2012 Leather Hall of Fame Inductee
IRVING KLAW: ACCIDENTAL HERO OF THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION
by Gloria G. Brame and William D. Brame
Irving Klaw holds a strange and yet central place in the history of heterosexual BDSM in the 20th century, in part because of the curious paradoxes of his life. He was a non-kinky person who produced and sold arguably more BDSM imagery than anyone before or since. He became a symbol for the cause of sexual freedom, and a martyr to anti-sex initiatives by the Federal government, yet he was non-political, uninterested in activism and never intended to be a martyr for anything. Klaw was a businessman, motivated primarily by the ambition to earn a lot of money. And yet, somehow, in the course of a couple of decades, Irving Klaw created a small empire around a vast range of kinky people, sex industry workers, and outsider artists that profoundly influenced the world of kink as today’s BDSMers know it.
Childhood and Youth: A Regular Guy With Great Ambitions
Born on November 9, 1910, Irving Klaw was that fixture in American iconography, the man of humble origins who becomes a huge, national success. Raised in Brooklyn , New York , at a time when horses still pulled milk-wagons and life for working-class Brooklynites was a hard-scrabble battle every day, Irving ’s early life was neither easy nor comfortable.
The son of a Jewish subway conductor on the Brooklyn BMT line, both his father and mother had been previously married, and had combined their families into one big one, raising six children in all, three boys and three girls. Irving was a child from his father’s previous marriage and the second oldest son in the family. Interestingly, as a youngster, he developed his closest connection with his baby sister Paula Klaw, who was the youngest child of the family, born after the families merged. Despite their age gap, the bond that Irving and Paula developed as children would endure and sustain them throughout their lives.
His father’s death, when Irving was still in high school, forced an upheaval in the family, as everyone scrambled to figure out how to financially support the brood. Paula, still a young girl, went to live with her mother, Irving ’s step-mother. Meanwhile, as second oldest, Irving felt it was now his time to set off, as young men did in those days, to find fame and fortune. Or at least fortune. One thing is clear. Irving never wanted to be poor again.
Early Manhood: An Entrepreneur is Born
Nothing is known about the period between high school and Irving ’s early 20s. It’s safe to assume that a young man finding his way took jobs around New York , and, if he was lucky, apprenticed somewhere. What is known that from 1993 – 1937, he tried his hand at the fur business. This suggests he had some familiarity with the industry, so perhaps he worked for a furrier. However he came by the skills to turn pelts into coats, his first business venture was a failure. His next one worked out a little better. He opened a used bookstore in a basement-level store at 209 East 14th Street in Manhattan sometime in 1938.
Paula Klaw was of adult age by then, and she joined her brother in his venture, becoming his assistant and office manager. Together, the Klaws sold books, magazines, and entertainment memorabilia. With bookstore profits modest, Irving launched yet another business. This one, called Nutrix (New Tricks), sold magic tricks and novelties through the mails. Again, Klaw’s ambition was greater than his earning ability, and both the bookstore and mail-order magic tricks businesses limped along. What the Klaws couldn’t know yet is these companies’ scrawny profit margins were about to transform into the foundation of astonishing success, wealth, and ultimate notoriety for Irving Klaw.
As the legend goes[i], it was during this time that Irving spotted a teenage girl in his bookstore surreptitiously tearing a picture of Clark Gable out of one of the movie magazines he carried. Inspiration struck. People liked individual pictures of stars. If dishonest people liked them enough to steal them, then surely honest people would pay for them. Klaw put a box of movie stills onto the sales floor and waited to see what happened.
What happened changed the fortunes of Irving and Paula forever. Irving was right. People were crazy about movie stills and publicity photos. He began offering pin-ups by mail and that too met with success. In a matter of months, he moved out of the basement and took over the street-level storefront.
The idea of selling individual pictures of sexy people was hardly new. No sooner was photography invented than people began shooting and merchandising women and men in sexy poses. Erotic cabinet cards were produced as early as the 1860s. By the 1890s, it was common for athletes, dancers and good-looking performers to commission sexy photos they could sell or gift to fans, and by the 1920s, the Hollywood movie studio system papered newspaper desks with photos of their stars.
