By Bruce Lewis
Bondage queen. Sex goddess. Pin-up icon. All of these words could be used to describe Bettie Page, and all would be good choices, for she was all of those things. But she was much more, besides: a scholar, a Christian missionary, and the inspiration for a character in Star Wars. She was smart. She was notorious. She was scorching hot.
And she was 85 years of age when she slipped from this world on December 11, 2008, at Los Angeles’ Kindred Hospital.
Bettie Page was without doubt the face of American beauty during the second half of the 20th Century. Yes, there were others — Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn — but these were mostly movie stars, known worldwide from the films in which they appeared. Bettie Page didn’t need Hollywood to make her a goddess. All she needed were some black-and-white still photographs — more than 20,000 individual images, by some accounts — and a few crude film loops to make her a star. And while the Silver Screen starlets’ fame was pure product, cranked out in job lots by the global Hollywood hype machine, Bettie Page became famous with nothing but her charm, her will, and a few tiny advertisements in the back pages of a cheap magazine.
“We were lucky to get an orange in our Christmas stocking.”
It is 1933, and Bettie Page is walking barefoot to school. She is walking barefoot because her father has run away again — this time for good — leaving her mother to feed, clothe, and care for her and her five brothers and sisters. Bettie and one sister live in an orphanage now, but despite the cold and the lack of shoes and the bright pain of abandonment she feels every night, Bettie keeps walking, keeps putting one bare foot in front of the other, because she has made up her mind to graduate at the top of her class and go on to Vanderbilt. I’m not going to be barefoot forever, she says to herself. I’m going to college, and I’m going to get a job, and I’m going to be somebody.
Betty Mae Page was born into a family of eight in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 22, 1923. Her parents, Walter Roy Page and Edna Mae Pirtle, never could get it together. Walter Roy Page molested her when she was 13; after he went to jail for stealing a car, Edna Mae Page took two jobs and sent Betty and two sisters to an orphanage. There, the young Betty Page taught herself to sew and do makeup. Her natural intelligence began to emerge during her years at Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville, where she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by her classmates and graduated salutatorian of her class in June 1940, earning a scholarship to George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University). She gradated from Peabody four years later.
That’s right — Bettie Page had a degree: Bachelor of Arts, 1944. She also had a husband when she graduated, an old school flame named Billy Neal. But there was a war on, and Billy Neal found himself drafted into the Navy, so Betty Mae ended up following him around for a while, eventually landing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which at the time was still a more-or-less civilized country. She loved the island, but couldn’t stay. Nor could she stay married to Billy Neal. They divorced in November 1947.
“From the first time I posed nude, I wasn’t embarrassed.”
It’s 1950, and Betty Mae Page is walking along the strand at Coney Island. She’s been all over and done a lot since her divorce: a little modeling of furs here, a little secretarial work in San Francisco there, even a screen test at Fox (which went nowhere due to her refusal to spend casting couch time with an older executive).
Bill Neal had come home, and they’d tried to make it work, but after the miscarriage they had parted for good. Betty is working as a secretary now, typing all day in an office, spending her free time walking on the beach. Jerry Tibbs, a police officer and amateur photographer, is there, too. He raises his camera to capture the winsome 27-year-old’s image, and with a click of a shutter, the career of Betty Page ends, and the legendary Bettie Page is born.
“You ought to be a model”, he says, handing her his card. “I could make a portfolio for you.”
Bettie Page began her career as a glamour photography model, posing in lingerie for the various “camera clubs” that thrived in New York at the time. These clubs were less about f-stops and exposure timing and more about generating “pin-ups” — erotic but non-pornographic images of pretty girls in titillating garments and poses that were de rigueur among young, healthy male Americans in those pre-Playboy days. Bettie (as she was now known) was a pin-up natural, her combination of girl-next-door approachability and curvaceous sensuality tailor-made for the eyes of a worldly-wise but still essentially small-town male America.
By 1951, Bettie’s image graced the pages of men’s magazines everywhere; by 1952 she was the best-known pin-up in the world, thanks in large part to her partnership with bookstore owner and pin-up photographer Irving Klaw. Klaw specialized in cheesecake — saucy but essentially harmless turn-on photography featuring smiling cutie-pies in skimpy outfits, images of a type common in men’s magazines (and even in some mainstream press) of the day. Klaw’s photos and “specialty” films often showed Bettie and other women clad in kinky outfits, pretending to participate in bondage, spanking, and other acts of outlaw sexuality — yet, all were curiously chaste by modern standards. Irving Klaw catered to his clients’ tastes, but he was not a pornographer; his all-female films and stills might have been designed to thrill, but they never depicted nudity or contained explicit sexual content. Bettie would not have consented to appear nude or engaging in sexual activity in any case; beneath the curves and the silk dominatrix gear she remained the same small-town Tennessee girl she’d always been.
But she was becoming so much more. In 1953, Page resumed her dream of becoming an actress, taking classes at the renowned Herbert Berghoff Studios and making her first stage and television appearances, including some off-Broadway work and a memorable one-shot on the top-rated Jackie Gleason Show. Her first speaking part in a feature-length film came in the burlesque Striporama (the only time Page is known to have spoken on camera); two burlesque films by Irving Klaw (Teaserama and Varietease, followed. It is from these latter two films that Page is best known by her later generations of fans.
