Bettie Page

Summary

Bettie Mae Page († December 11, 2008 in Los Angeles, California) was an American fetish and nude model. She became known for pin-up images in the 1950s, fell largely into obscurity in the 1960s, and has been revered as a pin-up icon and sex symbol by various subcultures since the 1980s. She is considered one of the most photographed women of the 1950s, the first known bondage and fetish model, and a pioneer of the so-called sexual revolution. She was the inspiration for comic characters, films and the development of the New Burlesque.

Childhood and youth

Bettie Page was born in poor circumstances, the second of the six children of Walter Roy Page (1896-1964) and Edna Mae Pirtles (1901-1986). During her childhood, the family traveled the country in search of work and economic stability. Bettie, who was sexually abused by her father, had to care for her younger siblings at an early age. Her parents divorced when Bettie was ten years old, and her mother gave Bettie to an orphanage for a year out of financial hardship.

As a teenager, Bettie and her sisters designed hairstyles, they imitated the makeup styles of their idols, and Page also learned to sew during this time. Both later proved useful in her career, as she designed her own makeup as well as hairstyles, bikinis and costumes. She was a very good student of Hume-Fogg High School and a member of the debating club, there she was judged “most likely to succeed”.

She graduated from high school on June 6, 1940, second in her class, and matriculated at George Peabody College with the goal of becoming a teacher. The following fall, she changed majors; she now studied acting in hopes of being discovered as a movie star. At the same time, she took her first job, doing writing work for author Alfred Leland Crabb. In 1944, she graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

In 1943, Page married her former classmate Billy Neal shortly before he was called to active duty in World War II. In the years that followed, Page moved from San Francisco to Nashville, from there to Miami, and then to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Upon her return to the United States in 1947, she filed for divorce from Neal.

Model career

She then worked occasionally in San Francisco and Haiti. In search of employment as an actress, she finally moved to New York, where she initially kept her head above water with odd jobs as a secretary. In 1950, while walking on the beach at Coney Island, Page met Jerry Tibbs, a police officer who was interested in photography. Page agreed to model for him. From the photographs taken by Tibbs, her first pin-up portfolio was created.

In the late 1940s, men came together in so-called camera clubs, whose purpose was to circumvent the existing restrictive legal regulations on the production of nude photographs. Ostensibly, the clubs served to produce artistically valuable photographs; however, they were merely a front for the production of erotic and, in some cases, pornographic images. When Page began working in glamour photography with photographer Cass Carr, she was already a very well-known model in the camera club scene. Her uninhibited way of posing in front of the camera made her popular and her face quickly became known in the erotic industry. In 1951 her pictures appeared in men”s magazines with names like Eyeful, Wink, Titter, Black Nylons or even Beauty Parade.

At that time, she occasionally modeled for photographer Irving Klaw, who distributed photographs with bondage and sadomasochistic motifs by mail. Klaw suggested to Page the fringe hairstyle that became her trademark and made reminiscences of Page easily recognizable in the decades to come. She became the first known bondage and fetish model through Klaw as Bettie Page – The Dark Angel (“The Dark Angel”). Klaw covered a gap with the Dominatrix images of Page wearing a whip, because such images were not available in the Eisenhower-era men”s magazines for sale to the public. Contrary to Klaw”s claims, which were mostly for marketing purposes, Page herself was not interested in bondage or BDSM. The scenes depicting her as femdom with her sister, as well as the photographs of submissive or bound Damsel in Distress (“Persecuted Innocence”) were posed.

When the artists Klaw distributed, such as John Willie and Gene Bilbrew, no longer produced single pictures but entire series that could be viewed like picture stories, the move to film productions with Page was an obvious progression for Klaw. With her and other well-known stars from the pin-up and burlesque scenes, for example Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm, Klaw produced the three underground films Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955). These three films were particularly important for the spread of striptease in the prudish postwar United States, as they reached and influenced far more people than the burlesque acts that had been commonplace in nightclubs or vaudeville houses up to that time. Bettie Page became a catfight icon through her collaboration with Klaw. She participated in about 50 women”s wrestling films, and there were also hundreds of photos with wrestling poses.

