The Timeless Allure of a Naked Girl: The “Fifty Shades of Grey” of 1915
“Have you seen Stella?”
It was a question everyone was asking on the streets of San Francisco during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair laid out like a glittering necklace across the Marina District from February to December of 1915.
Banners and lapel buttons added to the urgency of word-of-mouth dares (Laura Ackley, San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, p. 256). No red-blooded man could resist the temptation to gaze upon Stella’s charms. A reported seven million gave in to their curiosity and desire.
Stella was the surprise hit of the Joy Zone, or simply “The Zone,” as the midway of the Pan-Pacific Exposition was known. A dime got you a two-minute viewing of the fourteen-foot painting, displayed in a dimly lit room and gussied up with a bellows behind the canvas, which made Stella’s body appear to breathe.
A 1915 dollar is worth about $25 today, which means two minutes with Stella cost about $2.50. Ten cents could buy you breakfast at a workingman’s cafe. $2.50 might get you an inexpensive cup of coffee today, so I’m not sure the calculation is totally accurate. Nonetheless, the exhibitor, Edward A. Vaughan, priced his attraction just right. Investing $4000 to display a painting he had exhibited with limited profit for years, he netted $50,000 or $1.5 million in today’s dollars.
Stella is the work of a minor painter, Napoleone Nani of Verona, Italy, who created her in 1893. Critics judged the painting mediocre, remarking that Stella’s breasts had an interesting lack of relationship to gravity. Some observed that one could see more skillfully realized nudes on the walls of the official art pavilions or the statues throughout the fair for no extra charge. Audrey Munson’s lovely form was so ubiquitous that she was known as the Exposition Girl.
But, contrary to all common sense, Stella surpassed all other beauties in popularity.
Fifty Shades of Grey received a similar tepid evaluation from critics—and yet, the money still rolls in.
Indeed the millions who paid to see Stella were not interested in the artistic excellence of the painting. They embraced the anticipation, the titillation, the knowledge that every other man at the fair was partaking in the same experience, and a fellow mustn’t be left behind. A man paid for the dark corridor leading to the viewing room, the suggestively dim lighting, the ache of the two-minute limit, the illusion that Stella was a living woman displayed for his pleasure, not a distant figure, no matter how lovely and realistic, representing Beauty or Liberty or Patriotism. Stella allowed a man to gaze upon her with desire for those two minutes. She returned his gaze with an expression of accessible welcome (not to say vapid affability).
It would be almost ungentlemanly to complain that Stella was a con. She was part of the carnival atmosphere, like Coney Island, where vacationers knew they were being ripped off by the weight-guessers and barkers, but laughed it off as part of the experience. If Stella—and Fifty Shades of Grey—promised to transport us to a realm where we experienced sexual satisfaction that was unlike any before, but didn’t exactly deliver on its promise, well, we were all in on the joke.
Knowing what I know, I still want to see Stella.
As a woman in 1915, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed. A photo outside the attraction shows mostly males in fedoras and a few women, but I do wonder if any respectable lady would dare to be seen handing over a dime at the ticket booth? Perhaps at night, a brazen hussy might sneak in to be secretly disappointed yet emerge flushed with the thrill of transgression?
But I live in 2018, so I figured it would be easy to find a photograph of Stella online, now that Edward Vaughan is no longer around to demand his dime. Interestingly enough, it proved harder than I thought. After a bit of looking, I first found a postcard from a later exhibition on Pinterest and then a copy on a blog about San Francisco world’s fairs. The outside of the exhibit is different from the Pan-Pacific entrance, so perhaps it is from Vaughan’s later attempt to cash in on his treasure, hopefully calling Stella “one of the world’s masterpieces of paintings in the nude.”
I was disappointed in Stella the postcard. But again, the painting itself is not the point. What I really crave is the experience of viewing Stella in her fourteen feet of glory, her friendly face inviting me to dream of union with a fantasy (to be her if not be with her, to paraphrase Austin Powers). The rising and falling of her chest might make me wonder, in spite of myself, if she was alive and truly gazing back at me, unlike those cool, perfect paintings and statues outside. Best of all, I could tell others, with a twinkle in my eye, that I had indeed seen Stella.
I’m that cool and don’t you forget it.
Stella was a woman of a particular moment on the verge of destruction. World War I was raging in Europe during the fair. That war destroyed a way of life, and such innocent sexual diversions were outdated. But erotic titillation remained an important part of the fair experience. Sally Rand’s fan dance at the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress was the sensation of the Midway. The nudity was another illusion: Sally wore a body stocking, although little was left to the imagination. Her Nude Ranch on the Gayway at the 1939-1940 Golden Gate Exposition was again the most popular attraction at the fair, but there was real nude flesh to be seen. Scroll down for the most revealing photos of the Ranch I’ve found online. Again, the women seem so cheerful and friendly, like Stella.
Perhaps a naked woman with a smile on her face never goes out of fashion?