My courtship of Bunny Yeager began last summer when I punched her number into my phone and felt like a nerdy kid asking Gaga out on a date.
I had rehearsed what I was going to say: "Miss Yeager, we grew up in the same neighborhood. I remember the glory days of Miami and have always appreciated your contributions to Florida culture. I wonder, Miss Yeager, how you might feel about the possibility of me visiting you at home and writing a story." But when she answered I felt 13 again.
I heard myself braying into the phone like it was a Dixie cup connected to Bunny's house by a waxed string. "Uh, am I talking to Bunny Yeager? REALLY? COOL! CAN I CALL YOU BUNNY?"
Silence on her end of the line.
"Who is this?" Bunny asked. I took a deep breath and told her.
"Honey, who do you work for?" she asked.
In the middle of the 20th century, when I was a boy and a teen, Bunny Yeager was the queen of glamorous Miami, winning beauty contests and posing in sexy swimsuits for panting photographers who dispatched the glorious images all over the globe.
Bunny eventually picked up a camera herself and became famous for her photos of gorgeous women. It was as if Mona Lisa had decided to add painting to her resume. Bunny's name was always in the gossip columns. She dated Joe DiMaggio, sold her work to Playboy and had a part in a Sinatra movie. She once got me in hot water at Park Shore Pharmacy when Howard the druggist caught me peeking at one of Bunny's photos of a naked redhead in Cavalier magazine. "I'm going to tell your mother," Howard said, as my repressed Catholic boy bowels turned to water.
"Are you a freelancer?" Bunny asked, snapping me back into the present. Definitely not, I told her, sounding as if I had consumed a 12-pack of Red Bulls. I've worked at the same paper for 35 years, Bunny, a really big paper now, we actually went to the same high school, Bunny!
"Honey," Bunny finally said. "I just don't have time right now. I have so much to do. I'm just kind of overwhelmed. Maybe some other time. Have a nice day."
• • •
She was born in 1930 or so — Bunny was always much more secretive about her age than her measurements — in a little town near Pittsburgh. Christened Linnea Eleanor Yeager, she took the name Bunny after watching a smoking-hot Lana Turner in a film. After moving to Miami, she was voted by Edison High classmates as "the girl with the sweetest smile." She was 5 feet 10 and a curvy 36-25-37, according to vulgarians who care about crass numbers.
She took modeling courses, posed on the beach for "Come on down" Chamber of Commerce photos, and was crowned Queen of Miami, Miss Trailer Coach of Dade County, Miss Personality of Miami Beach and the Cheesecake Queen. Her image graced postcards, magazines and newspapers. Mechanics hung her photos in their work bays; teenage boys — let's not even talk about it.
Models earned less money than photographers, so Bunny bought a Kodak Reflex, mastered the camera and beat the good old boys at their game. Her breakthrough was a photo of a friend posed in a leopard-skin bikini at an animal park. Eye magazine paid $100.
Bunny continued to pose for other photographers, but eventually figured out how to make self-portraits, sometimes using a string that ran from camera to big toe. U.S. Camera magazine called Bunny "The World's Prettiest Photographer."
She thought the two-piece bathing suits sold at Burdines were a bore; using her sewing skills she created her own bikinis, frilly and revealing and tastefully risque. She sold her most polished work to Esquire, Cosmopolitan and Life. The grittier stuff went to girlie mags like Swank.
She didn't do dirty. She didn't do porn. Even her nudes had a girl-next-door quality.
In her own photos, Bunny posed as a brunet and a redhead, but she was most fetching as a Marilyn Monroe bombshell posing in one of those postage-stamp bikinis, or cavorting in a dark living room in a black nightie, or lounging in a tub behind a few suds.
In 1954, Bettie Page visited Miami. Famous for her fearlessness in front of cameras, Bettie never appeared in the pages of Life or in Redbook, probably because she sometimes posed with a leather whip while wearing a black garter.
Yet Bunny somehow made even a naked Bettie look wholesome, posing her at the zoo and draped across a bumper car at the local amusement park. For her most famous photograph, Bunny sat Bettie next to a Christmas tree in the only piece of clothing she apparently needed, a Santa cap. A new magazine, Playboy, bought the centerfold photo for a hundred bucks. Years later, Bunny's good friend Hugh Hefner bought her photos for $15,000 a pop and even published a pictorial of "The Queen of the Playboy Centerfolds" — Bunny Yeager.
• • •
A couple of months had passed since my incompetent telephone call. I worked up my nerve and tried once more. It was November now.
"Who are you again, honey?"
I reminded her. Reminded her I had mailed copies of my stories and even one of my books.
"Oh, that was from you," she said. "Thanks. Hey, do you know Carl Hiaasen?"
Her question about the bestselling Florida novelist caught me by surprise. Sure, I know him, Bunny. Carl's name didn't open her door.
"You know, with the holidays coming, I just am so busy," she said, sounding distressed. "It's kind of overwhelming around here right now. Call me in January."
I felt like an eighth-grader at St. Rose of Lima School again, the kid with a passion for fishing and snakes who was a nincompoop when it came to girls. I loved them, but they didn't love me back.
