By Gloria Leonard, originally published in High Society, October 1980
In an exclusive interview with Paula Klaw, Gloria uncovers the fascinating birth of commercial bondage photography in the U.S. The surprising private life of Betty Page, the all-time favorite bondage model, is revealed as well as the story of the government’s relentless efforts to stamp out the Klaws’ booming business.
Irving Klaw was born in Brooklyn in 1911 and began his career as the owner of a book and photo store on 14th Street in Lower Manhattan. The photos began outselling the books and in 1939 he renamed his store “Irving Klaw Pin-up Photos”; and his outdoor sign touted: “Pin-up photos of your favorite movie stars, latest movie scenes, bathing beauties, popular cowboy stars and vocalists, bandleaders. “
The business flourished, but the best was yet to come: In the late 1940’s, Klaw added a new and startling type of picture to his stock – photos of pretty young females tied up and gagged and dressed in bizarre leather, rubber and satin wardrobes; thus was born commercial bondage photography.
The new business boomed, and Klaw remained the king of the genre. His output far outstripped the combined product of all his competitors. He hired photographers and models to produce the photos, and he was a perfectionist. If a model showed up for a shooting session with a run in her stockings, not carrying spare hosiery, Klaw would cancel the shooting, pay the model, and send her home. Despite the flood of bondage photos turned out by numerous rivals, many connoisseurs still consider Klaw’s work to be the most appealing and definitive bondage photos of all time.
Klaw was assisted in running the company by his sister, Paula, and her husband Jack Kramer. Devoted to her brother, Paula served as his right arm. She frequently supervised the shooting sessions, arranging the poses, and tied up the models herself.
In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Irving Klaw and Kramer frequently faced criminal charges from the federal government, primarily conspiracy to use the U.S. mails to send obscene materials. They were both indicted on June 27, 1963, and subsequently freed on bail. Klaw and Kramer were found guilty upon trial, but the jury’s verdict was later overturned by the Federal Court of Appeals.
Irving Klaw died of peritonitis in 1966 and Jack Kramer died a few years ago. Today, Paula Klaw continues to run the business and the two- room store/office looks almost exactly as it always has, jammed with file cabinets and stacks of photos and negatives.
Paula is financially secure and could easily retire, but she loves the business and can’t imagine doing anything else. Still saddened by her brother’s death, her personality is an unusual blend of businesslike efficiency and charm highlighted by a warm smile.
The following is an informal conversation between publisher Gloria Leonard and Paula, the bondage boss’ baby sister:
Gloria Leonard: Were you and Irving close?
Paula Klaw: Yes.
GL: Even as kids?
PK: Yes, we were.
GL: What’s your background? Where are you from originally?
PK: From Brooklyn… Brighton Beach, Sheep’s Head Bay… that area.
GL: What kind of a kid was he?
PK: Pretty normal. He liked to read and he studied a lot … a real home boy.
GL: When did Irving get interested in photography?
PK: We originally had a book store where we used to sell old books. e was a big reader and a collector of books. We’d buy and sell, mostly used books from dealers. One day a junk dealer came in with a couple of cartons of pictures that someone had thrown out. We sorted them and put them out on the stand and found the public showed a big interest in them.
GL: What kind of pictures were they?
PK: Old movie star pictures. Somebody must have cleaned out an attic or something. Being Irving was already a movie buff, we said, “Hey, there’s more fun in selling pictures than books “. . Although we had first editions and all kinds of rare books.
GL: Was this a family business? Did it include your parents?
PK: No… just Irving and myself. We worked together all through the years… just him, me, and later, my husband, Jack.
GL: What led him to experimenting with cameras and the concept of Betty Page?
PK: Customers brought us that particular interest – bondage, girlie stuff, garter belts and high heels. They were mostly wealthy lawyers and doctors. A couple of them offered to put up the money for the project – models, photography and all, providing we kept their names anonymous… and that’s why and how we did it. We really did it as a service to them. We hired the models and the studios and these guys showed us exactly what they wanted done. They taught us.
GL: Were you shocked or surprised at first?
PK: We believed in different strokes for different folks and why not… we thought of it as one big joke. Then it really took off.
GL: How did you market it?
PK: We ran ads in all the girlie magazines. At that time, it was “Titter “, “Wink “ and “Confidential “. . . “Beauty Parade “ and now, “High Society. “ There was tremendous response to it.
GL: What years are we talking about … when you first started?
PK: I would say it was the ’40’s – right after the war; ’44, ’45.
GL: How did you recruit models?
