A Golden Age for a Pinup
Bettie Page -- Nurse Bettie, Jungle Bettie -- soldiered in the sexual revolution. At 82, she finds her image earns a respectable living.
March 11, 2006
By Louis Sahagun,
Times Staff Writer
Bettie Page was plunging into the day's work: autographing pinups of herself in various Naughty Girl personas, with kitschy bangs, high heels, mesh hose and tasseled underwear.
Nurse Bettie. Jester Bettie. Substitute Teacher Bettie. Maid Bettie. Voodoo Bettie. Cowgirl Bettie. Jungle Bettie. Wild Orchid Bettie. Banned in Boston Bettie. Crackers in Bed Bettie.
The task ahead was arduous given her many ailments, including diabetes and stabbing pains in her back, legs and hands.
But the 82-year-old Page -- a taboo-breaker who helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s -- is not a quitter.
"I'm about ready to roll," she said in a Southern drawl, freshening her bright red lipstick. "But I'm going to go slow. I won't squiggle if I write slow."
CMG Worldwide, the company that markets her image, had organized the event at its Sunset Boulevard penthouse offices. The idea was to get Page's autograph on as many prints as possible, because demand for anything Page-related is soaring.
Between 1949 and 1957 she was immortalized in thousands of saucy photos. Those images have spawned biographies, comic books, fan clubs and numerous websites, as well as commercial products -- Bettie Page playing cards, Bettie Page lunch boxes, Bettie Page beach towels, Bettie Page action figures.
According to her agents at CMG, who control the images of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, Page's official website, www.BettiePage.com, has received 588 million hits over the last five years. That's cult status.
For the last 13 years, she's been living in seclusion in various Southern California communities. Nearly five decades after the last photos of her appeared in magazines like Chicks and Chuckles, Page is finally earning a respectable income for her work.
"I'm more famous now than I was in the 1950s," she said.
Page needed about a minute to get through the 10 letters of her name. As she pushed her pen, she reflected on her life and faith and work.
"Being in the nude isn't a disgrace unless you're being promiscuous about it," she said. She added with a laugh, "After all, when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked. And in the Garden of Eden, God was probably naked as a jaybird too!"
"You're right about that, Bettie," said Maricel Hildalgo of the Tamara Bane Gallery on North La Brea Avenue in L.A. The gallery had hustled $100,000 worth of paintings and posters to CMG the moment Page agreed to make herself available for autographs.
"My land! Is that supposed to be me?" asked Page, surveying a painting of her reclining in a negligee with an ecstatic smile on her face.
Putting pen to canvas and concentrating mightily, she muttered, "I was never that pretty."
But to generations of men, she was.
She was born Bettie Mae Page in Jackson, Tenn., 105 miles southwest of Nashville. She was the oldest girl among Roy and Edna Page's six children. Roy, an auto mechanic, "molested all three of his daughters," Page said.
Edna divorced Roy in 1933 after he got a teenager pregnant, but life didn't get any easier for Bettie.
"All I ever wanted was a mother who paid attention to me," Page recalled. "She didn't want girls. She thought we were trouble. She didn't help with homework or teach me to sew or cook.
"She didn't go to the school plays I was in or go to my high school graduation.
"When I started menstruating at 13, I thought I was dying because she never taught me anything about that."
Two weeks before her final exams in high school, her mother's much younger lover "tried to pull me into his car. My mother nearly murdered me over that, then made me live with my father. So I couldn't review my exam notes, which were at home.
"Because of that I got beat out of graduating valedictorian by a quarter of a grade point and lost my dream of getting a scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University," she said. "It was the worst disappointment of my life."
As she continued to labor on the autographs, Page marveled at a portrait of her as a teacher -- albeit one in impossibly high heels and with voluptuous curves encased in leather.
"Look at those big long legs on 9-inch heels," she said. "I look 9 feet tall."
But she could relate to the painting's basic theme. After high school, Page earned a teaching credential. But her teaching career was short-lived.
"I couldn't control my students, especially the boys," she said.
She tried secretarial work and marriage. But by 1948 she was divorced and had moved to New York and enrolled in acting classes.
Strolling the beach at Coney Island, Page crossed paths with New York police officer and amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs, who introduced her to shutterbug clubs and suggested she wear bangs to help cover a slightly protruding forehead.
From the start, Page -- whose measurements were 36-24-37 -- preferred the skimpy outfits she designed and sewed at home.
"I made all of my bikinis and most of my lingerie," she said. "My favorite was my first bikini. It was green with a little rickrack all around it."
Almost overnight, she became an underground sensation, attracting the attention of Irving Klaw and his sister, Paula, who operated a mail-order business specializing in cheesecake.
Page soon became the Klaws' busiest pinup and also starred in their peekaboo short films, "Varietease" and "Striporama."
They also had her pose with whips, tied up in chairs and wrestling with other women in their underwear. To hear her tell it, Page was deeply depressed and aimless when she joined the Klaws. The bondage shots are the only part of her modeling career she regrets.
"I had lost my ambition and desire to succeed and better myself; I was adrift," she said.
"But I could make more money in a few hours modeling than I could earn in a week as a secretary.
"But I never whipped anybody in my life; it was all pretend. Under my arrangement with the Klaws, I had to do at least an hour of bondage poses in order to get paid for the other modeling work."
Her most acclaimed photographs were taken in 1955 by fashion photographer Bunny Yeager. They included shots of a nude Page lounging with leopards, frolicking in the waves and deep-sea fishing, and a January 1955 Playboy centerfold of her winking under a Santa Claus cap while placing a bulb on a Christmas tree.
