Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Notorious Bunny Yeager

South Florida pioneering model and photographer Bunny Yeager died Sunday at age 85. We’re happy we got a chance to know her. The following is an article we published a few years ago in Boca Raton magazine.

Quick: Name the woman who helped popularize the bikini, made Bettie Page famous, inspired generations of photographers, and virtually invented the concept of South Florida as the sun-and-fun capital, long before that became a catchphrase? If you said, “Bunny Yeager,” you win.

But this isn’t merely a history quiz. Bunny Yeager is back in vogue. More than five decades after she first made a splash as a fashion-model-turned-photographer, 2013 may be the year the 82-year-old Yeager becomes famous all over again. Of course, she never planned on being anything else.

Yeager grew up outside of Pittsburgh, where her father worked for Westinghouse. When his doctor told him he needed a warmer climate, the elder Yeager and his wife moved the family to Miami, bringing their reluctant 17-year-old daughter with them. “I had a boyfriend; it was my senior year of high school,” remembers Yeager. “But they wouldn’t let me stay up there.” When she got here, she was instantly smitten with the surroundings. “I hadn’t been anywhere except Pittsburgh,” she says. “Miami was so beautiful. It was like a movie set.”

That’s when the five-foot, ten-inch auburn-haired beauty, who was born Linnea Eleanor Yeager, decided she needed a more glamorous name to go with the new locale. She remembered a movie she’d seen a few years earlier, “Week-End at the Waldorf.” It was a remake of the classic “Grand Hotel,” and in it, Lana Turner, then in her sweater-girl ascent, played a stenographer who dreams of bigger things. The character was called Bunny Smith.

“When I heard that name…,” sighs Yeager. “I had never heard anything like that before. So when I came down to Miami, I said, ‘That’s going to be my name. I’m going to become something else.’ I just remodeled myself into what I wanted to be.”

What she wanted to be was just that—a model. After graduating from Miami Edison Senior High School, she enrolled at the Coronet Modeling School and Agency in downtown Miami. From the very beginning, there was something about Yeager that captivated the camera—a kind of small-town innocence to go with the curvy, voluptuous figure.

She drew attention. In 1949 she entered a local beauty pageant and attracted a very famous admirer. “It was some charitable thing, and they had this ‘Sports Queen’ contest and I won,” she remembers. “Joe DiMaggio crowned me.” This was during the Yankee Clipper’s bachelor days, pre-Marilyn Monroe. “I went out with him one time,” says Yeager. Then, so that nobody thinks she unduly influenced the judges, she adds: “After the contest!”

She did have one unfair advantage: a homemade bikini. “You couldn’t buy one in the store,” she says of the two-piece suit just then coming into vogue. “So I made my own. All of the other girls were dressed more conservatively, but I felt right at home in my homemade bikini.”

Bikinis became a signature of sorts for Yeager. Over the next few years, she’d fashion literally hundreds of them by hand—first for herself and later, when she became a photographer, for her models. Some had flowers sewn on; others had animal prints painted on. All were original creations. “I never wore the same suit twice,” she boasts. “It made it easier for me to sell my work to men’s magazines.”

She’s quick, though, to point out that she was far from your average slice of cheesecake: “I was a high-fashion model with a legitimate agency. I was Coronet’s most popular model for years. It’s just that I happened to do bathing-suit modeling. I was always posing for the City of Miami Beach or the City of Miami. I think I was in more newspapers than any other girl.”

All these years later, Yeager still keeps a clipping of a feature that ran in a local newspaper. “It was one of those ‘famous faces’ quizzes, where you had to identify the people pictured,” she says, pointing to the spread. “Most of them were politicians or people like that, except for me.”

The journey from model to photographer began almost by accident for Yeager: “[Famed photographer] Roy Pinney used to come down here. I mentioned to him that I was taking a photography class. I just wanted to be able to make copies of my modeling photos; I didn’t really want to be a photographer. But Roy said, ‘No, no, that’s a good story,’ so he took my picture and put it on the cover of U.S. Camera magazine, with the caption ‘The World’s Prettiest Photographer.’”

It was yet another nickname that would stick, and one that would prove to be good for business. A female photographer in the early 1950s was, like Yeager’s one-of-a-kind swimsuits, a novelty that few magazines could pass up.

“Bunny wanted to look nice in her photos, and that’s how she came to photograph herself,” says friend and former model Mary Robbins. “She felt like she could do a better job [than any man]. Usually people don’t photograph themselves. But she did.”

Yeager quickly trained her camera on others. “She was very professional, she was fast, and she liked taking action pictures, where you were moving around,” recalls Robbins. “Nothing was ever pornographic or suggestive. She always managed to place her photos in very artful magazines.”

Yeager’s first sale came in 1954. It was a cover shot of a Miami model named Maria Stinger for Eye magazine. (Dubbed “Miami’s Marilyn Monroe” after winning a local beauty contest, Stinger would become a men’s magazine sensation in the mid-1950s before fading from view.) Not content to just shoot away, Yeager would place her subjects in interesting settings or situations. “I learned by being a model that people always wanted something different,” she says. “So I would constantly look for ideas.”

One of these involved taking 10 models, dressing them in sweaters and shorts, and invading the local firefighter school. “We had the girls jumping off the building into a safety net, sitting in class, sliding down the pole at the station,” laughs Yeager. It was pretty inventive stuff for the 1950s, and Yeager knew it. “You had to have a little more talent to do that than the [typical] leg shot,” she says with obvious satisfaction.

If Yeager had spent the rest of the decade doing similar work, we still might know of her today, but a fateful phone call all but guaranteed her place in pop history. “Bettie called me—everybody had my number back then—and told me she was a New York model,” recalls Yeager. “I took her sight unseen. I figured any New York model had to be something special. I didn’t know she was doing bondage [photos].”