PK: Through agencies and photographers. We recruited photographers at first and they had a list of girls in their little black books who were ready. One model told another. Some volunteered and came down because they wanted to work. These men taught me how to tie the knots, but they were really afraid to touch the women … so they instructed me how to do it. I learned quickly how to tie knots and I then went on to become a photographer as well.
GL: You did some shooting yourself.
PK: I did a lot of shooting and it was fun.
GL: Why have you maintained such a low profile? Irving enjoyed most of the publicity.
PK: Well, we let him. He was the boss. Also, he thought because I was a woman it might put me in a bad light. At that time I was married… had a couple of small children.
GL: Did you ever pose?
PK: No, but I filled in here and there when a girl didn’t show. I’d put on a little mask.
GL: Did you, ever feel as though you were living out a fantasy of your own?
PK: I guess so. Oh, sure, it was fun and I enjoyed it. I was glad when someone didn’t show up so I could do it. I was good behind the camera and also as a director.
GL: Once Irving realized there was such a large audience for bondage photos, as well as the successful introduction of the garter belt, black stockings, high heels era, did he focus on that fetish to the exclusion of other things? He apparently became very enthusiastic about that aspect of photography. He went on to do so many definitive books and photographs on the subject.
PK: Yes, positively, because it was more interesting, and it was more lucrative, a lot more lucrative. He enjoyed it and he was classy; he had class all the way. The seams had to be straight. The high heels had to be just so. Never a rip in the stocking. Long leather gloves… makeup… hair had to be just so. Never a nude or a crotch shot though… never anything that would be pornographic, because he really didn’t want to get entangled with the law.
GL: I have seen some beaver shots of Betty Page, but I didn’t know if they were Irving’s.
PK: No, they weren’t.
GL: I know we ran them once in High Society. It was a find because not too many nudes of her are available.
PK: She did pose a lot. There used to be a lot of camera clubs, and she posed for the guys who would came there.
GL: How did he find Betty Page?
PK: Through a photographer.
GL: And what was it about her that made her synonymous with the name Irving Klaw?
PK: She was such a great model. She was so vivacious and she could strike any pose: “Okay, Betty, give us a horror shot. Give us a happy shot. “ It was just a natural instinct with her – a super gal.
GL: She looked like a real All-American girl.
PK: Indeed. She would spend hours brushing her hair and fixing it. I never took a bad shot of her.
GL: What kind all of life did she have outside of her modeling work that had any influence on her live one way or the other… Bad, good or indifferent?
PK: Very quiet. Very surprising to the public. She was just the sweetest gal you ever met. She had a boyfriend who was working and she helped to support him. She sent money to Nashville for her Mom and her little sisters and brothers. She lived on 46th Street in a fourth floor walk up. Very plain. She was a small town girl.
GL: That was her appeal I think; she was a girl next door.
PK: The hayseed was still in her hair, and she was very sweet, and fun… you know… she laughed at everything.
GL: I get mail frequently asking what ever happened to Betty Page. Do you know what became of her?
PK: I don’t know. Some said she joined a nunnery out in California. And others say she’s in Florida… No one knows for sure.
GL: I notice and a lot of material you have for sale still includes a great deal of bondage and cat fighting photos. Is there still a big audience for that?
GL: Is it mostly mail-order?
PK: Both… I have a lot of guys coming up here… but it’s mostly mail-order. There is a lot of mail from out West. Many people are shy about coming up. There are a lot of orders from England and many foreign requests.
GL: It’s interesting how the English seem to have a particular fascination with bondage, high heels, black stockings and garter belts. I think it really was the British who were responsible for introducing it to Americans.
PK: That’s right. They are especially fond of girls being spanked. Maybe it’s the all-boy boarding school thing and the ruling headmasters.
GL: Discipline… a lot of discipline …
GL: I know this is a personal question but… was this particular subject one you ever personally got into or enjoyed or were you just vicariously involved?
PK: No, positively not. It was a business and I made money at it. It was lucrative, but it was also fun. The people were fun, but I had no personal interest at all.
GL: How many years did Irving actually do this sort of work?
PK: Well, we started in the ’40’s and he died in ’66 and the only time we stopped was when the law stepped in; that was about ’63.
GL: What happened?
PK: The law called it pornography and we went to court and were convicted in the lower court.
GL: At what level? City or state?
GL: For sending stuff through the mail?
PK: Right. It was a mailing. Then we appealed that. We went to a higher court and we won on an appeal that it was not pornography. It was in the eye of the beholder. The judge in the higher court, I remember he said, “I wouldn’t want it in my house. However, I don’t think it’s pornographic. “
GL: And this was handed down when?
