Cozumel was a virgin paradise in the fall of 1963 when SI landed its invasion force. "It was wild, wild, wild," says Babette. "There was nothing there but a Mexican air force base and a tiny hotel. When you turned on the shower, salt water came out."
The swimsuit delegation was met by the outpost's chummy commandant, whose 450 pounds were partially obscured by G-string briefs. He was armed with a bottle of tequila and a roast chicken, and flanked by two shirtless pilots. "In those days, we didn't bring any hairdressers or makeup artists." says Smith. "Models were less inclined to be mannequins. The job required some acting ability, and Babette was up for anything."
That included slipping into a daring white leather bikini for the cover shot. The suit had one drawback—water. "It got horribly heavy and soggy," Babette says. "I hated that bikini. I couldn't wait to get out of it."
Not that she had much left to wear in her Cozumel hotel room. Every day articles of clothing owned by the SI crew disappeared: shoes, shirts, underwear. "The commandant told us not to worry," says Smith. "He said the workers just wanted to maintain their reputations as thieves. He assured us that everything would be returned when we left." Sure enough, on the last day, everything was miraculously back in place. "Folded nicely." Smith says.
The following Christmas, Smith received an envelope from the base commandant. Inside was a half pound of Cozumel sand and the message, BRING BACK GIRLS.
Meanwhile, Babette had become an object of desire. SI readers requested dates and proposed marriage. The boys at the Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., asked her to reign at their spring ball.
Babette remains bemused by the furor she created. "I guess I looked all right in a bathing suit," she says.