The Spanish Flu – Your Great Granddad’s Coronavirus

Think Coronavirus is bad? Well it ain’t got shit on the 1918 flu outbreak…

Assuming you haven’t been living in a hole, you’ve definitely heard of Coronavirus. The big bad that might turn out to just be a pretty gnarly flu outbreak or could wipe out millions. Yeah, it’s a pretty scary either or situation.

Whilst the world waits to see which side of the coin Coronavirus lands on, global media are passing the time by unearthing the ghost of 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic and excitedly shining a spotlight on it, shouting ‘Look, this will happen again! We’re all going to die! Boogety boo!’

It’s being repeated again and again from country to country: this virus is as infectious and deadly as the 1918 flu strand.

But what exactly caused was the 1918 flu outbreak? Why did so many people die and with the knowledge of time is there anything we can do to stop this happening again?

Basically – are we totally fucked? Let’s find out!

What was the Spanish flu?

Fun fact, The Spanish flu didn’t originate in Spain, it’s just got a confusing name. Sadly we can’t pin point the exact geographic location this flu strain started, however we do know that the first officially recorded cases were in a military base in Kansas.

Between that first recorded case in March 1918, to the last known case, two years later in March 1920, an estimated 50 million people world wide would die from ‘the Spanish flu’ (though it’s now thought this was estimate could be as high as 100 million, roughly 5% of the worlds population.)

The flu hit in three waves. First in Spring 1918, then autumn 1918 and finally through winter 1918 to spring 1919. With the second outbreak being the deadliest.

Soldiers from Fort Riley Kansas being treated for Spanish Flu at Camp Funston
US soldiers being treated during the Spanish Flu pandemic. A Pandemic is when a medical epidemic spreads across multiple countries.

The initial Spanish Flu symptoms were similar to that of most flu’s. Including a fever, headaches, feeling weak and joint pain. However it was what happened after these initial symptoms that was what made Spanish Flu so deadly.

In September 1918, Dr Roy Grist, described what happened to the men he treated at Camp Devens in Massachusetts:

‘…They very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheekbones and a few hours later you start to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours until death comes. It is horrible.’

The majority of people died not from the flu itself, but from complications that came with it.

What really made the flu stand out was those that it killed. Generally people who die from flu tend to be old or very young, often with pre-existing health conditions.

However, the big killer of ‘the Spanish flu’ was young adults.

This is even crueller when you consider that just as the flu hit the The First World War was starting to come to an end. So now the millions of soldiers that had survived the traumatic trenches got a congratulations prize of another thing that might kill them. In fact more US servicemen died from the flu than in combat.

Spanish Flu patients being treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington
Spanish Flu patients being treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington

How did the flu spread?

There is never just one route that a pandemic uses to spread (they’re tricksy like that) however in this instance, The First World War was a key factor in the spread.

The Spanish flu was highly infectious. Take for example that first case in Kansas. Within hours of the soldier being taken to the infirmary, over one hundred other men at his base were also reporting symptoms.

Thousands of men all gathered together in cramped quarters, it’s the perfect brewing ground for infection.

But this was war and war doesn’t stop because some soldiers are feeling a bit peaky. Men with symptoms were still deployed, which resulted in people on all sides catching Spanish Flu.

Just to make this worse, The First World War was the era of trench warfare. Already living shoulder to shoulder in unhygienic holes in the ground, surrounded by death, the soldiers were given something unbeatable to contend with.

Then there were those soldiers that were in the most dangerous stages of the flu, who were sent to field hospitals. To get there they were often transported along with hundreds of other people, military and civilian. So the virus easily hopped from the infected person to dozens of others, with those people then heading off to unknowingly continue the spread.

With infected troops travelling all over the world, it’s no surprise that the flu spread so quickly.

But don’t worry. It gets worse.

Clipping from Oct 17 1918's edition of Santa Ana Daily Record and Register
Clipping from Oct 17 1918’s edition of Santa Ana Daily Record and Register – Let’s not let a silly thing like a deadly pandemic stop this great war we have on!

Because the world was at war, public morale was key. Those countries at war, didn’t want to expose their people to just how lethal this pandemic was. So they didn’t.

Newspapers in America, Britain and countries across Europe were censored so they didn’t reveal the true magnitude of the pandemic. Spain was one of the few countries that was covering the spread in its early days and their wide coverage of the pandemic led to the flu being named ‘The Spanish Flu’ (they were unsurprisingly not happy about this)

The impact of media not telling people how bad the pandemic was shouldn’t be underestimated. When people are aware of a public health crisis, they tend to be cautious. If you know there’s something going around, you’ll naturally do things like washing your hands more, be less likely to go to crowded areas and generally take more precautions.

That’s not to mention the other ways many countries chose to put propaganda above public health.

For example in America several cities held mass morale boosting events, despite knowing that large gatherings were a breeding ground for Spanish Flu. Don’t see why that could end badly? Let’s talk Philadelphia.

In late September 1918, the city had planned a huge parade to boost morale and raise money for the war effort. Doctors urged the city to cancel the event. There had already been local cases of the Spanish flu and a massive crowded event was sure to make the situation worse. But the city needed to cheer up its citizens and raise cash, so the parade went ahead.

Over 200,000 people watched the parade on 28 September. Music filled the streets, Boy Scouts marched along with uniformed soldiers. There was dancing, heaps of patriotism and tons of Liberty loans sold. The parade organisers patted themselves of the back for a job well done.

72 hours later and every bed in the cities hospitals were full. Within weeks, thousands were dead.

By 3 October Philadelphia was shut down. Morgues struggling to manage the influx, with bodies stacked up and families struggling to find somewhere to bury their loved ones.

Members of the Lit Liberty Loan Brothers Loan Comittee of Parade and the Philadelphia Parade, 1918
Members of the Lit Liberty Loan Brothers Loan Comittee of Parade at the ill-fated Philadelphia Parade

How was Spanish Flu prevented?

Hypothetically it was a good thing that the Spanish Flu hit when it did. For centuries people had believed epidemics were an act of god. However with the emergence of ever improving medical science, people were starting to put their faith into medical science. Recent epidemics, like the ‘Russian Flu’, had been studied to find a root cause.

With an arsenal of medical research, combined with peoples believe in science, the chances of beating this thing looked pretty darn good!

Sadly it didn’t work out like that.

In 1892 German bacteriologist thought he’d discovered the cause of the Russian flu, a bacterium he called, Bacillus influenzae (or Pfeiffer’s bacillus). The idea that deadly bacteria could be behind 1918’s pandemic made perfect sense, after all bacteria causes things like cholera and plague (and the 1918 pandemics symptoms had a lot of similarities with the plague!). So scientists across the world went all in on locating Pfeiffer’s bacillus in sick patients.

HOWEVER, influenza is a virus. It’s not caused by bacteria. So although loads of research was being done to stop the 1918 pandemic, they were looking at the wrong thing.

Those depending on religion to save them, we’re often also out of luck.

In the Spanish city of Zamora, a bishop went against all governmental guidelines and called the cities people together to pray for protection against the flu. The result of the gathering? Roughly 10% of Zamora’s people died from Spanish Flu.

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe. from National Museum of Health and Medicine
Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe. from National Museum of Health and Medicine

What was the aftermath?

Around 1% of the European population died and that figure rises as you go across the world. It’s though that in India around eighteen million died. We will never truly know just how many lives the Spanish Flu claimed, but globally estimates vary between 50-100 million people.

