She was a figure model and star of 1960s sexploitation films like Olga Girls (1964), Bad Girls Go To Hell (1965) and Take Me Naked (1966), by the likes of Doris Wishman, Michael Findlay, and Barry Mahon. She was close friends with cult favorite, Gigi Darlene, and appeared in magazines photographed by Bunny Yeager. Her film career lasted less than four years, and then she was gone.
But what does one do with an obsession – when no one has heard from her for over half a century?
With thanks to our friends at Grapefruit Moon Gallery, who have an extensive collection of pin-up and glamor photography, as well as a large archive of Bunny Yeager pictures.
Darlene Bennett has always occupied the black and white corners of my mind.
It started with a dog-eared book at the house of a friend. This was in the never-ending pre-high school days of one summer. Boredom reigned, and I looked for stimulation wherever I could find it. In truth, it was more booklet than book. A flimsy publication, first sold for 75 cents when it was published in 1964.
The front cover attracted my attention: a color picture of a blonde model kneeling on a beach next to a camera on a tripod. Beneath the title, ‘Bunny Yeager’s ABC’s of Figure Photography’, the model’s arms were outstretched, welcoming me. Sample content topics were promised inside: ‘Questions about Glamor’. ‘Intimate Attire’. The all-important ‘Nude Studies’.
The book seemed serious enough – the back cover carried an ad for ‘Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes’ (“this is the book to which President Kennedy gave his warm cooperation”) – but taking no chances, I took it to the privacy of the dusty yard. Opening the cover, I was immediately introduced to the auteur with a friendly Hanna-Barbera-esque character name: “Bunny Yeager has attained an enviable feminine position as the leading feminine interpreter of feminine beauty in America.” Repetition was forgiven. The ten-year-old me liked feminine.
The book had 100 pages of monochromatic photos of models in various states of undress arranged into 26 alphabetical chapters. U was ‘Undressing for Glamor’ and Z was ‘Zany Cheesecake’ in case you were wondering.
The book was a strange combination. If the pictures were wholesome and artistic nude studies, the text was self-consciously technical: “All three shots are made with two lights at one side. 1/25th of a second at f:16” read one caption. Ah, the pictures though, they provided a life-changing thrill. I replaced the book on the shelf and treasured the memories it imprinted. Each time I visited that house, I made a pilgrimage to the same bookshelf to retrieve the beloved volume.
Familiarity didn’t dim the thrill but instead seemed to sharpen my focus. Soon I became less interested in ‘B – Backgrounds’ (“Simplest settings are best to feature your subject”) or ‘H – Hand Positions’ (“Well groomed hands can add much to the picture”). Instead my interest narrowed to ‘L – Low Key Lighting’: halfway through the alphabet, halfway through the book. Page 48. I could open it up at the exact page every time. Not for shutter speeds or f-stops, but for the model who appeared in three poses there.
She had no name – all the models in the book were anonymous – but she was singularly graceful. Whereas the other women looked like goodie two shoes Peyton Place wannabes who covered up any hint of sexuality in favor of ingénue frivolity, this model was unafraid. She appeared tall, had flawless skin, a full chest, and her long black hair rested freely on her shoulders. Her silent expression was inscrutable, but I read galaxies of emotion into her calm face. She was melancholy, restless, yearning, sensual. She had a story, no doubt about it.
Eventually my friend and his family moved. I missed them, but mourned the loss of the book more. Many years later, on a different continent, I came across the same book in a flea market. I picked it up. My muscle memory still held. I opened it at page 48. The same model. The same reaction.
Whatever happened to her?
Still from ‘Bunny Yeager’s ABC’s of Figure Photography’ (courtesy of Grapefruit Moon Gallery)
The next time I saw the model from ‘The ABC’s of Figure Photography’ was a few lifetimes later on a movie screen. ‘Olga’s Girls’, Joseph Mawra’s 1964 roughie, was shot the same year as the photos in the book. It tells the story of Olga, a sadistic narcotics dealer and white slavery ring leader who keeps a harem of girls in line by hooking them on drugs. Within the first reel, an attractive model is sold into prostitution, forced into a chastity belt, tied up, and whipped. The exploited model onscreen was instantly recognizable as the same photographic muse in the book. Her name was Darlene Bennett.
Darlene Bennett was a favorite of the mid 1960s New York grindhouse theater scene. She appeared regularly in films directed by dark luminaries like Doris Wishman, Michael Findlay, and Barry Mahon. She had a sister, some said a twin, called Dawn Bennett, and together they enlivened over fifty films, from full features to shorts – plus a few cursory insert scenes shot to sex up a tepid import.
