The image is familiar; black hair, bangs, a disarmingly genuine smile and/or campy look of stern sexuality. Bettie Page is perhaps the most well-known unknown personality in the history of American popular culture. After a heyday during which she was the sought-after pin-up subject in the business, Bettie Page the person simply disappeared into obscurity while Bettie Page the object d’art cemented itself into America’s foundation. In the intervening decades, a cult of personality built around her even as the mystery regarding her whereabouts deepened. It was almost as if she was able to effortlessly peel off the ripe public aspect of herself and leave it behind, growing in her absence, while she lived on relatively unscathed.
Unscathed, but also uncompensated for the booming business generated by her image. In and around 1992, Page’s family contracted lawyer James Swanson to re-direct a rightful percentage of monies created by Bettie Page merchandise toward Bettie herself, living at that time at a very modest economic level. Swanson was told that he had no need to contact nor meet Ms. Page, but a bit of gentle lobbying convinced her that he and Karen Essex could help write the story of her life, hence The Life of a Pin-up Legend.
Swanson and Essex enjoyed the full cooperation of Ms. Page, and the narrative is imbued with the confident, straightforward, unapologetic, utterly charming personality of a person unimpressed with herself. “If I am remembered today, it is because you, the reader, see something in me that I never saw in myself,” she writes in a handwritten preface to the book. “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.”
As revealed in The Life of a Pin-up Legend, Bettie’s endured an early life replete with jarring betrayals and disappointments: A philandering father sexually abused her; her mother was threatened by her daughter’s youth and beauty to the point of expelling her from their home; and, in the first of many near-misses, Bettie was edged out of being high school class valedictorian-and receiving a full college scholarship-by a quarter grade point. As she began to search for a career, her commitment to salvaging a hurried-into wartime marriage forced her to skip a Warner Bros. screen test. Perhaps most tragic of all, Bettie was sexually assaulted mere days after arriving in New York to pursue work as an actress. None of these incidents appear to have produced any bitterness or self pity in Bettie, and they are recalled in a matter of fact manner which belies, above mere acceptance, a palpable sense of sincere forgiveness.
In 1950 Bettie began modeling for “camera clubs” while working as a secretary in New York. Anything but self-conscious about her body, Bettie recalls her first nude session with the nonchalance most people would use to describe their first ride in a car with automatic windows. It wasn’t long before she came to attention of professional pin-up photographers, and the rest is history.
It’s worth noting that Bettie did the bulk of her work when she was in her early- and mid-thirties, unfazed by any notion of age limitation. Her chronological maturity surely contributed to The Look: a confident, exceedingly likable sexuality the like of which has never been duplicated before or since. There’s something wholesome about even her most unwholesome pin-ups; it always looks like Bettie is having fun. You don’t want to rescue her-you want to buy her an ice cream cone (what you want to do beyond that is your own business; I’m a married man). Except for the bangs (a suggestion made by a photographer), Bettie’s image-The Look-was wholly created and maintained by Bettie herself, right down to sewing her own outfits. Who can argue that she shouldn’t collect some manner of royalties from the countless products bearing her likeness?
A surprising revelation in The Life of a Pin-Up Legend concerns Betties current relationship with photographer Bunny Yeager. Those of us who’ve seen the books and trading cards with Yeager’s name on them and Bettie’s pictures inside can’t help but find offensive the fact that Yeager did not cooperate with the creation of this book. Her response to Bettie’s personal request for photos brought the following appalling response: “What has Bettie Page done for me lately?”
Ms. Yeager, I suspect that you have effectively bought yourself a boycott of materials bearing your name.
In startling contradiction to the astounding cross-generational appeal of Bettie’s image-clothed or unclothed-are the Irving Klaw “bondage” photos that eventually roused the ire of the Kefauver Committee. Though there is no nudity in any of the Klaw material, the appeal of their “girl in peril” theme is simply hard to fathom in the context of modern sensibilities. Is this a “rescue fantasy” kink, or something darker? Legend has it that Klaw custom-shot these pics for a “high ranking government official” who then allowed Klaw to sell the results; of course, when these shots dribbled down to the common man via under-the-counter sales and mail order, the government (through Kefauver) stepped in to preserve our great nation’s puritan soul. Bettie describes the Klaw sessions as nothing but fun, all done under the watchful eyes of the protective Paula Klaw-truly a situation and attitude unique to its time period. The depths of cruelty we as a nation have seen in the period between those innocent days and now preclude viewing a photo of a trussed up woman without a sense of disturbance.
“Harmless” as they were, the Klaw photos eventually forced Bettie into retirement from her pin-up career as she began to suffer from Kefauver’s guilt-by-association intimidation tactics. It’s this stage of her life-the step backward into obscurity-that reveals Bettie’s reward for her consistent integrity up to that point; she was beholden to no one (despite brushes with Hefner and Hughes), kept her personhood intact, made no “success at any cost” pacts, and was able to simply walk away alive and whole. No rescue needed.
The Life of a Pin-Up Legend is a warm look at a positive person who lived pro actively and without regret. Though the financial rewards were not always-if ever-there for her, Bettie emerged from a public career with ownership of herself, if not her catalog of pictures. With new books surely on the way and an HBO movie about her life in the works, Bettie Page will soon become a household name. But she will not become the subject of a United States stamp, because Bettie Page did what Elvis couldn’t, Marilyn wouldn’t, and James Dean just didn’t care to do. Bettie Page kept herself alive. Bettie Page kept herself.
Despite her humility, I like to think she lives today with at least a hint of the fact that she accomplished something astounding.