It didn’t matter if you lived in a city or a village, the flu could impact you. In fact small communities who lay outside of the local mass populace were often utterly devastated if the flu reached them. For example in some parts of the Gambian countryside it was reported that

‘whole villages of 300 to 400 families (were) completely wiped out, the houses having fallen in on the unburied dead, and the jungle having crept in within two months, obliterating whole settlements.’

You were also far more likely to die if you came from a poor background. The working class, minorities and immigrants were far more likely to be living in cramped conditions without good access to decent sanitation, which meant the Spanish Flu exploded in these areas.

So will Coronavirus be Spanish Flu 2.0?

Well…it’s unlikely.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand why so many media outlets are saying it will be – hey we all love click bait! However, in this instance history repeating itself just isn’t a super tangible outcome.

So many of the key factors that led to the spread of the 1918 flu are not even vaguely comparable to today’s landscape.

To be blunt. There’s not a world war on. That makes a difference. We don’t have hundreds of thousands of men crammed into tight often unhygienic environments that act as a perfect virus breeding ground. Those infected men are not then flitting all over the world, sprinkling the virus everywhere they go.

Yes, today we’re travelling the world more than before. But borders have already started to close, checks are being made and even when the virus slips past that, those are small numbers of isolated cases. It’s not remotely the same as the speedy global spread the First World War created.

Then there’s the science. Unlike 1918, medical science has far more of a clear handle on what makes up a virus like Coronavirus. In addition thanks to new fangled inventions like the internet, scientists worldwide are able to be a lot more open with their research. Meaning teams across the globe are able to be up to the minute on the latest findings. With clinical trials up and running, massive amounts of data and round the clock work being done by countless teams, we’re so far ahead cure wise than 1918, it’s not even comparable.

So whilst we may be in an international public health emergency, we’re in a far better place than we were 100 hundred years ago.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t learn from the lessons of the 1918 pandemic, but by no means should we be treating it like a crystal ball!

That was interesting where can I find out more? Definitely check out Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney, along with these papers, Influenza – exposing the the true killer by Heather L Van Epps and Spanish Flu Part II, the second and third wave by Milorid Radusin.

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A history of dieting (and why it’s the worst!)

From fighting obesity in Ancient Greece to the Victorian love of arsenic pills and tape worms, join us for a look at dieting history and why history tells us that the diet industry may in fact be the worst!

Fun fact: dieting does not work! Research tell us that the majority of people who diet, don’t only gain back weight, but actually put more weight on than they started with.

And yet, every year millions of us get on that diet band wagon looking for a quick fix. This isn’t a modern thing, it’s a tale as old as time. So let’s look back down the annals of history and try and find out why dieting is so prevalent and what our ancestors used to do (plus there’s some really gnarly dieting techniques here, so if you’ve ever done one of those horrific detox teas, this will make you feel better about your life choices!)

Example of a weight loss advert for Korein, in 1915 the pill was found to contain 60% petroleum and 40% sassafras oil (now banned for consumption in the US due to its toxicity)

In Ancient Greece, it was understood that being overweight contributed to a lot of health issues. Greek physician, Hippocrates, actually wrote in his collection of medical work, the Hippocratic Corpus, that people carrying extra weight may experience conditions like (what we now know as) sleep apnea. He also outlines how bring overweight often means you die earlier and in general when it comes to obesity, the ‘danger is great’.

To combat this Hippocrates advised that Greeks taking on a ‘diaita(the Ancient Green term that diet stems from btw) not only make changes to the food they ate, but to their lifestyle as a whole.

Incorporating more exercise, drinking less alcohol and more water and eating lighter meals with a range of fruit and veg. So far so good, in fact, dare I say, it actually sounds kind of smart…

And right there is where Hippocrates health advice falls off a cliff.

You see, Hippocrates also advised:

  • ‘Violent exercise; such as running long distances to the point of exhaustion
  • Abstaining from sex while trying to lose weight
  • sleeping on a plank of wood
  • Frequently making yourself vomit

There’s a lot to unpack there. First, let’s all agree that the no sex and whole plank thing are awful ideas. But more importantly, all that advice is not only ill advised but incredibly dangerous!

Hippocrates, you may be the father of modern medicine, but your diet advice is far out of line my friend

Like Hippocrates, a lot of early sources around diet, didn’t call for people to lose weight as a way to look good, but because it was important for their health. 1558’s The art of living long, was written by Venetian merchant, Luigi Cornaro, who had previously been so overweight his health was in jeopardy. Cornaro advocated for a stripping back a diet to the necessary (though he still allowed fourteen ounces of wine a day).

London undertaker turned diet guru, William Banting had a similar story. His obesity had meant he was in and out of hospital, so after losing weight he published A letter on Corpulance in 1863, primarily as a way to flag up why losing weight was healthy and to tell people about the diet he’d used.

This letter blew up (seriously, it basically went viral) and soon Banting’s high fat, high protien and low carb diet was spreading like wildfire. In fact it was so popular that ‘Banting’ became Victorian slang for dieting (as in ‘sorry Fanny, that spotted dick looks great but I’m afraid I’m banting today.)

Interestingly Banting is still being flogged to dieters today (though tbh, I wouldn’t recommend as a long term plan) image from Wellcome collection

It’s also in the Victorian era that we start to see a real rise of diets being sold as a necessity to be attractive. Want to achieve that teeny tiny waist? Well girl, don’t just get a corset, get a tape worm!

That’s right. A tape worm. A flat parasitic worm that lives in your gut and can grow up to 25 metres. Yeah, knowingly ingest a pill to get one of those, so you can lose weight.

Victorian beauty standards were harsh, as one Beauty bible, ‘The Ugly Girl Papers(jesus, what a name) put it:

‘It is a woman’s business to be beautiful’

Women were expected to have a healthy appetite and yet also be approperialty thin with a waspish waist. That is a hard balancing act! Made even worse when there were countless advertisements popping up telling you that one magic little pill could make you thin with zero side effects.

But of course there were side effects! It’s a parasitic worm people! One of the biggest issues was getting the tape worm out. You see, tape worms like living in your stomach, its basically an all you can eat buffet for them, so why would they want to leave? But if left in there, things get deadly pretty quickly.

So to coax them out, people had to get a little creative. For example one Dr. Meyers of Sheffield used to lure the tape worm out by inserting a cylinder of food down a patients throat. This actually worked, but unfortunately sometimes his patients had a nasty habit of suffocating to death before the tape worm could be fully removed.

It’s because of incidents like this that the Victorian tape worm fad fell out of fashion. However it still remains a thing! With many desperate dieters heading to dark corners of the internet to buy tape worm pills. In fact on one episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Khloe Kardashian managed to turn a whole new generation of people onto the parasite pills, with just once sentence! Saying:

‘I’d do anything to get a tape worm’.

Advert for tape worm pills. They be ‘jar packed’ and ‘easy to swallow,’ but they will mess up your insides!

Along with pills containing tape worms, Victorian women looking for a quick diet fix turned to arsenic pills.

Now, in this era, arsenic was used in everything! It was a cleaning aid, an ingredient in soft furnishings, it was used to make bright green fashion accessories and also occasionally used in a little light murder. So naturally some bright business person thought to market it as a diet aid.

But here’s the thing. Not all these pills actually said they contained arsenic. Some just advertised themselves as ‘diet pills’ or simply ‘wonder remedies’.

The pills worked by speeding up the metabolism and actually only contained a small amount of arsenic, that wasn’t enough to kill or do much damage. So whats the big deal? Well, it’s a diet pill. And what do people often do with diet pills? They take more than the advised amount. Which meant a lot of people giving themselves accidental arsenic poisoning.