It was the first generation of movies in which nudity wasn’t just suggested, it was the raison d’être. A new breed of directors stepped up to take advantage of the commercial opportunities caused by the loosening obscenity regulations. Darlene was part of the first wave of actresses that took their clothes off regularly to satisfy the male gaze. It was a daring and rebellious act for the time. Not only that, but Darlene was on the movie posters and in the magazines as sex moved towards the mainstream.
At first Darlene mostly appeared in colorful, playful romps as an artist’s model where she posed, smiled, and brushed her hair, or in nudist camps where played volleyball, relaxed, and brushed her hair. The films had titles like 1,000 Shapes of a Female (1963), Crazy Wild and Crazy (1963), and Nudes Inc. (1964). Many of her films were made by Barry Mahon, an ex-World War II fighter pilot, who had settled in New York.
As the 1960s wore on, the movies became darker, rougher, plain nastier. Director John Amero, interviewed in the Tribune back in the 1960s, said at the time that exploitation films now had “four obligatory scenes: the Rape, the Bed, the Shower, and the Orgy. And when one of these scenes finally starts, the audience goes silent. This is it. Like communion in church.”
Now Darlene was in films like Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), The Sin Syndicate (1965), File X for Sex: The Story of the Perverted (1967). Black and white sexual violence melodramas, a world inhabited by brutish middle-aged one-track-mind men and desperate girls where every apartment looks the same. She played hookers, girls on the make, hard-edged, tough, streetwise broads. Even when she was charming, slipping into something more comfortable, lighting a cigarette, fixing a cocktail for a john, she was self-aware and scheming. And she was always available, having sex, often roughly. And Darlene still brushed her hair, just now with more animus.
By all conventional measures – plot, narrative tension, character development – the movies are abject and inept. Stifling longueurs in claustrophobic locations, peppered with stilted dialogue and Neanderthal misogyny. An alternate black-and-white universe in which the emerging sexuality of working class girls is both admired and threatening. But as exercises in surreal post-war urban ennui, they are hypnotic and compelling cinéma-vérité time capsules.
And whatever the role, Darlene was always shining and charismatic. Whether relaxed and laughing, aroused and sexual, or beatened and abused, Darlene ignited the screen in every frame. It was more of a surprise not to see her in the credits of a sexploitation film at the time.
She often appeared with Dawn, but made more movies than her sister. In truth, Dawn looked less comfortable and lacked her sister’s enigmatic and natural presence. At times, they were paired physically too, wrestling in skimpy underwear in Naked Fury! (1966), touching each other in My Brother’s Wife (1966).
And then in the late 1960s, Darlene stopped making films. She didn’t appear in any more photo layouts. Magazines and newspapers no longer mentioned her. To the film world, she’d moved into the rear view mirror and become a distant memory seemingly overnight.
All this before I was even born.
Long after I saw Darlene in the ‘ABC’s of Figure Photography’, and after I watched Darlene appear on film, she became a go-to mystery in my head. What had the path of Darlene’s life been in the many years since she disappeared?
What had she done, and where had she gone? How had the passing of years affected her? How did she remember the glory days of being a model and actress in New York in the swinging 60s? Did she keep photographs of her modeling career that she occasionally flicked through, and did she ever seek out her films to remind herself of those seemingly carefree years? Did she ever sit down with her family and tell them about her racy days when she ran fast and lived loose?
Over the years, I got to know people who had known and worked with Darlene, and I asked them about their meagre half-century old, half-remembered recollections of her. Fellow actor Ute Erickson spoke fondly about how Darlene showed her the ropes when Ute started making films. Director John Amero recalled that she was quiet and easy to direct. Roberta Findlay merely laughed dismissively at the idea that any actress could be an interesting and mysterious person.
A burlesque dancer, Marilyn Hoff, remembered meeting Darlene when they both worked as dancers at a club where Darlene also met a friend named Lenore. According to Hoff, Darlene and Lenore hit it off straight away. “It was a world where you didn’t form strong relationships with the other women; you were too busy looking after yourself and making sure no one was edging into your space. But the two of them seemed to strike up a friendship. I’d often see them in a huddle swapping details about which clubs to avoid, or the men they were seeing”. Lenore and Darlene were a striking couple, Lenore’s cool blonde allure contrasting with Darlene’s dark intense glower. When film work for them both became more regular, Lenore settled on a more permanent stage name: ‘Gigi Darlene’. The first part paid tribute to the film ‘Gigi’; the second part was a nod to her friend.
