Friday, February 15, 2013

Ruth Etting: Ziegfeld Star and Vargas Girl

Photography by: Sarah Pardew Photography
Model: Virginia Leigh

Shortly after I began developing the book for Art of the Pin-Up Girl, I became very focused on the Ziegfeld Follies and the various characters that might have been present at the time that Alberto Vargas happened along to paint the show posters for the lobby of the New Amsterdam Theatre.  The showgirls were many, and their stories rich and all worth telling.  But one stood out to me - in a "truth is stranger than fiction" sort of way.  That was the story of Ruth Etting.

Aficionados of "The Great American Songbook" will immediately recognize her name and legacy.  Ruth was a true star - of American radio, the Ziegfeld Follies and eventually Hollywood and a recent book was written about her, calling her "America's forgotten sweetheart".  She truly had the voice and face of an angel and it was such a blessing to be able to pull videos of her from YouTube and see her perform.  She was truly luminous and it was easy to see how she rose to stardom.  I've compiled a Pinterest board of some of her material.  Strangely, when I wrote this story and the odd little song to go with it, I had not yet discovered her on YouTube - so although it sounds as though we were duplicating her songs - in fact, like many of the pin-ups from the story, I heard a voice and a longing to be understood and from that she found her way onto the page.  Yes, like Bettie Page, she came in night dreams and daydreams until she could not be denied. When I discovered her performances, it was astonishing how clearly she came through in the visions - and I could imagine her sweet voice singing our song ~ in a sexy, burlesquey, tongue-in-cheek way.

Ruth Etting ~ Love is Like That
Recorded by Ruth Etting on January 13, 1931 in New York City for Columbia Records.

Ruth's personal life was what made her so truly fascinating.  You see, she was married to a real life Chicago gangster named "Moe the Gimp" (you cannot make this up) and he was also her manager.  He basically controlled her life and helped her become the glorious star that she was.  Ah, but with gangsters, there are always stings attached.  So when Ruth fell deeply in love with her piano man, Myrl, there would be a price to pay.  In fact, Moe became so enraged (as gangsters do) when he discovered the truth, he shot Myrl!  There was a fabulous movie made about Ruth and her men, starring Doris Day and James Cagney as Moe, called Love Me or Leave Me and it is truly worth watching - especially for classic film buffs!

In Art of the Pin-Up Girl, we discover Ruth as a classic Vargas girl cover of Radio Magazine and explore the wonder of being a fly on the wall in Vargas' studio when she arrives for her sitting - naturally accompanied by Moe.  To say he is rude to the artist would be an understatement - but even then, beneath the shadow of this controlling gangster, Ruth is on the verge of her love affair with Myrl.  In Love Me or Leave Me, they really portray Ruth as a victim, but I like to imagine her as brighter than that and truly of the mindset that she is in the one in control of this impossible man.  She is a strong woman with a romantic spirit who is so very vulnerable to true love and although she is married, refuses to be denied her happiness.  Imagine how difficult such a thing must have been for a woman of her era.  This becomes an emergent theme in Art of the Pin-Up Girl ~ the pursuit of joy, in spite of the odds and social norms.

So, now enjoy the latest release of a song from Art of the Pin-Up Girl, which you may listen to on our SoundCloud.  Special thanks to the Sarah Pardew Photography and Virginia Leigh for the gorgeous vintage-style photo, which to me captures the essence of Ruth.  There are also links below to some of Ruth Etting's artistry, which is all positively divine.