She was smiling at me when we met. Her teeth gleamed in beautiful black and white glossiness, framed by invitingly succulent, wide lips and an overpowering smile that was both friendly and intoxicating. Her sparkling eyes welcomed me, one batting a playful wink my way, as if to tell me it was all right to look at her as long as I wanted; there’s no rush, pal, take your time, there’s plenty to see! With pleasure, I accepted her generous offer, marvelling at her lengthy black mane of hair, enchantingly cut in bangs straight across her forehead. Taking in the long valley of her lush figure, my path through the Garden of Eden took a detour – my heart became lost in the copious breasts of the voluptuous vixen’s jungle of love. Her milky white legs travelled for miles, leading moi to the promised land, her wonderfully round and beautiful derriere. Ahh, bliss.

Bettie Page was the femme fatale’s name, the Queen of Curves, the most popular pin-up model of the fabulous Fifties. And when I discovered her one hot summer day in a musty old book bin, she was already becoming the cult sex symbol icon of the Nineties, resurrected from the ashes of a 30 year limbo. The enigmatic temptress is found everywhere today, in videos and comic books, t-shirts and trading cards. Her image is immortalized in tattoos and praised by feminist fetishists. Her modern popularity cannot be disputed. But strangely enough, even though she’s mentioned in the same breath as Marilyn or Elvis, an amazing fact comes to light: almost nobody knows who the hell the woman is.

Born Bettie Mae Page on April 22, 1923 in Kingsport, Tennessee to Roy and Edna Page, the half-Cherokee Native American girl would experience many ups and downs, including her parents’ divorce and her own failed marriage during WWII. In contrast to these sorrows, Bettie was an academic whiz kid, performing in school plays whenever possible. It was while attending Peabody College that the curvaceous co-ed sensed she could cloud men’s minds, as the campus’ ROTC boys would salute her in the halls by raising their swords to “The Duchess”.

Harlem police officer Jerry Tibbs discovered the sultry siren strolling the sandy beach of Coney Island one sunny afternoon in 1950. Bettie had relocated after screen-testing for 20th-Century Fox and experimenting with a teaching career. A muscular black man and semi-professional photographer, Tibbs introduced the would-be actress to New York City’s camera clubs, and was the one who urged Bettie to wear her hair in bangs, causing a legend to be born.

The camera club circuit involved both amateur and pro cameramen. A bunch of salivating shutterbugs would pay a set fee to transport a gaggle of exotic lovelies to an obscure location, be it an abandoned Connecticut farm or an island off of New Jersey, out of the public eye. Shot after shot after shot was taken of a fetching female model in an afternoon, typically scantily-clad, sometimes in the nude. A new favorite filly would soon join the stable, completely hypnotizing the feverish photogs...exuberant Bettie Page would absolutely beguile the lensmen into waiting on her. Her playful sense of fun came out in the darkroom, and she quickly gained a reputation for easy expressiveness. You would wait for hours due to the buxom babe’s terminal tardiness, but Bettie was worth it. She was a “natural”.

A cheesecake picture was Bettie’s first national exposure in one of the many girlie magazines published by Robert Harrisson, whose spicy titles included Beauty Parade , Eyeful, Flirt and the infamous gossip rag Confidential. Containing no bare flesh, their successful formula was a tame mix of burlesque and naughtiness, the strippers and models posing in g-strings or underwear in inane comic photo features. Steamy Bettie cuddled up to a lovestruck “gorilla” in one outrageous set-up!

The Tease from Tennessee achieved her greatest fame when she was recruited by Irving Klaw’s Movie Star News in 1952. Klaw was the unchallenged “Pin-Up King”, running a thriving walk-in and mail order business that sold 8”x10” glossies of movie stars, short films which showcased a passion that apple pie mommy Donna Reed never spoke about on television...the world of fetish and bondage. Every six months a photo-packed catalog of Klaw’s inventory was published, Cartoon Model Parade. A pin-up nirvana for the kinky connoisseur, it also offered S&M comic strip serials especially done for Klaw, John Willie’s celebrated “Sweet Gwendoline” being a prime example. Regarded today as pin-up classics, the photo shoots were directed upstairs in the Movie Star News store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, supervised by Paula Klaw. Attention to detail was Paula’s trademark, and she made sure every implement of restraint was authentically tight and secure.

