She used to be the center of attention, both scandalized and adoring. Now she just wants to be left alone.
On a sultry July afternoon, she steps into my motel room. “So you’re the one who wants me,” she says in a deep, cigarette-stained voice.
For a moment, I have no idea what to say. She takes a seat by the bed and lights a Virginia Slim. She’s tiny, no more than five feet three inches tall, and she weighs perhaps 110 pounds. She is wearing tan boots, a long denim skirt, a cotton sweater, a colorful Indian-blanket jacket, sunglasses that cover the top half of her face, and a wide-brimmed straw hat. I stare at the woman, thinking, “Is this really her?” The most recent photographs I could find were taken more than 25 years ago, when she was in her early forties. Since then she has been a virtual recluse.
“Miss Barr?” I finally stammer.
She pulls off her jacket, removes her hat, and then, after a pause, takes off her sunglasses. And suddenly, there it is: the famous teardrop-shaped face with the glittering, deep-set green eyes. The face that once launched a million male fantasies. The face that could only belong to Candy Barr, the former Dallas stripper whose madcap adventures in the late fifties and early sixties—from her tumultuous love affairs with gangsters to her battles with a self-righteous Dallas police captain to her farcical criminal trial over her alleged possession of marijuana—catapulted her onto the front pages of every newspaper in Texas and turned her into something of a folk hero.
At a time in our social evolution when thousands of surgically enhanced young women seem to believe their calling in life is to disrobe and perform lap dances in expensive “gentlemen’s clubs,” it is hard to imagine that there was once an era when a pretty, wisecracking blond dancer could rock the foundations of an entire city. Yet half a century ago, during the days of Eisenhower and DiMaggio, when Playboy was being sold under the counter and “organizations for decency” were trying to get Hemingway and Faulkner banned from bookstores and school libraries, Candy Barr started strutting across a small stage at the Colony Club in downtown Dallas, just across the street from the great Adolphus Hotel, wearing only pasties, “scanty panties,” a ten-gallon hat, and a cap gun on each hip. Then in her early twenties, she looked like the kind of girl who would have been voted high school class favorite or head cheerleader, but she had a way of shaking her body that made men’s knees buckle. As Gary Cartwright wrote in this magazine in December 1976, Candy Barr became “a landmark” in the sexual liberation of Texas men in the fifties. She was “forbidden fruit, a symbol for the agony of our tightly corked libidos.” She epitomized, he wrote, “the conflict between sex as joy and sex as danger. The body was perfect, but it was the innocence of the face that lured you on.”
Now Candy Barr is 66, and her face is lined with wrinkles. Her famous blond hair is closely cropped, and she walks slowly as a result of respiratory problems and a bad back (she broke it a few years ago while helping a disabled friend get out of bed). She lives with two dogs, two cats, and a crippled parakeet in a small frame house in rural South Texas. Although she is not happy that I am going to mention it, her only source of income is a monthly Social Security disability check. She cooks her meals on a hot plate. She has a television set that gets only a couple of channels. Because her car doesn’t go far without breaking down, she rarely ventures out of her house except for trips to the grocery store, Wal-Mart, and the veterinarian’s office. (She agreed to drive into her hometown of Edna to meet me because she doesn’t want anyone knowing the exact location of her house.) Yet she has lost none of the feistiness that used to captivate legions of men.
“So, baby, what are you waiting for?” she says, pursing her lips as she gives me the once-over. “I know what you want.” She pauses. “You want to know what the hell’s happened to me.”
Before she was Candy Barr she was Juanita Dale Slusher, the daughter of a South Texas bricklayer and harmonica player. When Juanita was nine, her mother died and her father married a woman who cared little for the offspring of his first marriage. At thirteen Juanita ran away from home and ended up in Dallas, working as a maid at the Trolley Courts Motel on Harry Hines Boulevard. At the age of fourteen she married a young Dallas safecracker named Billy Debbs. They became kind of like a teenage Bonnie and Clyde. She would walk into a local business in a cute dress, pretending to apply for a job as a way to find out where the safe was, and at night she would drive the getaway car after Billy committed the burglary. When Billy went off to prison, she was alone again (he was shot to death soon after his release). She started spending her evenings dancing at nightclubs, where men would woo her, saying they would pay her to have sex. Some men, she says, held knives and guns on her if she didn’t submit. “It was what I had to do to survive,” she says with a shrug, but for a moment her eyes shift from mine and focus on the floor. “I was a poor girl with no education. I thought I could save my money to go to college someday, but sometimes things just don’t work out like you’d planned.” One afternoon a man forced her to be filmed while having sex with another man in a motel room. The grainy black and white film (there was no audio), titled Smart Aleck, was circulated nationwide and became the Deep Throat of its time. No one had ever seen such a beautiful girl in a blue movie—especially one who seemed to be enjoying herself. “I was a fifteen-year-old girl being molested in front of a camera,” Candy says, and her eyes begin to fill with tears at the memory. “Men who’ve seen the film always talk about how I smiled while I was having sex. I was told to smile. And I knew if I didn’t smile, something worse would happen to me after that camera was turned off.”
