Hell-Bent For Leather – The Scandalous Bettie Page

It would be simply impossible not to know who Bettie Page was; maybe you can forget the face of a president or the one of a Pope, but it’s very unlikely to forget someone like her. With her trademark black bangs, intense blue eyes and a body that would stop traffic she was the queen of pin-ups, so hard to pin down that she still is and perhaps will always be a true and unforgettable icon of the 20th century. 

FROM DRAB TO FAB

The life of many who become legendary does not glitter at the beginning and that of Bettie Page is no exception to the rule. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1923 and she was the second of six children. Her parents worked all the time, her father molested her and her sisters until there was a divorce and 10-year-old Bettie was put in an orphanage so that her mother could save money:

All I ever wanted was a mother who paid attention to me. She didn’t want girls. She thought we were trouble. When I started menstruating at 13, I thought I was dying because she never taught me anything about that.

But Bettie was a very resourceful girl and she managed to juggle her passion for sewing her own clothes and school where she was not only a brilliant student but also director of the Drama Club, treasurer of the Student Council, editor of the school’s newspaper and yearbook. After high school, she attended college to become a teacher but she ended up being a secretary, marrying her boyfriend Billy Neal in 1943 and moving to San Francisco with him. When Billie was called to war Bettie took the chance to travel the country and to try to work as a model for a local furrier. Billy came home but he was not the same. He began to act violently and to accuse Bettie of being with other men while he was on duty. It took her a couple of years and a knife to her throat to file for divorce and to run away to New York in 1947.

Bettie kept on doing some secretarial work but she decided to pursue her dream of becoming an actress as well, so she eventually attended acting classes. One day, while she was walking along the beach in Coney Island, she was photographed by Jerry Tibbs who really was a policeman but with a deep interest in photography. Tibbs put the pictures together and the masterpiece was done: Bettie had her first pin-up portfolio.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING INDECENT

Bettie’s fame spread like a disease in New York’s underground photography scene, she was quickly introduced to numerous artists who would organize outdoor photoshoots at all times which she enjoyed very much doing. Magazines such as Wink, Eyeful, Titter, and Beauty Parade, they all wanted her; in 1955, she won the title “Miss Pinup Girl of the World” and she was featured in the centrefold of Playboy’s January issue. She was also named “The Girl With The Perfect Figure” and they wouldn’t be wrong given her stunning hourglass figure and perfect measurements (36-23-36″/90-60-90cm). Still, this wouldn’t make her a real model for the fashion industry and she was rejected by modelling agencies for being “too short and hippy”. Like a real badass, Bettie shrugged and upgraded the modelling career she already had, this time spicing things up a bit. She began to work for Irving Klaw who was a bondage producer and Bettie’s performances soon became the jewels of his crown, with wealthy men paying incredible amounts of money to see her spank some other girl or to be tied to furniture. Bettie didn’t quite understand those kinds of fantasies but she had fun with her legendary whip and the pay was great, that’s all that really mattered to her:

I had lost my ambition and desire to succeed and better myself; I was adrift, but I could make more money in a few hours modelling than I could earn in a week as a secretary.

All the fun soon became big trouble though. While for Bettie posing nude or doing bondage was part of her job description, for the rest of the people in the US in the mid-50s that material was nothing but shameful pornography that had to be dispatched only illegally and through under-counter transactions. The fact that then-Senator Estes Kefauver’s main goal was to erase each form of “indecency” from America didn’t exactly help. Bettie was first arrested for public indecency during an outdoor photoshoot in a farm and she refused to plead guilty until the charges were reduced to disorderly conduct (she did, after all, try to resist arrest shouting “I’m not indecent!”). The witch hunt was not over and when police found some of her pictures between the possessions of a teenage boy who apparently died from accidental autoerotic asphyxiation she was on trial again defending herself from unfounded accusations of fueling juvenile delinquency.

After these controversial episodes, Bettie Page disappeared. It was 1957 and her career was at its peak, but she simply had enough and once again she ran away. Where was she remained a huge mystery until a few years ago when some fans tracked her down and interviewed her. It turned out she married a younger man whose biggest passions turned out to be eating burgers and watching TV all the time, so Bettie eventually moved to husband number three in 1967. She started to suffer from violent mood swings and severe depression, she divorced again and when she attacked a neighbour with a knife she was sentenced to a mental institution. She was released in 1992 and she retired for a quiet life in the outskirts of Los Angeles until she died peacefully in 2008.

BETTIE’S LEGACY

To those thinking people like Bettie were nothing but naked sluts I suggest you pack up your hypocrisy and go read someone else’s blog. She was indeed a bit naive and light-hearted at times, but it must have taken big guts to do what she did in the 50s and in a country that was sponsoring a submissive way of life for women, slaving day and night to make their husband happy and well-fed. Well, Bettie was no stranger to abusive behaviours, but she was lucky enough to meet intelligent and capable artists to work with, men who saw her like a peer, a colleague to team up with. Women like her pressed every single key on the taboo piano, they paved the way for the sexual revolution in the 60s and all the other many accomplishments we risk losing every day. Being ashamed of our own body is still a contemporary topic of discussion and I’m not referring to the over-blamed size zero models on the covers of major magazines; I’m talking about every other human being that says that wearing that bikini is wrong, because everyone can see your breasts and then “what will people think?”. Bettie thought what you don’t wear is even more taboo than what you put on your back, however, she surely wasn’t ashamed of nudity. She used to take what she liked to call “air baths” with no clothes on and windows open, she did it for herself and not to entertain others and if this doesn’t show some damn inspiring confidence I don’t know what does. Funny thing for many is that she was also a deeply religious person throughout her whole life:

I don’t even believe God disapproves of nudity. After all, he put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden naked as jaybirds.

Even when she was posing submissively in Irving Klaw’s works she didn’t let anyone portrait her like a victim, you can tell she’s in charge and she’s having a lot of fun.

You see her going back and forth between this fun-loving character to a stern dominatrix. She had this ability to bring a playful quality to something that was very taboo (whether nudity or bondage), and you could tell she was in control—even hog-tied and ball-gagged, you sense she can get out whenever she wants.

Bettie Page had the power to become a brand without actually ever becoming rich. She resurrected as icon in the 80s and 90s and the fire was indeed fueled by the fact that she was mysteriously gone. She didn’t want to be found, but there were pictures of her everywhere. Even today if someone has a tattoo of a pin-up you can bet it’s 90% Bettie Page inspired. In 2013 Forbes included her in their list of top-earning dead celebrities where she ranked at n°8 (not)earning $10 million dollars per year.

I want to be remembered,” she said, “as I was when I was young and in my golden times...I want to be remembered as the woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form.

And if that’s Miss Page final wish, that’s the way we shall remember her.

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