Both Earl Long and Blaze Starr knew how to work a hungry crowd to advantage. As the populist Governor of Louisiana in the 1940s and ’50s, Long won votes by handing out sacks of food to the poor. Starr, perhaps the most celebrated stripper of the era, stirred the longings of fans with a rose nestled in the cleavage of her 38DD bust. When the “ungovernable Governor”(as LIFE called him) and the stripper fell in love, their affair proved both a scandal and a comic burlesque.
Such is the stuff of which movies are made, and now one has been—Blaze, starring Paul Newman and Lolita Davidovich, which opens this week and chronicles (he affair and its raucous denouement: In May 1959, after ranting and screaming during a debate over voter registration in the Louisiana legislature and then trashing the governor’s mansion, Long was committed to three mental institutions by Blanche, his wife of 27 years. The Governor, insisting his wife was merely jealous, had himself released by firing hospital administrators. “Goddamn,” he said. “All because of a woman.”
One of 11 children, Blaze Starr was born Fannie Belle Fleming and grew up in little Newground Hollow in the hills of West Virginia, 50 miles from the nearest high school. She left home at 14, beginning an educational odyssey both lengthy and varied. Now 57, she gave up striptease five years ago and lives in Carroll County, Md., where she makes and sells jewelry in a local mall. She spoke with correspondent Margie Bonnett Sellinger.
I was 15 and working as a waitress at the Mayflower Donut Shop in Washington, D.C., when a man named Red Snyder told me I was pretty and ought to be in show business. I said I had been raised to believe it was sinful to dance, but I could play the guitar. “Good,” he said. “I’m going to make you a star.” Red said he wanted me to dress up as a cowgirl, play the guitar a little and then strip. I had never heard of striptease before. But Red sweet-talked me and said the girls who did all had to be really beautiful.
When you have never even shown your belly button, the thought of stripping is scary. So when I went onstage for the first time in my red-and-white cowgirl outfit, I used my hat to cover myself. After the show I threw up. It wasn’t that I thought there was anything wrong with stripping. I was just overwhelmed by the emotion of getting into show business.
After that I took a job at the 2 O’Clock Club in Baltimore. I hadn’t yet turned 16, but I dressed so I looked really grown up. I wore a short black skirt and held a long cigarette holder. Soon I began making guest appearances in several cities along the East Coast. I always tried to inject a lot of humor into my striptease routines. Once I had this erotic dream about making love so passionately everything started smoking. I woke up laughing. And that inspired one of my favorite bits of stage business: I set-up a reclining love seat rigged with a smoke pot. As I’d get to the end of my act, I’d stretch out on the couch, wiggle and look kind of seductive. When I was down to my last pieces of clothing, I’d set off the smoke pot. The audience would become hysterical.
I began working at the Sho-Bar in New Orleans in 1959. That’s where I met Gov. Earl Long. He wandered in one night with his entourage. After watching my burning couch routine, he came back to the dressing room and introduced himself. As I headed onstage for the finale, I could hear him hollering, “Will you go to dinner with me?”
“Can I trust you,” I said.
“Hell, no,” he replied.
During the next few weeks Earl came in every night. Finally I did go out with him, and he really started to get to me. He was so kind. We dated for two months before he made a move. Then one night he took my hand and said, “I’d rather roll in the hay with you than anything I’ve ever done in my whole life.” When we were getting undressed, Earl grabbed a bedspread, wrapped it around his shoulders and said he didn’t want me to see his ugly body. Then he was too excited to make love. We just went to sleep. But the next morning he was ready for me.
Afterward Earl said he wished he was married to me. But I sloughed it off because he was in politics. A governor just doesn’t divorce his wife for a stripper. One night before he was President, Jack Kennedy came to the club and watched the show from the balcony with Jackie. I had met Jack in Washington before he married. We’d gone out and to his apartment a few times. But neither of us let on that we knew each other when Earl made introductions. That night we all went to the Roosevelt Hotel. Jackie left, and while Earl was elsewhere, I wound up having a quickie in a closet with Jack.
Several months later Earl passed out in the Sho-Bar and had to be taken to the hospital. He was sure someone was trying to poison him, and he was always complaining of pains in his stomach. He’d say, “I’m awfully sick. Something is happening to me.”
In May 1959, Earl got into a shouting match with some legislators during a debate in the State House, and he had a wild argument with his wife at the mansion. Then he went to bed, and the next thing he knew they were carting him off to a mental institution. When he finally got to a telephone a few days later, Earl called and said he had told another inmate he was Governor of the great state of Louisiana and the guy replied, “Yeah, I used to think I was President Eisenhower.” Of course, Earl really was the Governor. He got out of the hospital by firing the doctors, replacing them with new ones who would vouch for his sanity. Suddenly I felt totally different about Earl. I was very protective. He had taken a big chance with his career by choosing me over his wife. He said she’d sent him to a nuthouse because of me. Before I met Earl, nobody gave up a damn thing for me. And he was willing to give up everything.
By law, Earl was not eligible to seek reelection when his term ended later that year. He was miserable not being Governor. He’d say, “I’m nobody. I’m nobody.” He had filed for a legal separation [as had his wife], and he promised to marry me after the divorce. In the meantime his friends convinced him to run for Congress, and we agreed it was better if I was out of the picture for a while. I went back to work in Baltimore, and he came to visit every few days.
In August, Earl won the Democratic primary. When he called to tell me, he said he wasn’t feeling well but would be up to see me as soon as he could. He didn’t tell me he was in the hospital. Ten days later I was shocked to hear on the radio that he had died from heart disease. While his body lay in state at the Capitol, I walked right up and put a rose on his casket with my head high and walked out.
I felt lost without Earl and for a while had little desire to take up with another man. Then five years ago I finally stopped stripping because it got to be so raunchy. There was no more burlesque. Anybody could get up and wiggle and get totally nude. The shows offered sadistic porno flicks between acts. During one final series of shows in New York City, San Francisco and Miami, I wore a beautiful see-through negligee and dropped my panties for a finale. I got $5,000 a week. But after that I hung up my G-string.
I still dream about stripping sometimes. When I do, Earl is in the audience watching me do my thing. Then I wake up and feel sad. I miss Earl and I miss being on that stage.