It's hard now to remember a time before the internet - and information wasn't at your fingertips - but in the 80's you either stumbled on stuff randomly or otherwise remained completely unaware. Regular readers will probably know that I'm something of a comic fan. In the 80's I used to make specials trips to London to visit all the lovely specialist independent comic shops tucked away down many a West End side street (and much like those lovely little independent record shops, they are all but gone now). Comic shops have always had a healthy sideline of other 'miscellaneous' goodies to tempt their punters with... resin models, T-Shirts, trading cards, mugs.... and fanzines. I guess the fanzine is another thing that is just about extinct these days too, the modern day equivalent is now probably a fan web-site.
Anyway, in 1988 on one of my semi-regular visits to Forbidden Planet (this is back in the day when Forbidden Planet was actually a shop worth going in!) I happened to spot a small A5 fanzine titled 'The Betty Pages' (sic). It was issue number 3 of a title dedicated to some pin-up model from days gone by, and I clearly remember being transfixed by the cheesecake photo on the cover of the lady with the most incredible hair! I gave it a quick flick and thought I'd give it a go... little did I know then that it was to be the start of a life-long obsession! I soon managed to track down the first two issues of Greg Theakston's magazine, and put in an order for future issues. I became hooked and intrigued on the incredible story of this lady....
Born in Nashville, Tennessee on the 22nd of April 1923, Bettie Mae Page was brought up in a strict Christian family. Her parents divorced when she was 10, and for a few years, Bettie and her sisters had to live in an orphanage when her father was put in prison for stealing a car. At the age of twenty she married her childhood sweetheart Billy Neal, but they were divorced within four years.
Bettie did a little amature modelling during the 40's, and dreamed of being an actress. In 1945 she went to Hollywood where she had been called for a screen test. The story goes that she was asked to join an executive on the 'casting couch', which she refused, after which she was never given another shot by Hollywood. By 1950 she was living in New York and working as a secretary, but still hoping to get a break as an actress. One day whilst out walking along Coney Island beach, she got chatting to policeman Jerry Tibbs, who was also an keen amature photographer. He asked if she would be interested in modelling for him and she agreed. It was Tibbs who gave her some historic modelling advise too... "wear your hair in bangs" her told her, she did, and Bettie Page was born!
In 1957, at the age of 34 and at the height of her popularity, Bettie abruptly ended her modeling and disappeared. Some said she had been killed by the mob, whilst others said she became a born-again Christian (some even said she had become a nun) and was now ashamed of her modeling career....
And this is where I came in, because in 1988, Bettie was still missing, presumed by many at this point, dead.
The 60's and 70's had been a quiet time, and Page was all but forgotten. But it would be an unsuspecting comic book that would reignite interest in her once again. In the early 80's, Bettie Page fanatic Dave Stevens released his comic book entitled 'The Rocketeer'. He based the hero's girlfriend 'Betty' completely on Bettie Page, and it sparked an interest. The interest continued to grow, culminating in Greg Theakston starting 'The Betty Pages' fanzine in 1987, and it was this magazine which really started the revival.... and I'm sure the mysterious disappearance all added to the appeal and helped to fuel the cult status that was now growing fast. By the late 80's\early 90's, a number of companies had now picked up on the underground phenomenon and were starting to produce Bettie merchandise - an industry that continue to grow and grow to this day.Then in 1993 the unthinkable happened! Bettie resurfaced!! She gave a few interviews but was adamant that no photos of her should be taken - she wanted fans to remember her as she was. Nobody can say for sure, but I can't help but think the resurface may in part have been forced on her. A year earlier a 'fan' (Richard Foster) somehow tracked her down and wrote to her. He asked all kinds of questions and Bettie kindly wrote back with a long letter containing all manner of answers. Foster used the details she gave (locations she had been, times etc etc) to start investigating her missing years, and alas he dug up a very sorry story, which he promptly published as "The Real Bettie Page". Bettie was distraught that Foster had published his findings, and must have felt very betrayed that being polite and answering a fan letter directly lead to all her dirty laundry being aired to the world. I think she probably felt as though she had to come out of hiding in order to stand up for herself.
I don't want to dwell too much on the poor misfortunes of Bettie in her 'missing years', but briefly they consisted of 2 more failed marriages (one of which was to her original first husband), various religious work (including working for Billy Graham), running through a motel with a gun preaching about the "retribution of God", paranoia, a breakdown, acute schizophrenia, being declared insane, pulling a knife on ex-husband Harry Lear and finally being arrested for the attempted murder of her landlady.... all interspersed with several stays in asylums and hospitals... the last of which was for almost ten years. Bettie disputed much of Fosters findings, but his evidence (including police 'mug-shots') is pretty convincing.
But by the 90's Bettie was finally free of the demons within, and felt strong enough to face the world once more... and boy what a surprise she got! She had absolutely no idea of the resurgence in her modelling work that had been going on for the last 12-15 years. It must be quite a revelation to discover you are a genuine underground superstar! It soon became clear that everyone except herself was making a lot of money out of her images, so she signed up with an agent to look after her interests.... unfortunately he ripped her off too, and she didn't receive a penny for the three years she was on his books. After that she went straight to the top, the most legendary agents in America - Curtis Management Group (who are still in control of the images of icons such as Marilyn Monroe and James Dean).Despite being in her 70's and 80's, Bettie got involved in a number of projects over the next decade, she co-wrote her autobiography - Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend (although unsurprisingly, much of the 'missing years' remained as such), helped with the creation of a number of TV programmes and two films about her, got involved with the creation of officially licenced products, made DVD commentaries for re-releases of her surviving 8mm and 16mm film reels, did countless interviews, and as I mentioned in my RIP post - sold signed 8x10 photographs to her fans. The signed pictures turned out to be a short lived affair. Apparently it was taking her quite some time to sign her name, and the idea soon came to an end. I've no idea how much they originally intended to sell these items for, but I'm fairly sure that because there were so few of them, the price went even higher. I decided to go for one, safe in the knowledge that it really wasn't worth the money they were asking, and convinced I'd regret it... but I never have. In fact, as the years go by I become more and more grateful that I took that reckless plunge! Sure e-Bay often lists a signed Bettie picture (for less than I paid too), but I have little confidence that they are genuine. The fact she signed so few is at odds with the regularity that they still continue to appear. I am safe in the knowledge that mine is 100% legit - complete with all sorts of documentation and certification from her agent. Here's a picture of my signed Bettie photo:
2003 was also the year I finally had my Bettie tattoo done! Having wanted one since the mid 90's I decided it probably wasn't a passing fad and went ahead (4 hours in one sitting... ouch!). Oddly the picture I had done ended up being the very same one that I chose 8 years previously!
By 2004 Bettie had all but withdraw from her new found limelight... the interviews ceased, and the involvement in upcoming ideas stopped. I don't know why for sure, but I'm guessing the day to day challenges of being in her 80's was probably more than enough for her to be getting on with.
In early December 2008 she had a heart attack and went into a coma. She died at the age of 85 on 11th December 2008, after her family allowed her life support machine to be switched off.
To me, Bettie will always be the ultimate pin-up girl, and I've been infatuated with her for over 20 years. She was such a natural in front of the camera, and could switch from the fresh faced 'girl next door' look, to the bitch from hell in the click of the shutter.
How my Bettie tattoo is looking today... (quite literally!):