Friday, 11 December 2009

Bettie Page

Last December I did a quick 'RIP' post on the death of Bettie Page. I mentioned then that I'd been fully intending to do a proper post on her since I started the blog... so I thought that today, the first anniversary of her death, would be a fitting day to finally post my tribute to her.

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!
Pretty soon she was modelling for a number of Camera Clubs - on the outside, these were artistic groups of gents practising and honing their hobby of photography.... on the inside these were mostly lecherous men, using a camera as an excuse to get near beautiful young women with few clothes on (apparently, a number of these guys didn't even have film in their cameras!). Some Camera Club shots of Bettie made their way to the desk of Robert Harrison, who published a number of gentleman's 'cheesecake' magazines (with fab titles like Eyefull, Wink, and Titter!). He immediately hired Bettie,and she became a regular favourite in his publications.
In 1952, Bettie started posing for photos and making films for the Klaws' (brother and sister Irving and Paula), after one of the camera club members showed them his photos of her.... The Klaws' had started out selling photographs of Hollywood movies stars, but branched out into cheesecake modelling. However they will always be remembered for their eventual specialism in the fetish underground world of spanking, bondage and sadomasochism (after repeated requests from some of their regular customers).... Looking at Betties' work with them today it all seems very tame and almost innocent (I also love the fact that many of the outfits she wore in the Klaw photo and cine film shoots she actually hand-made especially for the session!), but it must have been incredibly shocking in the day. Irving Klaw was careful never to have any nakedness in any of his work, to ensure that none of it could ever be classed as 'pornographic', but never the less, the FBI hounded him for years. In 1953, Bettie was hired to perform in a burlesque film - Striporama. The film was such an incredible success that the Klaw's soon got in on the act too, with Bettie appearing in another two very similar films titled Varietease and Teaserama.

In 1954, Bettie also started to pose for former model turned photographer Bunny Yeager. Yeager was extremely talented at her job, and captured many of the best shots of Bettie. Yeager sent some of them to Hugh Hefner, who immediately picked Bettie to be 'Playmate of the Month' in the January 1955 issue of Playboy magazine. Page had already become well known by this time, but the Playboy exposure rocketed her fame to another level (winning the coveted 'Pin-Up Girl of the World' title later that year). It was also in 1955 that the FBI finally managed to get Irving Klaw before the Senate Subcommittee on Obscene and Pornographic Materials (despite him not actually breaking any laws). The United States Congress even called on Bettie to testify and explain the photos she appeared in. The court ordered all of Klaws work to be incinerated. Over 80% of his work was burnt, but Klaws sister Paula somehow managed to secretly save some of Bettie's work from the flames.

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:

In 2003, she finally allowed a couple of photos of herself to be taken and published! Even at the age of 80 it was still unmistakably Bettie... and unsurprisingly, she was still beautiful.

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!):



Mondo said...

Fantastic piece P, I finally caught the biopic a couple of weeks ago, well half (I've sky +'d the rest).

I was always a bit wooly about her lost/recent years. So great to great to have that untangled and see a recent shot of her too.

Top work

Artog said...

Just the outright sexiest woman ever to have walked the Earth. Amazed to see just how youthful looking she stayed, especially after everything she went through.

Kolley Kibber said...

I'd never seen that picture of her in her later years - what a great shot. She really kept her smile, didn't she? I'd kill for looks like those.

And how about a tat of Jordan on the other arm, just to add a bit of contrast?

phsend said...

Piley, I think one word that describes your Blog is....diverse.

You certainly have the knack of making pretty much everything you are passionate about, interesting to others too.

A very complex life with all its ups and downs and as mentioned above - what a great smile Betty has.

Piley said...

ta Mondo, Bettie actually worked on that biopic (The Notorious Bettie Page), and i'm glad they finally made one that did her justice. There had been a number of low budget attempts prior to that one, and were all awful (of course I still own them all!)

Artog - yeah i'd go along with that description!! She looked amazing at 80 didn't she? That pic could easily pass as her being in her 50's! Incredible!

ISBW - Haha!! Talk about 'poles apart'... it's hard to believe these two live in the same profession isn't it?? It's weird though, because Jordan really isn't pretty is she?? I find her (cosmetically changed) features very harsh looking. It's also funny how just about all females seem to not like people like Jordon or Jodie Marsh... yet women always seem to like (or at least appreciate) Bettie Page.

PH - Glad you liked it! I guess I do bang on about stuff at times!!


phsend said...

Oh dear, after reading all that biographical information I still managed to spell Bettie's name wrong:( Can you edit it?

Nazz Nomad said...

really nice write-up on Ms. Page. really, really well done.

Nice ink too

Dan said...

