On June 15, 2015, 83-year-old Blaze Starr, probably the most famous burlesque stripper in North America, died of heart failure. She was famous because she:
• had a 38DD bra size, a 24 inch waist and flaming red hair
• was the prime tourist attraction of “The Block” in Baltimore in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s
• had a notorious affair with Earl Long while he was governor of Louisiana
• claimed to have had an affair with President John F. Kennedy
In her words, she was best known for her act where “I’m supposed to be getting so worked up that I stretch out on a couch, push a secret button, and smoke would start coming out from between my legs. Then a fan and a floodlight would come on, and you would see all these red silk streamers blowing, shaped just like flames, so it looked like the couch had just burst into fire.”
Starr’s life story inspired the 1989 Paul Newman film, “Blaze.” Some of her costumes are featured at the Museum of Sex in New York City and the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.
Her Start in Show Business
Fannie Belle Fleming was born in 1932, the second of 11 children, into the poverty of the coal fields in Twelve Pole Creek, West Virginia. Her chance of getting much education was slim since they lived more than 50 miles from the nearest high school.
In 1947, at age 14, she got on a bus to Washington, DC, and got a job as a waitress in a doughnut shop at the Mayflower Hotel. One day, a patron named Red Snyder told her that she was pretty enough to be in show business and offered her a chance to strip in a theater. There she earned $50 a night, much more than the $30 a week she received at the doughnut shop. Snyder changed her name to Blaze Starr and tried to rape her.
In 1950, she became a regular performer at the Two O’Clock Club in “The Block” that was Baltimore’s major entertainment attraction. She led parades, was featured at professional games for the Orioles, Colts and Bullets and was paid for ads for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. She even received the key to the city from Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro III. I was at Johns Hopkins Hospital while she was in her prime, and I remember her acting as the official starter who fired the race starting gun at bicycle and running races.
After she was featured in a 1954 Esquire magazine article, she started to perform all over the country. She was arrested for lewdness in Philadelphia by a policeman named Frank Rizzo, who later become the city’s mayor. However, her home remained in Baltimore where it was common for college students to take their dates to her shows. The Baltimore Sun described her as “escorting generations of Baltimoreans into puberty and beyond.” She eventually bought the Two O’Clock Club.
Congressman Jack Kennedy
In her menoirs, Starr described how Congressman John F Kennedy would often come out to see her strip and have sex with her at “the Crossroads” in Maryland. She said that he “climaxed quickly and knew exactly what he was doing with girls, so it didn’t take him long. His bad back did not bother him.” She said that in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis prevented her from having sex with Kennedy in the White House. She had already taken off her makeup, put on her plain suit, and stuffed her panties into a briefcase when members of the secret service came and took her home, and she never saw him again.
Louisiana Governor Earl Long
In 1959, two miserably-married people started an affair that shook the nation. Starr was divorcing her husband, club-owner Carroll Glorioso, and working at the Sho-Bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. There she met Earl Long, who was governor of Louisiana, 37 years older than Starr and married to Louisiana’s first lady, “Miz Blanche”. Long was so impressed by her act with the smoke and flames coming from between her legs that he went to her dressing room after the show and asked her to go to dinner with him. She asked, “Can I trust you?” He replied, “Hell, no,”
For the next few weeks he came in every night to watch her perform. She claims that they dated for two months before “he made a move”. “One night he took my hand and said, “I’d rather roll in the hay with you than anything I’ve ever done in my whole life.” As they undressed, he wrapped a bedspread around his shoulders and told her that he didn’t want her to see his ugly body. “Then he was unable to perform and we just went to sleep. However the next morning he was ready for me.” He told her that he wished he was married to her. “But I sloughed it off because he was in politics. A governor just doesn’t divorce his wife for a stripper.”
Several months later, Earl developed severe stomach pains and passed out in the Sho-Bar and was taken to the hospital. He was convinced that he had been poisoned. He gave an incoherent and irrational speech to the legislators, got into a violent argument with some of them, came home and argued with his wife and broke dishes and furniture at the governor’s mansion. His wife of 27 years responded by calling the police and had him committed to a mental institution.
Blaze thought that he acted this way because of her. For the first time in her life, she felt that someone really loved her. He had risked his life-long political career by choosing her over his wife. Earl told her that his wife sent him to a nuthouse because of her. “Before I met Earl, nobody gave up a damn thing for me. He was willing to give up everything. Suddenly I felt totally different about Earl.” He filed for a legal separation from his wife, and promised to marry her after the divorce. She went back to work in Baltimore, and he came to visit her every few days. Ten days later she heard on the radio that he died from heart disease. “While his body was lying in state at the Capitol, I walked right up and put a rose on his casket with my head high and walked out.”
Life Goes On Without Earl
After Earl died, she returned to Baltimore’s Two O’Clock Club. She claims that she lost her desire for being with any man and she even lost her zest for being one of the world’s most famous strippers. “I still dream about stripping sometimes. When I do, Earl is in the audience watching me do my thing. Then I wake up and feel sad. I miss Earl and I miss being on that stage.”
In the 1970s, “The Block” was so run down and riddled with crime that she stopped performing and closed the Two O’Clock Club. She continued to live in suburban Baltimore and performed occasionally. In 1983, at age 51, she retired from stripping for good to become a full-time gemologist, selling her hand-crafted jewelry at a nearby mall.
Failing Health and Death
She later moved home to an 80-acre family compound in West Virginia to care for her mother and a brother, both of whom died while she was caring for them. She spent the last years of her life gasping for breath from a failing heart and died at age 83 at her home in Wilsondale, West Virginia.
What You Can Learn from Blaze Starr’s Story
• Appreciate people who care about you. She was a stripper and strippers virtually never get respect from men, so she had been abused all her life. At age 27, she met a man who was 37 years older than her, and married. However, he loved her so much that he was willing to give up his wife and political career for her. When Earl Long died, Starr lost the only man who had respected her and she never recovered from that loss.
• Don’t be promiscuous. Almost all promiscuous people carry venereal diseases, some of which can’t even be diagnosed today and have no effective treatment. Chronic venereal diseases can damage your heart.
• Enjoy a glimpse of how times have changed. Blaze Starr shocked her audiences from 1950 to 1983, but films of her performances show that she wore more and revealed less than the average teenager on any beach today.
Blaze Starr (Fannie Belle Fleming)
April 10, 1932- June 15, 2015