We expected lightweight erotica but got stuck in a quagmire.
“Don't worry, Mom. We've got penicillin...” With a cover blurb like that, we thought Vietnam Underside! might be something along the lines of L.J. Brown's infamous sleaze novel Viet-Nookie, but no. Instead, the book is a deadly serious history of prostitution and sexual practices in Vietnam from the mid-1800s to the date of publication, which is 1966. It's also—and there's no grey area here—virulently racist. Leland Gardner writes reams about the depravity of the Annamites (an 1800s word used to refer to the Vietnamese), disparages in the most detailed terms their hygiene, morality, ethics, customs, religion, history, mentality, intelligence, and more. He accuses them of practicing pederasty, of allowing incest between pre-teens, and of being inherently promiscuous. The diseases they're allegedly rife with include yellow fever, elephantaisis, syphilis, and gonorrhea, all subsequently inflicted upon ivory pure Westerners. When Gardner writes something true—for instance about the deleterious effects of betel nut chewing on the teeth and mouth—he goes on, and on, and on. He describes Vietnamese women as having “black lacquered teeth and blood red mouths” at least fifty times. Interesting, isn't it, that just when your country's overseas invasion is ramping up you find that, basically, your foes don't deserve to live? Gardner actually claims the Vietnamese were well on their way to self-destruction long before the Yanks showed up. He writes about the war: “[these] decadent, deteriorating people have been adopted by a benevolent Uncle Sam.” Right at that instant Vietnam Underside! got to be too much, so we scrambled to the top of the literary embassy and barely got the last helicopter out. When it comes to choosing books based on the cover art, you win some and you lose some.
I knew it would be a daring dress but this is a little ridiculous.
Vietnamese actress Mei Chen, aka Mei Chen Chalais, tries on a dress and immediately realizes her designer got her request for a plunging neckline confused. Chen isn't well known today, but she'll always have a place in our hearts for her lost world film Luana. And this crazy dress. The photo is from 1968 and first appeared in the magazine Girl Illustrated.
So when you sang “You're So Vain,” the song really was about me, wasn't it?
This is top work from artist C.C. Beale on this cover for Van Wyck Mason's Saigon Singer, especially the small elements of the background writing on the wall and the Siamese cat in the foreground. The singer of the title—who never performs “You're So Vain,” sadly—is Pamela Saunders, a former prisoner in a Japanese internment camp who survives filth and near starvation to resurrect herself as singer in Saigon. Along the way she becomes known as Black Chrysanthemum before adopting the stage name Xenia Morel. Her transformation is interesting, but the star of the story is Major Hugh North, who turns up in Saigon looking for a dossier containing the names of British and American traitors who during the war sold secrets to a Japanese general. Saunders-Chrysanthemum-Morel survived the prison camp by becoming the mistress of the general, and it's due to this close association that she possesses the dossier. She'll give it to North, but only if he pays her enough money to get to Paris, where she wants to continue her singing career.
Mason knew this part of the world and uses his knowledge well in writing of Saigon social life, oppressive heat, scented baths, tiger hunts, French legionnaires, and other you-had-to-be-there aspects of post-World War II Vietnam. As number thirteen in a series of exotic Hugh North mysteries (others were set in Singapore, Burma, Manila, Bangkok, et al) we sense a formula here, but in the end we liked it despite the usual flaws of colonialist fiction, and we were envious of Mason for having travelled in that part of the world during that time, and having been lucky enough to make a career of writing about it. Well, maybe we can't complain too much—we've hit some good spots too. And we write, though we get fuck-all for it. In any case, this particular discovery makes us curious about earlier Mason books, so maybe we'll check out some of his Hugh North adventures. Saigon Singer was originally published in 1946, and the above edition is from 1948.
It's Ho Chi Minh City (not Saigon). Why they changed it we can't say. People just liked it better that way.