Still, the modern pin-up – embodied by a shapely female in a sexy pose, dressed in something provocative -- was usually a magazine feature, either an illustration or photo to spice up the stories in men’s magazines. But Klaw knew you didn’t have to sell the whole magazine. Klaw saw a profitable angle in recycling, repackaging, and exploiting free or inexpensive content, and turning it around for resale and the angle worked like a charm.
By 1939, Irving left the books behind, and focused on his mail-order cash cow. He moved across the street, to 212 East 14th Street and opened “Irving Klaw’s Pin-Up Photos.” He hung a now-historic sign in his window to proudly announce his merchandise. It read “Pin-up photos of your favorite movie stars, latest movie scenes, bathing beauties, popular cowboy stars and vocalists, bandleaders.”
According to numerous etymological sources, the term pin-up was first coined in 1941 in Life magazine, which referred to Dorothy Lamour as the ‘No. 1 pin-up girl in the US Army.’[ii] Given that Klaw named his business in 1939, and soon after declared himself “the Pin-up King,” he may well deserve the credit for the term’s first contemporary usage, and definitely deserves the credit for its popularization.
World War II brought new opportunities for Klaw. There were millions of homesick American men flung by global war all over the world. Through advertising and word of mouth, untold numbers of them began ordering sexy photos from Klaw at a rate he could barely satisfy. As demand grew, Irving branched out. He set up a photo studio and brought photographers into the studio to shoot burlesque stars, strippers and hired models. It is impossible to list all the Burlesque Queens who posed but two of the most famous were Tempest Storm and Lili St. Cyr.
With his nose for profit, Irving had also sniffed another angle during the war years. He noticed that pictures of women in bondage or wearing fancy lingerie flew out the door. Some soldiers wrote to him, detailing their interest in specific fetishes and scenarios they wanted to see. To satisfy the market for kinky content, Klaw first sold lobby cards and movie stills with bondage scenes but he quickly realized he needed original photos to cater to more particularized tastes. Klaw hired models and directed them to enact damsel-in-distress scenarios, replete with bondage and lingerie.
Through the early 1940s, Klaw was considered an American success story, a guy who’d pulled himself up by his bootstraps and offered Americans daring but delightful entertainment with his photo business. There is a wonderful private Klaw family photo of Irving and his young son Arth meeting the ultra-wholesome, all-American cowboy Roy Rogers.
Rick Klaw attests that his grandfather received a Congressional Commendation for supporting the troops in the 1940s, apparently a nod to Irving ’s morale-boosting mailings of beautiful girls to lonely GIs. At the time, the military encouraged soldiers to think about the women waiting for them back home, and Klaw’s bevy of beauties were just the kind of women men wanted they could come home to.
But by the mid-1940s, the kinky images coming from Klaw’s studios were drawing attention, and not all of it good. Several civilian complaints were filed with the government, protesting his use of the U.S. mails for salacious materials. Klaw didn’t take these complaints too seriously and remained focused on his profit margins.
Sometime around 1947, another legendary opportunity presented itself to Klaw. According to interviews with John Coutts and Paula Klaw, a wealthy SM player approached Irving with a business offer he couldn’t refuse: the benefactor would provide the models, the equipment, and pay all the expenses if Irving would allow the photo shoots to take place in his studio. All the man asked in return was one set of the photos.
It’s a wonderful story but there is no documentation that it happened this way. According to Rick Klaw, he’s tried to find evidence that such an individual existed and suspects the story may be apocryphal. Our guess is that the story grew from seeds of truth: one way or another, members of the SM community found their way to 14th Street , and a collaboration was forged that would change Klaw’s life.
He had by then likely already seen the work of Charles Guyette, a known sadomasochist who photographed and published SM/fetish photographs in the 1930s, as well as John Willie, similarly notorious as an SM publisher, artist and writer. Klaw began adding their work to his catalogue, buying photos from another known SMer, John Coutts, and later reprinting John Willie’s classic “Perils of Gwendolyn.” Although Guyette, Coutts and Willie were openly-acknowledge members of the nascent SM/fetish communities, Irving Klaw had better luck selling their work than they’d had. The fact that Klaw – who, as far as anyone can tell, was completely vanilla – was getting rich on SM/fetish imagery while SM/fetish people were not may explain why Coutts, later in life, had nothing but harsh words for Klaw. Whether Coutts complaints were valid or the result of sour grapes is unknown. Suffice it to say, those who believe Coutts’ version of events hold a grudge against Klaw as someone who exploited the community.
