Queen of Curves
Some are born into greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them.
There exist, however, those unique enough to make their own greatness.
There is one earthy figure that transitioned from sub-culture bauble to the all-American mainstream icon, a true pictorial emblem of the age. This deeply entrenched, fixed-in-the-psyche image of womanhood is the inimitable and wondrous Bettie Page.
The seedy side of this art was pornography, the grainy, pulp printed, black-and-white fodder sold under-the-counter. It existed, but not many of the public had been exposed to anything beyond the ordinary nude form. Graphic sexual acts featured in cheap films (“stag” movies), and these became more readily available as well. Owning and/or distributing such items, however, were illegal in many states and communities (an issue that persists even today). One could go to jail for having something deemed “obscene” (by some vague community standard); a shop owner could be imprisoned for selling such material.
The mid 1950s in America saw changes in social mores, serious changes. Although prurient interests were generally sated by the old-style pulp magazines and films the introduction of Playboy magazine during this prudish time changed much in the way the public perceived and responded to sexuality.
Playboy, with its slick copy, quality photography, and wit (albeit mostly juvenile and of the sophomoric “dirty” joke variety), brought the idea of a more artistic form of “pornography” to the fore. Inspection of early issues is much like going on an archeological dig into pop culture: the images are quaint, almost puritanical, airbrushed of any hint of genitals or pubic hair, and idealized in both the settings and presentation. However, the women of early Playboy (unlike the models used generally in today’s version of this same magazine) were women and not the late-teens to early-twenties models one sees now.
To its credit Playboy featured many women in their early 30s and older (and this might be due to a lack of women willing to take off their clothes and pose, it isn’t certain). The attraction here is that, as pretty as they were, these were all regular women one might see on the street any given day, shopping at a store or visiting the post office. That was part of the magazine’s appeal.
Occasionally, a celebrity would be featured (Playboy’s coup for its maiden issue was the famous Marilyn Monroe spread taken by an amateur photographer some time before). Celebrities could not be counted upon to appear in the magazine very often; the negative publicity might affect their careers. Thus, one has a magazine filled with women who were either unknown or barely known.
Into this ambivalent morass of public acceptance of limited female nudity ventured a raven-haired, blue-eyed vixen, a former school teacher, with a body built by Mother Nature on Her absolute best day. This beauty's trademark: an unusual haircut with slightly curving bangs that almost reached her eyebrows.
As a teenager, Bettie copied different makeup styles and hairdos of her favorite movie stars. She also learned to sew. [In later years her grooming and sewing skills were put to good use. She did her own makeup and hair. She even sewed her own bikinis and costumes.]
Bettie joined the debate team at Hume-Fogg High School. She was a good student, and she was voted "Most Likely to Succeed". She graduated in June 1940; she was the class salutatorian. She earned a $100 scholarship and enrolled at George Peabody College, studying to become a teacher. The next fall she took some acting courses in hopes of becoming a movie star.
She got her first job while still in college, that of typist for author Alfred Leland Crabb. Bettie graduated from Peabody with her B.A. in 1944. She entered the teaching profession, but soon found her male students were uncontrollable, and she left teaching for less-stressful secretarial work.
She married a high school classmate, Billy Neal, in 1943, shortly before he was drafted into the Navy for World War II. Over the next few years, Bettie moved around; she lived in San Francisco, Nashville, Miami, and even abroad in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In November 1947, once she was settled back in the US after the war, she filed for divorce.
Bettie then worked a stint in San Francisco and in Haiti. She moved to New York City in 1949, where she looked for acting jobs. She supported herself with secretarial work. Visiting Coney Island in 1950 she met a policeman named Jerry Tibbs. Tibbs claimed an interest in photography, and he convinced Bettie to model for him. She proved an excellent subject and Tibbs’ pictures formed her first pin-up portfolio.
Many were merely fronts for churning out pornography, though. Bettie, with her statuesque frame and angelic/devilish look, easily found work as a "glamour photography" model; she was very popular, and worked initially with photographer Cass Carr. Bettie’s complete lack of inhibition made her a huge hit as a nude model. She saw nothing wrong with her nudity, and a favorite phrase of hers was "naked as a jaybird, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden". Her name, and her image, quickly became known in the erotic photography industry. In 1951, her image appeared in several men’s skin magazines.
The Klaws also used Bettie in several black-and-white short films (8mm) and in some 16mm "specialty" films. These latter catered to the fetish/kink crowds.
Usually, a customer might make a specific request for such a movie. Irving, Paula, and Bettie would work out the details. These silent vignettes showed lingerie-clad women, in high heels, acting out fetishistic scenarios of abduction, domination, and slave-training. Bondage, spanking, and leather costumes with restraints were also featured from time to time. Bettie sometimes played the harsh dominatrix; other times, she portrayed the submissive “victim”, bound hand and foot. Irving Klaw also generated a series of stills from the film sessions.