Page was cover-featured on their catalog several times, indicating her status as Movie Star’s biggest draw, her name becoming synonymous with that of Mr. Klaw’s. The Dark Angel was an intuitive fetish model, her girl-next-door charisma a hit with the raincoated customers who whacked off to her dark bondage scenarios in dimly-lit privacy. It was not unusual for Bettie, in a Klaw fetish loop, to be wearing rubber pants and revealing lingerie, brandishing a whip in six-inch hell-leather shoes. She could be equally submissive, bound and gagged as a dominant bitch spanked her bottom soundly. Her post-war perversity was preserved in dozens of films and over 2,000 photos, surpassing famous stripper Lilli St. Cyr’s output for Klaw.

Within a year there was no doubt that the Tennessee Temptress had become the “Queen of Pin-Ups.” Standing 5’5” tall, sporting hazel-blue eyes, jet-black tresses and boasting a 36-24-36 figure, her pouting presence served as the likeness for tawdry paperback covers. The sensational sex kitten also appeared in a series of popular postcards in which an admiring Florida alligator was caught on camera apparently attempting to take a tasty “bite” out of an evenly-tanned Bettie. Hugh Hefner selected her as the January 1955 centerfold for his freshly-launched Playboy, a crowning glory shot by model/photographer Bunny Yeager, who was responsible for Page’s elegant “African jungle girl” photo series. Yeager considered Bettie the perfect glamour model, and was impressed that she made many of her own outfits and was working out constantly.

So what was it that made the saucy Southern belle click with her hot-blooded fans? Could it have been that her innate goodness shined through, her wholesomeness distilled by the lens even while she posed for every wild fantasy imaginable? The ideal of a nice girl doing bad things is irresistible, and it’s true that not one crass word has ever been spoken about Ms. Page. Legend has it that the police busted a camera club safari for lewd conduct, and Bettie was caught peeing behind some bushes when she was arrested. A brief burst of anger revealed her moral character, if only for a moment: “That man SAW ME GO!”

Bettie Page was on top of the world, but then Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee came to town with a congressional committee against indecency, and he was out for blood. Fifties’ America was a catalyst for Red Scare paranoia and public burnings of “evil” comic books, and Kefauver had set his sights on Irving Klaw’s sexploitation empire. Klaw was forced to destroy thousands of “porno” pictures, not one of which exhibited any nudity. The Queen of Curves herself got subpoenaed in 1955, and although she didn’t testify, she was disturbed by the government’s witch hunt. Bettie’s hope for an acting career faded, and the three feature films she starred in were only glorified strip flicks. Frustratingly, she couldn’t drop her charming Tennessee drawl. She’d had it, and quit modeling by 1958. Bettie Page, cheesecake princess, ceased to exist.

Fast forward to the 1980’s, a time where Madonna made wearing bustiers and fishnet fashionable for women again. Erotic painter Olivia started producing portraits of the Tease from Tennessee, the party girl who would seductively curl her tongue against bright white teeth for campy effect. “Good girl” illustrator Dave Stevens put the brunette in bangs into his Rocketeer comic book, introducing legions of new admirers to the Queen of Pin-Ups (myself included). The flame was further fueled by a digest devoted to Bettie, The Betty Pages. Suddenly Bettie look-a-like contests were held in various cities. Page had again become the rage.

And Bettie herself? Twice more divorced and living in a Florida retirement community, she has apparently “given herself to the Lord” after forsaking the tease trade, even attending Portland, Oregon’s own Multnomah Bible School in 1963. The grainy images of an earlier Bettie, however, flicker forever for a new generation, the mystique of an independent goddess who stands apart from a Pamela Lee or a Barbi Twin. She is REAL, and for that, Bettie, we thank you. Check out Karen Essex’s biography on the Queen of Curves, Life Of A Pin-Up Legend for the complete story!

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This is reprinted from Exotic Magazine © 1996 X Publishing