Biography: Bettie Page
on biographical information about the life of Bettie Page printed in the past
20 years, nobody would have been more surprised to find herself a favorite of
pop culture collectors than Bettie.
It has been two decades since talented artist Dave Stevens enhanced
the Bettie Page legend by using her as the model for the featured female in
his Rocketeer comic book stories. Before Stevens began to draw boobs
and bangs with a unique combination of panache and innocence, few people in
the world of comics were aware of beautiful Bettie. But she had never been forgotten
by fans of vintage pinup magazines. These two worlds of pop culture -- comics
and cuties -- had no real link until Stevens came along.
Comic book collectors are human, and many of
them fell just as much in love with Bettie's unique appeal as did their fathers
and grandfathers during the 1950s. Page spent only seven years (1951-57) posing
for pinups, but she has unquestionably had more influence on this genre of pop
culture than anyone else in America.
In fact, the definitive book on Bettie Page's life, Bettie Page: The Life
of a Pin-Up Legend (1995) by Karen Essex and James L. Swanson makes that
clear after four decades of mystery. They had the reclusive Page's full cooperation.
Bud Plant Comic Art's Incorrigible Catalog lists more than a dozen Bettie
Page items of all types, many of them bestsellers. They range from photos, postcards
and prints to statues and figurines.
Bettie Page -- who was born Betty Page and often was billed that way in the
pinup magazines -- emerged in the 1990s to get to know a few of the people
who most appreciated her influence, such as Stevens, Essex, Swanson and Greg
Theakston, producer of the long-running fanzine The Betty Pages. But
Page always has continued her firm policy of declining to be photographed, or
to appear at conventions or other gatherings.
However, her modesty and lack of ego has done
nothing to dent her popularity. As the Essex-Swanson book points out, Page's
influence on models and modeling, on fashion both mainstream and bizarre, can
not be underestimated. They use dozens of comments from well known models, artists
and photographers to bolster their contentions.
Comics: Between the Panels by Steve Duin and Mike Richardson -- a huge
volume of anecdotal comic history -- Stevens explains how he ultimately brought
the image of Bettie Page into what might have seemed the unlikely venue of comic
fandom. Relating how a young Stevens discovered Bettie's image on the cover
of the December 1956 issue of Frolic -- one of hundreds if not thousands
of men's magazines she graced -- Between the Panels lets Stevens explain
his understandable enthusiasm with one of the best descriptions of Page's appeal
It (Stevens' first exposure to Page's image) was the perfect blend of a fantastic,
curvy body, yet muscular, and a face that could belong to any girl on the street,”
Stevens said. “She had a real sweetness about her that a lot of models in the
40s and 50s didn't have. That's what sucked me in... I never intended to merchandise
her... per se. All I was doing was paying tribute to her in a comic book. I thought
when I drew a character that looked like Bettie and called her Bettie, but not
Bettie Page, I'd reach a few old codgers who remembered her. And a few friends
of mine who knew about my obsession for her. It was an in-joke. I had no idea
it would draw the response it did.
Such feelings match Page's own, as beautifully
expressed in a touching forward to The Life of a Pin-Up Legend. When
Stevens received the chance to meet Bettie Page not long after the success of
his Rocketeer character in a full-length 1991 film, he became determined to
help Page obtain as many royalties as possible from the many people who had
used her image. He also has a CD-Rom with an extensive one-hour interview with
Page ready for release soon.
In The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, Stevens
expounded on Betties appeal:
"She has an indescribable quality that separates her from all the other models
of that time,” Stevens said. “You get a sense of pure joy from her, as though
she just came alive for the camera and gave it her all. There's a timeless quality
about her that gives her images a real currency even though they were shot some
40 years ago. It's an amazing feat, to be able to bridge time the way she does.
She is embraced by both sexes, and she's become a role model for young women --
a maverick who did as she pleased without concern for the social restrictions
of the time. Bettie was bold and independent when women just weren't allowed to
be that. That's an admirable, risky quality that can invite trouble. Her image
will still be around long after we're gone."
It's especially intriguing that on the final page of The Life of a Pin-Up
Legend, the authors quote a psychologist who studies facial appearance.
The comments of Professor Michael Cunningham are a fascinating explanation of
the ageless appeal of Bettie Page: "I took nine measurements of
Bettie Page's features using an electronic micrometer, and then standardized
those measures as ratios to the size of the head, I compared Bettie's facial
metrics to a database containing measurements of both other stars and of uncelebrated
women,” Cunningham said. “The numbers confirmed what most pin-up viewers might
intuitively perceive. The height and width of Bettie Page's eyes were much greater
than average, giving her the appearance of child-like innocence and playfulness.