But those weren’t the only diet pills on the market. There were a lot of options! With names like Dr Gordan’s Elegant pills, Corpu-slim and the very simple, Slim. These also contained incredibly dangerous ingredients, including dinitrophenol, an industrial chemical that can cause blindness, as well as thyroid ‘activating’ chemicals, which often resulted in long term heart issues.

Always trust a crudely drawn before and after image

It wasn’t all diet aids though. Way before Beyonce’s cayenne pepper ‘master cleanse’ and Tracey Andersons’s ‘baby food diet’, there was the Lord Byron diet. The mac daddy of celeb diets.

In 1816 famed poet Lord Byron lived on a thin slice of bread for breakfast, a few biscuits, soda water and copious quantities of cigars to keep the hunger pains at bay. He exercised in layers upon layers of winter coats in an attempt to sweat more and told friends he would rather not exist than ever be ‘fat’.

It’s now almost unanimously agreed on that Byron was suffering from severe anorexia, but in 1816 nobody knew that and so he became a diet icon.

Those desperate to get the pale and thin look sported by the huge pop culture icons that were Byron and his romantic poet set, eagerly took up highly publicised Byron ‘diet’.

The popularity and extreme nature of the diet was so much that it became a big talking point of the era. With Dr George Beard commenting that young women

‘live all their growing girlhood in semi-starvation… (for fear of)…incurring the horror of disciples of Lord Byron’

Lord Byron, painted by Thomas Phillips, 1816 – leader in terrible diets and child abandonment

Along with celeb diets, calorie counting also isn’t new. Sure it’s now moved onto apps, where we can just scan a bar-code and our phones do the rest, but for decades dieting by counting intake has been a thing. In 1918 Lulu Hunt Peters published, ‘Diet and health with key to calories’ and it became the first true bestselling book based solely on a diet.

Those eager to get that flapper thin up and down figure learnt from the book how to count everything that went through their lips. Sustaining themselves on 1,200 a day (or less)

It’s from here on out that we see the boom of diet blockbuster books and lives built entirely around working out if an apple still counts as 90 calories if it’s large.

Meet Lulu Hunt Peters, AKA the reason I spent years mathematically analysing food instead of enjoying it

Around the same time as calorie counting came the cigarette diet. For much of the early to mid 20th century, there weren’t advertising standards around selling cigarettes. So advertisers could say anything and oh boy, they sure did. Cigarettes were touted as everything from good for people with asthma, healthy, to (of course!) an amazing way to lose weight.

And technically, cigarettes are an appetite suppressant. But they also cause major medical issues and will kill you. So you know swings and roundabouts.

Though these health fears (and more stringent advertising rules that came in the 1960’s -thus the first excellent episode of Mad Men-) meant that the trend for smoking to lose weight fell out of fashion, it of course came back.

In the 1960’s the ‘model diet’ advocated smoking and drinking black coffee. And not much else. This lovely one somehow managed to linger in different forms throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s!

Lucky strikes advert demonstrating the definition of subtlety

Now hopefully you’ve spent this whole article saying ‘my god, what was the past doing!?!‘. Which is good, and please never try any of these diet techniques.

But also, think before trying any diet – will this look ridiculous in 50 years? Because I can tell you right now, that diet lollipops, detox teas and 5:2 are all going to be fodder for some future snarky history writer.

So from me (someone who has a long history of hating my body and dieting) let me say this: The only time I have lost weight, sustained it and been happy, was when I:

A) Made gradual healthy lifestyle changes, which in time helped me find exercise I love, amazing food that’s good got my body and a better lifestyle that will hopefully mean I’m around to write random history articles for many years to come

B) Learnt to be OK with the body I have, not the body I hope to have

Hard truth, you can’t wait to be happy. You can’t pin everything on a future hypothetical perfect body. Life is way to short, and like tape worms, cigarettes, and arsenic pills, the diet ‘miracles’ that are popular now, might be messing your body up, making that life even shorter.

This was interesting where can I find out more? Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years, by Louise Foxtrot is a really fantastic read and massively helped with the research for this!

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What was The Green Book?

Now the inspiration for an Oscar winning film, the story of The Green Book is in fact one of the most vital, dark and yet uplifting chapters of black history

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that day comes, we will continue to publish this information for your convenience each year”- The Negro Travellers Green Book 1948

In 1936 New York mailman, Victor Hugo Green published a book that he hoped would help other black New Yorker’s travelling outside of their boroughs. It listed restaurants, bars and hotels that served ‘coloured’s’ and was immediately embraced by the African American community. However people wanted much more from Victor’s book. Because after all, why just explore New York when the whole United States was out there?

But there was a snag. The freedom of the American road trip wasn’t free. Not if you were black.

Just driving out of state, be it for work or pleasure, was a journey full of hidden perils and humiliation.

Want a hotel room? Somewhere to eat, a drink or get gas? Well the average black traveller was walking straight into a mine field. Businesses were able to pick and choose who they served, which meant the road was littered with whites only establishments. Some businesses even deliberately had three clear K’s in their names, e.g Mississippi motel Kozy Kottage Kourt. It could easily take hours of driving around before a sole ‘colored welcome’ sign finally came into view.

And that wasn’t just infuriating, it was dangerous.

‘Sundown towns’ were all over the USA. These all white communities operated a law that stated that by sundown all ‘colored people’ had to be out of town. Route 66, that pillar of American top down freedom; almost half of the counties lining it had sundown towns.

The penalty for being in a sundown town after dark was getting your arse thrown in jail. Or worse.

So when your were hitting an open road that was lined with signs that read ‘Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here’ and with the very real threat of violence hanging overhead, it was more than easy to feel like African American travellers had no friend. And that was why the green book was so important.

Front cover of the 1948 Green Book, from New York Public Library

By the early 1940s, Victor Hugo Green was printing a new issue of the Green Book every year.

The books information was crowd sourced, with readers sending in tips and locations, that were constantly checked and updated. The books popularity boomed, sold in churches, corner-shops and Esso stations (a rarity as a gas station that openly welcomed African Americans) with each print run snapped up immediately, communities had to start circulating sold out copies amongst themselves.

And you best believe that The Green Book lived up to its reputation that you should never leave home without a copy!

Let’s say for example that in 1947 your Gran asks you to come visit her in Georgia, it’s a long ride, which means you’ll have to have an overnight pit stop in Alabama.

Well thanks to the Green Book you know to plan your route well in advance,so you can make sure you hit one of only nine towns in the state that were known to have overnight accommodation for black travellers. Oh, and that five of those towns didn’t actually have open hotels, but homeowners who were happy to house African Americans. Which in turn saved you inadvertently driving round hostile sun down towns in the hopes of finding non existent hotels or facing the obvious dangers that came with sleeping at the side of an unknown road.

Victor Hugo Green, founded of The Green Book and owner of a pretty jazzy tie

Not only was The Green Book a life line in its own time, today its still an incredible resource, especially when it comes to tracking the civil rights strides being made in America during it’s time.

Each year the book got bigger and this was in part thanks to the rise in the black middle class and the expansion of black owned businesses. Which ultimately helped lead to more African Americans hitting the road and exploring the country that they’d been barred from for too long. By 1962 there were a whopping 2,000,000 Green Books in circulation.

But this isn’t just about the book selling more and getting heftier, you see it’s tone started to change too.

From the late 1940s The Green Book started to become less of a data bank of places that people were ‘allowed’ a respite from the daily barrage of discrimination, rather a tool that got people where they actively want to go.

As the travel pages became more aspirational, time was taken to highlight the African American owned businesses that travellers would pass. Everything from shops, funeral parlours and insurance brokers were celebrated. With full articles detailing the jobs these companies were making, the communities being built around them and the local political influence all this way having.

