By Charles Layton
This week, at the breakfast table, a female member of our household raised a question as to whether one of our local websites had been posting too many “cheesecake” photos.
Two of our guests, both in the age range of about 40, wanted to know “what is cheesecake?” They’d never heard the term applied to photography. A couple of 13-year-olds stopped shoveling eggs long enough to raise their heads and testify that they, too, were in ignorance.
So, with the calm patience that is the reward of advancing age, I explained that the term cheesecake means “girlie photos.” As soon as those two words had escaped my lips I realized that they sounded even more oldfangled than the term “cheesecake.” For a moment there I felt like Gabby Hayes (whom our house guests have also probably never heard of).
But the conversation stayed alive, and soon we were all speculating about the term’s origin. So off I sped to that fount of all knowledge, the Internet.
An article in Yahoo!answers said that, “according to legend,” the term was coined in 1915 in New York City. A newspaper photographer named George Miller was assigned to cover the arrival in town of a Russian opera singer, Elvira Amazar. To add a bit of sex appeal, Miller asked the young woman to hike up her skirt, which she cheerfully did.
When Miller’s editor saw the resulting photo, he is reported to have exclaimed, “Why, this is better than cheesecake!”
Having learned this much, I wondered whether that original “cheesecake” shot might still exist somewhere. And guess what? With a bit more Googling around, I think I’ve found it.
This old photo was listed on eBay, for $15. The people are identified as Russian singers Elvira Amazar (that’s our girl!) and George Baklanoff. The ad says the photo is 4×6 in size and its date is unknown. It is said to have come from the Bain News Service, which, according to Wikipedia, accumulated photos and distributed them to various newspapers in the early 20th century. The service was run by George Bain.
So, was Bain perhaps the editor who, on seeing this photo, made the remark about cheesecake? I expect we’ll never know that, and if my young breakfast companions are any indication, the pin-up definition of the word cheesecake may soon be lost to human memory as well. So it goes.
Here is a song from the cast album of a 2003 London musical production: Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” It’s part of an elaborate dance number. The lead singer is Sally Ann Triplett. One can’t help but speculate as to whether Porter might once have seen the photo of Amazar, and whether that might have inspired his famous “glimpse of stocking” line in the song’s beginning.