Never really known anything about Bettie Page, so this post was fascinating to me. Cheers, Piley.

I've seen the movie floating about, so I may have to give it a watch. An interesting lady. Thanks for that, chief.

Piley said...

ph - i did notice it, but as it's Christmas, chose to ignore!!!

Nazz - thanks very much, I appreciate that.

Dan - Glad you found it interesting - the biopic is well worth a look and there's plenty more to find out about Ms Page in that.

The one thing that I meant to add to the post but forgot was how despite being an underground cult, you can't underestimate her effect on pop culture... Dita Von Tease, Lucy Lawless AND her character Xena, the Mia Wallace character in Pulp Fiction, hundred of latter day models such as Julie Strain and many more besides, all owe a big debt to Bettie.


Anonymous said...

I think this is the best piece you have done since your Laurel and Hardy one and is one of the best you have done period. I too discoverd her while looking though a book in a comic shop. I've never got as obsessed as you but i've always liked her too. Like you say she could look sweet and then raunchy and that is a turn on. It's amazing how some one can capture so many imaginations and become imortal in a way , for ever loved any way. She is a real icon and to hear of her troubles in life choked me up to my suprise. I love your dedication to her too. Good stuff P , people like you keep her name alive , nice one.


Piley said...

Thanks Carl... appreciate that. Glad you liked it. Welcome back too!


Coop said...

Great stuff, I loves me some Bettie too. I've got the whole run of the Bettie Pages, think I got mine in Forbidden Planet too.
She's been a huge influence on punk/ rockabilly/ hot rod culture too.

Piley said...

Nice one Coops... Didn't realise you were a fan too.

Ahh, the days when FP was a serious contender in the comic market and was an interesting shop to visit eh?? It's still OK, but only if you like Twilight and\or Dr Who.. ZZZZzzzz


Martin said...

Another piece that made great reading. Like so many of the things that you've written about I have no real knowledge of her but was left feeling that I'd like to find out some more. If I ever find some spare time between listening to Martin Gordon CDs and podcasts or reading graphic novels you've recommended I may well do that.

Piley said...

Thanks Martin... i'm glad this post may have sparked an interest.

You could do worse than picking up the fabulous biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page". HMV are currently selling this at the outrageously cheap price of just THREE of your Earth pounds! Some films should not be allowed to be sold that cheap (now there's a blog post on it's own!)... Well worth a dabble at that pocket money price.


Anonymous said...

di V.S.Gaudio

Betty Page,la pin-up cult model, è una normolinea mesomorfa perfetta, al grado più alto di compattezza:alta 5 piedi e 5 pollici, con questo trittico di misure:Bust 36”; Waist 24”; Hips 36”½. Con un peso forma di 129 libbre.
Il suo fascino fisico, che,cercato in ogni foto per quante ne abbiamo rinvenute sui vari siti Web che numerosi mettono in vetrina la sua immagine fissata da Irving Klaw e da altri fotografi, non fa che rispondere da una doppia misura: dalla sua faccia e dal suo culo.
Detto così, e immediatamente, sembra che sia stato facile cercare la ragione del suo fascino. E postone il senso tra alto e basso nella morfologia espressiva del corpo sembra che si sia detto una banalità.
Innanzitutto, Betty Page è un’immagine costantemente dotata del paradigma sentimentale, che, come un doppio o un’ombra, ne curva ogni esposizione, ne ottunde ogni ostensione.
Il paradigma sentimentale, lo abbiamo visto, contiene un’affettività che, nella posa, viene ostesa, esibita con assoluta naturalezza: sembra che corrisponda a quella che Ruffini designa come l’ assolutezza anonima dell’attrazione .L’organicità anonima che «è un gioco di forze oggettive, non un gioco di passioni soggettive» è come il paradigma sentimentale di Betty Page,che,lo vedremo,non è mai triste ,né bizzarro, non ha segni di chiusura o di lentezza.
L’amabilità,la sobria cortesia, una dolcezza concentrata, una toccante tenerezza: questo è l’effetto che produce ogni sua immagine, e se è prodotto questo effetto in mutande, in costume da bagno ,in indumenti fetish,in bondage o nuda, vuol dire che il désir del visionatore è stato reso ottuso, perché non si acutizza né si risolve ma si espande in una convessità continua e assolutamente ripetibile.
Il paradigma sentimentale non è mai triste né bizzarro, perché non c’è nessun segno che qui sia chiuso, taciturno o assai lento; il paradigma sentimentale proietta(o è costituito su)una sorta di emotività specializzata, un sentimento di sé che si riflette come una ferita affettiva durevole.
da: V.S.Gaudio, BODY PAGE, copyright 2003.