When I was in junior high school, Mom and I enjoyed "junking" together at garage sales on Saturday mornings, or on weekday mornings if I was out of school for the summer. I especially enjoyed buying records, which could be had en masse for next to nothing.
One of the items that I bought during those garage sale days was an LP on the1950's low-budget Tops label entitled "The Best Musical Comedy Songs." The record was a dud, but the cover -- well, that was a prize I still treasure to this day. I had no idea who the sultry brunette in the leopard-skin bating suit was, but her smoldering beauty crawled under my skin and invaded my adolescent mind like no other female had ever done. I spent literally hours staring at her picture, lost in her cool blue eyes and plump red lips.
That, my friends, was my introduction to Bettie Page.
She passed away two weeks ago at the age of 85. She is a legend; her influence beyond measure. She is as much of an American icon as James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.
Bettie was born in Jackson, Tennessee, part of a family of six children. Her father, Roy Page, worked as an auto mechanic during the Depression, and eventually settled the family down on a dirt farm 30 miles outside of Nashville. He was an alcoholic. He was abusive and a habitual womanizer. Bettie's mother finally threw him out on the street when a 15 year old girl turned up pregnant and named Roy as the father. With no means of financial support, Edna Page was forced to place her children in a state orphanage for a year, so she could work and save her meager earnings. Edna eventually took Roy back but, sadly, he began sexually abusing Bettie and her two sisters.
In addition to her stunning looks, Bettie possessed a sharp mind and a strong will. She realized that education was her ticket out of misery. She graduated salutatorian in her high school class, wrote for the school yearbook and newspaper, and was an active member of the drama club. She failed to earn a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, but ended up instead at Vanderbilt's Peabody College, a four-year teacher's school. She never taught; barely 21 years of age, she found it impossible to manage a classroom full of 17 and 18 year old high school seniors, especially the boys. That real-life "hot for teacher" experience made her realize that she was not cut out for the classroom.
Soon after graduating, she entered several modeling contests and soon caught the eye of a photographer and would-be talent agent named Art Grayson, who sent photos of Bettie to 20th Century Fox. They offered her a screen test, which went poorly; Bettie also refused the advances of a key junior studio executive. On a whim, Bettie married a young man named Billy Neal, who had recently joined the Navy. Billy was shipped out on his first tour of duty shortly after their wedding, and while Billy was at sea Bettie realized that her marriage was a foolish mistake. They separated shortly after he returned stateside.
Bettie moved to Miami, then for a short while to Port-Au-Prince Haiti, and finally to New York City, where she was physically assaulted by a group of young men looking for a better time than Bettie was willing to provide. She returned, shaken, to Nashville, then worked up the courage to go back to New York again. She worked a variety of low-paying secretarial and service jobs and participated in some local amateur theater groups. Then, quite by chance, she met an amateur photography buff named Jerry Tibbs.
Tibbs was overtaken by Bettie's smoldering looks, and asked her to model for him. In turn, he introduced her to Cass Carr, who ran several so-called "camera clubs." In those days, before flesh peddling was big business -- or even legal -- amateur connoisseurs of pulchritude operated these clubs, which hired women to model while an excited bunch of photographers feverishly snapped pictures. Betty lavished the attention given her by the camera club photographers, and she enjoyed the extra money that modeling brought in. She eagerly posed in skimpy clothing, lingerie, bathing suits, and in the nude. "I was not trying to be shocking, or to be a pioneer," she later wrote. "I was just myself. I didn't know any other way to be, or any other way to live."
Camera club gigs soon gave way to a seemingly endless series of professional modeling jobs. Bettie soon found herself on the cover of dozens of men's magazines, on playing cards, on calendars, record albums, pulp fiction novels -- anywhere pictures of pretty girls were in demand. Bettie was Playboy magazine's December 1955 centerfold. She took method acting lessons at Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio and appeared in summer stock theater productions. Bettie eventually caught the attention of Irving and Paula Klaw, who produced photographs and short films of burlesque stars and up-and-coming glamor models.
But the Klaws also produced "specialty" erotica, and eagerly filled the requests of high-paying private customers who requested unusual and -- for the time -- extremely taboo subject matter. Bettie and several other models posed for numerous photo sessions where they were photographed hog-tied, bound and gagged, threatening each other with whips and spanking one aonther.
Unfortunately for Bettie, some of the Klaws' most daring fetish work became public, and she was dragged into the middle of a high-profile investigation by Senator Estes Kefauver, who was attempting to uncover ties between the pornography industry and organized crime. Although Bettie was never called to testify before Congress, she witnessed what she considered to be the unfair persecution of Irving and Paula Klaw, which ended with a 1963 conviction for conspiring to send obscene materials through the US Mail. She also began receiving letters from a stalker who threatened to kill her. By the end of 1957, at the age of 34, she had enough. She left New York and never took another modeling job again, fading into complete obscurity for forty years.
After she quit modeling, Betty became deeply religious, and attended the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Multnoma School of the Bible in Portland, Oregon. She counseled young girls and unwed mothers, did missionary work, and even worked for a while as a counselor for the Billy Graham crusades. But her personal life always remained in turmoil. She married a second time, separated, divorced, remarried Billy Neal, divorced, and finally married a third time in 1972. After that marriage failed, she subsequently underwent a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with severe depression and schizophrenia. She couldn't find adequate work, and scraped by on her Social Security benefits alone. After attacking a recalcitrant landlady with a knife, she ended up in a mental hospital for eight years.
Writers Karen Essex and James Swanson tracked Bettie down in the late 1990's and convinced her to collaborate with them on a book about her life. Bettie shared her life story and many rare photographs with Essex and James, who eventually published Bettie Page - The Life of a Pinup Legend. The darker side of Bettie's life was explored in Richard Foster's unofficial biography The Real Betty Page. Although she attained a huge cult following in the 1980's and 1990's, Bettie reaped very little financial reward from it. Her only public appearances in later years were at events sponsored by Playboy magazine: Hugh Hefner's 2003 birthday party, and Playboy's 50 anniversary celebration in 2004.
Resources (some NSFW):
Flickr - "Jack's Stuff" (lots of Bettie photos)
Playboy.com - Bettie Page Interview (January 1998)