Whatever the emotional politics, what is known that sometime around 1947, Klaw began concentrating on growing the SM/fetish side of his mail-order empire. He started to build a proprietary catalogue of original SM/fetish photos and stirred the waters for contacts and content. He first patronized freelance photographers, then rented and converted the third floor at 212 E. 14th into a photo production studio, opening his doors to streams of models and photographers in search of fame. Rick Klaw notes that the furniture we see in the old photos came from Klaw’s own home,[iii] frugally recycled when Klaw bought new furniture.
Professional dominatrices, such as the Baroness, and known mid-20th century SM players – such as Tana Louise, wife of Leonard Burtman, the publisher of Bizarre -- were dropping by Klaw studio to pose in dominant gear, while endless streams of pretty young models applied to appear in bondage and female wrestling photos, usually dressed in high heels, garters and black nylons.
Meanwhile, his former magic tricks company was now the publisher of a series of hardcore BDSM bondage and torture magazine. Nutrix magazine was notorious for its explicit photosets of SM. Nutrix also had an identity crisis: sometimes, the name appeared as Mutrix; sometimes as Nutrix; and sometimes at Nutrix/Mutrix. Was Irving playing with us or was there some business reason for that confusion? As with a thousand other mysteries about Klaw, the answer probably went with him to the grave.
Unlike most of his other productd, the Nutrix/Mutrix magazines draw a very very fine line between erotica and porn. True to Klaw policy, there was no explicit nudity in the photos. On the contrary, some magazines showcased elaborate leather and latex-clad bodies. But the scenes themselves were hardcore and raw, the bondage merciless, without much artistry, and thus excruciatingly and at times frighteningly real. They remain an impressive documentation of fierce femdoms from the 1950s.
Many have debated and derided Klaw’s talent, his aesthetic, and his motives. Some resent that he did not belong to any SM groups or clubs, and presented as straight while making a living off SM. Nonetheless, without Klaw, it’s difficult to know whether Guyette, Willie or Coutts would be as well-known today as they are. Moreover, in the 1950s, Klaw would introduce some fresh faces into the world of SM/fetish that would themselves become community icons.
KLAW IN THE 1950s
By the early 1950s, Klaw’s businesses were exploding. According to Klaw family sources, company earnings peaked in 1955, bringing in $1.5 million dollars that year (adjusting for inflation, that’s about $12 million in 2012 dollars).
This may have been the happiest period of his life. His business was thriving, he was famous and celebrated and despite grumblings from prudes, life was good. Photos of Irving and Paula at work show them relaxed and joking with models, sometimes partaking of the luncheon spreads he set out for them. Irving was also a devoted father. According to his son, Arth, Irving came home to have lunch with his sons every day, taking a car service from his Manhattan office to his Brooklyn home and back to the office. Irving ’s wife, Natalie, knew what her husband did for a living and supported it. In an interview with Rick Klaw, he noted that both sets of his grandparents became good friends: Irving and Natalie Klaw, and the parents of Rick’s mother, shared a mutual passion for watching drag queens perform, and visited clubs on weekends. Other than this one curious passion, the Klaws led a typical, unremarkable family life.
At work, Irving was all business. He was polite and professional with models. His sister Paula was ever-present, and took an active role in production, sometimes behind the camera, sometimes posing models, sometimes binding them too. For the Klaws, this was a family business. Over time, Paula Klaw’s husband, Jack Kramer, would join the business; as would Irving ’s son Arth, who worked for his father for a few years in the early 1960s.
Klaw Studios had a firm policy on its portrayals of bondage and fetish acts. Irving did not allow nudity and, according to Tempest Storm, he required models to wear two pairs of panties lest any pubic hair peek through. He believed this formula kept him well within the letter of the law.
