Burlesque Icon Blaze Starr Fades Out At Age 83

Mistress to a governor (and maybe JFK), she brought a carnal playfulness to taking off her clothes.

Hulton Archive/Getty

Blaze Starr, the brightest of the “B-Belles of Burlesque” on Baltimore’s Block, who became nationally notorious when she began an affair with Earl Long, then governor of Louisiana, in the late 1950s, died June 15 after a stroke at her home in Wilsondale, W.V. She was 83.

In the voluptuous redhead’s heyday, when her act involved a baby panther and a combustible couch, she was given the keys to the city, appeared in advertisements for Baltimore Gas and Electric, was honoured by the American Legion and could earn $100,000 a year. She bought the club in which she performed, toured extensively across the country, and her G-string was displayed in the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. In her memoirs, published in 1974, Blaze Starr also claimed to have had a liaison with John F Kennedy shortly before he became President.

“He was great—fast, but great,” she told a television interviewer in the late 1980s. “He was going to be President. I guess he had to be in a hurry.” On one occasion, she claimed, Long found the pair together in a closet—she told him they had been looking for her mink coat.

Her affair with Long, a three-time Governor of Louisiana, began when she performed at the Sho-Bar in New Orleans in 1959 and lasted until his death of a heart attack towards the end of the following year. Even by the erratic standards of “Uncle Earl,” it was a rich source of scandal. When he first asked her to dinner, she responded: “Can I trust you?” He replied: “Hell, no.”

The affair was the subject of a 1989 film starring Paul Newman and Lolita Davidovich.

Long’s estranged wife, Blanche Revere Long, had him involuntarily committed to a mental hospital (though he discovered there was nothing to prevent him from running the state, and running for Congress, while inside), apparently to keep him away from his mistress. Starr said that she had been left $50,000 in his will, but that she had declined the money (the Longs’ divorce had not been finalised).

As his body lay in state in Baton Rouge, she approached the casket in the Capitol with a single red rose clamped between her breasts. “Then I pulled out the rose and said ‘This is for you, Earl,’” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “I knew that’s what he would like.”

Despite the headlines generated by her relationship with Long, Blaze Starr’s life was in many ways a model of industry, self-belief and even conservatism—to the degree that was consonant with a career devoted to taking off her clothes. The Two O’Clock Club on East Baltimore Street, which was the mainstay of her career and which she ended up owning, became a mainstream venue and, during her time as a performer, Burlesque—now enjoying something of a revival—had much more in common with acts from variety theatre and the follies than with the pole-dancing and pornography which followed.

Blaze Starr was born Fannie Belle Fleming on April 10, 1932 near Twelve Pole Creek, W.V., in the heart of Appalachian coal country, and grew up in Wilsondale. The eighth of 11 children of a railroad worker, she grew up fast in a poor household. “I used to wash things on a rub board for $1 a day,” she later recalled. “It would take a week to get your knuckles straightened out.”

When she was 15, she took a bus to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a waitress at the Mayflower Donut Shop. “A man called Red Snyder told me I was pretty and ought to be in show business. I said I had been raised to believe that it was sinful to dance, but that I could play the guitar,” she told People magazine in 1989. “‘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.”

Snyder renamed her and became her manager. She made her first appearances at a club in Quantico, near the marine base, and other clubs on the East Coast, before she was 16. “Nowadays 16 is very young, but where I come from if you ain’t married at 14 or 15 you were an old maid,” she later said. Blaze Starr parted company with Snyder after he attempted to rape her, and was soon working at the Two O’Clock Club in Baltimore. She injected humor into her act, coming up with a chaise-longue that concealed a smoke-pot which was set off at the end of her turn. “The audience would become hysterical.”

“When I discovered I could earn three or four thousand a week in Burlesque—well, I thought I was a millionaire,” she told one interviewer. Her memoirs detailed some early traumas. She claimed to have been gang-raped in her teens. Later, in Philadelphia, she was arrested by, and received unwelcome attention from, Frank “Big Bambino” Rizzo, then a policeman. He went on to become Mayor, in which role he promised to be “so tough I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”

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Despite these misfortunes, she was financially canny and ended up owning not only the Two O’Clock Club’s building, but another nearby. In 1954 an article in Esquire hailed her as the successor to Lili St. Cyr, and she was in demand at clubs around the country.

She performed for a while with big cats, until one made a jump at her jugular. Her stage wardrobe—much of which she had sewn herself—cost tens of thousands of dollars and included three mink coats. “It’s awfully hot in here,” was the inevitable preparatory line when they were worn on stage.

By the mid-1970s, however, The Block had become sleazier and burlesque was in decline. “Anybody could get up and wiggle and get totally nude,” she recalled. “The shows offered sadistic porno flicks between acts.”

For 12 years, Starr was married to Carroll Glorioso, a Baltimore club-owner, but the marriage ended in divorce. She eventually gave up performing in the early 1980s, learned how to cut semi-precious stones and took a stall at Carrolltown Mall, at Eldersburg, Md.

After shifting her business to an online-only basis, she moved back to West Virginia to care for her mother, where she lived with several other members of her immediate family. She is survived by a brother and five sisters.

At the end of her burlesque career, she complained that stripping had become too raunchy. “During one final series of shows in New York, San Francisco and Miami, I wore a beautiful see-through negligée and dropped my panties for a finale. I got $5,000 a week. But after that I hung up my G-string.”