The Green Book wasn’t a getaway around Jim Crow laws, it was about bounding over them towards a better future.

The 1961 Green Book, now also featuring travel outside of the US in major resort countries, from New York Public Library

Despite their immense popularity Victor Hugo Green never earned a fortune from his books. Concentrating profits on further expanding the green book.

Victor died in 1960, his wife Alma picking up the role of editor and pushing The Green Book forward as America entered an era of growing civil rights.

Then in 1964’s the Civil Rights Act, made segregation illegal for public businesses. And just like that, the Green Book was obsolete, closing in 1966.

It was exactly what Victor Hugo Green had dreamed of, writing almost twenty years before ‘it will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please’. Finally that day had come.

Further Reading: The New York Public Library has an amazing collection of digitised Green Books that you can read through HERE.

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A brief history of Kpop

Today’s bright bubblegum Kpop actually stems from one of the darkest chapters in history! It’s a 50 year tale of censorship, hardship and evolution. How one country went from near destruction to world pop culture domination in half a century.

Right now Kpop is taking over the world. It’s practically inescapable; with catchy ear worms, insane dance routines and the constant presence of BTS at every talk show/award’s do going. But Kpop isn’t new! In fact this isn’t even the first international Korean music invasion.

Believe me when I say, the history behind this dazzlingly bright pop is fascinating; stemming from one of the darkest chapters in Korea’s history and revolving around censorship, cultural evolution and hybridisation. Mostly it’s a story of people and whether you love Kpop or haven’t ever heard it, it’s really bloody interesting.

So then what (I hear you ask) is the historic starting point for Kpop? 

….The Korean War. 

Yes, I swear there is a link between this and war, just bear with me

Once part of the Japanese empire, Korea fell into the lap of the allies after WW2. The country was divided, literally. A split was drawn down its peninsula (dubbed, the 38th parallel) with South Korea handed to America and North Korea going to the Soviet Union.

Now as a rule, splitting countries in half and sharing them between two powers with huge ideological differences never goes well. And -surprise- it didn’t go well.

By the 1950s both sides had formed their own rulings, the South under an anti-communist government and the North under the communist dictator, Kim Il Sung.

Obviously neither side were happy just having power in their designated area. They wanted all of Korea.

That right there is a recipe for disaster! Add into this the little fact that the world was in the midst of The Cold War and you’re set for some grade A clusterfuckery.

And so in June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea.

It was the first military invasion of The Cold War and it had happened on what was essentially US turf. America was both angry and petrified that if the South fell, it could only be a matter of time before communism went global.

This powder keg of ideology, policy and fear exploded into one of the most brutal and bloody wars in living memory.

A child in the rubble during America’s fight to win Incheon back from North Korea in 1953

Peace negotiations were sporadic but by 1953 a stalemate was reached… and 5 million people were dead. Half of those were civilians.

Within the space of three years, 10% of the population were dead and millions of families were separated through the North South divide. Not to mention that South Korea’s economy was heading to ruin and the country was depending heavily on foreign aid.

South Korea was a country crippled.

Still, the Americans stuck around South Korea after the war and with their ongoing presence came a sudden boom in western ideals.

Throughout the 1950s, there was rapid urbanisation, fights for women’s rights, a complete overall from extended to nuclear family and more importantly (Where this piece is concerned) an influx of American culture.

The likes of Marilyn Monroe and Louis Armstrong performed at GI camps, bringing homesick soldiers a slice of Americana. But Marilyn couldn’t always be on speed dial; other acts were needed.

So South Korean entertainers stepped up. And in this uncertain economy, they were more than happy to try out something new for a paid gig.

Enter The Kim Sisters!

The hair, the sheer enthusiasm, the xylophone, its everything

The Kim Sisters were a heady mix of The Andrew Sisters and The Supremes and were an immediate hit with American soldiers. So much so that in the 1960s they became a break out hit in America!

The sisters were the first South Korean act to release music in the US (reaching no7 on Billboard) were a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show, all in addition to performing across the US.

South Korea also fell for The Kim sisters and with them came an increase in Americanised groups and the Korea/USA infused rock genre ‘Trot’.

As the 1960s continued, this new type of music boomed, along with the rapid rise in westernisation.

American influences were seeping more and more into the everyday. Helping to further set South Korea apart from the North.

BUT this was an enormous change happening in a startlingly short time span.

Suddenly two very different cultures were being melded together. Capitalism and commercialism were being placed alongside traditional Korean values and the still over arcing influence on the country of Confucianism.

It was a huge cultural shift and one that was being explored by this new hybridised music.

Artists reflected their own experiences in their work e.g The Pearl Sisters sang about going to coffee shops and wore short skirts, whilst Korean rock band, Add4 acted as South Korea’s answer to Beatlemania. These groups were mixing tradition and western influence and in doing so defining an era that would become looked to as one South Korea’s golden ages for music.

The Pearl Sisters

But then the new culture wave crashed.

In 1963 Park Chung -Hee was elected president of South Korea. A former military leader, two years earlier he had ousted the previous government (known as The Second Republic) in a military coup. Now president (of the The Third Republic) he oversaw massive economic growth (hooray!), but a huge human cost (yeah, not so great)

Park Chung-Hee was a military man through and through, and this guy and some serious concerns about the sudden shift in South Korea’s culture.

Now, Park Chung-Hee was technically running a democracy, but he did so with an iron fist. His opponents were dealt with harshly, he enforced rapid modernisation of rural areas (so they’d seem less ‘backwards’) and rounded up South Korea’s homeless, putting them in camps for free labour. So it’s unsurprising that Park Chung-Hee planned to deal with the new culture in the same brute force way.

And so in a bid to promote Korean traditionalism, Park Chung-Hee vowed to stamp out new culture, honing in on this new type of hybridised music as a key area to be quashed.

Park Chung-Hee, bringing all the fun

In 1975 he dealt musical freedom of speech a huge blow with the the enactment of Emergency Measure Number 9, which included the horrifically named ‘The Purification of Popular Music Measures.’

Hundreds of songs were banned, dubbed as ‘unhealthy’ to the populace. ‘Decadent’ foreign music by the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Black Sabbath we’re out, but worryingly so were hundreds of songs by South Korean artists.

Anything that could be deemed counter culture, risqué or clearly influenced by the West was under severe scrutiny.

Radio stations saw their allotted time for foreign and hybrid music drastically cut. And the penalty for defying the ban was to be stripped of your entertainment career.

The golden age of hybridised Korean and western music was over.

Park Chunghee said of this cultural cull:

‘Good influences we must retain, but bad ones we must reject, and reject at their very inception,”

With most of this new music banned, Park Chung-Hee double downed; arresting young people who sported Americanised long hair; having their heads shaved on the spot.

Then to fill the void of ‘subversive’ ‘unhealthy’ sound, Park Chunghee came up with ‘healthy music’.

If you couldn’t guess by it’s name. Healthy music sucked.

Several ‘healthy’ songs were written by Park Chung Hee himself, focusing on the glory of South Korea and just how bloody amazing his government was. And what they lacked in musicality they made up for in snappy titles, like ‘My Homeland’ and of course, who could forget everyone’s favourite, ‘New Village Song’.

These songs were everywhere. Seriously you couldn’t move for the government approved ‘New Village Song’ being blasted at you.

But then in late 1979 everything changed when Park Chung Hee was shot and killed by his friend (and director of his intelligence agency) Kim Jae-Gyu.

It’s unlikely that the assassination was pre-planned and it left the country in mass upheaval.

But one good thing came out of all this political turmoil, nobody was watching the purification of popular music measure and it sort of disappeared….

And so as 1980 dawned it looked like South Korean culturally infused musical golden age was now free once more to repeat itself.