During her brief career, she became the obsession of thousands of men -- a fact that mystifies her to this day: "I have no idea why I'm the only model who has had so much fame so long after quitting work."
Writer Harlan Ellison suggested an answer: "There are certain women, even certain men, in whose look there is a certain aesthetic that hits a golden mean. Bettie is that. Marilyn is that."
Richard Foster, one of her two biographers, called her "the trendsetter in American sexuality."
Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner put it another way.
"Exactly what captures the imagination of people in terms of pop culture is something hard to define," Hefner said.
"But in Bettie's case, I'd say it's a combination of wholesome innocence and fetish-oriented poses that is at once retro and very modern."
Perhaps that explains fans like Minnesota artist Rick Volkmar, who has spent years painstakingly touching up old black-and-white Bettie Page photos, erasing rips and tears and thousands of tiny white specks with a fine brush to rebuild the mesh of her stockings, the sheen of her hair, the shadows on her face.
In the process, Volkmar developed carpal tunnel syndrome and learned a lot about her anatomy.
"Her right eyebrow slants up and is shorter than the left one; her right nostril is higher than her left nostril," he noted. "The indent beneath her nose and above her upper lip is unusually wide. Her four front incisors are larger than normal.
"Her right eye is lower than the left one and slants down.... Her right knee has a dimple in it, and there is a famous notch on the back of her right thigh, four inches above the knee. Her thumb and hands are muscular, almost mannish. Same with her feet.
"Her rear end is noticeably squarish, and there are two creases under the left buttocks and one under her right buttocks....
"It all adds up to this," he said. "She looks like fun."
That alchemy of asymmetry and temperament inadvertently unleashed a cultural movement.
A motion picture, "The Notorious Bettie Page," is scheduled for release in April. Artist Olivia De Berardinis, whose work Page was autographing, expects to publish a book this year featuring her own idealized portraits of the woman once known as "The Queen of Curves" and "Dark Marilyn." De Berardinis' large paintings of Page sell for about $1,500 without Page's signature.
In 1955, Page was summoned to Capitol Hill by Sen. Estes Kefauver, a moral crusader known for wearing coonskin caps. Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat, was investigating the pornography business.
Kefauver's committee never compelled Page to testify, but the uproar caused the Klaws to close their business. At 35, Page quit modeling and moved to Florida, where she married a much younger man whose passions, she later learned, were watching television and eating hamburgers.
"Six weeks into the marriage, on New Year's Eve 1959," she recalled, "I wanted to go dancing with him at a nightclub. He said he'd rather get drunk with his brothers."
Page charged out of the house in tears, wondering whether to divorce him. Down the street, she noticed a white neon sign over a little white church with its door open.
"The Lord took me by the hand and we stepped inside," she recalled. "I was crying in the back row about my sins. I turned my life over to the Lord."
In her new life as a born-again Christian, Page immersed herself in Bible studies and served as a counselor for the Billy Graham Crusade.
"I'm more proud of my work with the crusade than of anything else I've ever done," she said, trying not to cry. "I get emotional just thinking about it. If ever there was a man of God, it's Billy Graham."
In 1967, she married her third husband. After their divorce 11 years later, Page plunged into a depression marked by violent mood swings. She got into an argument with her landlady and attacked her with a knife. A judge found her innocent by reason of insanity but sentenced her to 10 years in a California mental institution.
She emerged from San Bernardino's Patton State Hospital in 1992 to find that there was new interest in her story and her old poses.
A movie called "The Rocketeer" and the comic book that inspired it contained a Bettie Page-esque character, setting off the revival, among women as well as men, that continues unabated.
"Bettie Page is much different than our other clients," said CMG Chairman Mark Roesler, referring to a pantheon of American icons including James Dean and Babe Ruth. "But she has an international following. Only Marilyn Monroe rivals her in terms of Internet traffic."
In the autumn of her life, Page is learning to accept what her modeling meant for her and for American popular culture.
"Young women say I helped them come out of their shells," she said. "And 13 rock groups have written songs about me. One song has these lyrics all the way through, 'I love Bettie Page. I love Bettie Page. I love Bettie Page.' "
Still, she shuns the public eye, rarely venturing out even with trusted friends. These days Page spends most days reading the Bible, listening to Christian music and country tunes, watching oaters on television and catching up on the latest diet plans and exercise regimes.
But a few weeks ago, with confidant and CMG executive Richard Bann as her escort, she joined Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles for a special screening of "The Notorious Bettie Page."
Page had a beef with the title.
"Notorious? That's not flattering at all," she said. "They should have used another word."
In an interview, the film's producer, Pam Koffler, said, "The title was meant ironically. Bettie Page gained such notoriety for her modeling, but the real person and her life were exactly opposite of all that."
Page had one request for this story -- that her face not be photographed.
"I want to be remembered," she said, "as I was when I was young and in my golden times.... I want to be remembered as a woman who changed people's perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form."
But this much can be shared. Her face remains smooth and fresh, and one can still see the face of the young woman in the old. Her eyes, bright blue, still sparkle.
It was late afternoon when Page, visibly fatigued from all the autographing, was presented with a special request. A man who had purchased 10 Bettie Page paintings wanted a personal dedication on a blank piece of paper.
"What do we know about this man?" she demanded to know. "Is he a nice guy? Would I love him like a brother?"
"His name is Jeffrey," Hildalgo said. "He's a nurse at San Quentin."
"All right then. Don't wiggle the table, please," Page said. "I want to get this just right."
"To Jeffrey," she wrote. "Much love, Bettie Page."