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Big Bosoms and Square Jaws

The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film

Big Bosoms and Square Jaws by Jimmy McDonough
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What do you need to make money making movies? The answer, according to cult hero, creator of the sexploitation film, and the man the Wall Street Journal once dubbed the King Leer of Hollywood, Russ Meyer, is: “big bosoms and square jaws.” In the first candid and fiendishly researched account of the late cinematic instigator’s life, Jimmy McDonough shows us how Russ Meyer used that formula to turn his own crazed fantasies into movies that made him a millionaire and changed the face of American film forever.

Bringing his anecdote—and action—packed biographical style to another renegade of popular culture, New York Times bestselling author of Shakey Jimmy McDonough offers a wild, warts-and-all portrait of Russ Meyer, the director, writer, producer, and commando moviemaking force behind such sexploitation classics as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Vixen, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This former WWII combat photographer immortalized his personal sexual obsession (women with enormous breasts, of course) upon the silver screen, turning his favorite hobby into box-office gold when this one-man movie machine wrote, directed, and produced a no-budget wonder called The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959. The modest little film pushed all preexisting limits of on-screen nudity, and with its success, the floodgates of what was permitted to be shown on film were thrust open, never to be closed again. Russ Meyer ignited a true revolution in filmmaking, breaking all sex, nudity, and violence taboos. In a career that spanned more than forty years, Meyer created a body of work that has influenced a legion of filmmakers, fashionistas, comic book artists, rock bands, and even the occasional feminist.

Rich with wicked and sometimes shocking observations and recollections from Meyer’s friends (such as colleague Roger Ebert and fellow filmmaker John Waters), lovers and leading ladies (some of whom played both roles with equal vigor), a cadre of his grizzled combat buddies, moviemakers inspired by him, and critics and fans alike, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws tells the voluptuous story of Meyer’s very singular life and career: his troubled youth, his war years, his volatile marriages, his victories against censorship, and his clashes with the Hollywood establishment. In his new biography of a true maverick, Jimmy McDonough blows the lid off the story of Russ Meyer, from beginning to his recent tragic demise, creating in the process a vivid portrait of a past America.

Crown/Archetype; Read online
Title: Big Bosoms and Square Jaws
Author: Jimmy McDonough
Mother Meyer and the Poor Dear

The question always arises: did your mother have a big bust? Yes. —Russ Meyer

Manny Diez saw Russ Meyer show fear. A very unique event, and it only happened once. Meyer had just finished his big X-rated outrage for 20th Century Fox, 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and he was riding high. Diez worked as his round-the-clock assistant. “Russ said, ‘Manny, I would like you to come with me today.’ We got in his car, just started driving, I guess it was about a forty-minute drive. I had no clue where we were going.” There was no conversation. RM seemed to be in a melancholy mood.

They pulled into a large psychiatric hospital. “Russ said, ‘My mother has been in residence here for quite some time. If you wouldn’t mind, would you please wait out here in the car for me?’ I guess he was gone forty-five minutes. He came back, his mood even more somber. We got in the car, left again, pretty much a dead silence. Eventually he said, ‘My mom has been here X number of years and my sister’s in a similar facility. Manny, I’m really scared that I’m gonna wind up in a place just like this.’ He just felt that was his destiny. I just listened. It was never mentioned again.”


Meyer could be a paranoid fellow—one crew member from his films told me RM outlawed whispering on the set because he was sure his minions were talking about him—and he sure wasn’t forthcoming on matters he felt were negative in any way. Even those who knew him well don’t know much about RM’s early life. “He mostly talked about his war years,” said Meyer star Tura Satana. “I think his childhood was very lonely for him.” Very rarely would RM volunteer any facts regarding his formative years and nobody felt permitted to pry. “There were certain places you didn’t go with Russ,” said longtime secretary Paula Parker. “Russ was a very close-mouthed guy,” maintained Meyer’s film distributor Fred Beiersdorf. “He was not gonna share. But the entire family wasn’t happy.”

Tight-lipped as he was, Meyer certainly purported to idolize his mother Lydia. He’d mention her constantly during interviews but spew forth nothing more than one-dimensional platitudes. “Mother influence is extremely important and I had a great one. She defended me to the teeth, and everything her son did was right. . . . She was a very God-fearing woman who instilled a desire for success in me. . . . Anything I achieved was because of her.” Wherever Meyer went he carried a color portrait of his mother in his wallet (usually side by side with a nude shot of his current heartthrob). Combat buddy Warren Harding recalled that whenever RM came to visit, the photograph of Lydia was front and center on the nightstand. On one trip Meyer lost the picture and he flipped until it could be located.

