I desperately wanted to interview Blaze Starr in 2011, when I discovered the famous burlesque star was living in West Virginia selling jewelry with her brother over the internet. I was working on a radio story about the Block, where Starr made her name at the 2 O'Clock Club (City Paper has named her on the "10 Sexiest Baltimoreans"), for The Signal on WYPR. I got in touch with her brother, John Fleming, to try to set up an interview. I was turned down. He said that her heart was in bad shape and she wouldn't talk to reporters anymore. I waited a while and tried a couple more times, always with the same result. Monday, that refusal became final when she died, at 83, at a hospital in West Virginia.
Jacques Kelly and Chris Kaltenbach wrote a nice obituary for The Sun, with an especially good quote from John Waters about how he and Divine learned from Starr. But my interest in Starr was as political as it was prurient.
Famously, Starr carried on a relationship with Earl Long while he was the governor of Louisiana. Earl was the brother of the assassinated politician Huey Long, who served as the inspiration for Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," which is, I contend, the finest novel in English. He met Starr while she was working at a burlesque club on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. His wife was so incensed by the affair that she had him committed to the state mental hospital. But since he was still governor, he fired the head of the hospital and appointed a new one who would declare him sound and effectively escaped confinement to continue his affair.
This is covered in the 1989 film "Blaze," starring Paul Newman as Long. When the film was released, Starr told People magazine about the affair.
"I began working at the Sho-Bar in New Orleans in 1959," she told the magazine. "That's where I met Gov. Earl Long. He wandered in one night with his entourage. After watching my burning couch routine [in which it gets so hot between Starr's legs that the couch begins to smoke], he came back to the dressing room and introduced himself. As I headed onstage for the finale, I could hear him hollering, 'Will you go to dinner with me?'"
When she asked if she could trust him, he replied "Hell, no." Starr said that Long returned every night. Eventually they started to go out and he told her, "I'd rather roll in the hay with you than anything I've ever done in my whole life." Nevertheless, he was "too excited to make love."
And Starr wasn't always so trustworthy either, relating a story in the same interview where she has a "quickie in the closet with Jack" after Earl introduced them. Jack Kennedy that is (elsewhere, she joked about how quick president Kennedy's quickies really were).
Long said he wanted to leave his wife and marry Starr. "In May 1959, Earl got into a shouting match with some legislators during a debate in the State House, and he had a wild argument with his wife at the mansion," Starr told People. "Then he went to bed, and the next thing he knew they were carting him off to a mental institution."
Starr, and others, believed that she was the cause of the fracas. "He had taken a big chance with his career by choosing me over his wife. He said she'd sent him to a nuthouse because of me. Before I met Earl, nobody gave up a damn thing for me. And he was willing to give up everything."
But A.J. Liebling's great, long New Yorker profile on Earl complicates the story. He went to Louisiana expecting to find a "peckerwood Caligula," but discovered something different. That "shouting match with some legislators during a debate in the State House" Starr mentioned turns out to have been what, it took Liebling a few moments, after reviewing film of it, to realize was a "civil-rights speech" against an old law which allowed voters to be disqualified "arbitrarily, on 'educational' grounds . . . a white-supremacy group within the Legislature had moved for strict enforcement—against colored voters of course."
At one point in the speech, Long yells at a legislator with a confederate flag on his necktie that he had to recognize "that niggers is human beings."
Long pleaded with the legislature not to "keep fine and honorable gray-haired men and women off the registration rolls" and acknowledges that this position may end up hurting his political future.
In the last few years, during which we've seen legislatures enact, or attempt to enact, rolls that keep people from voting, all of this sounds too familiar. And though Starr had already spoken and written of her time with Long, I wanted to ask her about all of this and to ask her about race on Baltimore's Block back in her day. She was present at an important proto-Civil Rights legal battle in the South, just a few years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. It seemed that no matter how many times a story about the past is told, new events in the present can kick loose old details. All of those details, and so many others, died with Starr on Monday. But her legacy as a burlesque dancer will live on.
Trixie Little, who started doing burlesque in Baltimore (though later moved away) and was crowned "Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque" by the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas last week, posted her 2006 photo-tribute to Starr—shot across the street from the 2 O'Clock Club, which Starr used to own, on Instagram.
She had been long retired from the burlesque business, but according to Tony Austin, the local hip-hop impresario who bought the 2 O'Clock Club from Starr, who kept ownership of the building and collected rent from Austin, there is still a sense of pride in her legacy at the club. He didn't deal directly with her when buying the bar, but says: "I knew she was a great and wonderful person, what she did for the burlesque community. It's sad to see a legend like her pass away. It's the 'World Famous' 2 O'Clock Club' because of her."