Yeager’s most memorable shots. In comparison, the Klaw-Kramer shots appear low-budget and amateur. They’re all in black and white, which may very well have been a choice of thrift more than art, but the void of color combined with the high-contrast and so-so quality accentuates the danger that BDSM is all about.
Page, particularly Klaw’s vision of her bound and gagged, stands out against the backdrop of the McCarthy era. But perhaps such a repressive period is the only era that could produce the likes of Bettie Page. She reminds us that Leave it to Beaver’s America never existed—the campaign to suppress difference should indicate that there were indeed differences. Klaw tapped into some hunger for nonconformity and created a brand that has only grown since his death.
Page garnered a new cult following in the 1980s when a younger generation was exploring nostalgia for the ‘50s, much the way pop culture conjures specters of the ‘80s today. On the heels of the sexual revolution and at the onset of the AIDS crisis, she made a good poster girl for the way sex and violence coexist in her image. That cooperation is particularly true in Klaw’s work, which helped usher in new generations with looser attitudes towards sex—several times over.