Her life began to get better in the early fifties, when she got a job as a cigarette girl at Barney Weinstein’s Theater Lounge in downtown Dallas. Weinstein’s brother Abe, who ran the Colony Club, took one look at her and told her he was going to make her a star. She and Abe came up with the name Candy Barr (she loved eating candy bars during her breaks at work), dyed her brown hair blond, and soon was performing to packed houses. Everyone from Southern Methodist University fraternity boys to top members of Dallas crime boss Benny Binion’s organization to the city’s business and political leaders came out to see her. Her popularity only increased when word spread that she was the girl in Smart Aleck. One longtime Dallasite swears that he once saw then-governor Price Daniel at a front table, enjoying Candy’s show. Unlike the club’s other burlesque dancers, who wore heavy makeup and went by naughty French names, Candy wore little makeup, and by today’s standards her show wasn’t particularly suggestive. “I wasn’t out there trying to get a rise in a man’s Levi’s,” she says. “I didn’t care about what the men thought. I just enjoyed the dancing.” But she didn’t hesitate to take advantage of her patrons’ generosity. After what she had been through as a teenager, she was ready for a little payback. At private stag parties, Dallas’ wealthier gentlemen reportedly paid up to $500 each to get a much closer view of her talents. (How close depends on whose story you believe.)
In January 1956 she was arrested for shooting her estranged second husband, Dallas man-about-town Troy Phillips, after he drunkenly barged through the front door of their apartment, looking for her. She wasn’t remotely apologetic. She said she was aiming for his groin and missed, wounding him in the stomach. As newspaper photographers surrounded her at the police station, the irrepressible Candy, who never missed a chance to get off a good line, said, “Make it sexy, boys.” When she told a grand jury stories about her husband’s abusive behavior, the charges against her were dropped—a rare victory in those days for a woman who had taken the law into her own hands. Yet not everyone was thrilled that she went free. In the sexually repressed fifties, there were as many people who wanted to get rid of her as there were who wanted to ogle her. Among her enemies were the old-money Dallas women’s clubs, composed of the wives of many of the prominent men who had been willing to pay up to $500 to get their hands on Candy Barr. The women reportedly began to pressure district attorney Henry Wade and police captain Pat Gannaway, the director of the Dallas Police Department’s special service bureau, to shut down Candy’s act.
The hard-line Gannaway—who, according to a glowing story in the Dallas Morning News, “specialized in dispatching drug peddlers, the sex merchants and the gamblers off to prison”—was more than happy to oblige. His officers tapped her phone and kept her apartment under constant surveillance. In October 1957 they raided her apartment (Candy’s attorneys said the search warrant was blank) and found a small bottle of marijuana hidden in her bra. It just so happened that two hours before the raid, a stripper friend of Candy’s, allegedly in cahoots with the police, had come to the apartment and asked Candy to hide the marijuana for a couple of days while her mother was visiting. The police said there was enough marijuana in that bottle to roll 125 joints. In truth there was less than an ounce, which would be a misdemeanor today.
The DA’s office offered her a two-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Candy, then 23 years old, wouldn’t budge. Despite the fact that juries in conservative Dallas were sentencing people to life for marijuana possession, she wanted her day in court. “All my life there had been people trying to make me look like trash,” she tells me. “They weren’t going to do it to me anymore.” But the trial turned into a circus. The judge himself pulled out a camera to take pictures of what the newspapers called “the shapely defendant.” He then gutted Candy’s defense that she had been framed by the police when he refused to allow any testimony regarding the identity of the police informant. “She may be cute,” growled prosecutor Bill Alexander in his closing argument, “but under the evidence, she’s soiled and dirty.” The jury of one woman and eleven men, a few of whom were probably feeling pressure from their wives, sentenced her to fifteen years in prison. It has been reported that Governor Daniel called the district attorney’s office to question the severity of the sentence, lending credence to the story that the governor had caught her show.
