Writing an article on Bettie Page is like writing a book report on the Bible—so much to cover, so little time. How do you summarize a legend? How can you cover all those important details in 2000 words or less?
What do we even know about Bettie Page? Visiting the many websites and fan pages on Bettie, they paint a pretty picture. Bettie Page is the pinup goddess. She is the queen of curves, the bondage model of her era. She is the woman who pushed boundaries and became a timeless sex icon. Women all over the country have tried to mimic her, dyeing their hair black, fluffing and spraying those bangs into the perfect bob, just like Bettie. Men have been masturbating to her image for over 50 years. Burlesque performers, pinup models, fashion designers—everyone seems infatuated with how to imitate this one girl’s style, from her clothes to her shimmies, right down to the way she fixes her hair. All this is based on Bettie’s mere seven years in the spotlight.
Indeed, most of us already know who Bettie Page is, at least publicly. There are enough pictures of her floating around—Bettie dressed in leopard print, or lying on a bearskin rug, blunt bangs, piercing blue eyes and a smile to knock ’em dead for decades. But there is a side to Bettie Page a lot of people don’t know about—a darker side, and it’s that less-than-perfect side that I intend to cover here. After all, she is the “dark angel,” and that name is more fitting than some may realize.
Granted, this won’t be the usual pretty picture most people are used to seeing of Bettie Page. Hell yes, she was hot—but the girl was fucking nuts. Fortunately I feel redeemed in the fact that “fucking nuts” is punk rock enough by today’s standards that people won’t hate me for pointing out our beloved Bettie’s quirks—or love of knives. In fact, it just might make her seem cooler, not that she needs any help from me.
Let’s start with the stats. Bettie Mae Page (yes, her real name) was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 22, 1923. For those of you who aren’t 100% sure, yes, she’s still alive, at the ripe old age of 83.
Bettie got her start in 1950 in Cape Cod, at the age of 27. A policeman approached Bettie on a deserted beach (sounds like the beginning of a porn movie, doesn’t it?) and confessed he was also a photographer. It’s one of those chance encounters that ended up changing history. Bettie went along with a guy named Jerry Tibbs, and he introduced her to camera clubs, which is where a model would do a private photo session for a whole group of photographers. It was this relationship that produced the very first Bettie Page cover—Harlem Newsprint Magazine. It was also where Bettie felt comfortable enough to pose nude, because the photos taken in these clubs were never supposed to be published. Fortunately for us, some people broke the rules.
Bettie left the camera clubs after just a year, and moved onto the covers of men’s magazines with names such as Eyeful, Wink, and Beauty Parade. While posing for those, she was acknowledged by a former-model-turned-photographer, Bunny Yeager, who worked her into the famous “Jungle Bettie” photos that are so well known today. It was also at this time that she started working for photographer Irving Klaw, who had the bright idea of tying Bettie up, thereby making her the first famous bondage model. Under Klaw’s direction, Bettie made upward of 50 short films such as Bondage Queen and Teaser Girl in High Heels.
From there it was a landslide: Bettie Page was all the hottest woman in the US. The proof is in her accolades. In 1955 alone she was Playboy’s Miss January, she won the title of “Miss Pin-up Girl of the World” and she was nicknamed the “Girl with the Perfect Figure.”
This was serious stuff. Imagine that these pictures of Bettie were surfacing at the exact same time that The Donna Reed Show was airing. Bettie was the naughty Girl Next Door, the dark-haired Marilyn, the seductress—even if she didn’t know it yet. I imagine it was still a hard pill to swallow for some, especially to see her on all fours, completely strapped up in pony gear, being whipped around the room by a crop-wielding mistress. After all, this was 1957—the same year “In God We Trust” first appeared on U.S. paper currency.
In fact, it may have been her trust in God that led to the downfall of Bettie Page.
While Bettie was busy posing with cheetahs and ball gags, the Legion of Decency was busy banning movies for lewd content. In 1955, right at the height of his success with Bettie, Irving Klaw became the center of a Senate investigation trying to link pornography and juvenile delinquency. He became overwhelmed and couldn’t defend himself, so in 1957 he closed up shop, taking Bettie’s modeling career down with him.
