Heaven Lee….a Nashville Legend Not Forgotten
I was kind of amazed when the mention of this woman’s name In a casual FaceBook post provoked so many likes and comments. Most of my FaceBook friends are far too young to actually remember Heaven Lee, an stripper who worked in Printers Alley during the 1970s and ’80s. Back then they were called “exotic dancers” and they didn’t take it all off, nor did they have physical contact with audience members or swing on poles. Of all the underground characters that I have known about in Nashville, Heaven is right up there with the best of them. She was a real legend, and a great entertainer. Everyone had heard of her. School teachers, church ladies, post office workers. If you said “Heaven Lee” no further explanation was needed.
During the late ’60s and early ’70’s, I found myself walking as close to the edge as I could without falling off and I was drawn to anyone who was more over the edge than I was. I have always been fascinated with women who took society’s rules and not only threw them out, but stomped all over them in the process, so of course, I was a fan of Heaven Lee.
Once, when I mentioned to one of my shadier cohorts that I really enjoyed her performances he responded by saying, “She’s a good friend of mine. Let’s go to her house. I drop in all the time.”
So I found myself pulling into the parking lot of an apartment building on (I believe) Thompson Lane and walking in a door to be greeted by none other than Heaven herself. She was wearing a negligee, accessorized with a pair of feathered mules. Her apartment was beyond Baroque; it was into the land of Rococo. Statues of Greek gods and goddesses, large arrangements of artificial flowers and feathers, fake fur (I hope it was fake) rugs and throws. Large pieces of baronial furniture fitted into small rooms. There was a man there who was introduced as her husband. I found it hard to see them as a couple, but I don’t remember much about him. Keep in mind this was nearly 40 years ago. Heaven was quite hospitable, and charming in the way a person is charming when they feel people are always watching them. She took me on “a tour ” of the apartment, asking first if I’d like to see the rest of the place. Well, of course I said yes. The bedroom was not to be believed. The bed was so big it seemed to have been custom-built into the room, because otherwise it would have been impossible to get it in the door. There were mirrors everywhere, on the walls and covering the ceiling. Heavy damask drapes were hung in such a way as to make the walls look like they were all windows. But, the finishing touch–and I am not making this up–was that the bed edges had several of those vibrators (would be very retro now) that you strap onto your palm, all plugged in and just resting quietly. I was somewhat speechless as I did not have a reaction in my repertoire. As I was standing there trying to imagine something cleverly complimentary to say about this boudoir, I randomly glanced up into the ceiling mirror and suddenly made eye contact with my hostess. It was an interesting moment, and the only thing about the whole encounter that felt genuine. It was as though we were both looking at someone and wondering what her story really was. It was, to be honest, a little closer to the edge than I wanted to be. After a moment we both looked away and after politely saying goodbye, my friend and I left. That episode happened and I didn’t see Heaven Lee again for about 3 years. Then one day I was at the Nashville Flea Market with a sort of date and saw Heaven sitting in a booth selling what I believe I remember were jukeboxes, and other kinds of kitschy antiques. Without question, I walked by and to say hello. As I was about to go into the “you probably don’t remember me, but–” routine, she interrupted me and smiled. “Of course, I remember you. You were once in my bedroom.” I laughed and so did she. My companion must have found this quiet titillating, and I decided I’d just let him wonder.
So, after thinking of her yesterday I decided to see if I could find out what ever happened to her. In my internet search, I had to wade through several listings of women who have co-opted that name. Porn stars — more than one, but the best one is into bondage; escorts in three major cities, and one lady who just has some sort of home candy factory. But amidst all these counterfeits, some info about the real Heaven began to appear. This article was in The Tennessean, but I don’t know when. I know that for everyone, life has its ups and downs. I chose this particular little report on her because it is the most upbeat. I could find no information past 1990. I hope she found a way to express her creativity after the exotic dancing show ended.
Heaven Lee, nee Vianka de la Prida, may not have originally come from Tennessee, but the native Cuban made it her home for almost four decades.
Lee was an entertainer on Printers Alley in Nashville. According to the Tennessean, “She was perhaps the only stripper with a hit run of more than 52 consecutive weeks in Printers Alley.” Though her ambition was to become a Las Vegas showgirl-turned-movie star, Lee’s career stayed anchored in Nashville.
Nevertheless, there were few obstacles that could slow Lee down. She had to defend herself against accusations that she was a transvestite in 1973 and the addition of pasties (due to a Metro law against bare nipples) in 1978.
While stripping, in and of itself, may not have been too shocking, the manner in which she chose to support environmental causes certainly raised a few eyebrows.
Her first such public display was in 1970 when she rode on horseback, Lady Godiva-style, with nothing but a body stocking on to protest pollution. Later, during a fuel shortage in ’79, she began to ride her bike to work — in high heels, no less.
Heaven Lee left Nashville for warmer climates around 1990 and is rumored to live in southern Florida