Skirts Ahoy!

How the master of cheesecake art lifted a dress and uncovered an American madonna

Myrna Hansen, who started modeling for Elvgren at the age of 15, recalls that during one summer, she appeared on almost every billboard in Chicago. "The ads were for Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread and everything in between," she says. "Sometimes I had blond hair and green eyes, and sometimes I had black hair and blue eyes" (Hansen has brown hair and brown eyes).

For a time--she can't recall if it was 1952 or '53--Hansen had the most desired face in America. She'd asked for modeling lessons as a grammar-school graduation gift, she recalls, and was immediately sent out to Elvgren's studio on a call. The two struck up a friendship, and Elvgren used her in many of his best paintings. One, titled "A-Cute Injury," shows a girl--a hormonally gifted 15-year-old, to be sure--kneeling on an ice rink to inspect a bruise on what, for the sake of discretion, we will call her upper thigh. According to Hansen, she'd brought her own skates to one of the modeling sessions; Elvgren found his muse, and photographed her at once in the pose. "I just had to lift my skirt and say, 'ahh.'"

Hansen went on to become Miss Illinois, and, when another girl was disqualified, Miss Universe in 1954. She was immediately signed to a contract by Universal and became part of a stable of actors that included Rock Hudson and Clint Eastwood. "I went to see the Pacific Ocean, and I never came back," she says. "I landed right in the center of the beautiful old days of Hollywood." Not long after arriving, she recalls, she was cast in Man Without a Star with Kirk Douglas.

©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups
©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups

Hansen grew famous overnight and had forgotten all about the Chicago modeling sessions until a few years ago, when, while rummaging through a pile of antiquities at a swap meet, she came upon an old Elvgren calendar. "I said to the guy next to me, 'Hey, this is me.' He looked at me like I was crazy, then said, 'That's an Elvgren. Don't you know how famous he is?' I had no idea." She laughs quietly. "I just had no idea."

Elvgren had indeed become famous. A 1947 photograph, taken at a St. Paul convention of illustrious commercial illustrators, shows slicked black hair and a thin matinee-idol moustache on a bear of a man (one of his early instructors remarked that his hands were so enormous that it was surprising he could even hold a paint brush, much less do anything with it). Elvgren drank and smoked and liked guns. He believed in the old American dictum of working steadily and playing hard. And, according to the old American dictum's approved result, he was growing rich. Between commissions for calendar paintings and freelance advertising work, his son Drake estimates that Elvgren made around $70,000 a year at the height of his career. He installed a shooting range in the basement of his family's palatial home in Winnetka, Illinois. He sailed, hunted, and partied with an elite crowd of writers and illustrators, although he did not read anything beyond the daily newspaper and had no patience for artists whose ambition exceeded their discipline. He was, according to Drake, competitive and politically conservative, convivial and soft-spoken unless he had taken a drink.

Drake Elvgren, who is now an engineer and a born-again Christian living in Texas, remembers his father as a big, genial presence--"a cross between Jackie Gleason and Walter Cronkite." Though one Elvgren expert advised that the younger Elvgren's rebirth had made him somewhat reticent to discuss his father's profession, Drake proved quite the opposite: garrulous, and indeed, quite difficult to interrupt once he had begun talking. "One time, dad was picked to judge a Miss Dairy Land contest in Minnesota or Illinois or somewhere. He was considered an expert on pretty girls, you see. And he found what he thought was the perfect girl. Then she opened her mouth. It turned out she was an idiot. He once told me the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life was to not vote for her.

"The most important thing I remember about my dad," he continued, "was that he would treat people the same whether they were an artist or hauled garbage....He never had any prejudices. He didn't like politically correct attitudes. Or liberals. He didn't like Kennedy. He was just a regular-Joe type of guy."

According to Drake, Elvgren also felt some sense of longing for the legitimacy afforded "fine" artists. He was an illustrator, in other words, but he may have been one who secretly pined for the rarefied world of museums and galleries and critical canonization. In his later years, recalls Drake, while growing old in Florida, the elder Elvgren took his other son aside and, in a rare moment of unguarded confession, admitted that his pride had kept him from becoming the artist he knew he ought to have been. The pinup business had begun to dry up by the mid-Seventies, and his paintings went into attics and storerooms. Elvgren, who spent casually and saved even more casually, was nearly broke. A few years before his death in 1980, according to Drake, he confided to his son that he thought he'd sold himself short.

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