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19 DECEMBER 2014

 

Tempest Storm




By Thomas Hauser

She’s 79 years old now and lives in a one-bedroom apartment in East Las Vegas, the industrial part of town. Defying age, she has managed to remain both shapely and slender. She’s charming and disarming with an air of refinement and still has long fiery-red hair.

It’s May 1st, four days before Oscar De La Hoya versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. In another part of the city, high rollers are descending upon the casinos in anticipation of The Big Event. Power brokers are spreading their wings. There’s glitz everywhere.

Trust me; the lady understands power and glitz. She was intimate with John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley. Check her out on the Internet. Google her (and oogle her) at your pleasure. There was a time when she was embedded in the sexual fantasies of literally millions of men around the world.

Tempest Storm was born in rural Georgia on February 29, 1928. Her mother and step-father were sharecroppers. She grew up picking cotton and lived in a shack without indoor plumbing or electricity. The name given to her at birth was Annie Blanche Banks.

Annie matured physically at an early age. When she was thirteen, five young men (including the local sheriff’s son) gang-raped her. A year later, her stepfather wanted the same thing. “I woke up one night and he was on top of me,” she says. “That night, I told myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ I have very few memories of my childhood. It was a horrible life, and I’ve blocked out a lot of what happened to me when I was young.”

Annie ran away from home at age fourteen, rented a room for a dollar a night, and took a job waitressing for ten dollars a week plus tips. The authorities threatened to return her to her parents, so she married a man she barely knew (a soldier on furlough named Rural Giddens). Several weeks later, she left Giddens and started waitressing again. At age sixteen, she married for the second time, to a soldier named Jack Locke. That marriage lasted a year.

After the collapse of her second marriage, Annie worked in a jewelry store, a hosiery mill, and a diner. When she was nineteen, a man she waited on occasionally in the diner asked if she’d like to go to California with him. “When do we leave?” she responded. They lived together in Hollywood for two months. Then he tried to shoot her because he suspected that she was cheating on him, and she was on her own again.

Annie’s dream was to break into show business, but there were problems. Her teeth were crooked; so much so that she was reluctant to smile. She had no acting experience. And at the modeling agencies, she recalls, “I was a joke, a freak [5-feet-6-inches tall, 135 pounds] with a forty-inch bosom that would never fit into their high-fashion dresses.”

At age 21, she took a job as a cocktail waitress at a lounge called The Paddock, which had drinking and dancing up front and bookmaking in back. A customer suggested that she audition for an opening in the chorus line at the Follies Theater in Los Angeles. She’d be one of many women on stage. She wouldn’t have to take her clothes off.

Annie started dancing for forty dollars a week, but the sixty dollars a week that the strippers made was enticing. And Lillian Hunt (who produced the show) saw gold in her body. At age 22, Annie took her clothes off on stage for the first time. The deal was sealed by Hunt’s offer to pay to have her new recruit’s teeth straightened and capped.

“This is show business,” Annie told herself. “And I’ve always wanted to be in show business.” Right before her first performance au natural (a five-minute number), Hunt instructed, “No matter what happens, keep going.” Soon after, Annie took the stage name “Tempest Storm.” In 1957, it became her legal moniker.

“Being in burlesque meant being pursued by men,” Tempest recalls. “Famous men; rich men; guys next-door. And all of them wanted one thing. Sex.”

Tempest’s first “celebrity romance” began when Mickey Rooney visited her backstage after she’d been dancing for two months. “Mickey was a big star,” she wrote in her 1987 memoirs. “If he wanted to take me out, I knew what it could do for my career. Being seen with him meant bits in gossip columns, photos in magazines, perhaps breaks in other types of show business. I was learning how to handle my career, how to use the press to further my reputation and enhance my image. There’s much more to a career in burlesque than performing. I’d reached a point where I needed to be seen with name entertainers, to be talked about, to be publicized.”

“Mickey took my arm and escorted me through the people backstage,” Tempest remembers. “I could feel their eyes on me, and I knew they were thinking, ‘There goes Rooney with another conquest.’ But that’s exactly what I wanted; for them, for everyone, to talk about Tempest Storm.”

