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

Simon Templar

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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.”