Except it didn’t

Park Chung-Hee had (no matter else he’d done) totally turned around the countries economy and global standing, his absence left a massive hole.

And as such the 1980s provided yet anouther huge period of governmental upheaval, which in turn led to the continuation of Korean pop music being censored.

But it wasn’t all bad.As South Korea started to settle into what would prove to be a lasting democracy, mass media was born.

Suddenly radio and TV weren’t regionalised but rolled out on a national scale. Music was becoming liberalised once more and Korean ballad and trot singers enjoyed immense popularity.

Then came colour TV and with it music programming. Something the entire nation could watch all together. This soon became the main way for South Koreans to consume music. Not so much video killed the radio star, as video starting life as the mass medium!

By the 1990s the stage was set for something entirely new.

Enter Seo Taiji and Boys

Awww it’s like the 90’s had a baby with itself

The trio of rappers, dancers and singers *phew!* performed their self penned song Nan Arayo” (난 알아요, I Know) on South Korea’s leading talent show in 1992.

Not only did they break the TV produced talent mould by writing and choreographing their performance, they were one of the first acts in years to once more combine westernised music with South Korean styles.

It was like The Kim Sisters all over again, but half a decade later and with baggy pants.

Sadly the shows jury didn’t get it… and Seo Taiji and Boys were awarded the lowest score possible.

BUT the South Korean public didn’t care about the jury’s votes. 

People loved Seo Taiji and Boys. They were new and exciting and soon they blew up in a big way.

With their increased fame, the group continued playing with culture and genre, their later songs fusing Korean folk music with metal, creating a South Korean take on Gangsta rap and even using rock to discuss the idea of north south unification.

Off the back of this success, music agencies started to pop up all over Seoul (including YG Entertainment founded by Seo Taiji and Boys member, Yang HyanSuk) looking to create their own fortune making cultural phenomena.

Polished dance and hip hop groups dominated the charts. Each creating its own almost hysterically obsessed fandom. From rappers 1TYM to the fantastically 90s bubble gum boy group, H.O.T.

Business was so good that by 1998 the South Korean government wanted in and formed a team that sat within its Ministry of Culture and Tourism department. Solely dedicated to this new fangeled Kpop trend.

Promo pic of H.O.T working Sesame Street ski wear

Around the same time as the Kpop government team was set up, Asia underwent a financial crisis. To survive the South Korean kpop industry would need to look beyond it’s boarders.

So in 1997 H.O.T released their first Chinese album to a fantastic reception. And music agencies started to train their artists to not only sing in other languages but to speak them too.

With SM Entertainment going so far as to hire Japanese vocal trainers and instructors to make their young female singer, BoA appear native to both countries.

By the turn of the millennium the tide of South Korean culture breaking into markets across Asia was dubbed ‘The Korean Wave’ or ‘Hallyu’.

But Kpop had become a lot more important than just selling records. There was a reason it had a governmental team!

Kpop was to be key in how South Korea would re position themselves on the global stage.

Using it was a way to consolidate their ‘soft power’. What is soft power you ask? Well much like America had once used glossy Hollywood pictures, Coca-Cola and jeans to attract international attention to it’s policy and alliance. That’s what South Korea were about to do with Kpop.

It’s the circle of cultural politics!

And that brings us up to today. South Korea have officially ridden that Hallyu wave all the way to the top. Positioning themselves as a global leader in the exportation of pop culture.

From a country that 66 years ago was on its knees to one whose unique hybridised culture is EVERYWHERE.

It’s not to shabby a leap and a huge part of that success is from the sparkly, happy clappy but always overcoming music of kpop.

Further Reading: You can learn more about the in depth history of Korea’s musical evolution in Made in Korea: Studies in popular music. For the economically minded, check out here for a fascinating deep dive into its post war economy. And click here for a great paper on South Korea’s cultural identity.

More great stuff likes this

The fight for Betty Boop’s soul

Almost 90 years ago, Betty Boop appeared in the 1930s cartoon, Dizzy Dishes. Over the next few years she’d transform from the anthropomorphic dog sidekick/girlfriend of leading man, Bimbo, to a woman who ran her own show.

Decades later she remains an icon, and a very profitable one at that! You can go almost anywhere in the world and pick up Betty Boop merch. Whether it’s a ‘Betty Boop Red’ MAC lipstick, an emblazoned tee or a $750 Boop inspired Zac Posen dress. The Betty Boop business is still booming.

But the story behind this gold mine is a dark one. Steeped in racism, theft and an infamous court case that saw a bloody battle for Betty Boop’s very soul.

Betty Boop and Bimbo gif.gif
Believe me when I say, that wink is covering a LOT of scandal and wrong doing

Helen Kane had been treading the boards for years before she got a break. Vaudeville, singing troupes and chorus lines. You name it, she’d done it.

But then in 1928, Helen landed her big break. Snagging a gig singing at The Paramount Theatre, right slap bang in the middle of New York’s Times Square.

Helen took to the stage and sang (the then popular song) ‘that’s my weakness now’ with a kind of coquettish knowing and humour that captivated the audience.

Then mid song, Helen busted out something truly unexpected – scatting:

‘Boop boop a doop’

Overnight Helen and her boop a doops were the talk of the town.

Months later, Helen sung what would become her (and Betty Boop’s) most well known hit, I wanna be loved by you (signature Boop oop a doops included!)

And just like that a star was born.

Helen kane header
Meet Helen Kane

Films soon followed Helens stage success and by 1930 she was one of America’s most loved rising stars.

Her quirky flapper sex appeal and unique singing style, ensured that there was nobody quite like Helen Kane.

Until Betty Boop came along

Helen Kane and Betty Boop side by side
Side by side for comparisons sake

Helen was understandably furious at her cartoon clone. Angrier still, that she wasn’t getting a dime from her!

So Helen took Betty Boop’s creators, Max Fleischer & Paramount, to court.

Fleischer claimed that Betty Boop was inspired by the likes of Clara Bow, as well as Helen Kane, but Helen argued that EVERYTHING about Betty was Helen: the look, the mannerisms, the voice! Helen’s case looked iron tight!

BUT Helen had a secret. You see, that act that made her so unique, the one she was fighting for… it wasn’t her act. She’d stolen it. From a black singer, called:

 

Baby Esther

Baby Esther
Enter Esther Jones, better known by her stage name, Baby Esther

Esther Jones had gotten the nickname, Baby Esther, thanks to the high pitched cutesey voice she sang in.

A favourite of Harlem clubs like The Cotton Club, Esther was a rising star in the jazz world. Both because of her voice, that managed to be adorable and sexy, AND her unique style of scatting:

‘Boop oop a doo’

Sounds familiar huh?

Esther worked at her scatting by learning from the greats. Listening to the other Cotton Club artists and likes of Louis Armstrong, to hone her craft into a signature scatting style.

And then in 1928, Helen Kane came to see Baby Esther perform.

Months later, Helen was performing those signature scats to adoring audiences.

Hlene Kane image
Not looking quite so innocent now Helen…

But the secret of Betty Boop’s true origins didn’t stay secret for long.

Helen was suing Boop’s creators for $250,000 (roughly 3.5 million in today’s money) and with kind of money at stake, the defence came at Helen hard…

They bought in Baby Esther’s manager Lou Walton 

Helen was rumbled.

Lou not only explained how he and Esther had created and developed her ‘Boop Boop’ style BUT he also testified that Helen Kane had come to see Baby Esther perform, just before Helen debuted her ‘unique sound’.

This revelation effectively ended any hope Helen had of winning the case. 

