Bettie Page’s life was filled with cult myth, mystery, and sadness. Her image captured the imagination of a generation with her free spirit and unabashed sensuality, during an era of 1950s sexual repression. She was the quintessential pin-up, tacked up on walls in military barracks and garages; five decades later, some feminists still hail her as a pioneer of women’s liberation. It has been estimated that over 20,000 photographs of Bettie were taken, and new generations of fans still buy copies by the thousands.
Betty Page was born Betty Mae Page on April 22, 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee to a part-Cherokee mother, she grew up in a family so poor “we were lucky to get an orange in our Christmas stockings.” The family included three boys and three girls, and Page later said her father molested all of the girls. Her father eventually stole a police car for a cross-country trip. He was sent to prison, and for a time Betty lived in an orphanage. Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old.
In her teens Bettie acted in high school plays and was a straight-A student. She graduated from the Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville on a Daughters of the American Revolution scholarship in 1944, and went on to study drama in New York. Her notorious career began one day in October 1950, while on a break from her job as a secretary in a New York office. On a walk along the beach at Coney Island, an amateur photographer admired the 27-year-old’s curvy body and asked her to pose. Nudity didn’t bother her, she said, likening it to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Her modeling career took off, and she was the centerfold in the January 1955 issue of then-fledgling Playboy magazine.
In 1951, Bettie fell under the influence of Irving Klaw, a photographer who specialized in S&M. He cut her hair into the dark bangs that became her trademark, and posed her in spiked heels and little else. Bettie began to attain renown as the “Queen of Bondage,” known for her bangs, saucy come-hither looks, and controversial sadomasochistic poses. At the time, most of these photos were sold on a lucrative subscription basis, where the customers made specific requests as to the scenes and layouts. She also appeared as a performer in over 50 burlesque films. The photos and films were publicly denounced as perversion. Klaw was later arrested for “conspiracy to distribute obscene material” though the U.S. Mail, and Bettie was called to testify in a private session. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, her home state, even launched a congressional investigation against her.
Believing that her days as a pin-up were over, Bettie retreated from public view, later saying she was hounded by federal agents. Her early marriage to her high school sweetheart had ended in divorce; she moved to Florida in 1957 and married a much younger man, but that marriage also failed, as did a third, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1959, she was lying on a sea wall in Key West when she saw a church with a white neon cross on top. She walked inside and became a born-again Christian. After attending Bible school, she wanted to serve as a missionary but was turned down. Instead, she worked full-time for evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry.
A move to Southern California in 1979 brought more troubles. There she had a nervous breakdown and had an altercation with her landlady. The doctors that examined her diagnosed her with acute schizophrenia, and she spent 20 months in a state mental hospital in San Bernardino, California. After a fight with another landlord she was arrested for assault, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed under state supervision for eight years. She was released in 1992 from Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County.
Her mysterious disappearance from the public eye only fueled the public’s fascination. In fact, for two decades no one was sure where she was, or if she was still alive. She resurfaced in the 1990s after being tracked down for a documentary. She occasionally granted interviews and sold autographs, but refused to allow her picture to be taken in her old age. In a 1993 telephone interview, she told a reporter that she was “penniless and infamous.” She later hired a law firm to help her recoup some of the profits being made with her likeness. She spent her final years living in Los Angeles with her brother.
According to long-time friend and business agent Mark Roesler, on December 6, 2008, Bettie Page was hospitalized in critical condition. Roesler was quoted by the Associated Press as saying Page had suffered a heart attack and by Los Angeles television station KNBC as claiming Page was suffering from pneumonia. A family friend said Page was in a coma, a claim not denied by Roesler. Her family eventually agreed to discontinue life support, and she died at 18:41 PST on December 11, 2008.
Bettie Page TRIVIA:
Measurements (during her glamour modeling career): 36-24-36 1/2 (Source: Celebrity Sleuth magazine).
Height: 5′ 5½” (1.66 m)
Became a born-again Christian in the 1960s and served as a Baptist missionary to Angola.
Her favorite drink was Hires Root Beer.