Meyer was no slouch when it came to looking after Mom. “Russ was a wonderful son,” said family friend Dolores Fox. “You couldn’t ask for anyone to take better care of his mother. He was so devoted. He paid for her every need.” There was no joking with Meyer about his mother. Editor Richard Brummer came into the cutting room one day absently singing the “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” song made famous by the Marx Brothers. A stone-faced Russ tersely muttered, “My mother’s name is Lydia.”

Likewise, in Lydia’s eyes, Russ could do no wrong. “She used to adore him, adore him so,” said RM’s first wife Betty. “If I ever did anything to Russ, she would kill me. He was her idol.” Dig a little beneath the surface of the mother-son relationship, though, and things were naturally more complex. “She was a manipulator, his mother,” said close friend Charlie Sumners. “She pretty much ran Meyer,” maintained RM’s right-hand man, Jim Ryan. “He just said, ‘Yes, Ma, yes, Ma’ to whatever she said.”

“We used to call her Mother Meyer—not to Russ’s face, of course,” said actor Charles Napier, who felt that RM’s relationship with his mother “was sad and funny at the same time. Funny in the sense she was about as eccentric as he was. Sad in the sense that he worshiped her, the only human being he probably ever loved. He would say, ‘She got me my first camera and she made me learn how to use it and now it’s paying off.’ ”


Russell Albion Meyer was born March 21, 1922. Even here we find conflict: biographer Rolf Thissen discovered two birth certificates filed twenty years apart for RM, and the first lists his name as Russell Elvan Meyer. Early photos show a dazed, chubby baby with a messy mop of hair sitting in the lap of mother Lydia, a rather solid and strong-looking brunette sporting an ornate feathered hat. Both mother and son share luminous, searching eyes. There is a shot of Russ a few years later looking rather delicate, wearing knee socks and holding an American flag. Although he’d never admit it, RM was something of a mama’s boy. “He said he breast-fed til he was three,” said Meyer star Tura Satana. “I told him, ‘Jeez, Russ, I only breast-fed til I was two.’ ”

Lydia Lucinda Hauck Howe was born March 30, 1897. In numerous articles it was reported that Lydia had been married six times, although it was nothing her son bragged about (in his autobiography, RM notes three marriage surnames for Lydia, but only in the index). Writer David K. Frasier worked on a 1990 Meyer bibliography with RM’s assistance, and Frasier wrote a biographical sketch in which he mentioned Lydia’s serial matrimony. A very upset Meyer claimed to have read the draft of the biography Frasier had given him while visiting his mother’s grave, at which point he promised the dead matriarch the offending information would be removed.

Certainly Lydia’s most significant betrothal was to William Arthur Meyer, a Missouri-born East Oakland cop of German heritage possessing a bad gambling habit. Little is known about the relationship other then the fact that Lydia was granted a divorce on April 9, 1923, a little over two weeks after the birth of their son. William was thirty-six, Lydia twenty-five, and RM’s birth certificate lists them as both living at 1255 Santa Rosa Street in San Leandro, California. RM claimed to know few details of the breakup, stating his mother always said positive things about his dad. Only when pressed—and only after any attempt for a relationship between father and son had failed—did she tell him that during the court battle over child support for the then-pregnant mother, William had shouted out, “I hope they both die!” In his autobiography, Meyer states that in May 1988, while leafing through a baby book in which Lydia had penned a few notes, learned that his father had pressed her to get an abortion (in an earlier draft of the manuscript RM says his mother told him directly).

Over the years Meyer related a few terse, varying tales concerning his father, none of them suggesting that William wanted anything to do with his son. In one he gets the door slammed in his face attempting to visit his father; in his autobiography A Clean Breast, RM describes a single visit from his dad. Dressed in a swanky camel-hair coat, refusing to come in, William stood at the screen door, inquiring as to how things were going with Lydia and Russ. The visit was so casual Meyer thought it might begin one of many, but William never returned. Lydia prodded her son into attempting a visit with his father at the police station. Told that William wasn’t there, Russ left an ashtray he’d made for his dad in shop class. William never bothered to respond.