Many have questioned how many photos Klaw shot himself or whether he shot any at all. Rick Klaw has said that his grandfather’s allergy to developing chemicals kept him away from the photo process and made him rely on professional photographers. Some sources claim that Paula was the primary photographer but there is no firm evidence for that either. Photos of Klaw in his studio show him manning cameras and it’s difficult to believe that so adept a person wouldn’t know how to operate his company’s most essential equipment. It is a certainty that dozens of different photographers were shooting for Klaw, but it is a likelihood that Klaw worked behind the cameras too, if not shooting then directing the shoot.
Irving was now producing content at an astonishing rate. At least one estimate states that Klaw’s catalogue of bondage photos for sale numbered 4000. It may never be known how many women posed for Klaw’s cameras. However, during the early years of the decade, Klaw introduced several new talents to the world whose careers would become as legendary as Klaw’s own.
Perhaps the most internationally famous and beloved is beautiful pin-up girl Bettie Page. A promising young model, who’d appeared in a handful of men’s magazines, Bettie went to work for Irving in 1952 and stayed with him until 1957 before retiring completely from modeling in 1959. Her upbeat attitude and lack of inhibition resulted in an erotic collaboration unlike any other.
Bettie’s work with the Klaws produced sensational results. Bettie looked beautiful in bondage and looked beautiful putting other women in bondage. She gave spankings and received them. She looked great in fetish gear and even better in a leopard bikini. Klaw helped Bettie become one of the most popular pin-ups of her day, while he made a mint on marketing her wholesome, happy take on sexuality. Model and photographer Bunny Yeager, who also drifted through Irving Klaw’s studios, befriended Bettie and was later responsible for getting Hugh Hefner to consider her for Playboy. Irving Klaw wisely supported the effort and in January 1955, Bettie appeared on the cover of Playboy, further stamping her into the American male psyche.
Klaw also gave two exceptional BDSM illustrators their first start. Eric Stanton, best known for vivid images of subservient males and cruel haughty dominatrices, was hired and encouraged by Klaw to let his warped imagination run free. Stanton went on to become a prolific illustrator in the genre, producing innumerable book covers for BDSM-oriented pulp novels throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as well as book collection of his own work.
African-American illustrator Gene Bilbrew – also known as ENEG – was similarly discovered and published by Klaw, and also became a popular and prolific BDSM book and magazine illustrator. Today, both Stanton and Bilbrew are considered classic BDSM erotic artists, and credited – along with their publisher, Klaw – as inspiring the underground comix movement which produced similarly sexually outrageous work in the 1970s.
Klaw’s greatest contribution to the world of BDSM, however, was unintentional. His ability to produce so much kinky content, and to spread it so widely, meant that people who once could only dream of such scenarios, finally got a chance to see people actually doing such things. It gave them hope, it gave them amazing masturbatory material, and I like to think it gave them comfort to know that, somewhere out there, people were able to live freely and live out their true sexual identitities. More than that, Klaw’s photos frequently showed women who looked happy to be tied up; who seemed to enjoy their spanking games, and showing off their bodies.
In a pre-Internet world, where people routinely felt as if they were the only one in the world who had such fantasies, or who felt doomed to be viewed as perverts and outcasts if they revealed their desires, Irving Klaw’s playful bondage babes and proliferation of dominatrices spread the message that BDSM was good, clean sexy fun.
THE RISE AND FALL OF KLAW
Even as Klaw was busily producing all the cheap content he could sell across a vast range of contemporary media – in addition to his pin-ups, he was moving into the movie business, producing films that were little more than compilations of short clips of burlesque queen doing their acts – the wheels of prudish justice were turning.
In 1950, an FBI agent sent J Edgar Hoover a memo titled the “Irving Klaw Interstate Transport of Obscene Materials.” This document triggered a 14-year campaign by the FBI to shut Klaw down. First, Klaw was investigated for the complaints that his pin-ups by mail were a form of pornography, showing women in deliberately arousing poses. Then, in 1955, right when the Klaws were at the top of their game, Sen. Estes Kefauver was appointed to investigate teen vandalism. The Kefauver Committee operated on the assumption that there was a link between pornography and teenage vandalism. They believed that teens were the biggest consumers of porn and that porn led to violence. Since they considered Klaw’s images pornographic, they accused him of contributing to the delinquency of minors. The Kefauver hearing also led to new laws against mailing erotic materials across state lines. The interstate commerce angle opened the door to FBI involvement which, in turn, quickly escalated into the FBI targeting Klaw for running the biggest mail-order bondage business in existence.
