A new documentary narrated by the pinup icon sheds new light on her through a bevy of her lovers and confidantes—and what happened to her after her disappearance at the height of her career.
It was a time completely anathema to today. A time when the class freak was the one who’d had sex, not the one abstaining. A time when anything remotely resembling pornography warranted censure and possible imprisonment, as opposed to a $13 billion industry. A time when the Postmaster General had the authority to open and confiscate your mail, and even raid your home in search of “lewd material” (paging Edward Snowden!).
And then there was Bettie Page. With her striking blue eyes, black bangs, voluptuous figure, and thousand-watt smile, Page was the living embodiment of a lady on the streets and a freak in the sheets, the original good girl gone bad. She was the world’s greatest pinup model, a sexual Sherpa guiding a generation of men and women through the repressive landscape of 1950s America.
“It’s very difficult to find a parallel for her—this combination of naughty and nice—and it’s all in the context of innocence,” says Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. “The remarkable thing about her image is how much it’s influenced pop culture—from music, to movies, to fashion.”
Indeed, pop culture owes a great deal of debt to Page. Look at Katy Perry’s combination of piercing blue eyes and black bangs, Madonna’s bondage-heavy music video for “Human Nature,” and Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction. Behold pinup model Dita Von Teese, the work of designer Thierry Mugler, and Beyoncé’s music video for ‘Why Don’t You Love Me”—a riff on Page’s 16mm short films. Read the erotic BDSM novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Or pop in and visit one of the 17 Bettie Page clothing stores across the country boasting apparel inspired by the pinup beauty. Forbes’s list of the top earning dead celebrities for 2013 placed Page at No. 8 with a take of $10 million—right after Albert Einstein and several spots ahead of Bruce Lee.
In Bettie Page Reveals All, filmmaker Mark Mori gives Page the documentary treatment, retelling Page’s wild life story through interviews with Page’s friends, lovers, coworkers, and confidantes, as well as several candid interviews with Page herself—delivered in a decidedly un-Page-like smoky southern drawl—which are used to narrate the film.
Page came from very humble beginnings, growing up one of six children to a destitute auto mechanic father and mother with just a third-grade education. The family, according to Page, lived on “beans, fried potatoes, and macaroni,” and her father was “a sex fiend” who regularly molested his three daughters. “In order to get 10 cents to go to the movies, I let him fool around on the outside—now he didn’t penetrate me inside, like he did my two sisters,” says Page. When her mother finally worked up the courage to leave him, she hitchhiked to Nashville with the six children in tow and enrolled Page and her two sisters in a protestant orphanage for three years that, as Bettie describes it, sounds like living with the Thénardiers, replete with verbal abuse and floor-scrubbing.
To escape, the Page girls would mimic poses of pinup models in magazines, often posing in the yard in their undergarments. Page would even take what she calls “air baths” in the nude.
“I don’t even believe God disapproves of nudity,” says Page. “After all, he put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden naked as jaybirds!”
Page’s biggest dream, she says, was to be valedictorian of her high school, because it came with a four-year scholarship to Vanderbilt University. But Bettie, with a 97.19 average, was beat out by .14 points, and had to settle for Salutatorian status. “All I got was a 100-dollar scholarship to the George Peabody school for teachers,” she says.
After high school, she began seeing her classmate Billy Neal, a sports star. It was the first in a long line of relationships with problematic men. After he was drafted into the Army, Neal pressured Page to marry him. When he returned from World War II, he was stricken with PTSD and was, in the words of Page, “a jealous maniac” who accused her of sleeping with everyone in sight. They were sitting in the kitchen one day and he took out a knife and held it to her throat, threatening to slash her if she divorced him. She did it anyway.
Following her divorce, Page was lured by the bright lights of Broadway and moved to New York. She wanted to be an actress and confesses to being a total “movie fiend.” She paid $46.29 a month for a cute apartment off Central Park, and spent her nights dancing at the Roseland ballroom—which is, coincidentally, closing its doors for good next April following a series of concerts by Lady Gaga.
One night, Page was very lonely and walking along Broadway when a handsome fellow began chatting her up. He convinced her to go dancing with him and she got in a car. They sat in the back while a boyfriend and girlfriend were up front driving. When they stopped at a red light, two men jumped in; then two more at the next red light. The vehicle crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, and then stopped behind a school. The couple got out, leaving Page with the five remaining men.
“I’m menstruating … you can’t have sex with me,” Page shrieked. So then, according to Page, “all five of those snakes forced me to perform oral sex on every one of them.”
After this horrifying episode, Page began to pursue her dream of becoming a model. She paid a visit to Ford Models but Eileen Ford told her, “Oh my, you would never do as a fashion model. In the first place, you’re not tall enough, but more than that, you’re too hip-y.”
Then, in October 1950, Page was walking around Coney Island when she crossed paths with Jerry Tibbs, a black cop who thought she’d make a good pinup model. He shot photographs on the side, and offered to create a photo portfolio for her free of charge. He also told her she had a high forehead, and suggested she embrace bangs. “I went home and cut my [hair], and I’ve been wearing ‘em ever since,” says Page. She began her modeling career at 27—most of the writers thought she was 22, thanks to her youthful exuberance—and was paid $25 a day to model bikinis.
“She smiled with her whole body, and that’s something very few girls got,” says a photographer in the film.