These appealed to a certain esoteric market segment. Many of these images have become iconic – the best-selling photo of all-time of Bettie is of her gagged and bound in a web of ropes, from the film Leopard Bikini Bound. These films had the same crude style and underground distribution as the "stag" movies of the time; however, the Klaws’ all-female films (and photos) never featured any explicit sexual content. Thus, they could be termed more arty than prurient.
Bettie took more acting classes in 1953 which led to several stage and TV parts. She featured in The United States Steel Hour and The Jackie Gleason Show. Her off-Broadway work included Time is a Thief and Sunday Costs Five Pesos. She acted and danced in the feature-length burlesque revue, Striporama (by Jerald Intrator). In this film she was given a speaking part (the only time her voice was recorded on film). She appeared in two more burlesque films, this time by Irving Klaw (Teaserama and Varietease). These featured exotic dance routines and vignettes by Bettie and other well-known striptease artists. All three films were mildly risqué; none showed any nudity or overtly sexual content.
During one of her yearly visits to Miami, Bettie met photographers Jan Caldwell, H. W. Hannau, and Bunny Yeager. At that time (1954), Bettie was the top pin-up model in New York. Yeager (herself a former model and aspiring photographer) signed Bettie on for a session at a now-closed wildlife park (Africa USA) in Boca Raton. [The amazing Bunny Yeager died on May 25, 2014, in a hospice in North Miami, FL. She was 85.]
The Jungle Bettie photos from this shoot are among her best known. They feature some nudes taken with a pair of cheetahs. Bettie made the leopard-skin patterned outfit she wore for these photos (along with most of her lingerie).
She won the "Miss Pin-Up Girl of the World" title in 1955. She was also nicknamed "The Queen of Curves" and "The Dark Angel". Unlike many of her peers (glamour and pin-up models) Bettie was in demand for several years, modeling until 1957. She frequently posed nude, but she never appeared in any scenes with explicit sexual content.
She came under FBI scrutiny as part of an investigation into “obscene” films and materials. In 1957, Bettie consulted with the FBI about the production of “flagellation and bondage pictures” in Harlem (she was asked about “ping-pong paddles and a riding crop”).
She denied being involved; she also denied knowing of any photographs of the sort described being produced in Harlem. The Kefauver Hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began after a young man apparently died during a bondage session rumored to be inspired by bondage images featuring Bettie.
The Senate called her to testify (to explain the context of some bondage photos in which she appeared). They excused her from testifying, though. The negatives of many of her photos, however, were destroyed by court order – this ended the Klaws’ bondage and S&M mail-order photography business. For some years, any surviving negatives were illegal to print.
Her conversion was relatively sudden. On New Year's Eve 1958, during one of her regular visits to Key West, Bettie attended a service at what is now the Key West Temple Baptist Church. She was drawn to the multiracial environment (an experience she had while living in Haiti where she took the locals to heart). She started attending services regularly, and in time she went to three bible colleges (in Los Angeles; in Portland, Oregon; and in Boca Raton, Florida). She settled down to a domestic and sedate life of religious worship, having married a man named Armond Walterson in 1958. She and Walterson divorced in 1963, however.
Bettie tried to become a missionary serving in Africa in the 1960s, but she was rejected for having had a divorce (it is unfathomable at this date to imagine what possible relevance her divorce could have on her ability to minister). She spent the next few years working for different Christian groups before she retired to her hometown of Nashville in 1963. She later worked full-time for Rev. Billy Graham.
She remarried her first husband, Billy Neal, mostly to help her get accepted into a missionary program. They divorced shortly after remarrying, however. Bettie went back to Florida in 1967 and married a man named Harry Lear. In 1972, this marriage ended.
Bettie Page went to California in 1979. She suffered a nervous breakdown and had an altercation with her landlady. Examining doctors diagnosed her with acute schizophrenia; she spent 20 months in a state mental hospital in San Bernardino, California. In the wake of a fight with yet another landlord (she allegedly attacked him with a butter knife) she was arrested for assault. She was found “not guilty by reason of insanity”. She was put under the state’s supervision for eight years. She was released from Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County in 1992.
Bettie’s cult figure status developed in the mid 1970s, and it reached maturation in the 1980s. It is interesting to note that Bettie herself at the time of her “revival” in the public’s mind was completely unaware of both her resurgence and of just how popular her imagery was from the 1950s. She was a star, she had a following, and she was completely oblivious to those facts. The renewed interest in her focused primarily on her pin-up and lingerie modeling. The bondage material didn’t factor in so much. Bettie Page, late in life, achieved status as an icon of erotica from a bygone era.
Resurgent curiosity in all things Bettie also led many to want to know what happened to her during her “Twilight Years” where no one knew where she was or what she had been doing. To show how far she’d “disappeared” a 1990s' edition of the popular Book of Lists placed her on a list of once-famous people who had completely vanished!