“He was a bastard, he was no good, he wasn’t worth a damn,” said a seventy-seven-year-old RM of his dad in 1999. That’s as far as you could go on the subject with Meyer. Jean-Pierre Jackson, Meyer’s French distributor, first biographer, and friend, recalled RM going stonily silent when asked about his dad. “I asked him many times about his father—nothing. Not a word.” But the shadow of his absentee father looms large in dumb Nazis and stupid cops in Meyer’s films, as RM actress and longtime paramour Kitten Natividad explains, “because his father was a German policeman. I go, ‘You’re gonna put another Nazi in this movie?’ ‘Yeah, reminds me of the old man.’ He got off on that. He said it to me lots of times through the years.”

In A Clean Breast, Meyer does grant a few kind words for his stepdad, Howard Haywood, an ailing WWI vet whose bout with tuberculosis left him barely able to work as a furniture salesman. Howard and Lydia had one child together, the aforementioned Lucinda. RM’s childhood friend Lou Filipovitch said Lydia treated Howard with contempt, and others told me she’d forced her sickly husband to live in the garage. “Howard was a quiet, gentle, pleasant man,” said Lou. “She ridiculed Howard Haywood constantly, called him ‘whistle britches,’ ‘eagle beak.’ She was brutal, absolutely brutal. She just humiliated and insulted Howard.”

It was the Depression, and the Meyers barely got by. Lydia got $50 a month in child support from William Meyer for Russ, which was later knocked down to $35. “When I was young I was poorer than Job’s turkey,” said RM, who said that his family would frequently have to “shoot the moon”—skip out on unpaid rent. “His mother always had a garden because they didn’t have enough money to buy the vegetables,” said Kitten Natividad. “Russ can’t stand onion or celery soup because he had to eat it all the time.” RM had to peddle the produce and other items door-to-door. “Lydia was a hustler—I’m not saying that in a derogatory way,” said Pete Filipovitch. “She’d get us into selling perfume, then subscription magazines.”


The Filipovitch family lived near the Haywood family when they lived on Birch Street in East Oakland, and Russ was friendly with the children, Lou, Pete, and Martha—or at least as friendly as Lydia would permit. “I don’t think his mother allowed Russ to have too many friends when he was a kid,” said Tura Satana. “She kept him at home a lot, kept him on a tight leash. But he loved that she was a very strict disciplinarian, kept him on the straight and narrow.”

Lydia was working as a cashier at the McMar grocery in Oakland and needed someone to babysit her two children. “My mother was a widow and immigrant and Lydia treated her outwardly nicely, probably because she didn’t have anybody else,” said Lou Filipovitch. “She was aloof and above the neighborhood.” A devoutly religious woman, Pete Filipovitch recalled her carting him off to church. “Oh, she’d drive me crazy. She took me to the Protestants, she took me to the Baptists . . .”

To say the least, times were tough in this Oakland neighborhood—as Pete noted, “unless you were with the civil service or the railroad, you didn’t have a steady job.” The Haywoods were poor, but the Filipovitchs, who couldn’t even afford a phone, thought Russ and Lucinda “were the rich kids” according to Lou, especially due to the way Lydia doted on her son. “Lydia gave him everything that he wanted or needed,” Pete agreed. “She pampered him; he was never without.” Lou remembered Russ as being very generous with his pocket change. Lou and his sister Martha once walked a mile and a half to the local movie theater to see A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the excursion funded by Russ. “It was his treat,” said Lou. “He had spending money, he bought us candy and popcorn. Russ was one of the nicest guys I ever knew. He was kind and gentle. I don’t think there was a mean bone in his body.”

Lydia, however, was another story. She was a racist, missing no opportunity to slight blacks, Jews, or Irish. “Lydia didn’t like anybody!” said RM’s pal Jim Ryan. Pete’s brother Lou felt her behavior was rather less than Christian at times. “It seemed she was visiting kindnesses upon people, but she had a malice in her. Lydia claimed to be many things, including a registered nurse. One time I had a severe case of poison oak and she proclaimed her expertise as an expert nurse. She told me to rub bacon on it, and I almost died with pain. It was a mad, crazy thing to do to a little kid. Lydia was just nasty and mean and a little bit cuckoo.”

And she was a very independent woman who took no guff. “Lydia was born at the wrong time—she should’ve been a rank-and-file 1930 union representative and union organizer, like John L. Lewis,” said Pete Filipovitch. “You talk about believing in women’s rights! That’s what was wrong with her—and that’s why her husband left her.”

From the Hardcover edition.
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