They went to bed together on their second date. “In his suite,” Tempest later wrote, “he wasted little time. He mixed me a drink, which I really didn’t want, put a record on the phonograph, and waltzed me around the room. Within a few minutes, we were in bed.”

The next day, their relationship was the subject of a gossip item in the Los Angeles Mirror. Three weeks later, Rooney gave her a full-length mink coat (“a mink coat that said I’d hit the bigtime”). The liaison lasted for three months. Then Rooney went on to other women.

“He wanted something from me, but I also wanted something from him,” Tempest concludes. “The world of show business can be a tough world. It’s important to know how to protect yourself and your interests.”

After the fling with Rooney ended, Tempest journeyed north to perform as the star attraction for six weeks at the El Ray Theater in Oakland (her first gig as a headliner). The job paid $350 a week. She dyed her brunette hair red and bought her first car (a 1951 Cadillac convertible) with the help of the manager of a local car dealership (who had seen her perform).

In 1953, she married again; this time, to a bartender named John Becker, who performed as a singer and burlesque straight man under the stage name Johnny Del Mar. Becker was physically and verbally abusive. The low point in their marriage came when Tempest threw a pair of scissors at him (“I grabbed them and tried to stab him, but he jumped out of my reach so I threw the scissors at him.”) They were divorced on Valentine’s Day 1955. Thereafter, Johnny returned the favor of the scissors by trying to run Tempest’s car off the freeway in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, on stage, Tempest was developing a philosophy for her performance art. And she was becoming a star.

Burlesque in the 1950s was often upscale entertainment. It was performed in elegant theaters, not just clubs and bars.

“I wanted to be a class act,” Tempest says. “I wanted to entertain, but I also wanted to be a lady about my act. Sexy, yes. Teasing, yes. Vulgar, never. And I worked hard to develop an act that set me apart from other dancers in the business. A lot of people thought it was easy work, but it wasn’t. I took some ballet lessons when I started. Later, I had a choreographer and surrounded myself with high-quality musicians. I rehearsed a lot and spent a fortune on costumes. Success doesn’t just happen in burlesque any more than it just happens in any other form of show business. You have to create your own style and your own way of entertaining people. You have to work at becoming a star, on stage and off. I was good copy for the gossip columnists; I had a great rapport with them; but that will carry you just so far. I was always using my imagination to develop an act that was classy and original. I never allowed my personal struggles to undermine the fantasies that people had when they came to watch me perform. The adult entertainment business today is awful. It has no class. They call lap-dancing and pole-dancing ‘the new burlesque’, but that’s not burlesque as I knew it. Those things are just raunchy. If I was twenty years old today, I’d do something else. But for me, the key to it all was that I enjoyed performing. On stage, I was always happy; I became a different person. When I was on stage, in my mind, I was a little girl, all dressed up and gorgeous.”

After Tempest and John Becker divorced, she returned to the celebrity dating scene. “I was single, sexy, and yearning for the good times that would make up for all those hard years back in Georgia,” she wrote in her memoirs. “Nothing could have pleased the lonely daughter of a sharecropper more than to have her childhood dreams of show business and romance come true, and for me they had.”

The next celebrity Tempest dated was Hugh O’Brien. (“His sensitivity was especially important to me in the difficult time after my divorce. He made me feel so special and secure.”) Then Nat King Cole entered her life. (“He told me that I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever known. Our lovemaking was vibrant, warm, and wonderful. When I was with him, I felt truly connected to another human being, safe at last from the terrible loneliness of my life. Never had a woman found herself so suddenly awake and living all her romantic dreams come true.”)

But two problems intruded on the relationship. First, Nat King Cole was black at a time when an interracial relationship, if it became public knowledge, could damage both parties. And second, he was married. Thus, “the good-bye of star-crossed lovers.”

Also in 1955, while performing at the Casino Royale in Washington DC, Tempest met a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy. He attended her show two nights in a row and, the second night, she accepted an invitation to visit him at his table.

“He was charming with a wonderful sense of humor and very handsome,” Tempest recalls. “The people who were with him left us alone to talk, and we made a date for the following evening, which was my night off. I knew he was married, but he told me that he and his wife were unhappy together.”

