Carol Doda died this week. If you aren’t a San Francisco Bay Area person, you might never have heard of her, but she was an iconic figure in “the City” for many of the decades I’ve lived here. A San Francisco native, she dropped out of school in the 8th grade.
“I thought the only way to make it was to be a cocktail waitress, so that’s what I did when I was 14,” she once said. “You can make yourself look older if you use your hair and makeup right.”
Many would quarrel with her life choices, but they certainly seem to have worked well for her. In 1964, she became the first well-known topless dancer of that period, and later that year she got silicone implants which increased the size of her breasts by ten sizes.
That summer, the Republican National Convention which nominated Barry Goldwater to run against Lyndon Johnson was held in San Francisco, and she was the entertainer the delegates most wanted to see. Later, after Jimmy Carter admitted that he “lusted in his heart” for women he wasn’t married to, Doda invited him to come see her act. She also put a ten-foot high picture of him outside the door of the Condor, the club where she danced for decades, under the billboard which showed a sketch of her with bright red blinking nipples.
After leaving the Condor, she started a rock band, the Lucky Stiffs. When that faded in the 1990s, she started a lingerie shop in San Francisco called Champagne and Lace and did comedy, singing and dancing — with her clothes on — at North Beach nightclubs near where she once danced topless. She was sashaying through her flirtatious act, warbling “That Old Black Magic” and the like, until her health began to fail this year.
She often said she considered herself more of an entertainer than a stripper.
In one narrative, she is a victim of the male gaze and the objectification of women, a woman who could have had a very different life, perhaps been the entertainer she wanted to be without such extreme sexualization, without the breast implants, without the prurience of much of her audience. In another, she’s a woman who took charge of her own life, built a career doing something she loved, and reveled in an acceptance of how people chose to see her. The obituary says that she had a large extended family in Northern California, a place to get outside of the spotlight.
She certainly made some difficult choices, almost inevitably must have struggled with some of their consequences, and in the end seems to have had a full, rich, satisfying life, substantially on her own terms. Her story complicates the question of the sex worker in American life in the second half of the 20th century. She deserves to be remembered.