Of course, a lot of Americans were in love with Bunny way back when. In Miami, where celebrities were as common as orange blossoms, she was on a first-name basis with Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason. She was a guest on the TV game show What's My Line? and exchanged snappy patter on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
There were Bunny sightings in Miami Shores, where I lived, usually by the hateful older boys who spotted her drinking a cherry coke at Whalen's, skulking in the aspirin aisle at Hinst Pharmacy or sitting in the back of the Shores Theater at the opening of Dr. No. Bunny had taken the iconic movie-poster photograph of Ursula Andress emerging from the surf.
We clueless younger boys got our Bunny Yeager thrills wherever we could. Eddie, the buck-toothed geek with the giant Adam's apple, let us look at his dad's collection of girlie mags until we began fighting over them with our greasy hands. One desperate pal stole a Playboy that we studied daily in the croton bushes until it fell apart.
• • •
In January, I left a voice mail for Bunny but she didn't call back. In March, I tried another gambit, leaving a message announcing that I was going to see her at the end of the week. I had her address. I'd knock on her door.
I had questions I wanted to ask Bunny in person. She had been married twice, divorced, widowed, raised two daughters on her own and excelled in a man's world. How had she managed? I wanted to know her thoughts about the sexual revolution, Internet porn, Lady Gaga. How did a beauty queen cope with aging?
But Bunny Yeager, who in the exercise of her craft had persuaded countless young women to unsnap their bras, valued her privacy.
"Don't come,'' she said, returning my call almost immediately. "I NEVER let anyone come to my house. I don't even like people to come to my office. And I'm so busy right now, I'm overwhelmed, in fact, so please don't come. I've got so much work to do getting ready for this show.''
A show? My ears perked up. I'd have guessed those days were behind her.
"I'm putting together photographs for an art exhibit."
She told me where and when.
"See you there," I said.
"Okay," said Bunny Yeager.
• • •
In May I drove across the Everglades, past alligators and great blue herons, and into Miami, until I got to the Harold Golen Gallery in a blighted neighborhood where shadowy figures leaned in doorways. It was a Saturday afternoon. I went in to talk to Harold, who seemed even more nervous than I was about that night's event.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook," he said. "Everybody wants to know if Bunny's coming to the opening of her own show. I know she can't handle stress or a lot of attention anymore, but she told me she was going to try and come tonight. TRY AND COME. God, I hope she does."
I returned at dusk. The streets had now been taken over by Miami's most colorful art denizens, tattooed bosomy women and gold-chained Latino men, straights, gays and folks of indeterminate gender, a woman in go-go boots, a woman in a fur hat, a man wearing a homburg and a jacket draped across his shoulders like a cape. I saw Harold in the corner of his cozy studio.
"Bunny isn't coming," he was telling visitors. "I'm sorry. She said she was going to try and come but she won't be here."
Bunny's not coming?
"She had every intention of being here," her manager, Ed Christin, explained from a sofa. "Bunny is not an extrovert, but she really wanted to come to this tonight. What happened was she had a procedure done on an eye earlier this week and the eye is bloodshot and uncomfortable. Bunny has a sore eye.''
The 14 photos on the wall captured Bunny in her glory days — as a Marilyn Monroe blond and a Jane Russell brunet, in a negligee, in a bathing suit, in a leotard, hands on her hips, standing on tippy toes, at the beach, looking young and happy to be alive.
"Things are happening for Bunny now," her agent continued. "For years, Bunny sold her photographs on eBay at prices that were terribly undervalued. But we're changing that. How much is her collection worth? I would say it's worth millions of dollars, but the exact number I can't say. I've never been to her house, but I went to her office, and she showed me boxes of photographs that have NEVER been seen. Amazing, erotic photographs, beautifully composed and shot. She's an artist."
A party broke out inside the gallery despite Bunny's absence. I saw Tara "Queen of the Night" Solomon, raven-haired society gal dressed in leopard pattern dress, a la Bettie Page. I saw celebrity contemporary artist Carlos Betancourt, whose lush Caribbean-flavored mixed-media works are in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York. "Bunny captures a time and a place in her work," he said. "That's exactly what every artist dreams of doing."
I saw Joann Biondi, glamorous author of Miami Beach Memories: A Nostalgic Chronicle of Days Gone By, a coffee table collection of photos and text with a picture of a fresh-faced Bunny on the cover.
"It took about a year of trying before she was willing to see me," Biondi said. In 2007 Bunny attended Joann's book party and even posed for a picture. It reveals a striking woman with long blond hair worn in a thick braid draped over a shoulder. It's one of the last-known photographs of Bunny Yeager in public.
Later in the evening came a disturbance near the door. A tiny brown-eyed woman shouted, "Bunny isn't here, Ferdie!" and her white-haired husband announced, "That's too bad. I really wanted to see her."
Ferdie Pacheco — garrulous author, painter, retired physician and former fight doctor to Muhammad Ali — was born in Ybor City but spent most of his adult life in Miami. After entering the gallery like a Roman emperor, he sat and talked — held court, actually — and did his best to make up for the MIA main event.
I asked if he knew her.
"Oh, yes. When I was a young physician, and I was single and a very eligible bachelor, she was the most eligible single woman in Miami," he said.
I wanted to know more.
"I yearned to call her and ask if she would do me the honor of spending an evening with me."
That's not an exact quote. Ferdie actually explained in a more direct manner what he had hoped to do to enliven their evening together. Alas, Bunny said no.
• • •
I got up early the next morning, packed, had breakfast and got ready to drive home. But I didn't. I found a quiet corner in the hotel lobby and waited until 10 o'clock. I punched in a telephone number.
The phone rang and rang.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727. Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.