Thereafter, a relationship developed. “He was a lot of fun to be with,” Tempest says. “When he was elected president, I was in seventh heaven.”

And then there was Elvis Presley.

“Elvis liked younger women but he made an exception for me,” she says with pride.

They met in 1957, when Elvis was 22 and Tempest was 29. He had entered mainstream culture one year earlier when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and topped the charts with Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, and Love Me Tender.

The union of the two iconic personalities occurred in Las Vegas at The Dunes, where they were performing independently of one another. It was suggested that they pose for a publicity photo together.

“Even with his dark skin,” Tempest later wrote, “Elvis blushed deeply when he saw me. I could tell he was trying not to look at my plunging neckline as he said in a boyish voice, ‘Miss Storm; your show was the greatest.’”

Later that day, the telephone in her room rang.

“Miss Storm,” the hotel switchboard operator advised. “Mr. Elvis Presley would like to talk to you.”

They met again.

“There’s something we have in common,” Tempest told him. “Members of the opposite sex lust after us. They don’t understand that what we do on stage is an act, a performance.”

Thereafter, they became intimate.

“I wanted the satisfaction of knowing that I was adored by America’s hottest sex symbol,” Tempest acknowledges. “And he was the most interesting younger man I ever knew.”

But Elvis’s manager (“Colonel” Tom Parker) didn’t like their seeing each other.

“If you keep hanging around that stripper woman, those screaming teenagers are going to quit screaming,” Parker told Elvis. “And when they stop screaming, they’ll stop buying your records, and then where the hell are you going to be? Back in Memphis driving a goddamn truck.”

“Elvis decided that The Colonel was right,” Tempest recalls. “He was afraid that being linked to a stripper would ruin his career, so it ended between us.”

When was the last time she saw Elvis?

“In the early 1970s,” she answers. “I went to see Perry Como at The Hilton [in Las Vegas] and, after the show, I went backstage. Elvis was there and so was Pat Boone. Perry asked me, “Tempest, I used to be a barber. Is that really all your hair?” I told him, ‘Perry, everything about me is real. If you don’t believe me, ask Elvis.’ Elvis turned and said, ‘Well, it’s time for me to go.’ But he stayed.”

“I was devastated by Elvis’s disintegration,” Tempest says. “I still dream about him sometimes. There’s one song – Are You Lonesome Tonight? – every time I hear Elvis singing it, I feel like crying.”

“It was hard sometimes, the way people thought about me,” she admits. “I tried to do what I did with class so people would respect me. But I knew from the beginning that there was a stigma. Some people look down on burlesque dancers like we’re prostitutes. I wanted Elvis to respect me for the person I was instead of thinking that I was only a stripper. But that’s not the way he felt.”

Still, in the world of burlesque, Tempest Storm was becoming royalty. By the late-1950s, she was making $3,500 a week. “Rich men showered me with diamonds and furs and cruises,” she recalls. Michael Wilding, Vic Damone, and Sammy Davis Jr became lovers. She lived in Hollywood next-door to Marilyn Monroe. “When Marilyn sang Happy Birthday for the president at his birthday party [at Madison Square Garden in 1962], I thought it was terrific,” she says.

In 1959, Tempest married again; this time to singer Herb Jeffries. And again, the result was disaster. “I always demanded respect in my professional life,” she acknowledges. “But in my personal life, I didn’t demand it often enough. The men I married always ended up treating me like dirt. Herb was lazy and jealous. He told me once, ‘You’re in a degenerate business.’ I said, ‘Excuse me. You’re driving my car and sleeping in my house and living off me.’”

In 1962, Tempest filed for divorce; then learned that she was pregnant. She and Herb reconciled, and a daughter (Patty) was born. After that, Tempest went back to work. After three separations, she and Herb were divorced.

Life went on. There were more lovers and more performances. And finally, there was validation as a performing artist. On March 23, 1973, at age 45, Tempest Storm became the first (and to this day, only) “stripper” to perform at Carnegie Hall.

