The “VARGA GIRL” Trials: The Wartime Struggle between Esquire Magazine & the US Post Office Over the Morality of the Pin-Up

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Although obscure, the “Varga Girl” Trials are an important piece of American cultural history. The extraordinary legal struggle between Esquire magazine and the U.S. Post Office during World War II over the morality of pin-up imagery has largely been forgotten, even as it has had far-reaching implications. Despite culminating in the Supreme Court decision, Hannegan vs. Esquire, Inc. in 1946, and despite intense national press coverage, the series of trials have, remarkably, never been the subject of scholarship.

In recent years the WWII-inspired pin-up has been the subject of increased attention. This is due in part to an interest in what is commonly called “retro” or “vintage” style. Those nostalgic for the past have turned to this trend as a means of celebrating the best of classic Americana. The retro-vintage craze has affected many areas of popular culture, most notably art and design. It has also impacted the representation of women—how women are portrayed as cultural symbols. The pin-up of the World War II era has transcended her intended role as male fantasy material, and has emerged as an American icon.

What were the “Varga Girl” Trials, and why are they important? The term “Varga Girl” may ring a bell. The fanciful creation of Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas, the leggy Varga Girl became a household name during the 1940s, and remains the quintessential pin-up illustration. First appearing in Esquire in 1941, the Varga Girl became an immediate hit, particularly among servicemen. Widely heralded as a “morale booster,” the Varga Girl (and countless imitations) could be found on everything from playing cards to the noses of bomber aircraft. For many men fighting overseas, the Varga Girl became a generic stand-in for real girlfriends and wives back home. Vargas once commented on this phenomenon, saying: “She is a composite picture of all American girls. Each boy sees in one of my girls a little something of his own sweetheart back home, so he pins up a Varga girl and says, ‘My girl looks something like that.’”[1] The Varga Girl became a symbolic representation of home, of the American way of life, of American democracy. For many airmen, the girl on the nose of their plane—whether a Varga Girl proper or a generic pin-up—was a sort of good luck charm. She was a mythic beauty that represented what they fought for, and the girl who would (hopefully) bring them home to safety. Today the Varga Girl exists in popular imagination largely because of her association with World War II “noseart.”

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Not everyone, however, was a fan of Esquire’s pin-up. Christian fundamentalists, moralists, and others of a more socially conservative bent, denounced the Varga Girl as “dangerous” and “licentious.” Among the most ardent opponents of Esquire and the Varga Girl was Postmaster General Frank Comerford Walker. In October 1943 with a world war in full swing, he convened a hearing board before postal authorities to determine whether or not the magazine contained obscenity, and consequently, whether its second-class (reduced rate) mailing privileges should be revoked. The hearing quickly turned into a circus-like spectacle as the press covered the testimonies of a host of high-profile witnesses called in to offer their opinion on the morality of the pin-up. Among the witnesses were social critic H. L. Mencken, suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley, Rev. Peter Marshall, and many others. Mencken’s testimony was especially entertaining. Shamelessly using the word “caboose” as a euphemism for the buttocks, his sarcastic defense of Esquire was undoubtedly the highlight of the proceeding. Mencken’s testimony was described as “a romp and a frolic, completely unimpeded by any considerations of procedure.”  Furthermore, “he called the Post Office any number of names, all of which went into the record unchallenged.”[2] The press had a field day covering material that was both comical and controversial. Of course, the subject matter naturally lent itself to interesting, often sensational headlines: “Psychologist Says Esquire Art Is Clean.” “’Smut-Hunter’ Sees No Threat To Nation’s Morals in Esquire.” “Pesky ‘Esky’ Dubbed Herald Of ‘Derogatory’ Contents.”

When the hearing board ruled 2-1 favor of Esquire, Postmaster General Walker refused to abide by their decision, and arbitrarily revoked the magazine’s second-class mailing privileges. Esquire then filed suit in federal district court, initiating what would be a long and bitter legal struggle. The Postmaster General’s decision outraged the press and many concerned citizens. As appeals and counter-appeals followed, the press took every opportunity to demonize Frank Walker and his staff, while parading Esquire as a champion of free speech. Politicians too weighed in. Democratic senator Dennis Chavez warned, “I think the boys of our armed forces will come to their [Esquire’s] defense with the same gay vim and vigor that characterizes all of their tactics. Most of them get a real laugh from Esquire, and, human nature being what it is, Postmaster General Walker better look out lest the service boys blitz him along with the Japs.”[3] Although Esquire vs. Walker centered around a number of technicalities involving the authority of the Postmaster General, the trials were sensationalized by the press, and the popular perception was that the trials were about the morality of pin-up imagery.

After numerous appeals, the case went to the Supreme Court in January 1946. By this time Frank Walker had resigned as Postmaster General, and Robert E. Hannegan had inherited the fiasco.

Hannegan vs. Esquire, Inc. was decided in February 1946 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Esquire. The Varga Girl had been vindicated.

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Aside from being a quirky tidbit of American history, the “Varga Girl” Trials have a deeper significance. The trials provide a glimpse into the mores of the World War II era, highlighting deep divisions over issues of gender role construction and sexuality. Court transcripts and press reports reveal divergent views toward sexual expression: those rooted in Victorianism collided with more modern, affirming views. The testimonies of psychologists Benjamin Karpman and Kenneth Tilloston are particularly useful in this respect. Dr. Karpman expressed negative views of the Varga Girl, while his counterpart, Dr. Tilloston testified: “I think it is a good, clean picture… glorifying a good physique and good American womanhood.”[4] Both experts in their field, these psychologists held dramatically different ideas about appropriate forms of sexual expression, revealing deep divisions over issues of sexuality within society at large.

The “Varga Girl” Trials not only mirrored society, but also functioned actively. The struggle had profound implications for American popular culture. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of Esquire granted legitimacy not only to the Varga Girl, but also pin-up imagery in general, and in the process reinforced traditional views of gender roles. Following World War II, the pin-up increasingly came to be perceived as a model of domestic womanhood. In this context, she spoke powerfully to both women and men, informing them of their respective gender roles. The decision also spurred an unprecedented increase in pornographic magazines. Without Esquire, and especially without the “Varga Girl” Trials decision, it is unlikely Playboy and a host of other imitators could have come into being when—and in the way—they did. For Hugh Hefner and others of his ilk, the “Varga Girl” Trials decision was seen as a green light—a turning point reflecting more modern, permissive attitudes toward female sexualized representation.

Although largely forgotten, the “Varga Girl” Trials are profoundly relevant. With the recent explosion of interest in the WWII pin-up—and in “vintage” culture in general—an examination of the trials allow the pin-up and the culture surrounding her to be understood in historical context. The “Varga Girl” Trials story is ultimately a story about who we are as a people, about what our values are, and how they change.

 [1] Cornelia Lively, “Famous Varga Girl Creator and Wife Visiting in City,” The Birmingham News, October 10, 1945.
[2] Arnold Gingrich, Nothing But People: The Early Days at Esquire (New York: Crown Publishers, 1971), 162.
[3] Anne Hagner, “Esquire Mail-Right Dispute Seen Headed for Supreme Court,” The Washington Post, January 1, 1944.
[4] Hearing Board Transcript In the Matter of the Second-Class Mailing Privileges of the Magazine Esquire, case file, box 2, RG 28, National Archives and Records Administration, 136.
By Nate Sullivan

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