Bettie Page had a face that was meant to be photographed. Forget the body - not that you could, actually - and the various racy poses and sexual situations she found herself in during her career as the ultimate post-war pin-up. Beyond the carnality and peek-a-boo allure, the jet black bangs and seductive, devilish smile, Bettie was the new frontier, the soon to be swinging suburban roulette of ‘anything goes’ interpersonal exploration. From 1950 to 1959, she was the queen of the camera club, the face of fetishism, the initial introduction to the realm beyond many a young man’s fancy, and one of the founding centerfolds for a fledgling little “lifestyle” publication known as Playboy. By the ‘60s, she was a sexual revolution afterthought - mostly by her own hand, mind you.
Like the era’s brassiness, brunette polar opposite, Bettie didn’t hint at anything. Men didn’t have to imagine what she would look like undressed and available in any of their deep, dark secret fantasy frescos. Her career as a model saw her cover the entire randy range, from dominatrix to submissive victim, proto-lesbian partner to outright come hither aggression. It was mail order pornographer Irving Klaw that made Bettie a superstar, turning the temporary NY secretary into the Eisenhower era’s answer to availability. Over the course of five years, she was featured in hundreds of his pictures, stag reels, and special order customer request films. While never explicit, she illustrated a world beyond the macho and the missionary.
By the middle ‘50s, Bettie was indeed an underground luminary, the grindhouse taking notice of her celebrity and featuring her in several striptease spectaculars, including Striporama (1953), Teaserama (1954), Varietease (1955). Mostly reserved for hostess duties, and the occasional supplemental starlet spot to main stage names like Lili St. Cry and Tempest Storm, these filmed burlesque shows illustrated Bettie’s natural stage presence and slight Southern accent (she was born Betty Mae Page in Nashville, Tennessee). While she took acting classes, and even appeared on a few television shows of the day, her career in other mediums was limited. Bettie was just more effective standing still.
During a trip to Florida in 1954, Bettie met Bunny Yeager. The former New York model had branched out to form her own Miami studio, and she was desperate to get one of the more iconic figures in the business before her lens. Setting up a shoot at a local animal park, the now infamous “Jungle Bettie” images gained the attention of a mild mannered Midwesterner named Hugh Hefner. His fledgling men’s magazine was frantic for an infusion of new, noted blood, and Bettie was immediately selected to be 1955’s Playmate of the Year. It would end up being the closest she’d come to mainstream acceptance for at least three decades.
As the ‘60s approached, social unrest and juvenile delinquency became the buzzwords for a generation unable to deal with their unsettled boomer offspring. Everything from music to comic books was blamed for the rise in youth violence and discontent, with Congress eventually getting involved to try and regulate underage morality. The Kefauver Hearings before the US Senate ended Klaw’s postal pulchritude exchange, Bettie being asked (and then excused) from testifying to explain her work in his catalog. In combination with her recent conversion to Born Again Christianity, it was the end of her career as the carrier of America’s anti-bombshell beauty marks.
Like a visage frozen in time, Bettie literally disappeared from the public forum. The next few years saw her marry a second and third time (she divorced her first husband before her rise to pin-up stardom began), work for many religious organizations - including the Rev. Billy Graham - and help spread the Word as a missionary. The ‘70s saw a sensationalized nervous breakdown and a few hospitalizations, and diagnosis for paranoid schizophrenia (later contested by the idol and her champions). At one point during the ‘90s, she would spend eight years under State Supervision. All the while, a cult was building around her previous work. Magazines rediscovered her incessant hotness. Rock-n-Roll revivalists made her their human sexual response. Bettie, in typical fashion, was completely unaware of the renaissance.
Without the paparazzi privacy invasion of the post-modern journalistic TMZ front, Bettie was allowed to remain forever young. There were no late in life letdowns, no “where are they now” nods to public interest and individual frailty. When curiosity was renewed in her pictures and prints, she was typically uninterested in interviews or other media requests. On the rare occasions where she’d grant an audience, the express restriction was simple - no photographs. The face and figure that once cried out to be captured by Eastman Kodak was now strictly prohibited from public view. It was an incredibly smart approach, planned or not. Without a current façade to match, Bettie could remain the entity for erotica past.
With the rise in the Internet, the continued reclassification of cinema via scholarship, fandom, and home video, Bettie also became the representation of early exploitation. Companies like Something Weird Video celebrated her importance, while books and biopics tried to explain how a simple Southern girl could become the Queen of Simulated Sexuality. As she aged, she became more reclusive, keeping a close circle of friends and fans. Yet even as awareness increased, she still kept a close watch on her only remaining asset - her likeness. Bettie even made an attempt to secure the rights to her own image (ala the estates of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, etc.), hiring lawyers to help her pursue those ends.
After suffering a heart attack earlier this month (December), she was rushed to a hospital where she fell into a coma. Bettie later died, locked eternally in the mind of those who loved her as the catty, coquettish tease with a look that demanded satisfaction without suggesting anything remotely unwholesome. Call it “naughty naiveté” or “innocent wantonness”, but Bettie Page definitely helped ease an unsettled conservative America into a more open and honest discussion of desire.
While her photos and films may have stayed the private shame of many a man (and woman), they’ve since become a symbol of what was brewing beneath the surface of prim and proper society. Without demand, there would have been no legend. Yet when you look at her inherent beauty and connection with the camera, it’s clear: Bettie Page was meant to be photographed. Thankfully, someone recognized that fact and made it a reality. While she’s gone now, we will have those provocation pictures for all eternity - exactly where someone like Bettie belongs.