This is a beautiful Spanish poster for the 1947 adventure Saigon, which opened in Madrid today in 1948. The film is one of innumerable mid-century thrillers set in foreign cities. At a time when the rest of the world was so distant and hard to reach, Hollywood fetishized it, romanticized it, and set stories wholly or partly in Mexico, Argentina, Morocco, China, Hong Kong, Martinique, and an entire atlas of other places. But today, with the rest of the world so easy to reach, Hollywood mostly tells audiences they'll be kidnapped or dismembered if they leave home. Saigon is old school. It makes viewers wish they could fly to mystical East Asia. Of course, the film's Saigon doesn't exist anymore, but the fact that Hollywood set a movie there tells you it must have been quite a place. But they say that about all the former colonial cities, don't they? Rangoon, Bombay, and Constantinople, as brilliantly eulogized in the satirical song by The Four Lads, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
Saigon deals with two recently discharged military buddies played by Alan Ladd and Wally Cassell who decide to stay in Asia to show their terminally ill third pal a good time before he dies in a few months. The third man doesn't know he's ticketed for oblivion, which leads to problems when Veronica Lake takes a liking to him. No matter how romantic old Saigon was, only so many tropical nights and platters of French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine can distract you from the fact that the love-hate relationship between Ladd and Lake is unpalatable. To us, slapping, insults, and over-the-top meanness feels like hate-hate. But put on your retro filter and you'll find a lot of comedy in this film, thanks to motormouth quipster Cassell. Some of his lines are truly clever. It wouldn't be exaggerating to say he makes the first sixty minutes of running time watchable.
When Lake inevitably falls for Ladd even though he's been treating her like a disease for hundreds of nautical miles, you'll accept it because it's a motif in old movies—though usually managed with a lot more charm and finesse. Overall we consider Saigon recommendable, but just barely. You know what we really took away from this movie, though? What you needed to do back then was open a shop and sell white suits. You'd have made a fortune. There are more white suits here than you can count. Far more than in Casablanca or Our Man in Havana. This film will make you wonder whether you can pull off the white suit. But even if you looked okay in it where would you wear it these days? Like old Saigon, that city is gone.
Nguyen proves to be an Enterprising star.
French born, half Vietnamese actress France Nguyen has had quite a few film and television appearances, but our favorite of her roles—of course—is that of Elaan of Troyius in the original Star Trek series in 1968. That character, a sort of deep space Asian and Egyptian ethnic mash-up who boards the U.S.S. Enterprise as part of a diplomatic mission, had tears laced with a powerful chemical that worked like a love potion. Kirk, of course, touched those and more, and ended up losing his head over her. In our opinion she didn't need magic tears to make that happen—Elaan of Troyius was one of the most mysterious and beautiful in a long line of beautiful and mysterious guest aliens featured on Star Trek. The top photo captures all the qualities that made Nguyen perfect for the role, and in the second shot you see her in costume as Elaan.
In The French Love we learn that what the French love is sex.
Random Japanese poster art today, a promo for The French Love, starring Jacques Fugie, Eva Saint (not to be confused with Eva Marie Saint), and others. Fugie, Saint and all the other actors listed as performers here were pseudonyms, but ones fabricated especially for the Japanese market. Thus you won't find any reference to an Eva Saint or Jaques Fugie anywhere else. The French Love actually starred Herman Ryan, Catherine Franck, Patricia Hermenier, and Rod Cameron in the story of an American journalist hooking up with two French flight attendants in Paris while covering the diplomatic meetings leading up to the treaty that ended the Vietnam War. Heady times, no? Leave it to the French to mix social commentary with smut. The movie was directed by José Bénazéraf, a softcore veteran who helmed something like a hundred erotic films between 1963 and 1999, as well as starring in some. Release dates on The French Love, aka merely French Love vary—many sources say 1972, but we think it was 1973.
It must be jelly ’cuz jam don’t shake like that.
We got curious about Nai Bonet, who we’d never heard of until last week, and after taking a stroll around the internet discovered she was pretty famous in her day and even released a 1966 single for which you see the sleeve above. The song is called “Jelly Belly,” with “The Seventh Veil” on the flipside. Bonet teaches fans to do her trademark Jelly Belly dance, which we can only imagine led to many sprained backs in mid-century America. But maybe you want to try. The instructions are in like Danish, but here’s the gist:
1: Clap your hands together and gently bow…
2: Put your hands over your head and I’ll show you how…
3: First you inhale (pull your tummy in)
4: Then you exhale (push your tummy out)
5: Hips go up…
6: …and down
7: Tummy round and round…
8: Shoulders shivering…
9: Everything a-quivering.
And presumably it's rinse and repeat at that point. For extra inspiration you can hear "Jelly Belly" here. Just remember—if you pull something, rest it, apply ice, and dream up a much better story about your injury than you were trying to get everything a-quivering.
Private Affairs joins the wild mix of 1960s tabloids.