While working with Herbert Berghoff, Page landed a few theater roles in New York Off-Broadway productions in 1953, for example Time is a Thief and Sunday Costs Five Pesos, and she made a few television appearances, including an appearance on the then-popular Jackie Gleason Show. Although she was invited to several auditions with film companies in Hollywood, she failed because of her very pronounced Southern dialect, which she was never able to get rid of despite intensive language training. She was unable to gain a foothold in acting, either on stage or screen, and her focus remained pin-up photography.

In 1954, during one of her annual trips to Miami, she met photographers Jan Caldwell, H. W. Hannau and Bunny Yeager. As one of the most famous pin-ups in New York, she was booked by Yeager, former model and then aspiring photographer, for photo shoots at the now-closed Africa U.S.A. Park in Boca Raton. The result was the Jungle Queen series of the most acclaimed photographs of her career, including very popular nudes of Page with a pair of cheetahs. The costumes used, with the classic leopard print, had been designed by Page herself.

When Yeager sent some of the photos to Playboy”s founder, Hugh Hefner, in 1955, the latter introduced Page as Playmate of the Month for January. That same year, she also won the title of “Miss Pinup Girl of the World.” While the careers of many pinup girls were often limited to just a few months, Page was in demand as a model for years until 1957. Although she often posed nude, she never officially appeared in pornographic-related scenes.

Withdrawal from the public

At the height of her career, she withdrew from the public eye in 1957. At that time, there were about 20,000 pictures of her, and she had appeared on more covers and magazines than Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford combined later. Various reasons were given for her retirement. In one of her interviews between 1996 and 1999, she herself stated that she had become too old.

After her retirement, Page turned to the evangelical revival movement. During one of her regular visits to Key West, she attended a New Year”s Eve service of the congregation that is now Key West Temple Baptist Church. She found the ethnically mixed atmosphere very attractive and now attended services regularly. After this conversion, she severed all ties with her former life.

The years after the withdrawal

In the years that followed, she attended various secondary Bible schools, including the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, Multnomah School of the Bible, and an interdenominational church”s armory in Boca Raton known as “Bibletown.” In the 1960s, she wanted to go to Africa as a Christian missionary; however, because she was divorced, she was turned down. Before settling back in Nashville in 1963, she worked for several Christian organizations. To gain access to missionary work, she married her divorced husband Billy Neal a second time, but the marriage was divorced again after a short time. Besides another failed marriage to Armond Walterson in the 1960s and her work in a Christian organization, there was no other public information about Page until the 1980s.

She returned to the Florida she loved in 1967 and married Harry Lear. The marriage was divorced in 1972. Page left Florida in the late 1970s to live with her brother in Los Angeles. She lived a very secluded life there, unaware of the cult that had grown up around her person in the 1980s. The resurgence in popularity led to research into what had happened to Page after the 1950s. In the 1990 edition of the very well-known Book of Lists, Page was listed as a former celebrity who had completely disappeared from public view.

In 1993, Page conducted a telephone interview with Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, in which she told him she had no knowledge of her popularity, that she was “poor and not famous.” In another interview in the late 1990s, she clarified that she did not allow the publication of recent recordings of herself. Only in 1998 did she briefly change her mind and allow Playboy to print a photo in the August issue of the magazine. After that, she again refused to allow the Los Angeles Times, for example, to publish recent pictures for an article entitled A Golden Age for a Pinup (“A golden era for a pin-up girl”). She said that she wanted people to remember her as she had been.

Page signed a contract with Chicago agent James Swanson. Almost penniless and without having received any royalties or royalties for her work, she dismissed Swanson after three years and switched to the Curtis Management Group, which also represented the rights of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Through this contract and the exploitation of her rights, she was now able to secure her financial independence.

The unanswered question of her whereabouts in the years following her career was partially resolved in 1996 with the publication of the official biography Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend partially settled. It describes Page as a straightforward person who met opposition with her head held high and always looked forward and never back.

In 1996, Page granted reporter Tim Estiloz an exclusive interview for the short-lived NBC Real Life morning show in connection with her own involvement in the publication of her biography. The aired interview featured photos from her private collection while her voice could be heard recounting her career and sharing anecdotes from her personal life. At her request, her face was not shown during the interview. The interview was aired only once on public television, but is available on the Internet under the title REAL Bettie Page TV Interview – Her Life In Her OWN Words.

