Posts Tagged ‘Laura Misch Owens’

The Girls of Summer: China Lee, Miss August 1964

June 17, 2010

Dazzle your friends with correct pronunciation! Say “China” so it rhymes with “Tina,” not the clinical term for bajango.


Photographed by Pompeo Posar.

During Spring Fever!, in the post on Gwen Wong, I mentioned Ms. Lee and promised to give her a post all her own in the future. Happy to say that the future is now.

Ms. Lee is a real trailblazer and true intellect. She was the first Asian-American Playmate of the Month. Not lovely Gwen Wong, and not PR (name removed at model’s request).

Extremely athletic, bright, witty, and outspoken, China (née Margaret) was totally busting up stereotypes well before it was chic to do so. Get it, girl!

Like past-spotlighted comic genius Laura Misch Owens, China Lee began as a Bunny in New Orleans before winding up at the original Chicago Playboy Club. Due to her winning combination of unique looks, well-above-average intelligence, and friendly, talkative nature, she quickly worked her way up to Training Bunny.


As the Playboy empire expanded and Hef opened Clubs in other cities across America, China got to travel and show new Bunnies — and club managers — the ropes all around the country.

Her teaching duties take her to a different location with every new Playboy Club opening — a job which suits her peripatetic nature to a T.

“If I had to describe myself in one word, it would be ‘active,'” China says. “I love to roam, and I love to keep busy!”

(“China Doll.” Payboy, August 1964.)


“Despite the fact that I’m always on the go, success has come to me without my seeking it. I didn’t even apply for my Bunny job — I was discovered in a New Orleans hairdresser’s shop.”

(Ibid.)

Ms. Lee was quite the jock at this time, enthusiastically describing the various sports she participated in:

High on her sports agenda is softball: Last season she pitched and won 12 games (“My windmill pitch is unhittable”), leading the New York Bunny softball team to the Broadway Show League championship.

(Ibid.)

Screeeee. What?! The NYC Club Bunnies had a softball team in a league?! And they were champions? Anyone with more info and especially pictures needs to be my hero and send it along, stat! That sounds wonderful and fun beyond anything the imagination can conjure.

Like icy-eyed Finnish novelist Kata Kärkkäinen, Miss December 1988, China Lee cheerfully reported in her interview that she traversed traditional gender/sports lines not only with that killer windmill pitch but also by handily mopping the floor with the competition at bowling.

“Miss August is also a pin-toppling bowler (she ran up a 217 at the age of 13), prize-winning equestrienne and jumper, expert swimmer and ping-pong player, as well as champion twister of all Bunnydom.

(Ibid.)

Twister like the party game or twister like “Shake it up, baby, now, etc,” with lots of cheerful shimmying around a dance floor? I’m guessing the latter. Seems more her speed!

Very little is made in the “China Doll” article of the fact that Ms. Lee was not exactly your garden variety gatefold WASP model. There is no deliberate, faux-innocent oversight of her heritage in some effort to prove super-open-mindedness, either, which I also consider a point in the magazine’s favor. A good balance is struck.


A native of New Orleans and the only member of her family of 11 not now in the Oriental restaurant line, China says: “Though I was born in America, my folks still follow Oriental ways: They speak the old language, read the old books, and follow the old customs. In this sort of environment, the men dominate and females are forced into the background. I rebelled, and I’m glad I did.”

(Ibid.)

Ms. Lee does not denigrate “Oriental”* tradition, merely comments on the aspect of that traditional environment that displeased her and from which she walked away. It’s done in a respectful and confident way. Very cool.

*When people use this word now it kind of makes my eyes itch for a second. I feel like it’s so high-handed and colonial. It’s like when people say “colored.” The original word meant no offense and is way better than a racial epithet, but we have even better ways of expressing that now, you know? It is a long-running joke with me, Paolo, and Miss D because we all lived in the Bay Area in the ’80’s when “Oriental” and “Hispanic” were leaving the vogue vocab in favor of more specific, group-elected terms. So when we see “Oriental” restaurant or “Hispanic” lawyer on a sign, we all eagerly point it out to each other the way hillbillies’ kids laugh at their grandparents for saying “Worsh.” (I can say that because I am one.)

After her Playboy appearance, Ms. Lee kept her ebullience and poise and continued to make friends and influence people. She is the dancer in the credits of Woody Allen’s first film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, a part which she supposedly lobbied very hard for with Allen, who was a friend of hers. The film itself is a farcical redubbing of the Japanese movie International Secret Police: Key of Keys; in Allen’s version, the intrigue surrounds the case of an egg salad recipe. China performs a striptease at the end credits for Allen, who plays himself, several dubbed voices, and the projectioner screening the film.

