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Bettie Page: Pin-Up Girl & Paradox
Bettie Page Obsession
I have a friend who's obsessed with Bettie Page. In case you think my friend is male like you would think 99.9% of the people who are obsessed with Bettie Page would be, she isn't. She's very much female. Also in case you don't know who the heck Bettie Page is and you're male, you are obviously way too young. Or just not in touch with the ahem...seamier side of centerfold photography. Or both.
To educate you, Bettie Page was a girl born in 1923 from Nashville, Tennessee who had a pretty rough upbringing. Her parents split up and her father moved away when she was young and she ended up in an orphanage with the very odd set-up of her mother maintaining contact with Bettie and her two sisters on the weekends. If this were not enough of a setback, there were also rumors that her father had an incestuous relationship with her in later years when he came back to be closer to the family.
However, Bettie had quite a bit of drive and determination for a girl who was raised with very little and ended up being named "Most Likely To Succeed" by the time she hit high school and graduated second in her class. None of her high school friends could have dreamed of what she finally succeded at...pin-up modeling of the variety that most moms back in the 50's did not approve of by any stretch of the imagination.
Not Your Typical Pin-up Girl
She was discovered on a beach by a policeman who moonlighted as a photographer. He took pictures of her to help her build her modeling portfolio and introduced her to many of the influential pin-up photographers of the day. Bettie's amazing good looks naturally gained a lot of attention from photographers. However, she really stood out from the rest of the pin-up models of the day for several reasons, first that her hair was jet black in an era where most pin-ups were platinum blonde like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. She wore her hair in very short bangs at the urging of a photographer, because of her extremely high forehead and she had an incredible figure, in a time where implants and liposuction were pretty much unheard of.
But it was not just her looks that made Bettie Page the cult icon she has become. It was the subject matter of her photographs that garnered her the most attention and controversy. In terms of choice of material, she was truly ahead of her time. After doing some swimsuit pin-up modeling typical for the day, Bettie became involved with a pin-up card dealer named Irving Claw. Part of the contract was that she do some bondage photography. This liaison led to one of the most controversial times in Betty's life.
Burlesque Featuring Bettie Page
Bondage Photography: Victim Or Willing Participant?
You have to wonder what was going through Bettie's mind when she agreed to pose for this kind of photography in the 1950s. It was certainly not acceptable, whether considered as artwork or pornography. For sure part of it was the money since Klaw wouldn't pay her for her other work unless she submitted to doing the bondage photography. Perhaps it was a sense of rebelliousness. Regardless, it ended Bettie's boss in a lot of trouble with the United States Senate. Led by Senator Estes Kefauver, the Senate initiated hearings dealing with the pornography industry and morality. Bettie was subpoenaed. but never had to testify. However, Irving Klaw did have to testify and the only thing he was charged with at the time was contempt of court for being uncooperative with the committee.
Bettie Page Finds Religion
Despite not having to testify, the hearings had a profound effect on Bettie. She really had not thought of the photographs she was posing for as immoral or "inciting people to do evil" as the committee asserted. It was rumored that a man had died imitating a bondage scene in one of Bettie's movies which was definitely enough to cause her to reflect. While visiting a church in Key West, she experienced a religious conversion that changed her life. She left her modeling career behind and actually attended several different Bible colleges and even eventually worked full-time for the Billy Graham ministries.
Bettie Page's Death: A Sad Ending To An Amazing Life
Despite her religious conversion, drama seemed to follow Bettie and with it mental illness. She had several violent episodes where she reportedly pulled knives on various and assorted people and was committed to mental hospitals on more than one occasion. It was only toward the end of her life when she got an attorney to represent her that she even was able to control the use of her image somewhat which she had not been able to do in years. She had been in dire financial circumstances for a number of years, even working as a maid, before she was able to profit from the numerous pictures of her that continued to circulate long after her modeling days were over. When questioned about her career later on in life, she said that she had no regrets, that her work was a lot easier than "pounding a typewriter all day" as a secretary.
She was January Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1955, was called "Queen of the Pin-up Girls", was even credited with starting the sexual revolution for women that took place in the 1960s, yet her life was far from happy. Bettie Page died of pneumonia at the age of 85. I think she died realizing the impact that her work had and remained steadfastly proud of it. Today she has a huge cult following consisting of men AND women who appreciate her for what she was...beautiful. I think she would be pleased.