Had Cinderella never happened upon her Prince Charming, the young debutante’s life might have wound up something like that of 1950s burlesque queen Candy Barr.
In Candy Barr: The Small-Town Texas Runaway Who Became a Darling of the Mob and the Queen of Las Vegas Burlesque, biographers Ted Schwarz and Mardi Rustam relate an intimate account of the life of Juanita Dale Slusher, more famously known as burlesque dancer Candy Barr.
Biographies, unfortunately, are never as intimate as memoirs, which relay the person’s emotions as well as their life story, but Candy Barr is nonetheless sprinkled with many tidbits from the woman herself.Who was Candy Barr?
She was a sexually abused child in the hands of a pedophilic stepmother. She was a homeless runaway eating out of garbage cans. She was the accomplice to a safe-cracking burglar. She was a glamorously talented dancer. She was a convicted felon framed for marijuana possession. She was all of these things and more.
“Like a butterfly,” said Barr, “I’d go around transforming. I created myself. I called myself a self-made schizophrenic.” She considered anything to survive, even murder.
Born into poverty in 1935 to a Caucasian father and Choctaw/Cherokee mother, Barr learned about social injustices from an early age. Racism, sexism, misogyny and other prejudices followed her throughout her life. Dancing would be her one constant passion that would allow her to endure rape and involuntary prostitution.
Intricate details of the Dallas underbelly provide a rich backdrop for the biography, yet Schwarz and Rustam’s descriptions of women being abducted, emotionally broken and then threatened into prostitution and escort services are all described in past tense, as though these horrors are not still rampant in larger cities.
This book would be more profound if the authors acknowledged that prostitutes’ lives were brutal then and that they still are today.
The authors spend a hefty swath of their page count describing the burlesque show for those that aren’t familiar with its history. They offer an intimate portrait of its satirical style, how it mocked hypocritical businessmen and politicians that pretended to be good family men but had mistresses or prostitutes on the side. These shows often consisted of singers, dancers and comics, including the as-of-then unknown Abbot and Costello.
After Barr stopped dancing and went to prison, burlesque shows dwindled into seedy strip clubs that gave the stage shows a bad reputation. These establishments were less than pristine, but in their dank hallows Barr proved nonetheless willing to rebuff advances by means of her explosive temper.
Candy Barr is packed with interesting tidbits from the 1950s. Barr starred in a play that mocked Marilyn Monroe. She witnessed racism destroy Sammy Davis Jr.’s life. She turned down Frank Sinatra’s sexual advances. Her longtime friend Jack Ruby was the man who shot John F. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Schwarz and Rustam don’t use the linear storytelling methods familiar to most biographers, but instead weave their narrative in a spiral. They tell a fragment of her life, relay the next event and then loop back to the original fragment.
The end result is that the reader becomes immersed in juicy information before suddenly hitting a roadblock of repetitive facts. Jarred out of the prose, readers must then draw their own conclusions as to how the events progressed chronologically.
However, Barr’s tumultuous life, which was never boring and often shocking, provides enough salacious detail to keep you engaged until the book’s conclusion. Just don’t expect a fairytale ending.
Candy Barr: The Small-Town Texas Runaway Who Became a Darling of the Mob and the Queen of Las Vegas Burlesque304 pages$24.95***