Page conveyed a very charming, natural sexuality, and remained a very morally upright woman throughout her modeling tenure. She never dated any photographers or anyone who drank or smoked, since she hated the smell of booze and cigarettes on one’s breath. She also designed most of her bikinis and all of her lingerie. She could have made a fortune if she’d had some guidance, but instead, a company named Charmand stole her designs and marketed them as “Bettie Page’s Bikinis,” with pictures of Page. “I shoulda sued ‘em,” she says. Page was also great in bed, according to testimonials of former lovers, including top designer Richard Arbib, who tells a tale of the two getting caught by a cop while having sex in their car—Page’s idea—on the side of the road, and Brigadier General Charles West, who held a racy photo shoot with Page (and later served as an advisor to President Nixon).
In 1952, Page began posing for BDSM-themed photographs for Irving Klaw, making her the world’s first famous bondage model. He also shot several black-and-white 8mm and 16mm short fetish films of a lingerie or leather-clad Page posing as doms and submissives with other women. Page was tied up for the photos by a woman named Paula, and the Klaw material never featured any men, nudity, or explicit content. Despite this, Klaw and Page became targets during the Kefauver Hearings—or the “moral hearings”—of the U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. The authorities blamed Page for the death of a 17-year-old boy in Coral Gables, Fl., who’d hung himself after allegedly looking at one of her bondage photos. Klaw plead the fifth, and was busted for contempt of the Senate, who also ordered that all negatives of Page be burned. (A collection, however, was stashed away.)
“I always thought, ‘live and let live,’” says Page. “Let anybody do what they want to do as long as they’re not hurting anybody else. I still feel that way.”
She was named Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in January 1955, gracing the magazine’s cover wearing only a santa hat, and later that year, won the title of “Miss Pinup Girl of the World.” The only regret Page had during this period was a night when she claims a group of photographers got her drunk on blackberry brandy and took several nude photos of her. “That’s one reason I left New York—because of those pornographic pictures being sold of me,” she says.
In 1957, at the age of 34, Page felt she was “getting too old to model,” that there were “so many pictures” of her floating around, and had such an “unhappy experience with the Kefauver Committee,” so she left it all behind, and moved to Coral Gables. Her mysterious disappearance confounded everyone. One night in Florida, she found herself drawn to the bright lights of a church.
“I thought God looked down on me for posing in the nude,” she says. She’d later become a born-again Christian, attending Bible schools for the next three years. She even applied to be a missionary, but the board rejected her because she’d been divorced. So, to get right with the church, she remarried her first husband, who also devoted himself to Christ—that is, until he almost choked her to death after accusing her of having a venereal disease (she didn’t). Page had the marriage annulled immediately on the grounds that it was never consummated sexually (it wasn’t).
Following this episode, Page, now a very devout Christian—“a religious fanatic,” according to the film—married a humble Florida man by the name of Harry Lear but, following their divorce in 1972, she began hearing voices speaking to her about angels and the devil. One day, she called Lear’s entire family into the living room, including his three children from a previous marriage, and told them to stare at a photo of Jesus Christ hanging on the wall. She was a holding a knife. “If you take your eyes off him, I’ll cut your guts out,” she said, according to Lear.
“It had built up so much in my mind that my mind snapped,” confesses Page.
She spent two months in the psychiatric ward of Jackson Memorial Hospital, where they administered Thorazine. It made her groggy, but the voices disappeared. Lear also claims she received several shock treatments. In 1979, she was convinced by a former friend to move to Southern California. Page spent her last dollar on the plane ticket, but when she arrived, he was nowhere to be found. With no money and no place to go, she experienced a nervous breakdown that resulted in a brutal altercation with her landlady, whom she stabbed “twenty or thirty times,” according to court documents revealed in the film. Page was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia and found not guilty by reason of insanity. She served eight years in California’s Patton State Hospital, and was released in 1992.
During her time at the hospital, Page gained a massive cult following. First, painters like Robert Blue and Olivia de Berardinis began exhibiting paintings of Page in Los Angeles and New York, and, in the 1980s, comic book artist Dave Stevens based the love interest of The Rocketeer off of Page’s image. In 1987, a fanzine began circulating called The Betty Pages, which shared stories from her life. Women began sporting her trademark dark bangs and dressing like pinups.
Following her release from the hospital, Page was shocked to see how popular she’d become once more. She finally met Hugh Hefner in 1993, and he showed her a 35mm print of the film adaptation of The Rocketeer, with the character inspired by her played by Jennifer Connelly. Hefner hooked the penniless Page up with an agent named Mark Roesler who made sure she was paid ample royalties for usages of her likeness. She never had money problems again.
One interesting incident occurred in 2006 when, during a screening of filmmaker Mary Harron’s biopic The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Grethen Mol as the pinup icon, a voice was heard in the back of the screening room screaming, “LIES, LIES, LIES! L-I-E-S LIES! WHY DON’T YOU TELL THE TRUTH!” It was none other than Bettie Page.
Page never allowed photos of her to be taken after 1958, preferring people to remember her in her heyday, so the film features Page’s narration over a series of earlier pinup images. On Dec. 11, 2008, she passed away from natural causes at the age of 85. Page’s funeral was attended by Hefner, as well as a collection of friends and members of the public. She was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery on Sept. 16, 2008, with a headstone saying, “Queen of Pin-Ups.”
“I never thought I was anything that was special or important,” Page says in the film, with a chuckle. “I was just doin’ my job and enjoyin’ every minute of it!”