“I was a little cocky that night,” she says. “Someone asked how I felt about performing at Carnegie Hall, and I told him, ‘I feel like Muhammad Ali. I’m The Greatest.’ But that night was important to me. I felt that the audience appreciated the art of my performance. They understood the choreography and skill and hard work that were involved. When they applauded me, they were applauding my talent.”

Tempest Storm never retired from the burlesque trade. In 1999, at age 71, she performed at a thirtieth anniversary celebration for the O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco. Mayor Willie Brown issued a proclamation designating the occasion as “Tempest Storm Day.” In a review of her performance, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed, “When Storm takes something off -- her gown, one of several bras or multiple bottom layers -- she’s likely to put something else back on. She bares her breasts and almost everything else, and pulls a white boa from the wings to play peekaboo with what’s left. Her skin sags a little here and there. Her movements can get a little creaky. But she hasn’t lost an ounce of know-how.”

In 2005, Tempest was on stage in Nashville and San Francisco. “I did about twenty minutes and got a standing ovation,” she reports. “I’d still work every week if there was a place to work.”

But the past few years have been hard. Tempest’s world fell apart in 2001 with the death of a man she loved and was engaged to marry. Soon after, a business representative misappropriated most of her financial assets. Circumstances forced her to live in a trailer for several years. Then she moved to Las Vegas.

Her apartment is small but immaculately kept. The white rug and white furniture are spotless. A photograph of Tempest with Elvis Presley and other reminders of her career line the walls. An elaborately-published pictorial work entitled The Big Book of Breasts is prominently displayed on the coffee-table in front of her sofa.

“There’s ten pages on me in there,” Tempest says. “Would you like to see them?”

She also has a full binder of old photographs and news clippings that she shows to chosen guests.

“I keep myself busy,” she says when the conversation turns to her life in Las Vegas. “I read a lot and go out to dinner sometimes with friends.”

She seems a bit lonely. She also seems like a kind person with a good heart.

“You were born on a leap day,” she’s told. “February 29, 1928. That means, next year, you’ll be twenty.”

“In my dreams,” she says with a laugh.

Tempest enjoys her status as a sexual icon in what now seems to have been an innocent age of sex. She rose to prominence before the pill changed lovers’ habits; when Playboy was cutting edge and married couples on TV sitcoms slept in separate beds. Sexual icons limited their performances to stage and screen rather than running amok through society like Anna Nicole Smith.

That time is long gone. So are the most prominent men who marked Tempest’s life. John F. Kennedy, struck down by an assassin’s bullet at age 46. Nat King Cole, dead of cancer at 45. Elvis Presley, a bloated charicature of himself, dead at 42. But she looks back on her life with satisfaction and believes that there are still good times ahead.

On occasion, she’s reflective. “Except for the men I married, I think I’ve made good choices,” she says. “I don’t blame myself for the first two marriages. I was very young then. As for the others; maybe I was punishing myself for something. Maybe I got involved with so many married men because, on some level, I told myself, ‘This way, I won’t be hurt.’ Maybe I chose burlesque because of what happened to me when I was young. When you’re on stage, the men in the audience can look but not touch. And I got unconditional love from my audience. In a lot of ways, I’m quite conventional. I wasn’t a drinker. I was around all kinds of drugs but I never did them. I’ve led a pristine life except for my dancing and my men. That’s where my wildness comes out.”

“I was a wealthy woman,” Tempest continues, still reflecting on the past. “That’s gone now, but I can deal with it. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t do more to pursue a career in acting. Acting was my dream. Sometimes I wish that, when I got famous, I’d been strong enough to break away from the nice clothes and fancy jewelry and glamour and risk everything to get into acting. That’s what I would have done if I’d chosen my profession instead of my profession choosing me. But there are no complaints. I wanted to be a star. I worked my way to the top of the burlesque world and I stayed there. Nobody lasted in the business as long as I did. I like to think that my talent and my personality led people to respect me. I’m sure that some did and some didn’t.”

In her sunset years, Tempest Storm has the satisfaction of knowing that, for millions of men who never knew her, she’ll be an object of desire forever.

“I’ve had a great ride,” she says. “I didn’t miss anything. Not bad for a sharecropper’s daughter from Eastman, Georgia.”


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com



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