An iconic figure in the early years of the sexual revolution; Bettie Page was a pin-up and fetish model whose pageboy bangs and sunny disposition won the hearts of countless men in the pages of Playboy and other adult magazines and films. What made Page so popular was the dichotomy between her wholesome, girl-next-door exterior and her willingness to pose not just nude - still a scandal in the post-World War II era - but in mild sadomasochistic scenarios. Few were able to peer deeply into the paradox of Bettie Page - government hearings on pornography drove her underground, where she found religion and went through several marriages. While she languished in obscurity, a new generation of fans discovered her image in the 1970s, resulting in a global cult following that echoed her look and attitude in countless magazines, comics, movies and fashion. For years, Page resisted appearing in public, much to the disappointment of her loyal followers, but by the late 1990s, she was granting interviews and even recouping a fraction of the millions of dollars reaped by her photos and films. Page's rise and fall, and the impact her life and likeness had on the social fabric of the late 20th century, made her one of the purest examples of pop culture legend.
By all accounts, Page's early life was a challenging one. Born Betty Mae Page in Nashville, TN on April 22, 1923, she was the second of six children born to Walter Roy Page and his wife, Edna Mae Pirtle. Money was in short supply in the Page household, and the family frequently moved across the country in search of work. The situation worsened when Walter and Edna divorced in 1933, forcing Page's mother to place her and her two younger sisters in an orphanage for a period of time.
Despite such hardships, Page was an excellent student who graduated as salutatorian of her high school class. Her grades earned a $100 scholarship to George Peabody College, where she intended to study education. However, she harbored a deeper dream of becoming an actress; Page was an avowed movie fan, and spent hours imitating the hairstyles and makeup of her favorite stars. After marrying her high school sweetheart, Billy Neal, in 1943, Page graduated from Peabody and began work as a typist for author Alfred Leland Crab. When Neal was drafted by the Navy, she followed him across the United States to live at various ports of call.
Page's marriage to Neal crumbled in 1947, and she relocated to New York, when she hoped to finally make her acting dream come true. While walking along Coney Island's shore in 1950, she met Jerry Tibbs, a police officer with a passion for amateur photography. Tibbs took Page's first glamour photos and helped her compile a portfolio, which led to work with other photographers. Page's image - both busty and slender, with milky-white skin and coal-black hair, always flashing a bright smile - was soon gracing the pages of men's magazines and amateur photography journals. She also began collaborating with Irving Klaw, a photographer and filmmaker who sold nude and fetish photos and films through a mail order service. Page starred in a number of Klaw's 8- and 16-mm films, which featured her in mild bondage scenarios but never in explicit sexual situations. Again, the image of her wholesome frame in such scenarios made her extremely popular among collectors and aficionados.
As her fame in the underground adult market grew, Page continued to try and develop her career as a mainstream actress. She studied under acclaimed teacher Herbert Berghoff, and eventually landed small roles in off-Broadway productions. She also broke into television with minor parts on "The United States Steel Hour" (ABC/CBS, 1953-1963) and "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS, 1952-1970). Lasting fame in Hollywood proved elusive to Page, and she found greater screen time in a trio of burlesque films - "Striporama" (1953), "Varietease" (1954) and "Teaserama" (1955) - the latter two directed by Klaw; the former, directed by Jerald Intrator, which was notable as the sole film to feature Page's speaking voice.
On a visit to Florida in 1954, Page met Bunny Yeager, a former model-turned- photographer who would generate some of her most iconic images. A photo shoot at a wildlife park yielded the "Jungle Bettie" series, which saw Page in - and out of - a leopard skin outfit of her own creation, as well as posed shots with a pair of cheetahs. The series later wound up in the hands of Playboy creator Hugh Hefner, who selected Page to become the January 1955 Playmate. Her centerfold - Page kneeling beneath a Christmas tree, dressed only in a Santa hat and winking playfully at the camera - was also one of her most popular shots. Page capped 1955 by earning the title "Miss Pin-up Girl of the World," which was an accurate reflection of her popularity in that arena.
