Blaze Starr, a "knockout" burlesque icon and stripper who drew tourists to post-World War II Baltimore, lent glamour to New Orleans and became known far and wide for her affair with a colorful mid-century Louisiana governor, died Monday. She was 83.
She died at her Wilsondale, West Virginia, home after experiencing heart issues during the past few years, said her nephew Earsten Spaulding.
Born Fannie Belle Fleming in Wayne County, West Virginia, Starr long performed at the Two O'Clock Club in Baltimore, earning her the nickname, "The Hottest Blaze in Burlesque."
She's better known for what happened when she landed at the Sho-Bar club in New Orleans.
That's where Starr famously had an affair with Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long, who served in the 1940s and 1950s.
Gus Weill, one of Louisiana's first political consultants who got his start in politics in the 1960s, said Starr was a "knockout" beauty who gave New Orleans glamor. He did not know her personally.
"They had the romance and history, and she added a good dollop of glamour," Weill said about her contribution to New Orleans. "She was a wonderful dancer and much loved."
Ted Jones, an 81-year-old former aide to Long, said Long's affair was the reflection of "a 60-year-old man trying to reinvent his life."
Jones said the open affair lasted between 1959 and Long's death in September 1960, but didn't mar Long's legacy — although it gave his political opponents something with which to "jump on him."
"Of course, Ms. Blanche (Long's wife) didn't like her, but that was beside the point," Jones said. "It didn't mar his legacy; it demonstrated that old men have a flair for nice women."
Jones recalled the last time he saw Long was right after the former governor had secured a congressional seat in 1960. He was sitting on the edge of a bed at the Bentley Hotel in Alexandria, Louisiana, with his arm around Starr.
"Personal misbehaviors on the part of male politicians were not an unusual thing," said Alecia P. Long, a history professor at Louisiana State University. She is not related to the Long political family. But she added that Long was a "particular case because he was so open about it."
The flamboyant stripper who grew up in West Virginia's coalfields also laid claim to sleeping with John F. Kennedy before he won the presidency.
Starr later migrated more toward comedy acts when she bought the Two O'Clock Club.
Filmmaker John Waters, a Baltimore native who celebrated the city's weirdness in movies such as "Pink Flamingos" and "Pecker," said he watched Starr's shows as a teenager, though he never met her. He said her wardrobe was a major influence on Divine, the cross-dressing actor who starred in several of Waters' movies.
"Other boys my age were at football games and the Orioles and the Colts, but I was thinking about Blaze Starr, and not in an erotic way, either," Waters told The Associated Press on Monday. "Just from a showbiz point of view, I respected her deeply."
Waters said Starr was an important figure in the history of postwar Baltimore.
"She was a stripper on The Block, which for a long time was Baltimore's only tourist attraction, really, from the Second World War and after, that was why people went to Baltimore," he said. "I still think she was the best tourist attraction that Baltimore ever had."
He said she was "never tawdry" and was able to build a diverse fan base.
"She had a sense of humor, and she turned what was once thought of as a negative career, being a stripper, into a class act in a weird way," Waters said. "No one looked down on Blaze Starr."
Starr co-authored her autobiography in 1974. The book was adapted 15 years later into the movie "Blaze," starring Paul Newman as Earl Long and Lolita Davidovich as Starr.
Spaulding recalled his aunt as caring, sentimental and a character.
"She was talented at anything she wanted to do," he said.
She hand-made many of her elaborate burlesque outfits, was a fan of mushroom and ginseng hunting and quickly picked up how to play the banjo, he added.
The family is still working out funeral arrangements.