In fact, neither woman would win this fight. You see Baby Esther was nowhere to be found, never appearing in court. By the the time the trial wrapped up, she was presumed dead.

Betty Boop’s creators, Flieschman and Paramount left the court on a high, effectively getting out of two law suits. One from the woman they knowingly stole from and one from the woman they unknowingly stole from.

As for Helen Kane, she used the trial press to rebrand herself – The Original boop boop a-doop girl. Releasing records and even a rival cartoon under this moniker.

 

copy of Helens comic
One of Helen’s rival cartoon strips

And Baby Esther? Well, after she’d served her purpose as a legal defence, she was dropped. No efforts were made to recompense her (or in her absence, her family). There would be no revival of her work.

Baby Esther had been literally white washed from history.

To this day, it’s near impossible to find Baby Esther mentioned in books on this era. There are whole documentaries on Betty Boop’s creation that totally leave out Baby Esther. And, hands up, we’ve also contributed to this – mentioning Helen Kane on Twitter and not also talking about Baby Esther. We were very rightfully brought up on that!

Stories like that of Baby Esther are often forgotten from history, omitted both by the actions by those of their era and then not perused by those that follow. That leaves us with a false history, and how can we possibly learn from the past, if we’re not seeking out its truth!

So, it’s important that we not only tell these stories, but actively seek them out. 

Baby Esther and her work are just being re-discovered. That’s one facet of history that’s finally being made right, but it won’t be the last. There will be more. More untold stories, more people whose lives were written out, more uncomfortable truths. It will change how we see history and that can only be a good thing.

This was interesting where can I find out more? I’d suggest you go check out surviving recordings of Baby Esther, which you can do by hitting THIS LINK and heading to YouTube.

 

 

 

The History of Pin Ups

Innocent but erotic, cheesy yet still oozing sex appeal; it’s an irrefutable fact that pin up girls have one twisted tightrope to walk!

But how did we get this mixed up icon of salaciously safe female sexuality? A figure that’s somehow simultaneously suitable for the side of weapons, twee tattoos and more boudoir shoots than you can shake a stick at.

Well my friends, let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) with the mother of all pin ups:

The Gibson Girl

Created in 1887 by Charles Gibson, The Gibson Girl is now widely accepted as the first pin up.

Drawn lasciviously The Gibson Girl represented a woman that could be imitated but couldn’t actually exist (thanks to biologically impossible!)

She had sizeable breasts but an itty bitty wasp waist. A swan like neck and masses of dark hair piled precariously atop her head, that was miraculously impervious  to sweat, rain and general disaster.

Gibson Girls at the beach
There is no danger of these ladies getting sand in their hair, nor anywhere else

But what bought the Gibson Girl to life was that she had a clear personality.

The Gibson Girl was based on ‘the new woman’. Self assured, put together, sensual and intelligent all at once. She wanted independence, but like… not too much independence (Gibson Girls weren’t after the vote, that would just be crazy!)

A Gibson Man was created to go with The Gibson Girl, but much like Ken to Barbie, nobody really cared.

It was the impossible woman they wanted to pin to their walls, not her random boyfriend.

The Gibson Girl and The Gibson Man
To be fair, the Gibson Man does look like an insufferable twat

Soon there was a Gibson Girl boom, with her face appearing all over magazine and newspapers; quickly becoming the ideal standard for Western beauty.

Women donned Gibson Girl-Esque hair do’s, along with s-bend corsets which simultaneously pushed out the tits, nipped in the waist and pulled the wearers back forward, allowing for that classic Gibson Girl arse to tit ratio.

Camile Cliford
Famed real life Gibson Girl, Camile Clifford and her RIDICULOUS waist

But the outbreak of World War 1 saw the demise of the Gibson Girl.

No more would women obligingly get that Gibson Girl figure by donning an s-bend corset.

You see, women had things to do, countries to keep running and they kind of needed working spines for that shit.

So they stepped up, wearing more practical and masculine clothing than before.

A trend that was immediately sexualised for war propaganda 

Now this mix of girl next door charm and patriotism leads us nicely to our next chapter in pin up history…

The Petty Girl

George Petty had been airbrushing and illustrating for years, mainly for cheese-tactic sexed up adverts and calendars. But in 1933 he joined fledgling magazine, Esquire and became an immediate hit.

Placed slap bang on a double page in the middle of the magazine, Petty’s drawings coined the term centrefold, as they were torn out and given prime real estate on walls and lockers around America.

A classic George Petty Girl
A classic example of George Pettys work

A ‘Petty Girl’ was the classic all American girl next door, just reeeeally sexed up! She was lithe, but curvy, with elongated limbs that made her legs go on for daaaays (again with the almost entirely biologically impossible women!)

But what really made the Petty Girl a phenomenon was that Esquire readers could place her into their worlds.

She was posed in idealised every day scenarios from chatting on the phone to celebrating  seasonal holidays and even ingratiating herself into what were then typically male jobs.

An illustration used in a mechanics calendar
Do you get it? Rigid….like the name of good industrial equipment

Soon Petty Girls weren’t just on bedroom walls, they’d been adopted by soldiers looking for a slice of comforting similarity as they headed to war.

It was easy to transpose a childhood sweetheart or crush onto a perfect Petty Girl; after all that was the whole point of their design!

And just like that pin ups went from books to bombers.

b-17 Memphis Belle.jpg
The crew of The Memphis Belle, pose with their B-17 Bomber, complete with George Petty illustration

By the 1940s and 50s pin up was everywhere.

Petty style drawings were used to sell magazines to men, but they were also marketed to women. Selling everything from fashion, homeware and films; MGM even made a film about the drawings (the imaginativley titled, Petty Girl)

With such success came a ton of rival artists, all with a slightly different take on what made the perfect imaginary woman:

Gil Evgreen

Gil stepped up George Pettys knack for the everyday. Placing models in even more average scenarios (cooking, decorating, hanging out with cute animals)

Yet he made these hum drum scenes both implausible and accessible, by setting up his pin up girls as cutesy girl children who were also sex objects (basically the proto type for any modern rom com lead!)

Sure she might be flashing her underwear…but only because the poor lamb had accidentally tripped!

An Unexpected Lift, Gil Evgreen
I simply cannot tell you how many dresses I have ruined thanks to errant cranes

As well as this ‘cheesecake’ pin up style, Gil was known for his masterful (and slightly maniacal) manipulation of the female form.

He’d have models pose for pin up photos, then set his pencil to work, nipping, tucking and enlarging certain key assets until he had the perfect fantasy

IMG_1429
Can we please talk about how uncomfortable the models pose looks????

And just as before, it wasn’t just men buying the pin up fantasy! Women were a key audience and they would be vital in its evolution:

Zoe Mozart

Zoe made her mark by creating pin up illustrations that veered much closer to reality than her male peers work.

Sure these painted ladies were still very much in the realm of make believe, but Zoe worked to have them look like actual women; tiny waists are great and all, but not when they are so teeny that women need to find somewhere new to keep stuff like their organs…

It seemed like Zoe was onto something; her realistic approach was selling like hot cakes, from adverts to film posters and men’s calendars.

But there was a problem – now the public wanted real women! 

By the late 50s, photography was the order of the day. With the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell were decorating walls and pin up started to die out.

Pretty soon it was the 60s and imagined illustrations just couldn’t compete with the likes of Playboy, whose mix of explicit images and -ahem- articles, had taken America into a new age of sexual fantasy.

Playboy Bunnies
Playboy Bunnies promoting a new Playboy Club

And yet the pin up could not be destroyed.

The classic Petty, Mozart and Evgreen style of pin up is very much back in. Just now it’s labelled as a vintage and classy alternative to the today’s more intense male gaze.

