Bettie Page, born 100 years ago, remains a pop-culture icon


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If she were still alive, Bettie Page would turn 100 on April 22.

But in the pop-culture fantasies of millions, she is always with us — and forever young.

Back in the 1950s, when Playboy magazine was born, Jayne and Marilyn ruled, and sex symbols were big and bold, Bettie Page was something … different. Instead of carefully coiffed bottle-blonde hair, she had simple black bangs. Instead of projecting tart toughness — or, alternately, weary vulnerability — she emanated health and happiness and cheerful fun.

She was the girl next door — if that girl happened to be a pinup model who appeared in magazines with names like Titter and Eyeful and Wink (or, sometimes, the sort of “specialty” publications you had to send away for, and which arrived in a plain brown wrapper).

No other era could have created her. No other era could have so nearly destroyed her.

She was born in Nashville, and her childhood was hard. Her father did time for car theft; her mother took in laundry and struggled to feed six kids. At 10, Bettie spent a year in an orphanage. When her father finally got out of prison and returned to the family, he began molesting her.

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Still, Bettie survived, even thrived, the way she always did — she just pushed the bad things away, and pushed on. She was on the debate team in high school, and the salutatorian of her graduating class. She won a scholarship and graduated from George Peabody College with a B.A. in 1944. Her plan was to teach. Her dream was to become an actress.

In many ways, her early life mirrored Marilyn’s. Like Monroe, Page suffered from sexual abuse growing up; like her, she got married young, to a serviceman, to escape (and divorced young, too). And like Monroe, her natural sexiness soon had her posing for pinup photos — one of which would eventually end up as a centerfold in Playboy magazine.

But there the stories diverge, and Page’s takes a detour.

Page was clearly bright, and interested in the arts; for a while, she took acting classes at the prestigious Herbert Berghof Studio in Manhattan. But she was perpetually late for appointments and never quite lost her deep, throaty Southern drawl. After some summer stock and a few walk-on parts on television, her legitimate dramatic career faded.

Instead, she found success on a different stage — posing for pinups and bondage photos.

In the city, Page would do carefully staged photos wearing garter belts and high heels, acting out posed stories where another model would pretend to tie her up, or spank her. In the nearby suburbs — Long Island, Essex County — she would appear at “camera clubs,” private events where men would crowd around a hired nude model, snapping photos.

It was a strange underground culture, both kinky and quaint. Page was fully dressed in the bondage photos, usually sold through the mail to repeat customers who sometimes suggested specific items and scenarios. And even when she posed nude, the pictures weren’t particularly graphic, and never involved actual sex.

In fact, they were strangely innocent — Page on a playground in a tiny bikini. Page, topless, wearing a Santa hat and trimming a Christmas tree.

Was it exploitation or empowerment? Sometimes both.

Certainly Page made little money from her work. Generally, she got a flat fee for a modeling session — as little as $50. And while the professionals she posed for liked working with her, it’s hard to imagine that the atmosphere of the camera clubs — standing topless in the rec room of a South Orange split level, encircled by leering shutterbugs — was particularly pleasant.

Yet Page still maintained a certain amount of control. She worked often with female photographers and stylists, like Bunny Yeager and Paula Klaw. She even designed, and sewed, many of her own costumes (she had a particular fondness for animal prints and polka dots).

More important, Page seemed to be enjoying herself. There is a genuine sense of fun that comes through in her pictures; even in the fetish photos, where she is being “disciplined.” It is so clearly, obviously staged it’s hard to take seriously. For Page, too, it seems. Even in the rare photos where she affects a sultry look, it always looks as if she’s trying hard not to laugh.

“I don’t really disapprove of it,” she later said of the kinkier shots. “I think you can do your own thing as long as you’re not hurting anybody else — that’s been my philosophy ever since I was a little girl. I never looked down my nose at it. In fact, we used to laugh at some of the requests that came through the mail, even from judges and lawyers and doctors.”

Yet not everyone was laughing.

Having already gone after Communists in Hollywood, and violence in comic books, by the late ‘50s Washington turned its attention to pornography. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency attempted to link teen crime with softcore porn; Page was summoned to appear (although she never testified in public) and Klaw’s business in Manhattan was shut down.

By the late ‘50s, Klaw had moved his operations to Jersey City; Page had gotten out of the business entirely. She would soon become a born-again Christian and, by the 1960s, begin pursuing a career in evangelism. Turned down for missionary work in Africa (no divorced women allowed), she went to work for Billy Graham.

But then the story grows grim. Three more marriages (one annulled, two ending in divorce). A couple of arrests, violent outbursts, a mental breakdown, and a stay in a mental hospital. Her beginnings had mirrored Marilyn’s. Now, it seemed, her ending might as well.

Gretchen Mol in the 2005 movie, “The Notorious Bettie Page.”

And yet, once again, Bettie Page survived.

By the 1990s, she had not only recovered from her mental health issues, she had become iconic, inspiring a character in Dave Stevens’ retro comic book “The Rocketeer.“ Although she saw little money at first from the public’s renewed interest, with Stevens’ help she began wresting back some control of her image, reclaiming her fame, collaborating on new books and selling autographs, and influencing a new generation.

When she died, at 85, in 2008, an obit on MTV credited her with inspiring “Katy Perry’s rocker bangs and throwback skimpy jumpers; Madonna’s ‘Sex’ book and fascination with bondage gear; Rihanna’s obsession with all things leather, lace and second-skin binding; Uma Thurman in ‘Pulp Fiction’; the SuicideGirls website; the Pussycat Dolls; and the entire career of Dita Von Teese.” Since then there have been several documentaries (there was also a biopic, “The Notorious Bettie Page,” in 2005). Her imitators, and acolytes, continue to grow.

But there has only ever been one Bettie, and a century later, she is with us still — still smiling in the sunshine, still happy for the moment, still forever young.


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