"There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia"

I was recently looking through The Naturist Society’s naturist bibliography, compiled by Mark Storey, when I came across the title There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia and Other Bare Facts by Will Rogers. My interest was piqued, because Will Rogers is everywhere here in Oklahoma – he is the state’s favorite native son. Rogers was an extremely popular public persona in the US and abroad, especially from about 1917 to his untimely death in 1935. As a humorist and political pundit, he wrote regular newspaper columns as well as books, in addition to being a rodeo rider and Broadway star, roving reporter and aviation enthusiast.

When I discovered that a local library’s special archive holds an original edition of the book, I just had to go have a look. It was originally published in New York in 1927 by Albert & Charles Boni, with illustrations by Herb Roth.

Well…it’s a fun read based on Rogers’ time in Russia, but it has very little to do with naturism. The title is meant to titillate, as is so much marketing along the lines of NAKED juice, etc. The frontispiece declares “If you like the following subjects you will just love this text book,” and then includes  “Bathing Bareback” in the list of subjects. The brief book is more consistently about the Russian political scene of the time than anything else, but it does include plenty of wry commentary about social customs, and among these comments is a brief section on skinnydipping. I’ve reproduced the passage here with Rogers’ original spellings:

“Now while I am on this Athaletic stuff I better kinder call you over to one side and tip you off to a little bit of the life that is really very interesting, in fact kinder exciting, and to an outsider makes life worth while in Moscow. The river runs right through the town, and contrary to the general notion and looks of some of them, why, they do bathe–that is, some of them do; and when I say bathe, I mean they bathe together. They don’t let race, creed, or sex interfere with them. And what I mean–they bathe right. They just wade in what you would call the Nude, or altogether. No one-piece bathing suits to hamper their movements.

If there is a bathing suit in Russia, somebody is using it for an overcoat. Why, there is only two pair of trunks in Russia, and they were being mended the weeks I was there. Well, when I saw that I just sit right down and cabled my old friend Mr. Ziegfeld: ‘Don’t bring Follies to Russia. You would starve to death here.’ But you know the way they do it there–don’t seem to be so much what we used to years ago call–what was that word? Oh, yes, ‘Immoral.’ Well, they just walk down there to the bank of the river and everybody skins off their clothes. They don’t have much. Underwear is about as scattering there as bathing suits. 

Now if it hadent been for this bathing existing I would have got out and seen a lot more places in Russia than I did. But I want to state positively that while I did not get to see all of Russia, I got to see all of some Russians” (pp. 130-133)

The passage shows many hallmarks of Rogers’ plainspoken humor, such as that last line about not seeing all of Russia but seeing all of some Russians. His comic timing is brilliant in the line, near the end of the first paragraph, that starts “They just wade in” and you’re expecting to read “the river,” but the sentence heightens the element of surprise by continuing with “what you would call the Nude.” Yet he does not even make fun of the Russians for skinnydipping. In fact, he recognizes that no textiles on the bathers means nothing “to hamper their movements.” He even says their “bathing” is not immoral, and suggests that the scantily clad women of the Ziegfeld’s Follies format (Rogers himself had participated in the show in 1917) could not compete.

Here is Herb Roth’s illustration that appears in the middle of this passage:

Herb Roth, illustration in There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia by Will Rogers, p. 131

Given Rogers’ words of support for the bathers, it’s a shame that his caricature does not participate with the fit skinnydippers but instead stands at a remove, fully clothed and holding his hands up. Is he shielding his eyes, or applauding, or is his gesture the one where you’re letting your pal in on a secret? I imagine the latter, although it’s ambiguous. I can also acknowledge that maybe the illustrator couldn’t imagine how to depict Rogers without drawing him in his signature garb. Maybe the publishing team imagined their readers would be offended by the depiction of a nude Will Rogers. Yet Roth could not resist including a phallic rendering of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background.

I don’t know if people still skinnydip in the Moskva River. Somehow I doubt it. But I do know that skinnydipping was common during the time of Rogers’ childhood in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma); it’s a safe bet he made reference to this fact elsewhere in his writings. Another safe bet: There are plenty, in fact way too many, bathing suits in Russia now. 

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