Rick Klaw is the talented author of Geek Confidential: Echoes from the 21st Century and grandson of Irving Klaw, the man responsible for every bondage-themed and a large portion of the "cheesecake"-themed photos of Bettie Page. Rick kindly consented to an interview, attempting to clear up some nagging questions about his grandfather's dealings with Bettie Page.
Thanks for the interview, Rick. Clearly, you have a love of books and comic books, especially "fantastic" fiction. You are a prolific writer and a person who has a real love and understanding of the cult of fandom... befriending the creators who cater to that fandom and the fans themselves.
Bettie Page exists in just such a space. Given the iconic photos and her decades of "mystery", Bettie is more of a fictional character than a person to most of her fans (unlike, say, Madonna, who's personality and politics, for better or worse, are inseparable from her art).
I agree. Bettie falls more in the iconic status of say Wyatt Earp, where the fiction has become reality and vice versa.
How has your own life, work and passions been shaped by experiencing the "cult" audience of Bettie Page?
The cult of Bettie enabled me to learn more about a part of my family history that I thought lost. I didn't learn about my grandfather's famous history until I was 21 and at the 1992 San Diego ComicCon. I remember the event clearly.
"Are you related to Irving Klaw?"
I stood dumbfounded. I knew the name but never expected to hear it at 21 while attending a comic book convention. Irving Klaw was my grandfather.
Irving died about 16 months before I was born. His death is the stuff of family legend.
The grey-haired man in front of me was Ray Zone. As a comic book and magazine publisher, Zone was single-handedly responsible for the 3-d boom of the late 80's.1
"He was my grandfather. Why?"
Zone proceeded to show me examples of my grandfather's work: Images of Bettie iin black leather and leopard print bathing suits bound in a variety of positions. Some of the pics had Bettie with a whip. In some she was spread in doorways or suspended from a ceiling, bound and gagged. A few even had other women, but none had any nudity at all.
So you could say the "cult of Bettie" changed my life but not in the way most expect. I became curious and over the years and learned as much as I could abut his life and work. It's enabled me to re-establish a relationship with my Uncle Arth. Turns out we have a lot more in common than Irving.
The current understanding is the "Little John" story... a New York lawyer/judge bought out all the women in bondage stills Irving could dig up from B-movie stills. The customer offered to underwrite a photo shoot with bondage themes, in exchange for a set of photos. MSN would own the negatives and the right to sell prints, so Irving and Paula did, through their mail order business. Is this true?
To the best of my knowledge. I have yet to uncover anything that contradicts that story.
Assuming this is true, was Bettie the original model for the original shoot, or was she brought in later?
Klaw's first bondage model was Lili Dawn. She was photographed in midtown studios by various freelance photographers. Eventually, Klaw rented the third floor over Movie Star News and turned it into a photography studio. Around this time, Irving bought new furniture for his home. The old furniture made its way into the bondage shoots.
If Irving's dealings with "Little John" was the birth of Movie Star News shooting their own photos, when did bikini/cheesecake pictures (which, presumably, Little John would not be interested in) enter the "original photos" mix?
Since Irving was already selling cheesecake photos, I'd presume this was a natural progression to shoot their own "good girl" pics. As to when they started shooting them, I have no idea.
When was the last photo session for MSN/Nutrix?
Irving/Paula continue to produce original pictures (but no bondage after the 1955 Kefauver Hearings) into the 1960s. Klaw would publish "adventure" books with the pics and Klaw-written descriptions/dialog under the Nutrix name. He even rented studio space in Florida from David Friedman in the early 1960s. (Irving loved Florida and at the time of his death was making plans to retire and move there.)
Review after review of THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE have reduced Paula and Irving to "nice, normal, unexceptional" people. I'd love to counter that with some context. In interviews I've seen Paula displays a sharp sense of humor. Can you tell us about Irving, Paula and Jack Kramer? What were their personalities like?
From most accounts, the personalities were right on. Remember, I was born some 16 months after Irving's death.
What was the relationship like between them (Irving, Paula and Jack) and Bettie? There are some photos of them socializing, but also quotes suggesting there was little interaction outside of a handful of Saturday shoots.
Irving was a family man (he had no interest in bondage beyond the moneymaking aspects and there are absolutely no reports of inappropriate behavior between him and the models), so beyond the occasional dinners, I doubt he socialized much with Bettie. I do know that Irving use to like to go out with my grandmother Natalie and they favored night clubs with transvestite performers. Starting the mid-60s, my maternal grandparents often accompanied the Klaws on their club visits.
There is a story about a Filipino merchant marine who originally tied the knots for the bondage photos, but that Paula quickly assumed those duties. Likewise, initially, Movie Star News paid photographers, but at some point Paula took over these duties as well. Is this accurate and is there any information you can add?
I can add nothing about knots, but Ira Kramer told me that his mother (Paula) took the pictures because Irving was allergic to the photographic fluids. When I asked Arth about it (who is some 20 years older than Ira), he said he had never heard that. So who knows?
I've read that Paula destroyed 80% of the photos, but, at great peril to herself, Irving and Jack, she kept some of the negatives hidden, including many of the Bettie negatives. Is there any more information you can provide on this matter?
Irving surely didn't know about the surviving negatives. He was a scrupulous man of his word and if said they were all destroyed, he believed so.
And a bit of a correction... the negative destruction had nothing to do with Kefauver.
In 1963, following the suggestion of his lawyer, Irving destroyed his photographs and movies in an effort to placate the courts on yet another obscenity charge. The effort initially failed and Irving was found guilty of conspiracy to send obscene material through the mail, but the verdict was eventually overturned on appeal. Paula saved thousands of those images.
Thanks for your time and insight, Rick!
Rick Klaw is the author of Geek Confidential: Echoes from the 21st Century
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Read more Rick Klaw at the Dark Forces Book Group blog and SF site.
For more on Rick's life as a professional geek and more insight on Irving Klaw, read his interview over at Enter the Octopus.
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