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Klaw is best known for operating a mail-order business selling photographs and film of attractive women (sometimes in bondage) from the 1940s to the 1960s. He was one of the first fetish photographers, and one of his models, Bettie Page, became the first famous bondage model.
He was born in Brooklyn, New York into a Jewish family. His family business, which eventually became Movie Star News, began in 1939 when he and his sister Paula opened a struggling used bookstore at 209 East 14th Street in Manhattan.
After he discovered teenagers were frequently tearing out photos from his movie magazines, he started selling movie star stills and lobby photo cards. Customers could order by item number from catalogs of sample photos. These sold so well that he stopped selling books and moved the store from the basement to the street-level storefront and renamed it Irving Klaw Pin Ups.
Business thrived, and the self-named "Pin-Up King" moved to 212 East 14th Street and took on the name Movie Star News. Klaw also had a brisk international mail-order business selling cheesecake photos of movie stars.
By the late 1940s, he was receiving frequent requests for "Damsel-in-distress" photos of actresses being bound and gagged, spanked, and flogged. Because of the difficulty of finding enough film stills to meet this growing demand, Klaw decided to produce his own photos.
He and Paula, who actually posed and took most of the photos, started selling bondage and fetish photos using burlesque dancers like Baby Lake, Tempest Storm, and Blaze Starr as models. Klaw always went to great pains to make sure his photographs contained no sex acts or nudity, which would have made the material pornographic and hence illegal to sell via mail.
Through his production company Nutrix Co. (and later also Mutrix Corp), Klaw also published and distributed illustrated adventure/bondage serials by fetish artists Eric Stanton, Gene Bilbrew, Adolfo Ruiz and others.
After the surprise success of the B-movie Strip-O-Rama, a 1953 burlesque revue with famous striptease artists and model Bettie Page, Klaw quickly duplicated the formula and directed his own burlesque features. Using a professional camera crew and richly-saturated Eastman color filmstock, Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955) featured Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, and Bettie Page (and were released on DVD in the U.S. in 2000). He produced and directed a third film in 1956, Buxom Beautease, without Page.
Also during this period, Klaw set up weekend home-movie sessions where he produced scores of silent 8mm and 16mm black-and-white film loops. These featured striptease acts and an assortment of fetishistic subjects based on special requests from his clientele. Titles such as Riding the Human Pony Girl, Bondage in Leather Harness, and Booted Amazon Fights Again depicted women in skimpy lingerie and high heels engaging in elaborate bondage, cat-fights, spanking, and slave training.
Nearly all of these featurettes were shot on a single, sparsely decorated set, either in the studio above Movie Star News or at a nearby loft space. At least two films with Bettie Page (Rumble Seat Bondage and Jungle Girl Tied to Trees) were shot outdoors at secluded locations.
Still photos taken during the movie sessions were also sold at the store and in the biannual mail-order catalog Cartoon and Model Parade.
The Kefauver Hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1957 marked the beginning of the end of Irving Klaw's mail-order photography business in New York. The investigation tried to link pornography to juvenile delinquency. The McCarthy-style hearings branded Klaw as a degenerate pornographer and ushered in a new wave of media censorship. Bettie Page was also summoned to the hearings but was never called to testify. (Parts of the hearings are recreated in the film The Notorious Bettie Page.) She retired from modeling soon afterwards.
Because of the political, social, and legal pressures he faced, Klaw closed his storefront business and burned many of his negatives. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of the negatives were destroyed. However, his sister Paula secretly kept some of the better images, which can be seen today.
After the Senate hearings and the ensuing legal difficulties with State authorities, Klaw was barred from continuing his business in New York. Shortly thereafter, he moved his Nutrix Publishing Company — along with associates Satellite Publications (Stanley Malkin & Pat Martini), and Ed Mishkin's Mutrix Publishing Company — to an office building in Jersey City, New Jersey. All three companies sold similar fetish-oriented photos and magazines.
To further avoid prosecution, Klaw's Nutrix publishing imprint was restricted to a mail order-only business. For several years he published a number of small illustrated bondage/fetish photo-booklets. Titles such as Girl Psycho Handled with Restraint (1960), which includes old photos of Bettie Page, Girls Punishment at School of Discipline (1962), Tortured Models in the Wax Exhibit (1962), and Paddled Severely During Sorority Initiation (1963), are typical examples. Eventually he sold this business to Ed Mishkin, whose reprints often bear both names, Nutrix and Mutrix.
Klaw briefly returned to filmmaking in 1963, producing two films: Larry Wolk's Intimate Diary of an Artist's Model and Nature's Sweethearts, co-directing the latter. Unlike his previous movies, both pictures were exploitation "nudie cuties" that featured a number of topless women.
Irving Klaw died on September 3, 1966 due to complications from untreated appendicitis. He was survived by two sons, Arthur and Jeffrey. His nephew Ira Kramer, son of Paula and Jack Kramer, currently runs the family business, Movie Star News, which is now located on 18th Street.
Due to the revival of interest in Bettie Page that began in the 1980s, various compilations of Klaw's films have been released on video and DVD. Background music and narration were added to the silent fetish loops for the two-volume video Irving Klaw Bondage Classics (1984) by London Enterprises.
In 2005, Cult Epics released both volumes on one DVD under the title Bettie Page: Bondage Queen. Also in 2005, Cult Epics put out Bettie Page: Pin Up Queen, a DVD compilation of her burlesque performances from Striporama, Varietease and Teaserama, plus six black-and-white film loops of dancing and a cat-fight.
More of Klaw's bondage film reels, including one with Bettie Page, are in DVD format in Bizarro Sex Loops (Volumes 4 and 20). These are compilations of vintage fetish films released by Something Weird Video (2008).