Finding Bettie Page, and getting her undivided attention to her own celebrity, proved to be tough. In 1976, A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page (a mix of pictures from the 1950s) was published by a small firm. Between 1978 and 1980, four volumes of Betty Page: Private Peeks (reprints of private camera club sessions photos) were published. These books reintroduced Bettie to a new, small cult following. In Praise of Bettie Page: A Nostalgic Collector's Item (camera club photo reprints along with an old “cat fight” photo shoot) was released in 1983.
Bettie’s appeal crossed over into the realm of comic books. The female love interest of comic book hero Cliff Secord (alias "The Rocketeer") was based on Bettie. In 1987, a fanzine called The Betty Pages was first published. For the next several years, this fanzine generated global interest in her Her famous Bettie Page hairstyle was emulated widely, particularly among the female rock-a-billy crowd.
The media caught wind of the Bettie phenomenon and many articles were written about her (also echoing the “where-is-she-now?” lament). Almost all of her photos were in the public domain by that time; many Bettie-related products were launched, and opportunists cashed in on the burgeoning craze.
Bettie found an agent; three years later, nearly destitute and having not received any recent royalties, she fired this agent and signed with another firm (the one which also represented the James Dean and Marilyn Monroe estates). She finally began collecting her royalty payments. This gave her a modicum of financial security.
The question of what Bettie did in her “Lost Years” after modeling was partly answered in an official biography (published in 1996), Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend. That year, Bettie gave an exclusive TV interview (for a short-lived morning magazine program) to help publicize her new bio. She reminisced about her career and related anecdotes about her personal life, and she shared some photos from her personal collection. At Bettie’s request, though, her face was not shown.
The Real Bettie Page: The Truth about the Queen of Pin-Up was published in 1997. This book, written by Richard Foster, spurred a public backlash almost immediately from her fans (including Hugh Hefner and Harlan Ellison). Bettie herself released a statement that the book was “full of lies.”
A key issue surrounded an incident not wanting public revelation. The book said a Los Angeles County Sheriff's police report revealed she had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and, at age 56, had stabbed her elderly landlords on the afternoon of April 19, 1979, in an unprovoked attack during a fit of insanity. Others say the book is not as unsympathetic as first characterized, and that Bettie herself was pleased with some parts of it.
In a late-1990s' interview, Bettie said she didn’t want any current pictures of her to be shown. She expressed concerns about her weight as the cause of this shyness.
She did another television interview in 1997. The location of the interview was concealed, and Bettie was shown with both her face and dress blacked out. She let a publicity shot be taken of her for the August 2003 edition of Playboy. The Los Angeles Times ran a headlining article in 2006, covering an autograph session. She declined to be photographed, saying she preferred to be remembered as she once was (she did allow her hands to be photographed, signing a print).
Bettie reported in 1998 about her career: “I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It's just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous.”
The biographical film Bettie Page: Dark Angel (a low-budget straight-to-disc biopic) was released in 2004. It covers the critical years of 1953–1957 and recreates six lost fetish films she did for the Klaws. Another biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), follows her life from the mid-1930s through the late-1950s. Bonus DVD footage includes a rare color film from the 1950s of Bettie playfully undressing and striking various nude poses.
She spent most of her time before her death in her one bedroom apartment. She read her Bible, listened to music, and watched old movies on television (one of her reported favorites was Dark Victory with Bette Davis). She sometimes browsed secondhand clothing shops. In 2006, she told the press: “I have no idea why I'm the only model who has had so much fame so long after quitting work.”
Bettie Page (“The Girl with the Perfect Figure”) preferred to be remembered “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.”
She reported shortly before her death (in an interview) she wanted her fans to remember three things: 1) You are what you eat, 2) Master your emotions, and 3) Don't let your past poison your future.
The memorial booklet at her service carried a verse Bettie had written herself:
“I was not trying to be shocking,
or to be a pioneer.
I wasn't trying to change society,
or to be ahead of my time.
I didn't think of myself as liberated,
and I don't believe that
I did anything important.
I was just myself.
I didn't know any other way to be,
or any other way to live.”
Bettie Page was cremated, but her remains were interred in a full-sized casket. She is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
The more conservative among the public may suggest Bettie was doing something “dirty” with her pictures (extremely mild by today’s standards but very edgy for her day). Her imagery is timeless: the naughty-but-nice poses, her smirks, her snarls and sneers, her outright laughter. She was not exploited, and it is inconceivable she would have done anything she did not want to do.
Bettie was an educated woman in command of herself, and she sincerely enjoyed it (one look at her head thrown back in laughter and one senses that her sheer amusement at being “bound” or “spanked” isn’t fake – Bettie probably thought this “bondage” material was goofy, too).
Bettie Page’s influence can be readily seen in pop culture today. That trademark Bettie Page hairdo (which, by the way, Bettie created because she thought her forehead was too high!) will live on as will her iconography.
Bettie Page was, and always will be, the ultimate pin-up. Her combination of sexy, saucy, and sweet has never been duplicated.
Bettie Page: charismatic, classic, and definitely “The Queen of Curves”.
(R.I.P.: Apr 22, 1923-Dec 11, 2008)