That’s where things turn ugly.
With the ruin of Klaw in 1957, instead of furthering her modeling career with the dozens of firms begging for her attention, Bettie Page walked away from the lights and the fame for good. She simply disappeared, vanishing one day as though she never existed at all. Wild rumors started right away. Was she dead? Had she lost her mind?
As we come to find, maybe it was a little bit of both.
Almost four decades passed.
Four decades, as it turns out, of Bettie facing her inner demons. Four decades of Bettie reliving her childhood, which we later find out was nothing like The Donna Reed Show. Four decades of deep religious pursuit. With a couple of trips to the loony bin
and three people stabbed in the process, it appears we’ve got ourselves a twist.
The Real Bettie Page
It’s a tragic thing when sick parents can’t keep their hands off their children, and Bettie’s story is a perfect example of that. Molested by her father at age 11, it would be an experience that left a lasting impression on Bettie, a wound that never quite scabbed over.
Traces of this inner pain are evident in some of Bettie’s photographs, where she appears caught off-guard. Bettie is known for her cheesecake smile, her
teasing and confident poses. But as some photos reveal, these poses were industry-shaped. Bettie was not, I hate to be the one to remind you, a sadomasochist. Those images of her are produced; they are a director’s idea of what will inspire men. They are not the real Bettie Page.
The real Bettie was a deeply troubled girl who maintained a purity throughout her entire career. She never once used her curvaceous body to further her career, even though she was pursued relentlessly by would-be sugar daddies and career-makers. Research shows she had surprisingly few lovers, three of whom she married. This innocence, and what we now know to be inner turmoil, might finally be explainable.
Who would have thought that behind those stabbing blue eyes was a diagnosed schizophrenic?
After her disappearance, Bettie did a good job of
staying hidden for a good twenty years, with no one
bothering her or knowing who she was. Then in 1978, Belier Press in New York decided to release a few photography books featuring Bettie from the shoots done in the 50s. This alone sparked a Bettie Page revival. Again, her image was everywhere—band logos, erotic paintings,
airbrushed lithographs…once again hordes of Bettie Page lookalikes were created overnight. All this was happening while Bettie was living penniless in California, completely unaware of her resurgence into the public eye.
In 1972 a new photograph emerged of Bettie Page—her mugshot. She was arrested in Florida for causing a public disturbance with a .22 pistol after finalizing her divorce from her third husband. He bailed her out, but the police were called again shortly thereafter when Bettie offered to disembowel her stepchildren if they refused to stare at a picture of Jesus on the wall. This time when the cops took her away, it was for a four-month stint in a state mental institution.
She got out four months later and moved into a trailer park in California (not quite what you’d hoped for, I know). One April day in 1979, for no apparent reason, she attacked the elderly couple that owned the trailer park, stabbing them both repeatedly until knocked unconscious by the old man. Though the couple survived, Bettie spent another year in the state mental ward.
She was released in 1981. Bettie was 58 years old. Upon her release, she was placed by the state into the home of Leonie Haddid. By this time, Bettie’s religious devotion ran deep. I don’t think her new roommate knew just how deep. One morning Haddid awoke to find Bettie, beautiful Bettie Page, now an aged religious zealot, stabbing her repeatedly while ranting about how God made her do it. After being stabbed over a dozen times, Haddid managed to physically fight Bettie off, surviving the attack.
For this crime, Bettie Page was sent away for ten years in Patton State Mental Hospital after standing trial for attempted murder in 1983. All of this remained out of the public eye until her release in 1992, when she was finally tracked down by reporters and journalists.
So you see, our Dark Angel really is just that—the constant contradiction. Innocent yet conniving, naughty but virginal, saintly but corrupt, terrified and terrifying all at the same time. Learning these facts about our girl-next-door has a dual effect as well. It is heartbreaking to know that hidden beneath those perfect curves was one fucked-up girl, but it’s also kind of affirming to explain the darkness we’ve always seen in her eyes.
Bettie has never really taken a public stance to fill in the blanks for us, though two books have been published trying to depict the truth about her life. There are facts, there are rumors, and there is speculation. But at the heart of all of it, there is a woman who inspired us—even if she was a little crazy.