Pictured above: Bettie Page
Bettie Page was worshiped, celebrated and criticized, but this iconic 1950′s Queen of Pin-ups and Pin-up heroine became an obsession who bewitched and enchanted worshiping followers…yesterday and today.
An enchantress, Bettie was born Betty Mae Page, April 11, 1923, in Jackson, Tennessee, southwest of Nashville. Bettie was the second of six children growing up in a family so financially strapped, she was quoted as saying ‘we were lucky to get an orange in our Christmas stockings.’ Financial hardships weren’t the only worries on Bettie’s mind as a child. It’s said that Page’s father molested all of the girls in the family. What is known, however, by all reports, is that Bettie’s father was eventually sent to prison for a period in her life and she lived in an orphanage. By ten years of age, her parents had divorced bringing on a period of change…
In spite of all of this turmoil and tragedy, and likely not in her wildest dreams, did Bettie predict that one day she would become an unforgettable underground icon known as ‘the girl with the perfect figure’.
Bettie’s image is of one who comfortably basked in her sensuality, unique during the fifties, an era known for repression. It was this aplomb and joie de vivre that captured the passion of a generation. She was a free-spirited, ultimate pin-up immortalized in thousands of intriguing and scintillating photos.
By some estimates, an incredible 20,000 plus photographs of Bettie were taken and new generations of fans still buy copies by the thousands today. The images spawned all manner of publications from biographies to websites, as well as commercial endeavors such as Bettie Page playing cards, lunch boxes, beach towels and action figures. Her pin-up photographs wended their way into nearly every male dominated locale, from military barracks to the local garage.
Let’s take a closer look into Page’s life…one that’s said to be filled with all the drama of a Hollywood film. She was a cult myth who was, at times, living a life swirling in mystery and sadness.
After her high school graduation, where she excelled in both academics and theater, Bettie went on to college. In 1944, with a Daughter of the American Revolution scholarship, she graduated from the Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville. From there, she continued on to work and study drama in New York.
While working as a NY secretary, Bettie…very much an alluring 27-year-old woman, garnered the attention of photographer Irving Klaw during a 1951 walk on Coney Island. Shortly after the association with Klaw, Bettie began effecting the trademarks that would later define her; dark bangs, spiked heels, occasionally a whip and barely there attire. Her modeling career began in earnest and she soon appeared as a performer in a reported fifty plus burlesque films, too, working her way into the public’s eye. All the while, photo’s and films of Page were being publicly derided as ‘perversion’. Still Bettie was on the verge of stardom and about to become known by legions of fans as the ‘Queen of Bondage.”
Pictured above: Bettie Page
Who would have thought that a fateful walk along the Coney island beach side would yield such a momentous change in a young woman’s life? It was after this, that Bettie’s career as a model began in earnest.
Bettie was the 1955 January centerfold in the soon to be historic ‘Playboy’ magazine. Wearing a Santa hat and nothing else, she had been one of the magazine’s first Playmate centerfolds during its first year of publication.
In the time that would follow, photographer Klaw was arrested for “conspiracy to distribute obscene material” through the U.S. Mail. Bettie was called to testify in a private session and a congressional investigation was launched against her. With this assault on her career, Bettie believed her fame as a pin-up was history. She retired from public life, where it is said she was continually harassed by federal agents.
More on her personal life:
Bettie married her high school sweetheart, Billy Neal…a marriage that later ended in divorce. A second failed marriage in 1951 to a younger man, Armond Walterson, followed after Bettie moved to the sunshine state of Florida. In 1967, Bettie again entered a third marriage to Harry Lear that also failed.
After a reported nervous breakdown and sense of redemption, in 1959, Bettie became a born-again Christian. While she applied for and was rejected as a missionary she worked for evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry.
In 1979, after a move to Southern California, Bettie was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. What followed would be a 20 month stay in a state mental hospital in San Bernardino, CA, and closely monitored supervision by the state for eight years. By 1993, the media caught wind that Betty was impoverished, and in her own words Bettie shared that she was “penniless and infamous.”
Bettie Page died December 11, 2008, after a three-week long battle with pneumonia and subsequent heart attack at age 85.
Two films have been made commemorating Bettie’s life: 2004’s “Bettie Page: Dark Angel” starring Paige Richards and 2005’s “The Notorious Bettie Page,” with Gretchen Mol.
Today, Bettie Page still captures the fascination and adoration of many, and….an occasional feminist will still pay homage to Pages’ particular pioneering for women’s liberation and paving the way for the sexual revolution during the 1960s.
Bunny Yeager http://www.vintageallies.com/1940s/bunny-yeager.html