Bettie, of course, was Bettie Page, the model whose black bangs, wayward schoolgirl looks, and come-what-may sexual posturing would eventually make her the most famous pinup of the Twentieth Century. To Yeager, only one thing mattered: “I found out she didn’t mind posing nude.” The fledgling photographer had never had a model willing to pose in the buff.

It being late 1954, Yeager decided to spice up the holiday season by putting Page in a Santa hat—and nothing else. The resulting photos, including one of Page winking knowingly at the camera while she hangs ornaments on a Christmas tree, were just the right mix of playful and provocative.

Yeager had gotten some great shots; the only question was what to do with them. “It was near the end of the year and so I thought maybe I could sell a calendar for the new year,” she says. “But I didn’t have the mailing address of any calendar company. Instead I sent [the photos] to Playboy.”

Hugh Hefner’s magazine was in its infancy, but already shaking up American mores. A naked, naughty Santa was an early Christmas wish come true for the young publisher. Hefner called Yeager and told her he’d buy the photos for $100. Page made her Playboy debut in the January 1955 issue and a legend was born; two, if you count her photographer.

Yeager would become one of Hefner’s regular shooters, piling up eight centerfolds over the years. Page would become Bunny’s most famous collaborator. Together the two trekked up to Africa U.S.A., a wildlife theme park in Boca Raton where animals roamed free. Opened in 1953 (and closed in 1961), the 300-acre park’s star attraction was a pair of trained cheetahs named Moja and Mbili (“One” and “Two” in Swahili). It was rumored the cats had been featured in the 1951 Hollywood spectacular “Quo Vadis,” as the personal pets of Emperor Nero’s wife.

Why not make them Bettie Page’s pets in a pictorial? Yeager outfitted Page in a custom-made, leopard-patterned jungle suit and posed her with the two cheetahs, as well as monkeys, other animals, and even actors portraying African cannibals. (The cannibal shots, in which Page is often tied to a tree, are a sly nod to Page’s bondage roots.) The resulting photos are among the most iconic images of Page.

While Page would soon gravitate away from pinups and toward religion—she found God in, of all places, Key West—Yeager’s star continued to rise. She appeared on the television shows ‘What’s My Line?” and “To Tell the Truth,” where, in both cases, the source of the fun was the same: reconciling the fact that the beautiful Yeager was also an accomplished photographer, and the creator of all those racy pictures everyone was talking about. Then there was her guest spot on the “Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson. There to plug her book, How I Photograph Myself, Yeager ended up stealing the show. “I was on for 23 minutes,” she says. “Today you get five minutes—if they’ll even let you on to talk about a book.”

Sometimes Yeager’s work brought her in proximity to the Hollywood dream factory that first inspired her. In 1962 she traveled to Jamaica to shoot behind-the-scenes photos on the set of “Dr. No,” the first James Bond film. Her beach shots of original Bond girl Ursula Andress in a bikini were probably as instrumental as the film in making the Swiss bombshell an international star.

Yeager even managed to make it into the movies herself. When Frank Sinatra came to town to film his tough-guy detective flicks “Tony Rome” and “Lady in Cement” in the late 1960s, Yeager, by this time a blonde, scored a couple of bit parts.

The 1950s and 1960s went by in a whirl for Yeager. “She was a celebrity,” says Robbins, and her imprint was everywhere in South Florida. In fact it would be no stretch to suggest that the dominant image most people had of South Florida— beautiful girls and palm trees, a beguiling mixture of sun, fun, and implied sin—came straight from Yeager’s camera. It was a grand moment in time.

But unlike in a photo, time doesn’t stand still, and the world kept turning. In the 1970s, the relatively tame girl-next-door quality of Playboy’s early centerfolds gave way to the all-you-can-see-and-then-some spreads in Hustler and Penthouse. Nudie cuties were supplanted by hardcore. And Yeager’s style, so indebted to postwar pinups and Classical Hollywood, all of a sudden seemed passé. As the culture became more crass, Yeager was done in by what she calls her “tasteful” approach.

Maybe that’s the reason her office, in Miami, feels like a paean to the past. Stacks of black-and-white photos piled so high visitors can hardly move about, notebooks labeled “Bikini Girls 1960s,” a box tagged “Camping trip—Bettie Page and two  models.” All are, in a way, reminders of a simpler, better time, when Yeager was at the center of the action.

Not that cultural relevance translated into a lot of money for Yeager. There was the bathing-suit line with her name on it that was supposed to take off and never did. The fashion spreads, clearly mimicking her work, which showed up in magazines with no acknowledgment or payment forthcoming. The photos she took of (and with) Bettie Page that have been copied and sold by others. The 2005 film “The Notorious Bettie Page” did much to resurrect interest in the pinup idol, but almost nothing for Yeager.

That’s starting to change. In 2010, Yeager had her first museum show, “Bunny Yeager: The Legendary Queen of the Pin-Up,” a collection of 28 Yeager self-portraits, at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Citing Yeager as an influence on such renowned self-portrait photographers as Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, the show was a key first step in elevating her oeuvre beyond the realm of pop culture.

The museum show was followed by the publication in 2012 of Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom: Pin-up Photography’s Golden Era, a volume of rare and never-before-seen photos with text by Petra Mason. Next up: a new exhibition space in Miami’s Wynwood arts district devoted to her work (scheduled to open in late 2012); gallery shows in New York and Dallas; a collaboration with German apparel firm Bruno Banani, to produce contemporary redesigns of Yeager’s classic 1950s bikinis; and a career-spanning documentary.

Looks like the World’s Prettiest Photographer is ready for her close-up. Again.

© Biscayne Times. Reprinted with permission.

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