That effect was compounded by her very large smile, and her eyebrows, which
were set higher than average. The combination of child-like and expressive features
made her face appear both open and non-threatening."
Bettie's cheekbones and chin been larger, she might have seemed intimidatingly
beautiful. But those features were in the normal range, so the overall appearance
is not that of an unobtainable ice princess, but rather that of a pleasant and
eager-to-please girl next door. Bettie's long-term appeal may be due, in part,
to the contrast between her facial appearance and that of her body and apparel.
Her face gives the impression of a sweet and wholesome girl who would not turn
a guy down for a date or make him feel inadequate. At the same time, her black
lace and sensuous pose suggest that the date will not be limited to a chat at
the malt shop and a chaste kiss at the door. The perception of sweetness and sexuality,
of pleasure without threat, may capture the heart of the ambivalent 20th Century
Cunningham's imagery rings true to anyone who appreciates superb pin-up art.
Page, who was born in 1923, has had an amazingly varied and eventual life, as
detailed by Essex and Swanson in one of the most fascinating books ever written
about an influential pop culture figure. But perhaps the most intriguing chapter
in the book was entitled "Cult Icon," which goes into great detail
in explaining why Bettie Page is so well remembered when almost all of her "pin-up
sisters" have long since been forgotten. Besides Stevens, wonderful artists
such as Robert Blue, Olivia and Eric Stanton have worked with
Page's image to produce unforgettable fantasy images.
In the "Cult Icon" chapter of the
Essex-Swanson book, the authors trace, through the use of text and photographs,
the amazing influence of Bettie Page on current culture and fashion, including
a stunning section with supermodels Christy Turlington and Shalom Harlow. These
pages, as much as anything, show how Bettie Page was a woman many years ahead
of her time. But these images also show why Page's appeal truly is timeless.
Page's life, as detailed by Essex and Swanson,
was not easy. She grew up in somber, financially difficult circumstances with
often troubled parents and five siblings, living in several areas of the country
until finding fame in New York as the ultimate pin-up star of the 1950s. Yet
as early as her high school years in Nashville, Tenn., her intelligence and good nature were obvious.
She was named "the girl most likely to
succeed" at Hume-Fogg High School, from which she graduated in 1940. She was an honor-roll student, participating
in debate, drama and the school newspaper, and she was salutatorian of her class.
She attended Peabody College, from which she graduated in 1994, and participated in drama. She was
not yet 19 when she married Billy Neal in 1943 -- the first of three husbands.
Her marriages and attempts to break into the entertainment world were met with
much difficulty. Essex and Swanson portray those in heart-breaking but honest
detail, as Page wished.
second part of The Life of a Pin-Up Legend is entitled "Accidental
Legend," which is perhaps how Bettie saw her role as a pin-up icon. She
never appeared in upscale magazines like Vogue or Harper's, yet
she ultimately had far more influence than anyone who did. She began by modeling
in New York's camera clubs after being discovered by Jerry Tibbs and graduated
to men's magazines, where she was discovered by one of the leading publishers,
Robert Harrison, who produced the likes of Eyeful, Wink and Titter.
Page made it into the January 1955 issue of
Playboy, adorned only in a Santa Claus cap, but was out of modeling less
than three years later. Working with leading New York fetish photographic experts
Irving and Paula KIaw, owners of pin-up photo factory Movie Star News, she turned
in a long series of stunning, playful and occasionally controversial bondage
and fetish photo before leaving the photographic field forever by the beginning
"Bettie never thought the fetish and bondage modeling was lurid or wrong,"
Essex and Swanson wrote. "It was all part of a job she enjoyed and did
well. She was a freethinker in an era of conformity. Unlike other bohemian women,
she didn't attach herself to well-known male artists or writers to seek fame
or to become their personal muse. She didn't consider herself a pioneer, a feminist
or a trendsetter. She had no agenda; she simply followed her own liberated instincts.
Bettie put it simply: "I wasn't trying to be anything," she insists.
"I was just myself."
In an Italian book entitled The Glamourous
Betty Page, Cult Model l950s, which deals primarily with the bondage phase
of her photographic career, editors Stefano Piselli, Riccardo Morrocchi and
Marco Giovannini attempted a different viewpoint to assess the essence of what
made Page such a star with her fans world-wide:
"She was in turn a soul-less doll and a
dark lady, an ingenuous girl and an aggressive vamp, an unchaste Eve or a nylon-and-satin
dressed seducer, a flowery Hawaiian beauty or an enchained she-Tarzan," they
wrote. "Whereas her looks continuously changed, the carnality and mischievousness
she showed in her photos were immutable, as well as the happiness and morbid
excitation which deserved from them.