Despite the memories, no one could remember whether Darlene Bennett was her real name, as she also used the names Doris Dobb and Darlene Swenson in movies. Dawn appeared in a newspaper interview at the time as ‘Dawn Swanson’. The article described Dawn in acidic terms: “Miss Swanson looks like a washed-out squaw with wedges for feet – except for a figure, which is nicely full without Playboy balloons. There are heavy circles under her eyes from the night before and her long dark hair falls straight as broom whiskers against a pudgy face. Dawn is a good guide into the saddest part of exploitation limbo: the people who make these movies.”
Cinematographer C. Davis Smith who shot Doris Wishman films and made a few of his own remembered the most: “The women were mainly strippers from the New York scene – girls like Darlene Bennett and Gigi Darlene who became regulars in films from that time. They weren’t trained actresses, but they sure looked good, and were willing to shed a bra here and there. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t act because we shot the things without sound, and then dubbed the dialogue in post-production using better actors. They were nice girls though, and I wish I knew what happened to them.”
Smith remembers the girls sharing stories about celebrities they’d slept with, like when Darlene spent the night with Robert Goulet, a Broadway star of the time. Every so often, Darlene and Dawn would appear in newspaper articles, such as when they appeared at the Artists and Models Ball at the Biltmore Hotel in 1964. They were accompanied to the party by friends from the exploitation world, including June Roberts.
I found an unpublished profile of Darlene from June 1964. It was a puff piece, typical of the text that accompanied photo layouts at the time. It included a breathless description of Darlene (“She is uncluttered, unfettered, uninhibited, uncomplicated, and, as the pictures show, she is frequently unclothed”) together with some intriguing biographical detail: “I was an only child in a family of four. My father’s a research chemist for a cosmetics firm, and though he’s a dear, most of the time he’s dreadfully preoccupied. My mother’s what might be called permissive. My older sister found out she couldn’t boss me but she never stopped trying. Maybe that’s why I drifted in an ‘arty crowd’. Later when the teacher at one of the classes asked me to pose, I agreed and fell into a trade or profession, or whatever you want to call it.”
Information from former friends and articles had fleshed out Darlene’s picture, but I still didn’t have a single detail of what she had done since 1967.
At the end of last year, I dialed the number scribbled on the notepad, listened to the ringtone, and wondered who would pick up.
The journey to get to this point had been a long one. Years of wild guesses, hopeful theories, futile research, speculative enquiries, returned letters, and wrong numbers. This time I knew I had it right. I’d uncovered a film release with a birth name associated with Darlene. It was a completely different name that bore no resemblance to any moniker she used professionally.
I was excited to call. Over forty years had passed since I first picked up the slim copy of ‘ABC’s of Figure Modeling’ off a bookshelf. This could be the call that perhaps she’d been expecting to receive for half a century. Someone who remembered her for the brief time she’d been a model and actress.
Someone finally picked up. A woman’s voice spoke hoarsely. She sounded as old as the hills. Probably an elderly relative, I thought.
“I’m looking for someone called [redacted]. I wonder if I could speak to her?” I asked.
“Can I ask what this relates to?” came the eventual response.
I laid my cards on the table: “I’m looking to speak to her about her time as a figure model.”
“In the 1960s?” I ventured.
The absurdity of this lengthy obsession was finally dawning on me, slowly and horribly.
“She went by the name of Darlene Bennett?” I added hopefully.
“Oh, Darlene. Yes, that’s me,” came the reply.
The ten year old in me broke out into a cold sweat.
“Can we talk a bit?” It was my turn to be hoarse.
Any hopes that Darlene Bennett would be excited, enthralled, or just flattered to be remembered and re-discovered were quickly dashed.
It was instantly clear that she did not understand why anyone could have a shred of interest in her. But she was as generous with her time as she was nonplussed and forgiving with my questions. Over the course of several phone calls, she talked about the short period in her life many years ago when she modeled, acted, and brushed her hair. I recognized her voice from the few films that had actually used her own voice instead of dubbing it with someone else’s.
As befitted someone who has seldom re-visited her past, her memory was often vague – but it slowly returned. Part of the fun was seeing which memories were crystal clear (the Artists and Model Ball, for example) while others were non-existent (working for Mike Findlay). All the time, she shared details with me with the vague incredulity of someone dealing with a simple person.