Here is a link to the clip of her dance on the youtube.

Ms. Lee also appeared on television series such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and alongside Tony Curtis and Sharon Tate in 1967’s beach movie Don’t Make Waves. The publicity campaign for Don’t Make Waves was of unprecedented size and ubiquity — though the film failed to live up to MGM’s box office expectations, the cultural impact was still very lasting.

As an example, the character Malibu, played by sunny and curvy Ms. Tate, is generally cited as the inspiration for Mattel’s world-famous “Malibu” Barbie, and several Coppertone tie-in ads for the film are still reproduced in text books for marketing classes. I will go deeper in to Don’t Make Waves in August, during Sharon Tate’s ACTUAL LIFE Awareness Month.

Ms. Lee dated Robert Plant for a while, but ultimately she settled with political comedian, activist, occasional Kennedy joke-penner, and all around cramazing dude, one of the Comedy Greats, Mort Sahl.

Sahl’s influence on aspects of comedy from modern stand-up to The Daily Show is basically immeasurable. You have probably seen Fred Armisen on SNL perform a political comedian character he created named Nicholas Fehn who is not a send-up of Sahl, himself, but rather a send-up of Sahl’s admirers who can never quite touch the master. It’s the guy with the pullover sweater and Armisen’s own glasses, an army surplus coat and a light brown longish wig, who shows up on the Weekend Update with a newspaper in his hand and tries to make jokes of the headlines but can never quite finish his sentences: this using the newspaper as a jumping-off point for humorous discourse was a trademark move of Sahl’s.

China and Mort Sahl married in 1967 and remained together until their divorce in 1991. They had a son, Mort Sahl, Jr., who passed away in 1996. R.I.P. to him and condolences to both of them. I’m glad I got to share about some really cool, interesting people in this post. I’m feeling more upbeat than I was. Thanks for coming along!

I suspect that cover is another Beth Hyatt/Pompeo Posar pairing. Note how the pose and her dress make the trademark, cocked-ear bunny silhouette, mirrored by the small logo sketched in the sand by her right hand. It’s similar, though not as racily sexy, to the rear shot one they did where her dress was open at the back and the straps snaking around her shoulders formed the ears. This time it’s her legs and kicked-off shoes. See it?

Valentine Vixen: Laura Misch Owens, Miss February 1975

February 18, 2010

So many Valentine Vixens to post up in all their fun and special glory, so little time left in February all of a sudden! Yikes. As with the NSFW November project, I am once more faced with the question of whether I’ve bit off more than I can chew. It’s a challenge, but that’s all right: I was so selective with this month’s lonelyhearts ladies, handpicking only my tippy-toppy-bestest, most favoritest centerfolds, that there is literally not a single one that I am not totally psyched to share more about with you. So let’s do this!


Photographed by Richard Fegley.

The lovely and talented Laura Misch Owens was Playboy’s Miss February 1975. Those aren’t just pretty code words for taking it off on this one, dudes. Besides being beautiful, as evinced by these photographs, Ms. Owens is also a brilliant, witty, published author who happens to be forthright, charming, and absolutely-fall-down-freaking-hysterically funny. I’m going to let her talent speak for itself as I juxtapose the Playboy purple prose that accompanied her pictorial spread for them with her own take on the events, excerpted from an article she contributed to Salon.com about her time as a New Orleans bunny, written in 2005.

The headline and summary for Salon run, “When I was a Playboy Bunny in New Orleans: ‘I married a cop of easy virtue, posed nude in Hef’s magazine, drank all night at Lucky Pierre’s, and appeared in the worst movie ever made. It was Big and it was Easy, and now it’s gone.'” (“When I Was a Playboy Bunny,” Misch, Laura. 10 Sept 2005. Salon.com.)

Playboy sez: “Delta Lady: Meet Laura Misch, a New Orleans lovely who’s taken the Crescent City to her heart. Lucky New Orleans!” (“Delta Lady.” February, 1975. Playboy.)

Playboy sez:

Fresh out of high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 18-year-old ex-cheerleader Laura Misch was confronted with that same question that has plagued most new high school graduates: What now? … She pictured herself with rabbit ears and a Bunny tail. She had an idea! “I dashed off a letter, enclosed a Polaroid of myself and sent it to the New Orleans Bunny Mother, since she was the closest to Tulsa,” Laura recalls. “The next thing I knew, I was in New Orleans with a new job.”