In 1954 Page met photographer and former fashion model Bunny Yeager. Yeager’s subsequent photographs of Bettie in a home-made jungle girl getup — the now-famous “Jungle Bettie” set — catapulted Page to the big leagues. Based on these images, Hugh Hefner himself picked Page to be Playmate of the Month for January 1955. The photo shows a beautiful and buxom Bettie Page, kneeling topless in front of a small Christmas tree, a wink beneath her bangs and Santa hat. She was 31 years old, and at the pinnacle of her career.
“All of a sudden I felt a hand in mine, leading me across the street to a small church…”
It is Christmas 1957, and Bettie Page is sitting in a southbound train car, headed for Florida. Her career as a pin-up model is over. Irving Klaw has been destroyed, dragged before the Congressional obscenity hearings convened by crusading Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) in the Senator’s crusade to smash the pin-up business as he had the comic book industry several years before. Klaw is still around, of course (he won’t die for another ten years yet), but the business he created has been reduced to a mere shadow of its former glory, and Klaw has fed the negatives of Bettie’s catalog of images into the fire.
And Bettie has gotten the message as well. The FBI boys were never rude or threatening, of course — Mr. Hoover would never have permitted such unprofessional behavior from his men — but the subpoena with her name on it, and the 16 hours she’d spent in claustrophobic room in the Capitol of the United States waiting to testify, were clear enough. She’d never been called before the committee, as it turned out, but Bettie Page was no fool. She got out. Her career as a pin-up idol is over.
Two years pass, and Bettie walks into a small church in Key West. Soon after, she severs all contact with her prior life, and disappears.
“I wish I could erase the years from 1979 to 1992…”
It is June, 1982, and Bettie Page is sitting in a California courtroom. She has 22 years, three marriages, and one trial for assault with a deadly weapon (1980, not guilty by reason of acute schizophrenia) behind her. Now, Bettie is on trial once again, this time for attempted murder. The victim, Leonie Haddad, is an elderly woman. Bettie had been her tenant when, for no reason anyone could see, Bettie had attacked her with a knife, severing Haddad’s finger. The judge is speaking now: “This court finds the defendant to be not guilty by reason of insanity. Due to the danger she poses to others, she is hereby sentenced to ten years at Patton State Hospital, sentence to begin forthwith.”
The gavel bangs. Chairs honk against the waxed floor as the Court stands adjourned. Bettie Page is carried away kicking and screaming to her second stint in the nuthouse.
But this is not the end of the Bettie Page story, because time, therapy, and a very good God smiled on her. Ten years later, Bettie emerged from Patton State well and healthy, her insanity in remission thanks to conscientious care, her own iron will, and many hours of prayer. At 70, she moved into a Los Angeles group home to live out her remaining years in obscurity — “penniless and infamous,” as she put it.
Penniless she was — although not for much longer; infamous she most definitely was not. For during her 30 years of divorce and despair, madness and mystery, Bettie Page’s images — the very images that had made her a pariah so long before — had transformed her into a superstar. And she had no idea.
When TV host Robin Leach came calling in 1993 to interview her for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Page was utterly unaware of the resurgence of her popularity. Entertainment Tonight arrived next to shoot a segment. When it aired, Page watched dumbfounded from her chair at the group home. It was only then that Page superfan Greg Theakston, whose fanzine The Betty Pages had kickstarted the Bettie craze of the 1980s, became aware that his longtime idol was yet alive. With glee, Theakston introduced a stunned Bettie Page to the universe of comic books, illustration portfolios, fine art prints, and film characters based upon her image.
And happy days were here again for Bettie Page. Newfound fame, fortune and fans followed as Bettie emerged from three decades of obscurity. The money began to flow to Bettie again, courtesy of a professional public relations firm whose owner was a longtime Bettie fan with a genuine concern for her welfare. An authorized biography was published in the late 1990s; two films about her life came next. Even the Klaw family and Bunny Yeager came to benefit from Bettiemania.
And she is not ashamed. “I never thought it was shameful,” she told “The Playboy Interview” in 1998. I felt normal. It’s just that it [modeling] was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous.”
At last, Bettie Page’s childhood dream had come true. The barefoot Tennessee schoolgirl had come a long way, but she’d made it. At last, Betty Mae Page was the one, the only, Bettie Page: Queen of the Pin-ups, icon, goddess. She was, as she had promised herself so long ago, somebody.
It is 2003. Bettie Page is 80 years old — and here she is again, posing for the August 2003 edition of Playboy. This time, however, there are no whips, no gags, no silky lingerie. Bettie will no more stand for such things now than she would have stood for full nudity in 1953.
Today, she wears a simple plaid shirt and ordinary street dress. She is, in many ways, a very ordinary elderly woman. Yet make no mistake: Bettie Page is far from ordinary, even in her golden years. She remains eminently photographable. The beauty is still there — the same bangs, the same pageboy (now silver gray), the same naughty eyes, and the same heart-melting smile. Hef does not make mistakes in this area; his onetime Playmate of the Month is still very much a scorching hot babe — the kind of older woman that earns sheepish second glances from the teenage boys at the mall. Yes, she’s put on some weight. Yes, it’s hard for her to get up and down these days. But, Bettie Page is still the Queen of the Pin-Ups.
And it is the Queen of the Pin-Ups that the world mourns today, 85 years and eight months after Betty Mae Page came into this world. She leaves us as she came to us: forever smart, forever notorious, forever scorching hot — forever the incomparable, unforgettable Bettie Page.
Bruce Lewis is an American voice actor, writer, artist, and author. He has worked in the U.S. manga and anime industry since 1993, and his book Draw Manga: How To Draw Manga In Your Own Unique Style, is an Amazon.com Bestseller.