This issue of the New York based tabloid Private Affairs appeared in June 1962, and features cover stars Kim Novak and American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell rendered by an uncredited artist. Inside the issue Affairs rehashes Novak’s various relationships, recounting how mafia goons threatened to kill Sammy Davis Jr. if he didn’t stop meeting Novak across the color line, how she accepted an expensive sports car as a gift from Ramfis Trujillo even though his hands were “bathed in the blood of executed political prisoners,” and how she shot down a smitten Charles Boyer by asking him in bewilderment, “How could you have thought I loved you?” The overarching concern is Novak’s longstanding unmarried status, wedlock of course being the default state for any normal woman. Novak was only twenty-nine at the time—but that was spinster age by tabloid standards. She eventually did wed when she was thirty-two, and it’s a wonder she made it down the aisle without the aid of a wheelchair.
Private Affairs moves on to Norman Lincoln Rockwell, who was making waves with racist rhetoric and a bold guarantee to win the White House by 1972. The question Private Affairs editors ask is whether Rockwell should be taken seriously. They answer by offering an anecdote about how German president Paul von Hindenburg scoffed at a fledgling Adolf Hitler by calling him a “silly little housepainter.” Ten years later, they note, there were 30,000,000 dead. “How far will America let the hate mongers go? Will an unsound branch on the tree of American democracy fall off or will it poison the organism?” they ask. It’s worth noting that while Rockwell’s anti-Jewish rhetoric clearly annoys the editors, they don’t offer any support for the African Americans he was likewise excoriating. But in the end, Rockwell was shot dead by a fellow Nazi. Whether he could have risen to political office is a matter of historical debate.
Private Affairs moves next to related subject matter by claiming that the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire that killed nearly five-hundred people in a Boston nightclub was set by Nazi saboteurs, and furthermore that the FBI covered that fact up. We wrote about the fire a few years ago, and you may remember that witnesses said the conflagration began with a busboy changing a light bulb. Private Affairs claims the bulb was a specially designed Nazi device that had a fuse inside instead of a normal tungsten filament. This fuse could be set for various ignition times, and a delayed setting allowed the saboteur got away. How the editors puzzled this out remains unclear, and there’s no explanation how a busboy randomly asked to change a burnt out light chose or was handed a deadly device rather than a typical bulb, but maybe those points aren’t important. Tabloids often fail to answer their own questions—the important thing is to stir up trouble.
Elsewhere in the issue we get Lana Turner, who Affairs claims let her daughter take a murder rap for her; comedian Dick Gregory, who is accused of stealing jokes; and Ingrid Bergman, who is shown with her later-to-be-famous daughter Isabella Rossellini. We also meet Nai Bonet, a famed Vietnamese bellydancer who within a couple of years would parlay her fame into a film and music career. Private Affairs is not a well known tabloid today—it probably arrived on the scene just a bit too late to carve out a readership when newsstand shelves were already packed with established imprints such as Confidential, Uncensored, Top Secret, Inside Story, Hush-Hush, et al. This particular issue—designated Vol 1, No. 3—is the only copy of the magazine we’ve ever seen. We suspect the brand was defunct within the first year. Many scans below, and more rare tabloids coming soon.
Which is better—Deneuve or the chair?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course. But we do really like the chair. It's one of many fanciful confabulations by Quasar Khanh, the iconic Vietnamese designer who made his mark in Paris during the 1960s. 1969 on the photo, and quite rare.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Nightclub Fire Kills Hundreds
In Boston, Massachusetts, a fire
in the fashionable Cocoanut Grove nightclub kills 492 people. Patrons were unable to escape when the fire began because the exits immediately became blocked with panicked people, and other possible exits were welded shut or boarded up. The fire led to a reform of fire codes and safety standards across the country, and the club's owner, Barney Welansky, who had boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin, was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
1934—Baby Face Nelson Killed
In the U.S., killer and bank robber Baby Face Nelson, aka Lester Joseph Gillis, dies in a shoot-out with the FBI in Barrington, Illinois. Nelson is shot nine times, but by walking directly into a barrage of gunfire manages to kill both of his FBI pursuers before dying himself.
1922—Egyptologists Enter Tut's Tomb
British Egyptologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon become the first people to enter the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in over 3000 years. Though sometimes characterized as scholars, Carter and Carnarvon were primarily interested in riches, and cut up Tut's mummy to more easily obtain the jewels and gold affixed to him.
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