Chattanooga History Column: The Soddy Girl and the Memphis Belle

Chattanooga History Column: The Soddy Girl and the Memphis Belle

June 4th, 2017 by Jerry Summers and Mickey Robbins in Opinion Columns

This May 23, 2017 photo shows the B-17 bomber known as the Memphis Belle in the restoration hangar at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. The restored plane will go on public display at the museum spring 2018. (AP Photo/Mitch Stacy)

Photo by Mitch Stacy

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The legendary female figure on the World War II B-17 bomber, the Memphis Belle, had a strong connection to the north Hamilton County community of Soddy. Although Anna Mae Clift, member of the legendary Clift family (great-granddaughter of Union Col. William Clift and second cousin of actor Montgomery Clift) was born in 1896 and lived in the area only in her first years, her relatives proudly claim her Soddy heritage.

In her early 20s, the tall red-headed beauty left for New York to dance with the Greenwich Village Follies. Not long after her arrival a handsome young Peruvian artist, Alberto Vargas, spied her walking down the street. Normally shy, Alberto followed her to a local theater. When Anna Mae came out several hours later, he asked in broken English to paint her portrait even though he had no money. Surprisingly, she agreed to model and became the inspiration for his watercolors and eventually his wife.

Alberto fell in love with Anna Mae immediately. Because Anna Mae was a beautiful showgirl, somewhat of a gadfly, and loved to party, he was reluctant to express his true feelings for fear of rejection. Unbeknownst to him, Anna Mae felt similar love for Alberto. In 1930, she proposed marriage, and he immediately accepted.

Alberto had begun his career by retouching negatives and then worked as a freelance artist selling pen and ink drawings. In 1919, Florenz Ziegfeld, head of the Ziegfeld Follies, hired him on a handshake as the official portrait painter of his girls, including Anna Mae. The artist credited Ziegfeld with teaching him "the delicate borderline between a nude picture and a wonderful portrait with style and class."

In 1934, Fox Movie Studios brought Alberto and Anna Mae to Hollywood, where he painted portraits of most of the leading ladies of the day, including Greta Garbo, Dorothy Lamour, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich and child star Shirley Temple. One might think that a handsome Latin man would be tempted by the beautiful women of Hollywood, but he remained true to his only love besides art, Anna Mae.

In 1939, Alberto supported a labor strike and was blacklisted by the motion picture industry. He went to Chicago, where Esquire Magazine hired him to replace artist George Petty, creator of the pinup known as "The Petty Girl." Alberto made the mistake of accepting the new job on another handshake, which opened the way later for legal battles over ownership of his Esquire paintings and financial difficulties.

During World War II, the "Varga Girl" (with the shortened name) created by the naturalized American patriot from Peru became a morale builder for the American war effort. The "Varga Girl" appeared on thousands of patriotic posters and the backs of many pilots' jackets encouraging the sale of war bonds. He never turned down requests to paint or sketch mascots for military units.

The "Varga Girl" image was placed on both sides of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber based in England that was immortalized as the "Memphis Belle" in films in 1944 and 1990. The plane successfully completed its required 25 missions and was credited with eight kills of German fighters. Each of the 10-member crew was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

In 1952, the artist met a young adman named Hugh Hefner, who was starting a new magazine. Alberto would publish 152 paintings of lovely young women, the "Varga Girls'" over 16 years for Playboy magazine. He was heralded as the "King of Pinup Art" during the liberated 1960s.

Anna Mae and Alberto's married life had its financial ups and downs, but their love affair endured. She died in 1974 at age 78 after a long illness in Westwood, Calif., where they had owned a small bungalow since 1936.

After her death, Alberto's thank you notes always ended, "And Anna Mae sends her love too." The heartbroken painter never recovered from her death. He died in 1982 at age 86. He said there was a little bit of Anna Mae in every Varga girl.

Former Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern recalls Anna Mae and Alberto spending two weeks each summer for about five years in the 1960s at his father's Colonial Motel just off Soddy Lake.

Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rufolo and Rodgers. Frank "Mickey" Robbins is an investment adviser at Patten and Patten. For more, go to "The Real Vargas" Cigar Aficionado Magazine, August 1996; Steve Smith (slsmith01@comcast.net), president of the Soddy Daisy-Montlake Historical Society; or chattahistorical assoc.org.

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