Laura writes:

I stepped off the Braniff flight from Tulsa, Okla., at Moisant Field on Jan. 12, 1973, with $34 in my pocket and the promise of a job as a Bunny at the New Orleans Playboy Club. I was 19, with big, proud titties suitable for framing, and wearing enough Maybelline to sink a barge in the Industrial Canal. I didn’t know it yet, but I would spend the next seven years in the City That Care Forgot. By the time I escaped its humid clutches, the Big Easy would fill me up and wring me dry.


On the subject of a career in moving pictures, Playboy quotes Laura and adds their own advertiser/biz-skewed copy to her youthful sentiments, saying,

“I adore everything about New Orleans. I’ll never leave.” This creates a conflict in her life, for she also wants to be a movie star (“Who doesn’t?”) and most stars have to emigrate to Hollywood sooner or later.

No longer a Bunny since the temporary closing of the New Orleans Club some months ago, Laura has just finished an on-location shooting as an extra in Dino De Laurentiis’ new film, Mandingo, starring James Mason and Susan George. In the movie, which is about life on a slave-breeding plantation in the pre-Civil War South, Laura plays one of the girls in a Mississippi delta whorehouse. This is how she describes her big scene: “A door opens and through the doorway you see me standing there, clutching my underwear. Then I blow a sensuous kiss to a satisfied customer.” Since it was her first scene in a movie, and she appeared seminude, to boot, Laura admits to having had a certain initial apprehension. “I thought it would be awful with all those people watching me,” she says. “But they were good about it and kept their eyes on my face.” If you say so, Laura. (Playboy, February 1975.)

I had lines in those movies but only walk-ons in Mandingo and Hard Times. Strange; I always played a prostitute. Didn’t they see my shining thespian talents?

Oh, Laura. You had me at “Hello!”


This picture of Laura as a young bunny in N’Awlins is not from the Playboy pictorial spread. It accompanied her delightfully fun article for Salon.com.
For her part, the real, unvarnished, marvelously disingenous Laura says today,

I’m sure you’ve seen me in Mardi Gras Massacre, having my innards cut out by a guy wearing an Aztec mask. One Web site lists this gem as one of the worst movies ever, ever made. I’m proud. And remember “French Quarter,” with Bruce Davison and Virginia Mayo? You don’t?

That’s OK, Davison apparently doesn’t either, because he won’t list it among his credits. You can run but you can’t hide, Brucie. I was there. You were in it, pal!

Adorbably candid! Love it.

On the subject of her corrupt-cop, but seemingly loving, as much as he could be, given all time and circumstances, husband during those years, I think Ms. Misch Owens has a light and bittersweet touch, appropriately appreciative/critical/reflective (as all reviews of such relationships must always be) but not overly maudlin; a delicate balance to reach.

Somewhere along the way I had gotten married to Eddie, a cop in the French Quarter. … I thought he was terribly exciting. He’d bring me along to all-nighters at Benny’s, a joint on the levee. I was required to sit silently for hours while Eddie twirled his gold wedding band.


Benny was like 75 with about three teeth and had a 14-year-old girlfriend. This last fact struck no one but me as particularly odd or disgusting. Like everything else wild and evil in New Orleans, it was greeted with a shrug and a wink.

He introduced me to the shady characters, shady ladies and shady ways of the Crescent City that I never would have tapped into otherwise. Without him, I never would have had a private room with a private waiter — Joey Guera — at Antoine’s. Never would have had a real king cake at a family party, never would have gone fishing out of Empire, La., with so much beer aboard our little flotilla that we almost sank. And if we had, so what? There is nothing like a native New Orleanian.

I cannot, in my broken state, express strongly enough how much I aspire to acheive Ms. Misch’s disarmingly candid brand of levelheaded, logical but loving, analytical prose in regard to my own dissolving marriage some day.

We parted ways, eventually. I went down to Miami and he went back to being a bachelor. He retired from the force as a lieutenant and was freelancing as a security man at “tittie bars” and rich people’s houses Uptown on Audubon Place, last I heard.

Reporting on recent events, Ms. Misch adds the following epilogue to her relationship with her Big Easy first husband:

I phoned him just before the eye of Katrina must have passed very near his house. I got his answering machine. Some silly nonsense about how he wasn’t home, he was checking out the latest Saints trade. I said, Hey, you idiot, call me.


He hasn’t called, and now I just get static when I dial the number. C’mon, Eddie, check in. Check in, dammit.

New Orleans is gone.

Today, Ms. Misch Owens is a novelist under the name of Laura Watt and has written non-fiction for the Miami Herald, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Denver Post. Sardonic and enduringly adorable — thanks a mil for the inspiration, Ms. Misch!