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Varga Girl Pin-Up Art, Rooted in Greenwich Village

Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chavez, a Peruvian painter of pin-up girls who would come to be known as the ‘Varga Girls,’ was born on February 9, 1896. His artwork would appear in magazines, advertisements, calendars and even on the cover of a Cars album in the 1980s. He found the woman who would be his model, business manager, wife, and muse, Anna Mae Clift, in Greenwich Village while she was a member of the Greenwich Girl Follies.

Vargas was born in Peru and moved to the United States in 1916 after studying art in Europe. He produced art for the Ziegfield Follies and many Hollywood Studios, the most famous of which is the poster for the 1933 film, The Sin of Nora Moran.

Poster of The Sin of Nora Moran from 1933 showing Zita Johann

In 1927, a young Anna Mae Clift (who, by the way, was a cousin of Montgomery Clift) came to New York City from Tennessee and was hired as a dancer with the Greenwich Village Follies. The story goes that Alberto saw her walking down the street and asked to paint her portrait. She agreed and they married in 1930, after she proposed.

Fox Movie Studios moved the couple to Hollywood in 1934 and Alberto painted portraits of some of the most famous starlets of that time including Greta Garbo, Dorothy Lamour, Barbara Stanwyck, and Marlene Dietrich.

During World War II Vargas became famous for his pin-up girls art for Esquire Magazine and between 1940 and 1946 he produced 180 paintings for the magazine. His and other artists’ work were the inspiration for the nose art of World War II aircraft. The “Varga Girl” also appeared on posters and the backs of pilots jackets encouraging the sale of war bonds.

B-17 Bomber known as the Memphis Belle

Vargas met Hugh Hefner in 1952 and beginning in 1959 he would publish 152 paintings for Playboy over the course of 16 years.

With Anna Mae’s death in 1974, a devastated Vargas retired from painting. However, when he published his autobiography in 1978 there was a renewed interest in his work, and he executed a few works including the album for The Cars Candy-O (1979) which is credited by Entertainment magazine as being one of the 50 most outstanding album covers of all time.

Candy-O Album Cover, 1979

Alberto died in 1982 at the age of 86. According to an article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he said that there was a little bit of Anna Mae in every Varga Girl.

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