You can see it’s traces in everything from Virgin airlines branding to cutesy advertising and of course, every time a bridesmaid has worn victory rolls and a halter neck to a ‘vintage wedding’.

Bridesmaids
The pin up vibes are strong with this one

This was interesting where can I find out more? For Gibson Girl goodness I’d suggest checking out, The Weaker Sex: The Story of a susceptible bachelor, which is a reprint of some of Charles Gibsons best work.

The Mothers of #MeToo

We’re currently in the midst of a much needed crack down on harassment, assault, abuse and general BS against women. With women in Hollywood and entertainment a driving force behind this huge shift.

But movements like #MeToo and Times Up, wouldn’t have been possible without the brave women that came before. The women that took a stand, knowing their lives would be torn apart for doing so. And so, lets take a moment to recognise them:

The Mothers of Me Too:

Note: This article contains raw accounts of sexual assault and rape. 

1. The demonised ne’er-do-well: Maude Delmont

Maude Delmont
Maude Delmont

In 1921, Maude’s’ best friend, Virginia Rappe, died. That alone is so many shades of horrific, but the reason for Virginia’s death made it all the worse:

3 days before Virginia died, both girls were at a Labour Day party held by Hollywood’s biggest star, Fatty Arbuckle.

Fatty was apparently a fan of Virginia. Maude later saying that early on in the party Fatty had pulled Virginia into a side room, grinning:

‘I’ve waited for you five years, and now I’ve got you’

Almost immediately after Fatty and Virginia disappeared, the party was stopped by the sound of a woman’s screams.

Maude ran to help and found a drunk Virginia writhing in pain on the bed, while Fatty Arbuckle tried desperately to get out the room.

Virginia turned to Maude and cried:

‘He did this to me’

Virginia Rappe
Virginia Rappe

Several days after the party, Virginia was still in extreme pain, so Maude took her to hospital.

At the hospital Maude explained that from what Virginia had told her, she believed Fatty Arbuckle had at least seriously assaulted Virginia and more likely raped her.

Virginia died from her injuries; a ruptured a bladder. 

The newspapers had a field day working out how Virginia had obtained her fatal injuries.

Had Fatty’s great weight crushed her during the assault? Perhaps her ruptured bladder been caused by the Fatty violating assaulting Virginia with a champagne bottle!

Rumours swirled and within days, Fatty Arbuckle turned himself into the police.

Fatty Arbuckle Mug Shot
Fatty Arbuckles mug shot

Maude Delmont quickly emerged as potential star witness for the prosecution…but she never took the stand.

You see Maudes past was, shall we say, murky.

She had a history of blackmail and in the run up to the trial, rumours of bigamy and extortion also began to emerge (quick note- it should probably be noted that handily timed rumours with some – but not much – evidence were common in cases around this time where large film studios were desperate to protect their brand)

Still possibly fake rumours aside, one thing did look certain… evidence pointed to the fact that Maude had approached Fatty Arbuckle after Virginia’s death, trying to extort him as revenge for Virginia’s death.

Yeah… not exactly fantastic star witness behaviour

OBVIOUSLY this was bought up at the trial by the defence; along with Virginia’s past and yet more rumours of Virginia having had abortions, hidden pregnancies and an unabated partying habit that had spiralled out of control.

With both Virginia and Maude’s reputations in tatters, Fatty Arbuckle was found innocent. 

Arbuckle paper

Even now, decades on, Virginia and Maude’s scarlet letters remain.

If you google Maude Delmont then you’ll find the vast majority of articles paint her as a lying bitch, who basically planned the whole thing.

Virginia’s death is now often cited as down to a bad case of cystitis….-BTW, For those wondering, NO, your bladder can’t rupture from cystitis; only from something severely injuring it.-

We probably won’t know exactly how Virginia got her injuries. But we do know that the trial of Fatty Arbuckle and the public treatment of Virginia and Maude led to many women in Hollywood remaining quiet.

That is until….

2. The teens that fought Hollywood

Betty Hansen and Peggy Setterlee in court.jpg
Betty Hansen and Peggy Setterlee in court

Betty Hansen was 17 and fresh off the bus; she dreamed of being an actress and often hopped around the Hollywood party scene, looking for her break.

It was at one of these parties that she met Errol Flynn.

Errol Flynn was Hollywood’s golden boy, playing every dashing lead going, from Robin Hood to Don Juan.

So of course Betty was ridiculously excited to see such a huge star at the party; hey if her luck was in, this could be her big break!

But soon, Betty realised that whatever she was drinking was making her feel really ill…

It was then, that Errol Flynn offered to take her to bed, to allow the sick teen to sleep her illness off. 

That wasn’t what happened.

Errol Flynn took the, now half conscious, Betty to an isolated bedroom, undressed her and then had sex with her.

Betty wasn’t alone; See Errol Flynn was a serial predator.

Peggy Satterlee was 16 when she met Errol Flyn. His pet name for her, was:

‘Jail Bait’

Errol invited Peggy onto his yacht. There, as with Betty, Peggy was taken away from preying eyes and raped.

Betty and Peggy outside court
Betty Hansen (left) and Peggy Sattarlee (right)

Stories like Betty and Peggy’s were rife in Hollywood during this time; BUT all were successfully buried by the Studios ‘fixers’.

Betty and Peggy sure as hell weren’t going to let that happen to them!

So they decided to take Errol to court; knowing that doing so would destroy any chance they had at film careers and leave their reputations in ruins.

applause gif.gif
That my friends, is the definition of bravery

The trial was a huge spectacle. Hoards of adoring fans came to support Errol, because what’s a little statuary rape if your famous!?

From the get go, it was clear the odds were stacked against the girls.

To say the defence teams methods were sketchy, is a huge understatement. Here’s just some of the evidence (I use that term very lightly!) They used.

  • Peggy had once danced in a ‘low plunge’ dress
  • With make up on, the girls looked older
  • Neither girl shouted for help during the attacks 
  • Betty and Peggy didn’t cry on the witness stand

what the actual fuck gif.gif
Just. Fucking no.

Errol Flynn was ultimately found innocent.

When the verdict was read, he reacted like any arsehat would – by leaping and dancing round the court.

Erorol celebrated with a party where his loyal fans ‘comedically’ re-enacted the trial. Then Errol jetted to Mexico, where he married a 17 year old he had met during his statuary rape trial.

Errol Flynn
Just incase you were in any doubt – Errol Flynn was a literal garbage fire of an excuse for a person

Peggy later reflected:

‘ I knew those women would acquit him. They just sat and looked adoringly at him as if he was their son or something’

Though Betty and Peggy lost their battle, their actions did make a difference; shedding a much needed light on the sexual assault happy cess pool that Hollywood was.

Betty and Peggy had created a door that just needed opening, and one woman was happy to do that: 

 

3. The Actress: Maureen O’Hara

Maureen o Hara
Maureen O’Hara

While Betty and Peggy had to fight Hollywood from the outside, Maureen O’Hara was very much on the inside.

She was a bonafide superstar, staring in tons of smash hit adventure films and dramas.

Maureen’s success didn’t mean that she wasn’t open to Hollywood’s sexual harassment.

In 1945 she gave an explosive interview to the Daily Mirror, detailing the sexual harassment she experienced everyday, saying:

‘I am so upset with it that I am ready to quit Hollywood. It’s got so bad I hate to come to work in the morning’

Maureen also made it clear that her refusal to get on the casting couch meant she’d lost out in countless parts.

Maureen piece in the mirror
Maureen’s full quote

What Maureen did was monumental! Women didn’t speak out like this in 1945 And the fact that she did so, so publicly was unheard of.