Though Page's career was a remarkably long one in the pin-up world, where a model's career trajectory could be charted over the course of a few magazine issues, by 1958 it had come to an abrupt end - largely by Page's own doing. Her image had been brandished as an example of the corruptive influence of pornography in Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency in 1957; Page herself had been called before Congress to testify in regard to her participation in Irving Klaw's bondage films, but was excused before actually making her appearance. The hearings left an unpleasant taint to the work in Page's mind, and she began to extricate herself from the business. A 1958 visit to a Baptist church in Key West, FL sparked an interest in her spiritual well-being, and her conversion to Christianity the following year, effectively ending her reign as the nation's most well-loved and identifiable pin-up queen.
For much of the 1960s, Page devoted herself to religious pursuits while marrying and divorcing several husbands, including a remarriage to Billy Neal. Her pin-up career seemed to vanish into obscurity; the senate hearings had forced Klaw to destroy many of the negatives from her photo shoots, so she was able to pursue what seemed to be a normal life as a housewife and devoted Christian. By the early 1970s, she had abandoned Florida for Los Angeles, where she lived with her brother. The relative calm of her existence, however, was soon to be shattered by a growing fascination with her previous life.
Starting in the mid-1970s, a series of small press book publishers and underground magazine editors began releasing tributes to Page's pin-up career; since Klaw nor any of her other photographers had ever copyrighted their images, there was no fear of legal or financial reprisals. Comic artist Dave Stevens furthered developed the cult of Betty Page by using her as the inspiration for his retro-minded superhero title "The Rocketeer;" unfortunately, Disney's film adaptation boiled away the spicier elements of the character, though Jennifer Connelly retained Page's trademark hairstyle. Another comic artist, Greg Theakston, produced The Betty Pages, a magazine devoted to Page's life and career, which earned a considerable following among men who had come of age during Page's heyday, as well as younger readers who had become entranced by her singular charms. Theakston and Stevens, along with fellow artists like Olivia and Robert Blue, sparked a revived interest in Page, which began to slowly filter into the alternative and underground cultures; young women began to sport Page's pageboy bob, while men and ladies alike inked her pin-up poses on their arms or used them as an image to signify their alignment with and appreciation for her free-spirited sexuality.
The mainstream media eventually picked up on this groundswell of reverence for Page, which naturally led to various attempts to locate her for interviews. Robin Leach was among the first to get the elusive Page to agree to an interview; in a 1993 episode of his "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" (syndicated, 1984-1995), she spoke via telephone about her amazement at the revived interest in her life, as well as her own financial struggles. Page was living in a group home in the 1980s and was largely destitute. But thanks to the national exposure of the Leach piece, as well as subsequent profiles on programs like "Entertainment Tonight" (syndicated, 1981- ), she was able to land representation and earn royalties from the countless photos and videos that had been released.
Page's re-emergence into popular culture resulted in another wave of related media. Her life was the subject of two books - an official biography, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend (1996), and The Real Bettie Page: The Truth about the Queen of Pin-Ups in 1997. The latter title was especially controversial with Page fanatics due to revelations about Page's lost years in the 1970s and 1980s; according to author Richard Foster, Page had suffered from schizophrenia and had been involved in an assault while suffering from the disease. Supporters such as Hugh Hefner and author Harlan Ellison decried the book as a cheap tell-all, but Page herself was reportedly pleased with the final result.
Whichever version of the Bettie Page story fans cared to believe, one abiding fact remained a constant: the woman herself had not been photographed or seen by the majority of her fans since her re-discovery in the 1970s. Page had steadfastly refused to be captured on film or video in any of her interviews, citing discomfort over her weight. But in 2003, she recanted for a publicity photo in Playboy, which paid tribute to her legacy in the magazine. In 2005, Page was the subject of a largely sympathetic biopic titled "The Notorious Bettie Page." Directed by Mary Harron, it starred Gretchen Mol as Page, and followed her life from the 1930s through her pin-up heyday in the 1950s before her disappearance, which the film cited as a direct result of her involvement in the Senate hearings. The film's modest success generated DVD releases of her burlesque and fetish loops on DVD through various independent sources.
The new millennium saw Page financially secure for the first time in decades thanks to legal assistance with royalties, and even participating in new financial ventures, like a line of custom guitars, for her legion of admirers. However, her health could not match her renewed interest in her career, and she was plagued by various illnesses. In late 2008, news reports revealed that Page had been hospitalized for what some sources described as a heart attack; a report also surfaced that Page had been in a coma. She died of complications from the heart attack on Dec. 11, 2008, but left behind a dazzling legacy.