The woman who would become one of the most photographed subjects in history was born Bettie Mae Page on April 22, 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee. Her childhood was not happy. One of six children of auto mechanic Roy Page and his homemaker wife Edna, Page has said that her father molested her and her two sisters. Her relationship with her mother was strained. "All I ever wanted was a mother who paid attention to me," she recalled in an interview published in the Los Angeles Times in 2006. "She didn't want girls. She thought we were trouble. She didn't help with homework or teach me to sew or cook."
In 1933, when Bettie Mae was ten years old, Edna divorced Roy because he had impregnated a teenager. Bettie Mae and a sister were put in an orphanage for a year.
Very intelligent, Bettie Mae got good grades in high school and was on the debate team. However, neither academic nor extra-curricular achievements won Edna's admiration. "She didn't go to the school plays I was in or go to my high school graduation," Page recalled.
Disaster struck when Page was a high school senior. Her mother's boyfriend made advances to the teenager and Edna took out her anger on her daughter. As Page recalled in the LA Times interview, "My mother nearly murdered me over that, then made me live with my father. So I couldn't review my exam notes, which were at home. Because of that I got beat out of graduating valedictorian by a quarter of a grade point and lost my dream of getting a scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University. It was the worst disappointment of my life."
In the fall of 1941, Page enrolled at Peabody College. Her studies initially concentrated on courses that would lead to a career in teaching. Then she switched to theater arts. She graduated from Peabody in 1943. Soon she married Billy Neal but marital togetherness did not last long as Neal, like so many other young men during World War II, was soon serving in the military.
Page moved to New York City, hoping to find fame and fortune in the fabled Big Apple. She searched for work as an actress while paying her bills with work as a secretary. She divorced Neal in 1947.
1950 was the year of a fateful meeting for Page. According to the Wikipedia, "She learned of this line of work [modeling for commercial redistribution] through a chance encounter in 1950 with Jerry Tibbs on a deserted beach at Coney Island." Tibbs, an amateur photographer, also told her, "Bettie, you've got a very high forehead. I think you'd look good if you cut some bangs to cover it." She did and her fame became inextricably linked with that neat fringe of hair over her forehead.
She posed nude for camera clubs in the early 1950s with the understanding that the pictures were not to be published. Her services were sought because she appeared relaxed and natural in the buff in front of a camera. The Internet Movie Database quotes her saying, "I was never one who was squeamish about nudity. I don't believe in being promiscuous about it, but several times I thought of going to a nudist colony." She has also stated, "When God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked. And in the Garden of Eden, God was probably naked as a jaybird too!"
The lovely brunette graced the covers of men's magazines like Eyeful, Sunbathing, He, Wink, Sir!, Stare, Titter, Bold Girls!, Black Nylons, Carnival, and Beauty Parade. She also began posing for photographs with a bondage and discipline theme for brother-and-sister photographers Irving and Paula Klaw. Those pictures made her the first famous kink model.
Page was a slender, good-looking woman but there have been an endless number of attractive models, the vast majority of whom never achieved anything like her popularity and who were usually soon forgotten. What was the secret of her powerful and enduring appeal? The LA Times quotes writer Harlan Ellison as speculating, "There are certain women, even certain men, in whose look there is a certain aesthetic that hits a golden mean. Bettie is that. Marilyn is that."
Although Page has said, "I never was the girl next door," she may have projected a persona in which a girl-next-door quality blended with a wry sexual sophistication. As Hugh Hefner suggests, "It's a combination of wholesome innocence and fetish-oriented poses that is at once retro and very modern."
A trial consultant named Ken Pangborn comments, "Mostly in the 40s and 50s the women willing to do 'nude' photos were singularly unattractive. Betty was petite and cute. She also had enough mammary development to be interesting and not so much as to be revolting."
In an echo of her life-changing 1950 meeting with Jerry Tibbs, Page encountered photographer Bunny Yeager in 1954 leading to what would become famous as the "Jungle Bettie" photographs. The setting for their photographic sessions was a Florida wildlife park known as Africa USA. Although she had not been taught to sew by her mother as a girl, Page apparently learned the art of needle and thread as an adult since she posed in a leopard skin outfit she had made herself. More shockingly, she posed naked with a pair of cheetahs.
Yeager sent the "Jungle Bettie" pictures to Hugh Hefner who immediately wanted her for Playboy's centerfold. Her lithe and charming body graced the centerfold for January 1955.
The model made three unusual movies in her career: Striporama in 1953, Varietease in 1954, and Teaserama in 1955. These films were not narratives of stories but burlesque-style striptease acts – with the accent on "tease" as no one gets naked or very close to it – interspersed with stand-up comic routines.