PK: About ’64… two years before Irving died.
GL: And for how long a period were you prohibited from doing business?
PK: We were harassed from I’d say ’58 to ’64… back and forth… we were chased from New York, so we opened a place in New Jersey. Then we returned to New York. The laws had changed and they were constantly harassing us. They really felt that they couldn’t beat us in court. At that time, the District Attorney (Silver) in New York and the Attorney General… the Post Master all the way down the line… were constantly harassing us.
GL: But you didn’t run scared?
GL: You fought it and you won.
PK: We won, but we made some stupid mistakes in the winning. We agreed with the judge to destroy all the material. I am now sorry we did.
GL: How have you been able to revive your still rather extensive collection?
PK: Well, I had one set that I kept and some of it I had recopied. I did destroy the negatives but I have duplicated a lot of it. I think about it all the time and I can hear our lawyer say, “You know, your freedom is at stake. “
GL: What I don’t understand is, if you won, and were at liberty, theoretically, to resume your business why did you have to destroy all the material?
PK: This happened before we won. The judge said and he would tell the jury and if we agreed to destroy the material, things would be on our side … this was in his quarters in the back room. Before the judge talked to the jury about deciding the case you know – before they went and to make the judgment, the judge told our lawyer, “Look, suppose he agrees to destroy everything and if he’s convicted, I will see there will be no sentence. “
GL: Plea bargaining.
PK: We copped a plea.
GL: But you didn’t really have to.
PK: No. It was a gamble…if you didn’t cop the plea and lost…
GL: You’d be up shit’s creek…
PK: Right. You’d go for a long ride…
GL: What kind of time were they facing?
PK: Well, I think Irving was getting five years and my husband was up for two years plus… I don’t know how many thousands… $10,000 fine or something like that. It wasn’t the money… it was the time and freedom. At that point, Irving was getting disgusted with the constant harassment. It seemed that every time the bell would ring, somebody would come up with another gold badge and the weary “This is a raid! “ You’d never know… four guys would come and they’d start running around, looking all over.
GL: When you think about it, it was such a short time ago. This material is tame by comparison to what is available nowadays.
PK: True. This is like Little Bo Peep.
GL: Do people ever come and and ask you for things that are perhaps one step beyond this kind of material?
PK: Oh sure, sure. We’ve always had that over the years. “Come on, you have something a little better in the back. “
GL: And did you?
PK: We never did.
GL: What are some of the most unusual requests you had for things that may not have necessarily shocked you, but may have caught you off guard?
PK: Well the spanking thing was always in demand. Or they’d want one leg up in the air with the dress on and the dress lifted up, or just panties and bra… with the dress on and lifting the dress and spanking with a ruler… one wanted spanking with a brush or the stockings had to be rolled, and one wanted them not rolled, but with a garter belt… tight girdles… you know really tight restrictive girdles. All the fetishes. I got a few offers. You know, they’d want a spanking. They’d offer me $100.
GL: Did you ever do it?
PK: No. I had a few offers for me to tie people up. Some men were masochistic and would give anything to have me tie them up. I never did that. I was strictly a businesswoman.
GL: How did that ever evolve into the movie star photo business?
PK: Originally it was a movie star picture business, but when the law closed in on us, we said, okay, let’s go back to good old nostalgia, to Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino and Marlene Dietrich.
GL: Aside from Betty Page, I see a Picture of Linda Darnell. It’s a shot from a movie…
PK: Right. Those are the Hollywood bondage photos, which are very, very popular. . One of the things these people wanted to see were the pictures from serials they went to see… because that damsel was in distress.
GL: Tied up on the railroad tracks…
PK: That’s right. This is where the kicks are.
GL: Who is the most in demand nowadays? Is Betty Page still number one?
PK: Yes, she’s still number one.
GL: What do I see here… a Rita Grable? Was She supposed to be a combination of Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable?
PK: Those are all models who I managed to salvage some 8 mm stuff on. I’m selling those movies again. Strictly high-heeled stuff that could be seen on Channel 4 at 6 o’clock. Dancing shots, a little burlesque… a few bumps and a few grinds… just to make it interesting. I still sell a lot of the Hollywood shots; they’re very popular these days.
GL: And that’s all in this Hollywood bondage material?
PK: Right. It’s all been seen on television. “The Avengers “… Diana Rigg. All those shots that she’s been in, and they TV shows where she’s always tied up.
GL: Did your husband have any hang ups about beings in an unusual business?
