Not long ago I told my mother—always curious about my day-to-day life as a writer—that I was working on this very essay about Bunny Yeager the famous pin-up model and fashion photographer. She laughed knowingly and then instantly demurred. After some prodding on my part, my mother finally admitted that the “world’s prettiest photographer,” had once photographed her in bikini. Apparently Yeager, according to mom, was into “finding regular girls around Miami,” in the 1960s. This conversation then strangely loomed over almost every page I turned in the newly acquired Bunny Yeager Archive at the University of Miami Special Collections. I had decided to tackle her collection before knowing this but, good lord, was I going to happen across some kind of nudie pic of my mom?
The contents of the Bunny Yeager Archive at Special Collections is, according to Ed Christin, an archivist working with her estate, “the first major acquisition by anybody,” from the artist’s holdings. It comprises all of her publishing correspondence, all of her audio recordings, one hundred plus original images, a scrapbook, a pair of shoes, a bikini, several magazines she’s featured in and nearly all of the books she published. Christin explains that the photos are a good cross-section of the collection and that the bikini was included because, “a lot of people think that she made the first bikini in America.” Of course this grand claim is made by many. There are Roman mosaics from the 3rd century of women in Bikinis.
It’s worth mentioning that that the process of looking through most of the pictures in the Yeager archive is equivalent to looking at pornography in the library. Many of the models are are topless and if people catch what you’re looking at they can sometimes raise eyebrows. Apart from this nervousness, one can further make themselves particularly neurotic, if you start worrying your mother is going to show up in the negatives.
The archive depicts Yeager as a complicated and fascinating artist who rubbed elbows with the greatest faces of a generation. She was on set in White River Ocho Rios, Jamaica for the very first James Bond film, Dr. No to take publicity stills of Sean Connery and Ursula Andrews. There’s photographs by Yeager of heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and of Milton Berle, one of America’s biggest television stars. There is a picture of the great jazz artist Sammy Davis Jr. photographing Yeager, who taught him how to shoot models in 1955 segregated Miami.
It bears mentioning that only folder that includes visual representation of a black woman is in a manila envelope using a common euphemism of the day that would now be considered racist, “COLORED GIRL CONTEST WINNER,” in Yeager’s hand underneath her branded return address. Perhaps indicative of the times, the picture is also only photograph of Yeager’s in the collection which is not labeled with the model’s name.
The reams of letters that make up Yeager’s publishing correspondence lay in clearly marked folders with major names such as Hugh Hefner the publisher of Playboy with whom she worked intimately for years alongside lesser known players. One thing is abundantly clear from reading her letters; Bunny Yeager was always hustling. Whether with the suits behind a magazine, or a book publisher, or the ad men and music executives of her day, Yeager was sending them letters with exactly what she felt and wanted. She seems to be in a constant pitch mode, spit-balling and brainstorming with men in positions of power. One letter to a magazine editor has a list of 15 prospective book titles and topics, with a handful of them almost ridiculous such as “Unusual Pets You Can Own,” and “All about Houseboats.” In a 1965 letter to a film producer, she pitches a television show twenty years before that show was actually made: “Story about detectives and police and vice in Miami Beach.” Yeager at one point offers, “exclusive pix of Santa Claus at a local nudist camp,” to James Lynch at the Enquirer proving there really was no limit to to her hustle. Yeager was a dexterous mix of cunning business acumen, a large personality, an expert photographic eye and a taste for provocation.
Strangely despite the hordes of naked women in the collection, the most shocking title—at least by today’s standards—is Yeager’s diet plan which she regularly pushed on her models and even dabbled with herself. There are moments in reading The Amazing 600 Calorie Model’s Diet (1980), where you wonder how she didn’t inadvertently cause a death by malnutrition. Indeed, near the end of the book there are countless stretching exercises suggested to help, “overcome fatigue brought on by the diet.” At the end, she hilariously implores her fans: “When you realize that it’s really true, that you are the weight you want to be, you will feel like celebrating immediately. Fine. Just don’t celebrate by eating anything.” Yeager later in the archive admits to trying to get back on the diet herself, but admits how hard it is to stick to
Since her death in 2014, Yeager’s career has begun to come back into focus and many have tried to place to label her as a feminist artist, but it is certainly more complicated than that, especially considering by 21st century standards how casually she seems to objectify other women. In a 1958 letter to Hefner she frets that there are “no big bosomed girls around it seems,” and in an angry response to a rejection letter from Lynch at the Enquirer admits that several of her models were “dogs.” It is clear that she was able to sit at the table with some of the major players of her era because she was churning out naked pictures of other women.
Aquatic performer and photographer MeduSirena is one of the last models that Bunny Yeager worked with before she died. She admits that when she arrived for her photo shoot she wasn’t prepared to be asked to be shot nude, but MeduSirena was Yeager’s first subject in five years and she was truly honored to be working with someone she saw as so great, calling the experience “momentous” and “truly great”. She said she felts “not at all pressured but could see how it could happen,” and goes on to explain that “everyone has their own issues with nudity.” MeduSirena was scheduled to have a beach shoot when Yeager died. She went on to explain that Yeager was so good at using natural light and emphasizing the female figure that she remains one of the biggest influences on her life and work.
Models were a part of Bunny’s life and now her indelibly part of her legacy. Her working relationship with the beloved model Bettie Page has become legendary, creating a reel of kitschy pin up images that have become emblematic of the genre. Her pictures have a keen attention to composition that can only be described as art.
Perhaps most indicative of her overall output was her role as the producer and director of the Artists and Models Ball on Miami Beach. An age-worn scrapbook chronicling the event over the years shows the event was all the rage of 1960s Miami society. Inside is a seating chart, letterhead with promotions and newspaper clippings before and after. An entrance ticket to the party held at the Deauville in 1961 was $7.50 (the 2016 equivalent of about $60) and they drew over 2500 people.
The proceeds were for the Scholarship Fund of the Miami Artists School and Gallery and the intention was to highlight Miami as a burgeoning cultural art center. The event appears to have been an elaborate and decadent party with 500 models in costumes with awards such as “Best Undressing Job,” “Briefest costume,” “Girl most likely to Enslave an Artist.” Milton Berle himself called the event a “Jewish orgy,” and there are reams upon reams of bizarre images in Special Collections from the party displaying a type creative and bizarre hedonism that today’s Miami Beach no longer has. It is this event and the countless pictures up and down Miami Beach that demonstrate Bunny Yeager’s legacy is uniquely Miami and her dedication to South Florida has made both the city and the University’s collections a better place.
And no. I did not find my mother in the files. Praise the gods. She claims it was only bikini, not full nude. The Book Detective will not be digging further into that question.