Page opens Teaserama. She wears cute and shimmering lingerie, has her back to the camera and her ass in the air. She soon turned around and is twisting, sashaying and kicking up her legs. Her facial expression is like quicksilver, changing from an overjoyed grin to an endearing pout. Page silently introduces the stripteasers by placing big cards bearing their names on holders.
Teaserama boasts an odd sequence: performer Tempest Storm does a reverse striptease, getting out of bed with little on and dressing for the camera. Page, attired in a classic black maid's uniform with a frilly white apron, assists Storm in adjusting her corset. The unusual segment possesses a certain special freshness in its imaginative approach to sensuality.
Page's career came to an abrupt halt in 1957. She was still in demand for modeling but no longer made herself available. Students of her career differ on why she left modeling. Some believe she simply tired of it. Others think her 1958 marriage to Armand Walterson was behind her departure.
Still others believe she quit because of the Kefauver Committee Hearings. Led by Sen. Estes Kefauver, a moral crusader as identified with the coonskin caps he sported as Page was with her bangs, the Committee summoned Page to Capital Hill while investigating the pornography business. It never actually compelled the model to testify but the hearings led Irving Klaw to shut down his business,
According to the Wikipedia, Page "had a religious conversion December 31, 1958, and severed all contact with the prior life. For many years, the last known facts of her life was her divorce from Walterson in the early 1960s, and that she was working as a secretary for a Christian organization."
The course Page's life took after her retirement from modeling is a matter of some dispute. An authorized biography by Page and co-author James Swanson was released in 1996. The Wikipedia reports, "It told how she had remarried her first husband briefly, in order to satisfy requirements so she could become a missionary; neither the remarriage nor her missionary work was a success. She married a third time in 1967 to a man named Harry Lear in Florida, divorcing him in 1972."
The Real Bettie Page: The Truth about the Queen of Pinups by Richard Foster, published in 1997, told a far more sordid story about her years away from the camera. It claimed Page underwent bouts of mental instability and that she had been violent against several different people. Some people associated with Page denounced the book and Page released a statement calling it "full of lies."
The late 1970s began a revival of interest in Betty Page that has only gained in momentum over the years. The Wikipedia notes, "In 1978, Belier Press began to reprint some of the pictures from the private camera club sessions, which reintroduced Page to a new generation."
A few years later, comic book writer Dave Stevens modeled the love interest of hero Cliff Secord, or "The Rocketeer," on Page. Page became a favorite subject for comic books. Jim Silke created a comic featuring her. Dark Horse Comics published a comic inspired by Page. Eros Comics published several Page-based books. The most popular Page-inspired comic was the humorous Tor Love Bettie in which Tor Johnson, a wrestler who played in movies directed by the notorious Ed Wood (often voted "The Worst Director Ever" by film groups), is having a romance with Page.
The Rocketeer was made into a movie that was released in 1991, leading to another spike in interest in Bettie Page.
Many observers saw her as someone instrumental in expanding sexual horizons although Page herself was never conscious of playing a role in the incipient Sexual Revolution. "I was not trying to be shocking," she is quoted as saying on the Internet Movie Database, "or to be a pioneer. I wasn't trying to change society, or to be ahead of my time. 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."
Two biopics of Page's life have recently been made. The low-budget Bettie Page: Dark Angel was released in 2004. Directed by Nico B. and starring fetish model Paige Richards, it focuses on the last three years of her career.
In 2005, The Notorious Bettie Page, directed by Mary Harron and starring Gretchen Mol, was released. The real Bettie Page was distressed by the title. According to the L.A. Times, she commented, "Notorious? That's not flattering at all. They should have used another word." The film's producer, Pam Koffler, replied, "The title was meant ironically. Bettie Page gained such notoriety for her modeling but the real person and her life were exactly the opposite of all that." A positive review by Curt Holman published in the Atlanta magazine Creative Loafing noted, "Harron provides a snapshot of Bettie Page's career as would-be actress, 'bondage queen' and cult figure with a light touch and complex attitudes" and praised Mol for the "sensitivity" of her performance."
Now a woman in her eighties, Page spends much of her time reading the Bible and listening to Christian music. She also enjoys listening to Country and Western music as well as watching Westerns. The renewed interest in her is gratifying: "It makes me feel wonderful that people still care for me . . . that I have so many fans among young people, who write to me and tell me I have been an inspiration."
Page rarely allows herself to be photographed because she wants people to remember the fresh-faced albeit often kinky images of her heyday. However, she did allow a photograph to be taken for the August 2003 edition of Playboy. Her hair had turned steel gray. Her face was fuller but still attractive and her eyes still sparkled. Perhaps most significantly, Betty Page is still wearing short bangs.