When Irving was called to testify before the Committee, his lawyer instructed him to plead the 5th to most of the questions he was asked. Because of his refusal to answer, the court held Irving in contempt. New York newspaper headlines pronounced him the “Smut King” and published damning reports. Rick Klaw says that Irving ’s son, Arth, recalls that period with pain. Arth was only 15 when the story broke, and had a very rough time at high school because of the scandal engulfing his father. Arth also believes that the reason his father plead the 5th was because Irving was constitutionally incapable of lying: Arth thinks that Irving would have told them anything they wanted, in detail, and probably be vilified for it if not for the lawyer’s intercession.
After the Committee’s investigation, Klaw remained under the legal microscope. His profits were being drained by legal fees and the Feds let him feel the heat. Despite all the pressures, Klaw continued to produce all the same images his clients loved. He carried on with the business, innovating and starting new projects.
The final straw came in 1963, when Irving and his brother-in-law Jack Kramer were indicted for and then convicted of conspiracy to use the U.S. mails to distribute pornography. Although the verdict was later overturned on appeal, the battle and its costs, professionally and emotionally, made him rethink his business plan and resolve to give up the bondage part of his business. He soon Irving destroyed his enormous catalogue of bondage photos, burning historic negatives, in hopes of bidding a final goodbye to years of harassment and persecution. He returned once more to his bread-and-butter, selling pin-ups and carried on as always, shooting burlesque stars and other models. He also produced and directed a couple of sexy movies featuring burlesque performers in the 1960s.
Irving Klaw was at his office on the day he died, diligently working on new product fo his fans. While many legends surround his death, including the popular belief that he died of a broken heart or was a broken man at the end of his life, his grandson assured me that this was simply not in Irving ’s character. Irving may have been disappointed that he had to give up what had once been so profitable an enterprise but, like the true entrepreneur he was, it was a pure business decision and he simply forged ahead with products that wouldn’t get him in as much trouble.
Irving Klaw died of a ruptured appendix in 1966. After his death, his sister Paula Klaw Kramer, inherited the business. Some years later, she revealed that she had hidden a cache of bondage negatives from Irving and eventually releasing them again for sale to the public. Needless to say, those photos are still being gobbled up by kinky people and erotica collectors.
The Klaw family business is still alive and well in the same store Irving opened on 14th Street . Today it is called Movie Star News – the name of a magazine Irving published in the 1950s – and is run by Ira Kramer, Paula and Jack’s son. While they mainly sell movie posters and movie memorabilia, you can still purchase some of the bondage and Bettie Page pictures that Paula saved through them as well.
I asked Rick Klaw what he thought his grandfather would think about his place in sex history, and his celebration by today’s kink communities. “I think he’d be surprised and wonder what the fuss was about,” Rick said, “He was just a guy trying to make a living for his family.”
“The Notorious Irving Klaw” in The Austin Chronicle, March 10, 2006 (archived: http://www.austinchronicle.com/screens/2006-03-10/346301)
John Ayto, Movers and Shakers: A Chronology of Words That Shaped Our Age. Oxford University Press, 2006
Mark Gabor, The Pinup: A Modest History, Universe Books, 1974
Eric Schaefer,Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, Duke University Press, 1999
Jon Lewis and Eric Loren Smooden, Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method, Duke U Press, 2007
Mark Jacobson, Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, Grove Press, 2005
Robert V. Bienvenu II, The Development of Sadomasochism as a Cultural Style in the Twentieth Century United States, dissertation, 1998
LEGENDS OF DOMINANCE http://www.backdrop.net/sm-201/index.php?title=Legends_of_Dominance_-_35
BETTIE PAGE BLOG: “Rick Klaw Talks About Irving Klaw,” http://bettiepageblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/rick-klaw-talks-about-irving-klaw.html
Rick Klaw, Irving’s grandson: Full length interview by Gloria Brame on April 3, 2012