Candy remained free while her lawyers appealed the case. But instead of lying low and acting like a good girl, she went off to dance at the best strip clubs in Los Angeles and at Las Vegas’ El Rancho nightclub, earning up to $2,000 a week. She was reportedly a bridesmaid in one of Sammy Davis, Jr.’s weddings. She acquired a new suitor, Mickey Cohen, then the most infamous mobster in the western United States. Though the relationship didn’t last long, it made her notorious, even in wide-open Las Vegas. Under pressure from law enforcement and a county commissioner, El Rancho fired her, claiming she had a “detrimental effect” on the community’s morals. She was replaced by bland nightclub singer Nelson Eddy, whose big hit was “Shortnin’ Bread.”
When Candy’s case reached the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, one judge wrote about her conviction, “If that is equal justice under the law, I want no part of it.” But two other judges upheld the jury’s ruling. Captain Gannaway and the forces for decency in Dallas had won. In 1960, surrounded by newsmen and photographers, Candy entered the Goree Prison Farm for Women, outside Huntsville. (As she walked up the stairs into the prison, wearing a black coat with a fur collar and black gloves, she told the assembled crowd, “I always wanted a brick house of my own, and it looks like I am going to have one.”) Reporters chronicled almost everything she did at Goree, from working as a seamstress in the prison garment factory and singing in the prison choir to playing in an all- female band at the prison rodeo and writing a book of poetry, which she later self-published, titled A Gentle Mind … Confused.
She was paroled after serving three years and 91 days, under the stipulation that she live within 36 miles of Edna and never again work as a stripper or at any establishment that served alcohol. Yet she could not manage to stay out of the headlines. Two months before the Kennedy assassination, she was visited by one of her nightclub friends, Jack Ruby, who owned Dallas’ Carousel Club. After Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, federal agents descended on Candy to find out what she knew. (To this day, she insists that she knows nothing about Ruby’s involvement in any conspiracy.) In 1969, a year after receiving a pardon from Governor John Connally, she was arrested again for marijuana possession, this time in the Central Texas town of Brownwood, where she had moved to be near a close female friend. But to the dismay of the Brownwood district attorney, who had apparently wanted to rid his town of what he perceived as an undesirable influence, a judge threw out the case, ruling that the police had improperly entered her house at two-thirty in the morning to look for marijuana.
In 1975, in her early forties and short on money, Candy accepted $5,000 to pose nude for Oui magazine—at the time it was shocking for a men’s magazine to do a nude layout of a woman who was past thirty. The next year she allowed Cartwright to visit her for his Texas Monthly story. She made brief appearances here and there, and there was talk that Farrah Fawcett wanted to make a movie about her life, but nothing came of it, and by the early eighties she was practically forgotten. After a flood ruined her Brownwood house, she quietly moved back to South Texas to live out the rest of her life. On occasion men would do a double take when they saw her somewhere, but she never stopped to chat. “I’ve been married and divorced four times,” she snaps when I ask if she ever wants to fall in love again. “After what I’ve been through, I’m not exactly someone who believes that a man can make a woman happy.”
Today, getting Candy to talk about her celebrated past is not easy. She cuts me off when I start prying about the gangsters she knew or what Jack Ruby was really like. “Honey, those stories are so, so old,” she says with a dismissive wave of her cigarette. “I’m so tired of telling them.” “But aren’t there times when you miss those days?” I ask. “Those days when you were the most famous woman in Texas? When people either lusted after you or were terrified of you?” For a moment her face softens, and she smiles. “Well, sometimes I hear the old songs I used to dance to, and I feel my body moving again.” She pauses. “But don’t get any ideas, baby. I ain’t going to be dancing for you. Candy Barr is long gone. I’m just an old country broad now named Juanita, surviving as best I can. At night I have to fire my rifle out toward the pasture to keep the coyotes from coming up to the door.”
She pushes herself out of her chair. She puts on her jacket, her sunglasses, and her hat. “Now don’t you let anyone know where they can find me,” Candy Barr warns me one last time. “Let the world find someone else to talk about. I like being left alone.”