Another biography, The Real Bettie Page: The Truth about the Queen of Pinups, published in 1997 by Richard Foster, tells a different, less happy story about her life after retiring from the public eye. Foster”s book was met with fierce opposition from Page fans, including Hugh Hefner and Harlan Ellison. Page issued a statement saying the biography, written by Foster, was “full of lies.” The criticism was rooted in Foster”s release of a police report from the Los Angeles County Sheriff”s office that Page was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. She had stabbed her landlords during a paranoid episode on the afternoon of April 19, 1979.

Page continued to shun publicity and lived in seclusion at an undisclosed location in California. In mid-November 2008, she was hospitalized with lung problems. In early December 2008, she fell into a coma after suffering a heart attack. On December 11, 2008, she died in Los Angeles at the age of 85 after being unconscious for a week. She was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.

In 1976, Eros Publishing published A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page, a retrospective of her photographs from the 1950s. Between 1978 and 1980, Belier Press published four volumes of a photo collection titled Betty Page: Private Peeks, most of which were from the private Camera Club photo sessions that introduced Page to a new but still small following. This was followed in 1983 by another reprint of her photographs from the Camera Club scene by London Enterprises, In Praise of Bettie Page – A Nostalgic Collector”s Item.

In the early 1980s, Page became the model for the mistress of comic book hero Cliff Secord in cartoonist Dave Stevens” series later adapted as Rocketeer. In 1987, a fanzine called The Betty Pages was started by Greg Theakston, which mostly told anecdotes from her life, especially from the camera clubs. Over the next seven years, the paper attracted worldwide interest in Page. Her style, but especially her hairstyle, was widely copied by women. After the media became aware of the enthusiasm for Page, several articles about her appeared. When her photographs were almost all in the public domain, they were used to enhance other products and monetized in the burgeoning surge of popularity.

In the mid-1990s, Page was profiled in a television program by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, as well as by Entertainment Tonight. The editor of The Betty Pages, Greg Theakston, interviewed her for The Betty Page Annuals V.2. A coffee-table book authorized by Yeager was published in 1994 with an abridged biography and about 100 photographs of Page, and illustrator Jim Silke worked her photographs into a large-format coffee-table book in 1995. Subsequently, Dark Horse Comics produced a comic book series depicting fictional, sometimes erotic, adventures of Page. Eros Comics also published quite a few issues featuring Bettie Page, the most famous of which became the ironic tale Tor Loves Bettie, which chronicled her affair with part-time wrestler and mostly Ed Wood actor Tor Johnson.

The publication of the two biographies in 1996 and 1997, the subsequent interviews, and the involvement of Hefner, as well as other celebrities, in the discussion about her mental health increased the public”s interest in Page. Also in 1997, E! Entertainment Television”s E! True Hollywood Story aired a portrait of Page titled Bettie Page: From Pinup to Sex Queen. In addition, some short films in which she appeared were released on DVD, such as Bettie Page: Varietease

In 2003, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, a number of articles appeared in newspapers and magazines commemorating Page and highlighting her importance for today”s pop culture and sexual liberation, thus drawing public interest to the former model and sex symbol even outside the subcultures that worshiped her, such as the rockabillys, the emo scene and many fetishists. In 2004, the biographical film Bettie Page: Dark Angel by Nico B. with fetish model Paige Richards as Bettie Page. The film details the last three years of her career in New York. In 2005, Mary Harron made The Notorious Bettie Page, a biographical film about Page that recounts her career beginning in the mid-1930s and ending in the mid-1950s. Actress Gretchen Mol took on the role of the adult Bettie Page. Guitar maker Halo Custom Guitars, Inc. and Page jointly produced a limited run of 100 guitars in 2007. The guitars were handmade by Waylon Ford, painted by artist Pamelin H. and signed by Bettie Page.

