For decades, Blaze Starr performed her striptease act at a club she owned in Baltimore and in hundreds of other nightspots. She became perhaps America's most notorious stripper in the 1950s, when her affair with Louisiana's Governor, Earl Long, became a national scandal. It was a story dramatised in the 1989 film Blaze.
Fannie Belle Fleming was barely in her teens when she left West Virginia to escape poverty. She got off a bus in Washington and became a waitress in a doughnut shop. At 15 she was already voluptuous, and it wasn't long before she was asked if she wanted to get into showbusiness. She could sing and play guitar, and envisioned a career in country music. She went on stage in a cowgirl outfit. She came off stage with her hat, and a career was launched.
By 1950, Starr was the featured attraction at the 2 O'Clock Club on Baltimore's notorious "Block", which Time described as "a loud, neonbathed concentration of gin mills and peel parlours" that was "something of an Eldorado for the fun-seeking male". She was soon nicknamed "The Hottest Blaze in Burlesque" and "Miss Spontaneous Combustion".
She developed an array of exotic stage acts, including one in which a panther nibbled at her costume until it fell to the floor. Without prompting, Starr would gladly reveal her dimensions, and wrote a song about herself, "38DD". She bought the 2 O'Clock Club and became, says film-maker John Waters, "the best tourist attraction Baltimore ever had". She toured with her mink coats and an elaborate set of costumes that she sewed herself, as well as an exploding couch.
"Once I had this erotic dream about making love so passionately everything started smoking," she recalled. Thus inspired, she rigged a love seat with a hidden smoke pot attached to a button. During her act, she writhed on the couch, languorously removing one article of clothing after another until, at the climactic moment, she pressed the button. Smoke shot up, with ribbons in the shape of flames.
Starr was performing her exploding couch act at the Sho-Bar in New Orleans in 1958 when she met the 62-year-old Long, Louisiana's Governor. Although married, he asked her on a date. Their affair was an open secret until his wife had him committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Released after several days, he returned to New Orleans, where he "received redheaded Blaze Starr, his favourite Bourbon Street stripper, at 2.30am," according to Time. "At week's end, six doctors gravely warned Long that he would risk his life if he undertook any more strenuous activity." He died a year later. Starr performed until the 1980s, when she said the artistry of striptease had become lost. She was asked in 1988 whether she would do anything differently. "Not a thing," she said. "I would just do a lot more of it, and try a lot harder – and seduce a lot more men."
Fannie Belle Fleming (Blaze Starr), Burlesque artiste: born Wayne County, West Virginia 10 April 1932; died Wilsondale, West Virginia 15 June 2015.
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