PK: No, he had no hang ups. He’d be sitting there and Betty Page would sit on his lap in her panties and she was just another model. He had no hang ups about the business.
GL: Irving and Jack weren’t two dirty old men doing this just to get their own rocks off?
PK: No, they were doing it as a commercial enterprise. I taught them how to handle a camera.
GL: Where did you learn?
PK: One of the photographers taught me. I just picked it up. I was there and he said, “Here’s a camera. “ I operated a 4×5 Speed Graphic.
GL: After all this time in the business, why are you still here? I would imagine that you would be sitting on a beach somewhere or traveling around the world.
PK: I love it, Gloria. I wouldn’t give this up for all the condominiums in Florida and whatever else goes with it. I work six days a week. I don’t have to, but I love every minute of it. This is a fun business for me.
GL: And I see you have your son involved in the business…
PK: Right. We do a lot of photo research work. “Newsweek “ calls up and they need pictures. “Time “ calls up. We did the recent photos for Newsweek’s feature on Alfred Hitchcock.
GL: How d’you keep current on everything that’s happening? It seems to me you would need two buildings to house it all.
PK: We keep buying as they come in. We keep buying and will probably have to get rubber walls. But we manage – we find room.
GL: I guess you do. Do you have it all catalogued, so you know where everything is?
PK: Yes. Name of picture, name of star … everything is numbered, alphabetized. I need a picture of Jimmy Cagney throwing a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face … okay … that’s it. It’s got a number on it and we pull it right up. We also have such items as Paulette Goddard in chains.
GL: Garter belts and stockings, particularly stockings with seams, have made a big comeback in the last year or two on the fashion scene, as well as dresses slit all the way to there. Since you were a product of the ’40’s and ’50’s, when a garter belt was the only thing to wear, being there weren’t any pantyhose in those days, do you still maintain the tradition of occasionally putting on a garter belt and stockings for old-time sake?
PK: Well, I admit I prefer pantyhose. But I still have the shoes with the six-inch heels.
GL: What was Irving’s personal life like?
PK: He was married. He had two sons. But his whole life was in his business. It really wasn’t fair to his wife because he’s spent very little time at home. He wasn’t, I would say, the best husband in the world, but he was the best brother in the world. We had a ball together and his wife was a little jealous of me since we worked together all the time. We always went out and had lots of fun together. He loved to read, and he loved to study, and he loved to think of new ideas and gadgets and new things to do. We went to Florida to shoot. We get a whole series aboard a yacht that was fabulous. There was a very rich man who had a big estate up in Poughkeepsie and he loaned us the house and we shot pictures hanging from trees and whenever gadget that was there, we somehow used.
GL: Are there any notables who ever call or come into the store… celebrities who want… kinky type stuff?
PK: Oh, positively.
GL: None that you can mention?
PK: No, but very, very famous notables are some of our best customers and they stop here while their limos wait downstairs. They quickly come up to buy pictures and quickly return their cars. One time, I recognized someone and I said, “Aren’t you? “ He got very uptight about the whole thing and said, “No, no, no, I’m not, “ and ran out. He was from England and had on a bowler hat and a real English accent. My brother said, “You had no right to do that. “ All I wanted to say was that I recognized him and wanted to say hello. Wrong… wrong thing to do!
GL: Was Irving ever called on to do any private sessions for people who would call and say I don’t want these published anywhere but I’d like to have some pictures of my wife or by girlfriend taken the same way?
PK: Yes, but we never did it. We just had professional models. We hired them, they signed releases and that was it.
GL: Too many women have an interest in this material?
PK: There are a few.
GL: The dominatrix business is thriving not only in New York, but just about everywhere.
PK: Some of these newer places to buy our photos to get ideas to use on their men.
GL: Who else represents your clientele?
PK: There are lots of different people interested. Most of my customers are not just truck driver types. They’re professional, highly educated people. There are doctors and lawyers and statesman; not the average bum on the street.
GL: I read a book titled “Sexual Profile of Men in Power “ and it strongly indicated that men in power way up the ladder… at the highest levels… government and business, have a tendency to be a lot kinkier in their sexual proclivities and many are into being tied up and being submissive or on the other hand, occasionally dominant themselves.
PK: The man who started us in this business, ironically, died that vary way because the himself got tied up by some model who used a cigarette on him and he died of burns.
GL: Oh, my goodness. And this was the guy who started you in this business? What an unjust dessert.
PK: His name was John…I’ll just leave it at that…
(All rights reserved. Text @ Gloria Leonard, Images @ the Irving Klaw Estate)