Maureen’s words had successfully opened the door for countless women to come after.

Maureen O'Hara
Maureen, in the midst of casually breaking down barriers

This was interesting, how can I find out more? We have actually gone into this subject before, with an in depth long read into the story of Patricia Douglas, who risked everything to stand up to the studio system and take her rape case to court. You can check that out here. 

The Hollywood Canteen: starlets, pie and murder

The brain child of Bette Davies and John Garfield, The Hollywood canteen served up wartime escapism with more than a dollop of movie magic.

Opening in 1942, the canteen only served serviceman, but that’s not what made the canteen so special….see it was entirely staffed by Hollywoods entertainment elite. Rita Hayworth dished up pie, Shirley Temple worked behind the bar, Betty Grable waitressed and Marlene Dietrich washed dishes. It was a movie bought to life, players and all.

Rita Hayworth serves pie at The Hollywood Canteen
Interestingly, Rita Hyaworth and I have the same pie cutting outfit

The incredible impact it made in cheering up the troops can not be denied…but the Hollywood Canteen couldn’t run on star power alone. With 3 million servicemen pouring through it’s doors (and those men getting through at least 30,000 gallons of punch a month!) there just weren’t enough celebrities to both make films and wash mountains of dishes.

 

So the canteen hired a small army of junior hostesses. Beautiful young women who dreamed of making it big in Hollywood, they jumped at the chance to both help the war effort and potentially get plucked from obscurity.

Now working for the canteen was a big deal! Sure you didn’t get paid, sure most of your work was cleaning up, serving and being made to dance…but you guys…there was a film about The Hollywood Canteen, stars and studio big wigs dotted it’s halls and to work there was a chance to be someone; if just for one night. im a star.gif

But, once hired, The junior hostesses had to play by a whole bunch of rules! They had to maintain their looks, they weren’t to even think about stepping on the floor with a hair out of place. They must dress appropriately and act appropriately at all times. And most importantly…they had to be good girls – so no going home with the servicemen!

Good food, good girls and good clean all American fun…

What could possibly go wrong?

 

Georgette Bauerdorf newspaper cutting
well shit. 

Georgette Bauerdorf

Oil Heiress, Georgette moved to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. So naturally, like scores of other budding starlets, she snagged a job as a junior hostess at The Hollywood Canteen.

Georgette was immediately a very popular hostess: charismatic and beautiful, her dance card was full. Georgette BauerdorfBut the good times didn’t last. On the night of 11 October 1944, Georgette finished up another shift as a junior hostess, hopped in her car and headed home.

The next morning, her cleaner found Georgettes body face down in her bath tub. She’d been raped and strangled.

There was no sign of a break in, no sign of a struggle, nothing of value had been stolen; though Georgette did have some bruising, the killer had left no other trace. The last anyone ever heard of Georgette was a scream:

‘You’re killing me’

(Note: By the way, if you ever hear something like this, please be a babe and call the police immediately)

To this day, Georgettes murderer remains unfound….. But don’t worry, that’s not the end, of course not…the internet exists! So there are looooooots of theories

detective gif.gif
web sleuths in one gif

Some arm chair theorists believe Georgette was a victim of the Black Dahlia murderer…but the evidence on that one is pretty shaky (like HH Holmes is Jack the Ripper shaky…) So we’re just gonna discount that right now.

Where does that leave us? Well…it all points back to one place:The Hollywood Canteen.jpgAccording to her friends and weirdly also her Dad’s secretary, Georgette dated some of the men she had met whilst at work in The Hollywood Canteen; though she always did so under a shroud of secrecy, keen not to be shown breaking Canteen rules.

When going out with these men, Georgette insisted on footing the bill (after all she was an heiress and they weren’t making the big bucks in the army!) her good will didn’t end there. If she saw a soldier looking lost, she’d offer him a lift. If she saw someone counting their pennies at a sandwich counter, she’d pay for their meal.

Basically, Georgette was a good egg and through The Hollywood Canteen she soon amassed a whole network of soldiers she helped, dated and befriended.

The night of her death was no different, with Georgette meeting two very different servicemen. Georgette Bauerdorf in her carThe first was an overbearing young solider. He followed Georgette around during her shift at The Hollywood Canteen, insisting she dance with him. Even when she obliged he continued to cut in on her work all night, arguing he needed anouther dance.

By the end of her shift, Georgette managed to shake the arse hole off and hopped in her car. That’s when she met serviceman 2; he seemed lost so Georgette pulled over and offered him a lift.

The man later reported that she seemed skittish and scared during the drive. This guy wasn’t the only one who thought Georgette seemed scared; earlier that night she begged a fellow junior hostess to sleep over, but refused to say why.

So what happened? Well, investigators thought it likely that Georgette knew her killer. With most of the men in her life from The Hollywood Canteen, perhaps someone followed her home? Maybe an ex came back to town or she’d been arranging an after work secret date.

Georgettes case remains open, but with any leads long gone, it’s very unlikely this Hollywood mystery will ever be solved. Hello darkness gif.gif

Ok, that was all the bleak.

Let’s end things on a more positive note, with the story of one of Georgettes fellow Junior Hostesses:

Florida Edwards.

In 1942, Florida suffered a nasty Jitterbug injury (yes, apparently that was a thing in the 40s). Whilst jitterbugging with a marine, she was thrown across the room, landing on her spine and leaving her bedridden and unable to take on work for a month.

Flordia felt that that the Canteen hadn’t looked out for her wellbeing. The floor had been slippery and during the unfortunate jitterbug she called for help, but nobody came… and so she was going to sue their sorry arses for $17,250!

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Because Floridas coming for all your tap shoes!

Flordia took the stand and explained that she was iky (if you’re not hip to jive, that means: ‘I don’t like to do jive dancing’) , saying:

‘Jitterbugging is a very peculiar dance. Personally I don’t like it. It reminds me of the jungle antics of natives.’

Once she’d finished throwing in some casual racism, Florida went on to explain that when the Marine asked her to Jitterbug she had refused, instead standing stock still.

The Marine apparently took this is a firm ‘yes’ and threw Florida around the room, finally propelling her into an almighty (and soon to be catastrophic) spin, from which there was no coming back.

Fellow Hollywood Canteen worker, Luise Walker, backed Florida up and explained that in a spin like that, no dancer could have controlled her landing.

The Hollywood Canteen were having none of this and actually bought in a ‘jive expert’, Connie Roberts, to demonstrate how safe jitterbugging was. Connie had a partner throw her across the court in a dangerous spin to prove how much control a woman had in the landing:Connie Roberts in court, presenting jive evidence in defence of The Hollywood Canteen.pngDespite dancing evidence, the judge sided with Florida, mainly on the grounds that after everything he had seen, he felt that jitterbugging was a:

 ‘weird dance of obscure origins’

Florida was awarded $8170 (which in todays money isn’t enough to buy a house –damn you economy! – but is enough to have a lot of fun with…or I don’t know, invest wisely or whatever)

Case finished, Florida went outside the court to meet the press, where she pulled this amazing face:

Flordia Edwards
Hero. 

This was really interesting where can I find out more? Well, theres a great book on The Hollywood Canteen called (get ready for the worlds longest title): ‘The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced With the Most Beautiful Girls in the World’

If you’re after something shorter I suggest checking out amazing podcast, You Must Remember This, it’s all about Hollywood History and is one of my favourite things.

Theres a great episode on the canteen called: ‘Star Wars Episode 1: Bette Davis and The Hollywood Canteen.’ (this is actually part of a series called Star Wars, looking at how Hollywood dealt with WW2, its great, go binge listen!)

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