Darlene and Dawn were indeed twins, born minutes apart in 1942, with Darlene the younger of the two. The family lived in Hollis, a residential middle-class neighborhood of the New York City borough of Queens. The 1964 article that had said her father was a research chemist for a cosmetics firm was way off base. He was a truck driver, away from the family for long stretches of time.
Neither Darlene nor Dawn enjoyed school and both dropped out in their mid-teens, taking a series of secretarial jobs for a few years. They loved to party, taking the E train into Manhattan at night to hang out in clubs like the Copacabana. The bar scene served more than just the purpose of letting their hair down. The girls hoped to find a moneyed bachelor who’d take a shine to them. Darlene remembers the evenings fondly, though she speaks of the alcohol issues many of the girls developed.
Darlene knew she was attractive and that modeling and fashion shows could be her ticket out of scarcity. Responding to an ad for figure models, she met Barry Mahon and his wife Clelle. A wholesome couple, they were raising kids while making cheap nudie films.
“Working for Barry didn’t feel dirty in the slightest,” Darlene remembers. “I worked with him for a few years and never had a bad experience. I made more money than I ever had before, and we laughed so much.” She believes it was Mahon who named them the Bennett sisters “after a book he’d read.” I asked if it was ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but she couldn’t recall. Darlene didn’t stay in touch with Barry and Clelle for long, and was quietly sad when I told her of their passing, Barry in 1999; his wife nine years later.
She asked about Lenore, her friend who’d adopted the name Gigi Darlene in movies they’d made together. I told her that Lenore had passed too, in Florida in 2002. She became quiet again. It was as if the news reminded her of how quickly life passed.
Over time we talked more at length about her career: traveling down to Miami in 1964 to work with Bunny Yeager (“that was an adventure. I liked Bunny, and we did lots together”), Doris Wishman (“I had no idea I made so many films”), working with Dawn (“Directors often wanted to use us together in bedroom scenes. We refused. Directors often tried to get you to do things like that, you know?”), and wrestling films (“it was strange thing to do: dress up in a fancy negligee and pull another girl’s hair.”)
She had an agent, Sol Rubell, with an office on 44th Street. He pushed her modelling work, but nothing much happened for her. “I don’t know why”, she says wistfully today. “Maybe I didn’t care that much though.”
Eventually she moved on and left the films and modeling in her wake. She was older, fielding fewer offers, and the business had become interested in more explicit sex. Darlene had been a sexual trailblazer but she had her limits. She said she only regretted not looking as pretty today as she once did.
Today Darlene lives with Dawn in New Jersey. On a couple of occasions when I called, Dawn answered the phone. Dawn had been in poor health, enduring recent lung and heart surgery, and was still in recuperative pain. She admitted she had less interest in the past than her sister. The modeling and films had been a means to an end. A short term fix to the longer term question of survival. That period of her life had been fine, for sure, but then she’d moved on to the next stage. She’d had relationships, a son, and a complete lack of sentimentality about her history.
“Whatever I did… got me to today. So there’s that, I guess,” she said.
Darlene Bennett, in a Bunny Yeager photo (courtesy of Grapefruit Moon Gallery)
My conversations with Darlene continued and yielded interesting details, but there was no mystery. She never disappeared after she left films, she never tried to hide. She just moved on and did something different. She became a nurse in Manhattan, then a Home Health Aide Care worker before she retired. She didn’t settle down with a family, nor did she have children.
Dawn didn’t move far either, staying close to the Times Square grindhouses where their 1960s films had played. She worked in Howard Johnsons for a time, and then, when she was laid off, in a midtown deli.
Neither had seen any photographs from their modeling days for over half a century, and they’d never seen any of the films, not even back in the day. Darlene expressed a mild interest in seeing her modeling pictures, and perhaps her formerly scandalous movies too. In truth, I suspected she was less interested in revisiting this chapter of her own life, and more intrigued to find out why someone was so keen to track her down.
I wondered if anyone had ever lived up to my original ideal of Darlene from when I first saw her, perhaps not even Darlene herself. Life is usually mundane, and mundane is where we spend most of our time. It all adds up eventually, it just doesn’t always add up to everything you thought it would. Should one try and seek out answers to all of life’s riddles? After all, aren’t some questions best left unanswered, some enigmas best left unknown?
Perhaps. But maybe I’d learned I was less interested in what Darlene had done with her life, and rather what she had done with mine.
Somewhere, I’ll always be ten years old, looking a quiet place in the sun. I’ll open the book at Page 48, and life will be good.