"On the one hand she was naturally endowed
with professionalism and versatility, together with a good deal of exhibitionism.
Her perfect pocket-doll body and her narcissistic attitude did the rest. So
well they did it, that she was nicknamed ‘The Body.’ Hers was a minute, graceful
body, not too plump yet with its curves in the right spots. Her breasts were
turgid and firm -- even though they were not so evident. And she had a wasp
waist and a perfect back ending with round-shaped nates and slender legs. All
of this turned her into a living monument to femininity, an ode to personified
physical perfection. Finally, the small oval of her face (was) counter-pointed
by deep and alluring eyes and by a fleshy, volative mouth whose lips opened
up in a provocative, mischievous smile. Her face was framed by abundant dark
hair with a fringe which made her look like a spoiled schoolgirl. Her haircut,
in fact, became her main distinctive feature -- an unmistakable, unfailed element
which was associated with the sexiest model of them all."
Essex and Swanson portray in vivid detail, political and legal complications
were accompanied by trouble from stalkers to photographers who sold her images
for profit. Ultimately it all convinced Bettie to leave the photographic field
and move to Florida -- later Southern California.
"I was 34 years old (in December 1957),
almost 35," Page told the authors. "Even though everyone thought I
was much younger, I was getting too old to do pin-ups. For years and years the
magazines said I was 22 years old, and I never refuted it. Why should I tell
them how old I was if I could get away with being younger? Besides, I had done
enough modeling. The photographers had shot me so much, and there were so many
pictures of me in circulation. I thought people would get sick of seeing me."
Page married three more times after retiring from pin-up photography -- including
a failed second marriage to Billy Neal -- and developed an intense interest
in religion. She studied and worked for Bible institutes in several locales
and later went to live with her brother Jimmie in Lawndale, California, while
quietly pursuing her love of reading, films and gardening.
Theakston, the comic book industry figure who
did so much to popularize Bettie Page in the 1980s and 90s in The Betty Pages,
also has done extensive interviews with Page. In his second Betty Pages Annual,
published in 1993, Theakston talked about the meaning of getting to know the
Bettie Page legend.
"If you had told me, five years ago, that
I'd speak to Bettie Page someday, I would have considered it a far-fetched possibility,"
he wrote. "Still, I was always prepared. What I was not prepared for was the
way publishing The Betty Pages has changed me. When Joe Anderko and I
started TBP, we never dreamed that it would strike such a nerve with
people. It was obvious that the public loved Bettie, but it was that vein of
gold that led to the mother-lode. While searching for her story, I found dozens
more, each as fascinating as hers in their own right.
"Looking around, I was surprised to see that
so few prospectors had been through my newfound claims. Many of the people who
populate the world of tease told me their stories, and these stories gave me
new points of reference. Sometimes the stories made me laugh, many of them made
me angry, and a few choked me up. I wanted to know more about it. Not just the
pin-up side of it, or the 1950s repressed-sex side of it, or the today side
of it. I wanted to know more about ALL of it."
In a truly touching forward to the Essex/Swanson
The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, reproduced in her own handwriting -- which
almost makes it seem as if Page is speaking directly to the reader, just as
her eyes in her photos so often seemed to be aimed squarely at the viewer --
she explains the feelings about the enduring fame she never expected to attain.
"I never would have believed that in 1995,
so many yeas after the modeling days, I would be telling my story," Bettie wrote.
"I thought that surely I would be long forgotten. I am flattered by your interest
in my life, and astonished that you (meaning her fans) still care about me,
though sometimes all this attention is not quite real to me. Many of you are
young enough to be my grandchildren.
"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. If my photographs speak to you, then I am happy. If I am remembered
today, it is because you, the reader, see something in me that I never saw in
Page’s last public appearance was in 1957. She has received many invitations
to host special events and appear on television but has declined. In her forward
to The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, she explained: "Please remember
me as I was," she wrote to fans."“I hope that you understand. I am
content now. I enjoy my privacy and my simple life. I have no regrets. To friends
new and old, I thank you all." The pleasure is all ours, Bettie.
-- Michelle Nolan
"I encourage you to check out Betty Page: Queen of Hearts. This
fine book, compiled by Jim Silke and co-published by Dark Horse and ourselves,
went out-of-print some time ago. While DHC has no plans to reprint it, they've
turned up a small stash and we've snagged them. Act now if you don't already
have one, it's perhaps the best book ever done on Bettie." -Bud.
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