American burlesque dancer who stripped on an 'exploding couch' and fell for the governor of Louisiana
Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30
Blaze Starr, who died last Monday aged 83, was a voluptuous American burlesque dancer who gained notoriety in the 1950s after she was revealed to be the secret lover of Earl Long, the 45th governor of Louisiana.
In the nightclubs of Baltimore, Starr, a redhead with a 38DD bust, was known as 'The Hottest Blaze in Burlesque'. Her appearances in venues such as the 2 O'Clock Club combined standard routines featuring fans and balloons with more daring acts: on one occasion she had a trained baby panther undress her.
Her star turn, however, was the 'exploding couch'. "I had finally got my gimmick," she wrote in her memoirs, "a comedy thing where I'm supposed to be getting so worked up that I stretch out on the couch, and - when I push a secret button - smoke starts coming out from like between my legs. Then a fan and a floodlight come on, and you see all these red silk streamers blowing, shaped just like flames, so it looked like the couch had just burst into fire."
Starr considered her act to be about humour as much as titillation. "I never tried to be sexy," she recalled. "I always wore a mink coat and said: 'Phew! It's warm in here.' " She was 26 when she met Long at the Sho-Bar in New Orleans . It was the late 1950s and the 64-year-old governor was estranged from his wife, Blanche Beulah Revere, the redoubtable first lady of Louisiana popularly known as "Miz Blanche".
Long was a jowly Democrat who liked to call himself the "last of the red hot papas in politics". Others called him "Uncle Earl" and rolled their eyes at his many eccentricities. One Louisiana state representative called Long "as conservative as Ronald Reagan and as prejudiced as a Cyclops in the KKK".
Blaze herself said: "I lived and breathed my life with that man, like I was him and he was me." Their romance ended with Long's death in 1960, but it was to lodge itself in American culture. It inspired the Hollywood film Blaze (1989), with Lolita Davidovich in the title role and Paul Newman as Long.
Blaze was born Fannie Belle Fleming at Wilsondale, West Virginia, one of 11 children. She left home in her mid-teens and moved to Washington where she was discovered by the promoter Red Snyder. At the time, Fannie was working as a waitress in the Mayflower Donut Shop.
"I said I had been raised to believe it was sinful to dance, but I could play the guitar," she recalled. "Red said he wanted me to dress up as a cowgirl, play the guitar a little and then strip." Snyder also persuaded her to use a stage name.
She left Snyder's management in the early 1950s and moved to Baltimore. Her national profile increased after she was featured in a 1954 Esquire magazine article, 'B-Belles of Burlesque: You get Strip Tease with your Beer in Baltimore'. Using the 2 O'Clock Club as her base, she travelled to appear at clubs across the country. It was at one of those guest performances that Earl Long introduced himself.
In 1959, Long was briefly committed to the John Sealy mental hospital in Galveston, Texas, by his wife, in an effort, some said, to end his affair. Long died of a heart attack the following year, reportedly leaving Starr $50,000 in his will, a bequest that she was said to have refused.
Her burlesque career continued into the 1960s. She was the focus of Doris Wishman's film Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962, also known as Busting Out) and two years later she was photographed by Diane Arbus. Blaze was keen to point out that the burlesque scene of the 1950s and 1960s was relatively innocent and couple-friendly. "Striptease was an art," she observed, adding that she disapproved of today's clubs. "Where's the strip? Where's the tease?"
In later life she became a gemmologist, selling her range of 'Showgirl Creations' from a stand in a Baltimore shopping mall.
She told her side of the Earl Long affair in her autobiography Blaze Starr: My Life as Told to Huey Perry in 1974. She also played a small cameo role in Blaze and the film brought her financial security.
Even in old age she still considered returning to the clubs. "I still dream about it sometimes," she said in her late-seventies. "I'm dressed and getting ready to go on stage and I can't find my gloves."
Blaze Starr's marriage in the 1950s, to Carroll Glorioso, a club owner, was dissolved.