Friday, December 12, 2008

Bettie Page R.I.P.

(WARNING If you are a bit uncomfortable with content that is rated at least PG-13, you might want to pass this blog entry by....)

Bettie Page, possibly the most photographed woman of all time and the undisputed Queen of Pin-Ups, died last night at the age of 85. She had been in intensive care in hospital following a heart attack she suffered on December 2.

Bettie Mae Page was born in Nashville on April 22, 1923. She was the eldest daughter of six children. Her parents divorced in 1933, and as the eldest daughter of six children Bettie often found herself caring for her siblings. While a teenager she and her sisters experimented with different fashions and make up, often imitating their favourite actresses. Learning to sew, Bettie then made much of what she wore even after she became a professional model. She attended Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville, graduating as salutatorian of her class. The following year she attended George Peadbody College for Teachers, with the intention of becoming a teacher, although she also studied acting. She received her bachelor's degree in 1944, but found she couldn't control her students. As a result she took up secretarial work. She worked in San Francisco, Haiti, and finally New York.

It was in 1950, when Bettie was on the Coney Island beach, that she was noticed by police officer and amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs. Tibbs not only put together her first modelling portfolio, but introduced her to camera clubs, clubs meant to promote photography as an art. Bettie became very popular as a model very quickly. By 1951 her picture was featured in such men's magazines as Bold, Titter, and Wink. In 1952 she would meet photographers Irving and Paula Klaw. Klaw ran Movie Star News, a mail order business which had originally specialised in pictures of movie stars. In time Irving Klaw learned that many of his clients had rather outré tastes, leading him to start creating bondage and fetish photos for sale. Despite the subject matter, Irving and Paula Klaw took measures to prevent their photos from being considered obscene. Not only did they never feature nudity, let alone explicit sexual content, but the Klaws had their models wear two pairs of underwear so that absolutely nothing would show. Furthermore, Irving Klaw never touched any of his models, Paula making any adjustments to costumes that was necessary. Irving and Paula Klaw also made 8 millimetre loops such as Striporama, Varietease, and Teaserama (all of which featured Bettie). Bettie also appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show and The U. S. Steel Hour, as well as the off-Broadway plays Time is a Thief and Sunday Costs Five Pesos. Her acting career never took off, however, reportedly because she refused to submit to the casting couch.

It was in 1954 that Bettie met photographer Bunny Yeager in Florida. Yeager would also take some of the most famous photographs of Bettie Page, including the famous Jungle Bettie series. Yeager sent Bettie's photograph to Hugh Hefner, and Bettie became the Playboy Playmate of the Month for the January 1955 issue of Playboy. Sadly, at the height of her career, Bettie would find herself the target of moral watchdogs. In 1955, even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation had ruled that the photographs produced by the Klaws were not pornographic, Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce investigated Irving Klaw on charges of obscenity. Kefauver and his committee would go so far as trying to convince Bettie to testify against Klaw that he was producing pornography (she refused on the grounds that he was not) and trying to link the death of a Boy Scout through autoerotic strangulation to Klaw's photos (even though there was not a shred of evidence that the boy had ever seen even one of Klaw's pictures). In the end Irving Klaw would win his case, although the publicity it engendered would make him notorious. In the end he had to stop selling cheesecake and fetish photographs, although Movie Star News survives to this day.

For reasons that are still unclear to this day, Bettie Page ended her career in 1957 at the age of 35. After another failed marriage, she converted to Christianity in 1959, eventually serving as a counsellor in the Billy Graham Crusade. Over the years Bettie would marry again (ending once more in divorce) and would spend several years in a mental institution. In the meantime, however, Bettie Page began to grow in popularity. It started in 1976 when Eros Publishing published A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page, a collection of photos from the Fifties. In the late Seventies Belier Press published Betty Page: Private Peeks, which featured photos from her camera club sessions. In the late Seventies artist Robert Blue began painting photorealistic pictures of Bettie. Around the same time Olivia De Berardinis began painting Bettie in various fantasy situations. The artist who would bring Bettie to the mainstream, however, was comic book creator Dave Stevens. It was in 1982 that his series The Rocketeer first appeared, featuring Jenny, a love interest who looked remarkably like Bettie Page. Stevens would eventually meet Bettie and the two would become so close that he would even assist her financially from time to time and drive her to cash her Social Security cheques. He even helped Bettie set up a licensing business so she could profit from her image. Eventually she would sign with the agency CMG Worldwide.

Today, over fifty years after the last professional photographs of Bettie were taken, she is perhaps the most legendary model of all time. She may well be the most photographed woman of all time (even more so that Princess Diana), with an estimated 20,000 pictures of her having been taken. Today her image graces such diverse items as comic books, magnets, playing cards, Zippo lighers, and assorted other things. Two movies based on the life of Bettie Page (The Notorious Bettie Page and Bettie Page: Dark Angel) have been made. And she has had an impact on pop culture, ranging from rock music to comic books to movies and television, that simply cannot be estimated.

If Bettie Page was and will always be the Queen of the Pin-Ups, it is perhaps because of her incredible appeal. It is true that Bettie Page helped usher in the Sexual Revolution. She brought a sexual freedom to her photographs unknown until that time, but without seeming obscene or pornographic in doing so. Bettie's image was not that of the dominitrix or bad girl, but that of an ordinary girl having fun while play acting. While Bettie once said, "I was never the girl next door," her image was certainly that of the girl next door. She displayed the innocence and integrity of the girl next door, but not the wholesomeness often wrongly attributed to the archetype (the girl next door was never Donna Reed). For many American males the ideal girl next door is a girl comfortable with her own body who enjoys having fun, but without being smutty or promiscuous in doing so--she is the sort of girl who has no problems with her sexuality, but does not sleep around. Bettie Page filled this fantasy perfectly, in a way no other woman ever has. That is the reason why her passing is more notable than that of a mere model or any other celebrity. She was truly an icon.

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