Bettie Page ( born in 1923) was an American model who gained notoriety in the 1950s for her pin-up photos.
Popularly referred to as the Queen of Pinups, she was famous for her free-spirited demeanor and unabashed sensuality. Her trademark short bangs, natural brunette hair, sparkling blue eyes, and voluptuous figure was and is still influential to artists.
After her death, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner called her “a remarkable lady, an iconic figure in pop culture who influenced sexuality, taste in fashion, someone who had a tremendous impact on our society”.
A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Page lived in California in her early adult years before moving to New York City to pursue work as an actress. There, she found work as a pin-up model, and she posed for dozens of photographers throughout the 1950s.
Page was “Miss January 1955,” one of the earliest Playmates of the Month for Playboy Magazine. After years in obscurity, she experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s.
In 1959, Page converted to evangelical Christianity and worked for Billy Graham, studying at Bible colleges in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, with the intent of becoming a missionary.
The latter part of Page’s life was marked by depression, violent mood swings, and several years in a state psychiatric hospital with paranoid schizophrenia.
In late 1947, Page moved to New York City, where she hoped to find work as an actress Within days she became the victim of a sexual assault by a group of men, and retreated home to Nashville, where she briefly worked for local railroad service.
Within weeks, she returned to New York, becoming secretary to a real-estate developer and an insurance broker who shared offices in the Eastern Airlines Building at Rockefeller Plaza.
In 1950, while walking along the Coney Island shore, Bettie met NYPD Officer Jerry Tibbs, who was an avid photographer, and he gave Bettie his card. He suggested she would be a good pin-up model.
In exchange for allowing him to photograph her, he would help make up her first pin-up portfolio, free of charge.
Tibbs suggested to Bettie that she style her hair with bangs in front, to keep light from reflecting off her high forehead when being photographed. Bangs soon became an integral part of her distinctive look.
In late-1940s America, “camera clubs” were formed to circumvent laws restricting the production of nude photos. These camera clubs existed ostensibly to promote artistic photography, but in reality, many were merely fronts for the making of adult content.
Page entered the field of “glamour photography” as a popular camera club model, working initially with photographer Cass Carr.
Her lack of inhibition in posing made her a hit, and her name and image became quickly known in the erotic photography industry. In 1951, Bettie’s image appeared in men’s magazines such as Wink, Titter, Eyefull and Beauty Parade.
From late 1951 or early 1952 through 1957, she posed for photographer Irving Klaw for mail-order photographs with pin-up and BDSM themes, making her the first famous bondage model.
Klaw also used Page in dozens of short, black-and-white 8mm and 16mm “specialty” films, which catered to specific requests from his clientele.
These silent one-reel featurettes showed women clad in lingerie and high heels, acting out fetishistic scenarios of abduction, domination, and slave-training; bondage, spanking, and elaborate leather costumes and restraints were included periodically. Page alternated between playing a stern dominatrix, and a helpless victim bound hand and foot.
In 1954, during one of her annual vacations to Miami, Florida, Page met photographers Jan Caldwell, H. W. Hannau and Bunny Yeager.
At that time, Page was the top pin-up model in New York. Yeager, a former model, and aspiring photographer, signed Page for a photo session at the now-closed wildlife park Africa USA in Boca Raton, Florida. The “Jungle Bettie” photographs from this shoot are among her most celebrated.
They include nude shots with a pair of cheetahs named Mojah and Mbili. Page herself made the leopard-skin-patterned jungle girl outfit she wore, along with much of her lingerie.
After Yeager sent shots of Page to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, he selected one to use as the Playmate of the Month centerfold in the January 1955 issue of the two-year-old magazine.
The famous photo shows Page, wearing only a Santa hat, kneeling before a Christmas tree holding an ornament and playfully winking at the camera.
In 1955, Page won the title “Miss Pinup Girl of the World”. She also became known as “The Queen of Curves” and “The Dark Angel”.
While pin-up and glamour models frequently have careers measured in months, Page was in demand for several years, continuing to model until 1957.
The reasons reported for Page’s departure from modeling vary. Some reports mention the Kefauver Hearings of the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce as a potential reason, after a young man apparently died during a session of bondage which was rumored to be inspired by images featuring Page.
After leaving modeling, Page converted to Christianity and became a born again evangelist on December 31, 1959, while living in Key West, Florida.
She recalled in 1998, “When I gave my life to the Lord, I began to think he disapproved of all those nude pictures of me.”
During the 1960s, she attempted to become a Christian missionary in Africa, but was rejected for having had a divorce.
Over the next few years, she worked for various Christian organizations before settling in Nashville in 1963, and re-enrolled at Peabody College to pursue a master’s degree in education, but eventually dropped out.
She moved to Southern California in October 1978. There she had a nervous breakdown and had an altercation with her landlady.
The doctors who examined her diagnosed her with acute schizophrenia, and she spent 20 months in Patton State 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.
According to long-time friend and business agent Mark Roesler, Page was hospitalized in critical condition on December 6, 2008.
Roesler was quoted by the Associated Press as saying Page had a heart attack and by Los Angeles television station KNBC as claiming Page had pneumonia. Her family eventually agreed to discontinue life support, and she died on December 11, 2008, at age 85.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Pinterest).