The Go-To Girl
In the late 1980s, artist/writer Greg Theakston launched an ambitious little fanzine called The Betty Pages. Pages revisited the career of a somewhat forgotten pinup model named Bettie Page, who had retired from modeling in 1957, after years of popularity in girlie magazines. Where had she gone and why did she leave? Through the pages of his fanzine, Theakston tried to uncover the answers, while captivating readers' imaginations with reproductions of Page's photos and various articles about 1950s pinup culture.
Other people were interested in Page, too. Some of her pictures had been reprinted in a 1976 magazine called A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page. Artist Robert Blue was inspired by vintage fetish photos to create paintings that portrayed her in kinky poses. Pinup artist Olivia famously recreated Page's image in her work, and comic book maestro Dave Stevens was inspired by Page's look to create the character Betty in his influential series The Rocketeer. Ultimately, it was a prominent 1991 article in USA Today that brought the mystery of Bettie Page to the mainstream.
When she finally emerged from obscurity in 1992, Page herself couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. After all, there were many pinup models in the 1950s, but the only one remembered so fervently today is Page. So what was it about her that engendered such a spirited and enduring revival? Was it the cute-yet-sultry hairstyle-a longer, tress-curled version of Louise Brooks' infamous black helmet? Was it the way she modeled for the BDSM photos of the 50s underground, with a look of earnestly southern hospitality, no matter what sort of bondage predicament she'd been placed in? Or was it something more...intangible?
Page appeared across the spectrum of the erotica of her time: in burlesque-style pictorials in girlie magazines like Titter and Eyeful; for artistic figure photographers and amateur camera club buffs; for glamour magazine professionals like Bunny Yeager, who took Page’s best outdoor swimsuit and nude shots; and for fetish photographers Irving and Paula Klaw, who captured her in both stills and short 8mm movies with a tabloidish black-and-white glare in gleaming leather and skyscraper heels, sometimes with a whip, other times being spanked, and in tight bondage. Although she was never a stripper, Page also appeared in three theatrical burlesque films: Strip-O-Rama, Varietease and Teaserama.
In essence, Page was the consummate professional model-a female who willingly portrayed a full range of sexual fantasies-whether or not such scenarios held any personal appeal. For example, while she enjoyed posing nude, as she did for Bunny Yeager, she did the Klaw bondage poses strictly for the money: “I never had any inkling along that line,” she told interviewer Nerve.com in 1998. And as she modestly admitted during a Nashville Citysearch chat in 1998, “I don't know what they mean by [calling me] an icon...I was just modeling, thinking of as many different poses as possible. I made more money than being a secretary.”
However, she was only famous under the radar: after all, while Page worked steadily until her sudden “retirement,” she wasn't exactly getting rich, earning roughly $10 per hour, while living in an inexpensive flat in New York.
Unfortunately, she became infamous under the radar, too. In 1955, Estes Kefauver, a headline-seeking Tennessee Democrat with an eye on the White House, investigated the effects of pornography on juvenile delinquency. His committee put the spotlight on the Klaws' bondage photo business. Although Page was called to testify, in the end she didn't have to. Still, anticipating such an experience frightened her, and began to sour her on modeling.
Even though their photographs were never classified as obscene, the Klaws' business, a regular source of income for Page, was badly damaged. Within two years, despite having her image everywhere from magazines to matchbooks to album covers to paperback art to science-fiction illustrations, the “Queen of Curves” retired from modeling, abandoning a world of double-edged fame and infamy.
Bettie Lost and Found
In some ways it's a great irony: scores of men and women have found their own eroticized interpretations of god in the image of Bettie Page, yet Page herself found god sometime in the late 1950s. As she explained in a 1997 Playboy interview, she repented what she'd come to see as her sins: sex, nude modeling, and a little shoplifting in college. She wanted to become a missionary, but was denied that role by church superiors because she'd been twice divorced.
It was during this time that deeper psychological problems began to manifest. As minutely detailed in Richard Foster's controversial but seriously researched 1997 biography, The Real Bettie Page, she became delusional in her fifties. In two separate incidents, she attacked her landlords with knives. Page was judged not guilty by reason of insanity both times, which ultimately led to years of institutionalization. While Page herself spent much of the '80s in and out of California mental institutions, her mystique endured.
The Merging of Woman and Image
With examples of her charismatic beauty once again abundant in the 80s, Page sprang up fresh in the erotic awareness of new generations. Still, nobody seemed to know where she was, until a Tennessee newspaperman's legwork led to an interview with one of her brothers, and eventually the lady herself popped up in 1992, interviewed in, of all venues, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Contrary to the show's title, she told host Robin Leach that she was “penniless and infamous.”
Two books published in the mid-90s did their best to piece together the story of Page and her eponymous image. An authorized biography entitled Bettie Page, The Life of a Pinup Legend, written with Page's cooperation, gave a visual overview of her career with a bit of information, but it didn't discuss her later mental and legal difficulties, a task that was tackled by the aforementioned The Real Bettie Page. That latter book revealed that at the time Page was becoming a cultural icon of greater fame than she had ever known in the 50s, she was hospitalized for paranoid schizophrenia. According to the book, she learned about her new fame from seeing a report about herself on television while in still in a California hospital. The 2005 biopic The Notorious Bettie Page was based on the Foster book.
During her years living in obscurity, which were pre-Internet, Page's image was spread afar by magazines, collector's cards and comic books. Once she returned to public view-in however limited a fashion, considering that she almost never allowed herself to be photographed, preferring to let fans remember her as she was-Page ultimately connected with admirers and protectors like Dave Stevens and Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, as well as business people savvy enough to market her image and turn her into a “brand.”
CMG Worldwide, which also manages the images of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, claimed in a 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times that her official website had more than a half a billion hits over five years. In the last years of her life (she died in December 2008, at 85), she would visit their offices and sign paintings she'd posed for, which greatly increased their value. After all the years of dissonance, Page had reconciled enough with her image to profit from it.
While she never deserted her religious beliefs, thanks to years in therapy, Page returned to her earlier belief in the glory of the naked body. “God approves of nudity,” she told Playboy in 1997. “If [Adam and Eve] hadn't listened to the devil, they could have been nude all their lives and happy as larks. I always went around my apartment in New York totally nude.”
Bonnie J. Burton, author of the 1995 online essay “I Was a Teenage Betty,” told Richard Foster: “She makes sex seem okay instead of a sin.” Or, as Greg Theakston put it: “She wasn't like any other pin-up model of the 1950s because her smile reassured you that it was okay to feel good while looking at her pictures.”
And the truth shall set you free.