Influence on the sexual revolution

Page became a public figure in the U.S. in the postwar years, which were marked by restrictive moral codes, in part because of her informality in front of the camera and her uncomplicated approach to nudity. She appeared on television, which no other pin-up girl before her had managed to do, and was celebrated in the media as the queen of pin-up. Pin-ups, which until then had only been tolerated, and whose importance had increased during the war years and the stationing of young men overseas, moved more strongly into the public consciousness, and Page, who was predominantly perceived by the public as the All-American girl (“the girl next door”), came to the fore. As a result, she became the prototype of a sexually permissive yet innocent-looking woman who paved the way for other women with strong sex appeal, such as Marilyn Monroe, to gain social recognition. Page, who herself had a completely different perception of her influence on sexual liberation, said in an interview about it: “They say I”m a sex icon and that the sexual revolution started with me, but I only posed nude. Anyway, my sexual activity was never less than during my seven years in New York.”

The photographs of her, especially the fetish and bondage shots, which from today”s perspective seem rather chaste, triggered an investigative committee in the Eisenhower era that looked into what were, according to the understanding of the time, pornographic works and their corrupting influence on youth. This investigation brought her nude images and her various fetishistic role models such as the Jungle Queen, Maid, Dominatrix, or Nurse more to the fore, but it did not change the positive perception in public opinion.

Cultural influences

The influence of her erotic style has become visible in many genres and subcultures, for example in the various comic characters, as well as in the rockabilly, psychobilly, gothic, punk or BDSM scenes. In addition to cigarette advertisements and merchandising items, several films reference Page with scenes, lyrics, or costumes, including Pulp Fiction, House of 1000 Corpses, and The Crying Game.

Page has been frequently used as a subject in illustrations and comics since the 1970s, for example in the Jungle Betty series by Dave Stevens, the Clara Noche series by Trillo Maicas & Bernet, or the character Poison Ivy, later made into a film in Batman & Robin, created by author Robert Kanigher and artist Sheldon Moldoff. Hundreds of replicas and computer-assisted recreations of her admirers exist of the photographs, and some of Page”s signature pin-up poses have been used as tattoos, street art, or imprinted on merchandise. The reminiscences of Page have in common above all the Bettie Bangs, her distinctive hairstyle, while the poses and facial expressions often differ. Last but not least, the cult figure Emily Strange is modeled after her, as are the works of various artists, for example pin-up artist Olivia de Berardinis and various fetish artists and photographers.

Numerous musicians have sung Bettie Page”s praises, including Paul Spencer, who sang a tribute to her photographs on the album The Whole Shebang titled “Bettie Page,” and the metal band Bile, whose album Sex Reflex (2000) commemorates Page”s glossy black hair in the song “Bettie Page.” Also, the Royal Crown Revue (The Contender, 1998) referred to her life in Haiti with the track “Port-Au-Prince (Travels with Bettie Page).” The Creepshow mentioned the sex symbol on the 2006 album Sell Your Soul with the lyric “She”s a horrorbilly Bettie Page in the flesh” from “Psycho Ball And Chain.” The Doctors dedicated the lyric line “Please be my Bettie or Gwendoline” to Bettie Page in the song Mondo Bondage.

In addition to paying homage in musical lyrics, a number of compilations have also been compiled with selections that fit the movements of burlesque or reference the music of the 1950s. Examples include Betty Page: Danger Girl Burlesque Music or Back to the 50”s: A Betty Page Tribute, both released in 1997.

Madonna in particular kept taking cues from Page photographs in the 1950s, such as the tapered metal brassiere or playing with fetish props, and both used these ways to shake bourgeois morality and gain popularity. Just as Page did in the 1950s, Madonna gained not only male but also female fans as a result. Page also repeatedly inspired fashion designers, for example Jean Paul Gaultier, and was one of the sources of inspiration of the rockabilly style.

Page”s work was of great importance for the development of burlesque via striptease to New Burlesque. Her poses and erotic-naïve style as well as her appearance are copied by numerous pin-up models and New Burlesque dancers, including Dita Von Teese, Immodesty Blaize or the modern pin-up models Suicide Girls. With Page photographs and films, fetish and glamour as stylistic devices have found a permanent place in the development of burlesque. Dita Von Teese referred to Page in this context “as the wind beneath her tassels.”

In addition to a number of smaller productions from the early 1950s, films with and about the life of the famous model were again made in the late 1990s, as well as some reissues of her films, still shot in black and white, on DVD.

Movies with Bettie Page (partly archive material)

Bettie Page Movies

Sources

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