Pin-up queen and S&M pioneer Bettie Page was and is the preeminent symbol of kinky sex in the 1950s and today. Though prolific in her time, she rode the ragged edge of the law, during a time when human sexuality was literally on trial and even those in the back rooms, far from prying eyes, felt the government breathing down their whipped and collared necks. Despite these dangers to freedom and personal standing in the community, Bettie stood as an unabashed, confident sex symbol in her time. Once the fantasy fodder of beatniks and anonymous men in trench coats and fedoras, Bettie has surpassed those modest origins, becoming a full-fledged media icon with countless imitators and worshipers across the globe. An impressive, if not prolonged rise to fame, which began in much more humble surroundings...
Bettie Mae Page was born to parents Walter Roy and Edna Mae Page on April 22, 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee. One of six children, Bettie knew misfortune from an early age. Her parents' divorce early on in her life saw her father mostly estranged from the family. Bettie would later describe him as a "sex fiend" and claimed to have been sexually molested by him as a teen, shortly before he was jailed. Tasked with caring for six children on her own, Bettie's mother was forced to place her daughters in an orphanage for a time, while she worked two jobs to support everyone. However, this early strife would only harden Bettie's resolve to make a better life for herself.
Bettie would do well in school, graduating as the salutatorian of her high school class and voted "The Most Likely To Succeed" by her classmates. She would go on to college with the goal of becoming a teacher. Enrolling in George Peabody College, she also studied acting and became quite adept as an actress. She graduated from college in 1944, stopping briefly along the way to marry a high school classmate shortly before he was drafted into the army. During the war and after, she traveled the country, going from Nashville to San Francisco to Miami, and even to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she found a love for the local people and culture. Shortly after returning to the States, she would file for divorce. This would be only the first in a series of divorce proceedings to follow for Bettie.
Bettie would finish her traveling adventures in 1949, landing in New York City where she hoped to find acting work. In the mean time, she worked as a secretary and got by the best she could. It was a day trip to Coney Island that changed everything for her. For it was here that she met Jerry Tibbs, a police officer with a sideline gig in photography. Together, the two of them would shoot Bettie's first pin-up portfolio, which immediately drew interest from photographers working in what was then known as the "camera club" scene.
Looking to usurp the strict morality laws of the day that forbid the production of any kind of pornography, members of these camera clubs attempted to skirt the law by labeling their nude photography as "art." For most involved in these groups, art was merely a whitewash for the real intentions of their work - the publication and distribution of racy, low budget magazines. Going by names like Wink, Titter, Eyeful and Beauty Parade, these magazines catered to what was at the time, a criminal audience, who all risked arrest on morals charges, should they be discovered in possession of such material or seen entering the premises of back alley dens where such material was sold.
But, if you were a kinky sort of person in the 40s and 50s, in need of the kind of sex your girlfriend or wife was unwilling to partake in, you probably wound up in one of these back alley porn stores, or subscribing to certain shady mail order lists. No instant internet relief in those days. If you wanted porn, you better be ready to risk your entire future and good standing in the community. Which meant that the content of those magazines had better be worth your time. In the 1950s, there simply was no more popular camera club model than Bettie.
In a time when ladies who posed for images depicting such frank sexuality were seen as vulgar, fallen women, it could prove difficult to find truly enthusiastic subjects. Bettie was different in this regard. Few others indulged themselves in these photos with more genuine enthusiasm and carefree spirit. She simply found nothing to be ashamed of in picking up a whip and pretending to flog some innocent young lady, or even turning the tables and getting flogged herself. Spreading out her gorgeous body without a stitch of clothing did little to embarrass her. To Bettie, it was all fun and games. Her willingness to go places other women shied away from would make her the top pin-up girl in New York City, not to mention that hush hush underground porn scene. Folks simply could not get enough of her.
Of course, it wasn't all about catering to the trench coat crowd. Acting classes and the limited clout she created for herself as a pin-up girl landed Bettie gigs in more high profile gigs, like walk on roles in The Jackie Gleason Show as well as off Broadway productions in various shows. A jungle themed photo shoot would even catch the eye of then burgeoning porn entrepreneur Hugh Hefner, who made her his Playmate of the Month for January 1955. She would appear in numerous burlesque movies, with frightfully uncreative names like Teaserama and Varietease. Though quite lurid for the day, many of these pseudo-porn productions got around the morals laws in place at the time by not actually featuring any nudity or explicit sexual depictions. Though such loopholes wouldn't not spare them from the law for long.
The key player in the distribution system that disseminated many of the magazines and films Bettie appeared in, was the mob. They were simply the only ones with the resources to distribute such restricted material in significant quantities across the country. These mob connections would land Bettie and some of her photographer friends front and center in the government's long crusade against mob influence in America. The US Senate's Kefauver Hearings, named after Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver, would call Bettie to testify about her knowledge of the underground porn scene. She would be dismissed before testifying, but some of her photographer friends were not so lucky. Many would be forced to destroy thousands of photo negatives of Bettie. The few photos that survived were deemed illegal to print for some time afterward.
As government tightened the noose around the camera clubs and the entire underground porn industry, Bettie would make the understandable choice of moving on to other things. Enjoying regular jaunts to sunny Key West, Florida, Bettie would make a connection to a local Baptist church on these islands, eventually becoming a born again Christian in the process. Her new goal was to become a missionary, but her divorced status would impede her there. Ironically, this path into religion would lead to even more marriages that ended in divorce - 3 divorces, to be exact, all before 1972. One of them was to her first husband, who she remarried and divorced again in the 1960s. Apparently Bettie found union with a man much easier than spending her life with a man. She would ultimately accomplish her missionary goals and even worked with Billy Graham for a time. Yet, like much in her life, this would not last for long.
By the 1970s, Bettie had pretty much disappeared from celebrity entirely. Her photos burned, her youth gone, she assumed her former status as pin-up queen was the stuff of forgotten history. That couldn't have been more wrong. In the 20 or 30 years since she departed the scene, Bettie's legend had only grown stronger. In her absence, she had become even more of an icon than she ever had been as a camera club model. She was worldwide now, with posters, t-shirts, comic books, magazines, fan clubs, and every other kind of trapping cult icons enjoy. Only Bettie wasn't there for any of it. While all this fame grew out of her sight, she was descending into madness. An altercation with her landlady would result in a diagnosis of schizophrenia. A 20-month stint in a state institution would follow. A second altercation with a second landlady would earn her an assault charge, which she avoided by pleading insanity. She would spend the next 8 years under supervision, eventually being released from a state hospital in 1992.
It was around this time that Bettie would finally become aware of the steadily growing fanbase her likeness had generated in her absence. Years of speculation and curiosity over what had become of her led to numerous interviews, book deals, and lucrative residuals, all of which contributed to nice living for Bettie, finally giving her the success she always wanted. Despite all this interest, Bettie refused virtually all requests for photographs during this time, saying that she preferred her fans remember her as she was. Sadly, Bettie would pass away in 2008 of a heart attack and pneumonia. She was 85.
More of an icon than ever before, Bettie's famous bangs and bangin' body are the subject of countless fan art creations and provocative tattoos on body parts the world over. She still has a huge influence on pop culture, inspiring modern day pin-ups like Dita Von Teese and even superstars like Katy Perry. She's also a multimillion-dollar institution now, garnering a top spot in the Forbes list of dead celebrity earners, right along side the likes of George Harrison and Andy Warhol. All that from a set of bangs, a riding crop and smile. Quite a gal.