Dave Stevens will never forget his first encounter with Bettie Page. "It was back in 1970 or so," says the lean, intense young artist, whose clean-cut good looks recall those of Cliff Secord, hero of Stevens' his comic book The Rocketeer.
"I was about fifteen at the time. We were up in my friend's attic, going through a box of dusty old magazines. There were some pinup-type publications in the pile, all bathing suit shots, no fuzz. A 1952 issue of Frolic fell open in my hands to a full-page picture of Bettie, wearing a bikini, standing ankle-deep in water. Her whole coy attitude said naughty, naughty sex to me. I was hooked."
Stevens was by no means the first to fall under the spell of the long-vanished raven-haired Fifties pinup model whom the novelist and screenwriter Harlan Ellison has called the "high priestess of nylons, garter belts and spike heels." In 1981, when Stevens drew a campy one-shot jungle adventure featuring a Bettie look-alike, he began receiving mail from people he characterizes as "not a part of the usual comic-book audience."
"They were older guys who recognized Bettie from 30 years ago," Stevens says. "It was as if I'd tapped into a subculture no one talked about but every man in America knew."
Bettie Page was an early example of that uniquely modern phenomenon, the underground celebrity, someone who is famous for being infamous. Although she posed for thousands of perfectly ordinary nude and seminude pictures, the mention of her name will always conjure up flickering black-and-white images of muscular women armored with industrial-grade underwear, wrestling in six-inch stilettos and tying each other up with muslin clotheslines.
Muse to the sexual bohemians of her day, Bettie Page vanished into obscurity after a harrowing brush with zealous congressional witch hunters. If she's aware of her new cult status, she doesn't encourage it. Nonetheless, Bettie's star is set in concrete at the busy intersection of Sex and Politics. So it's not at all surprising that she should rise again in the age of the Meese Commission and the PMRC.
Certainly, Stevens's labors have contributed mightily to Bettie's comeback. The continuing appearances of a character based on Bettie in The Rocketeer, now being adapted for the screen at Disney, have introduced Bettie to a whole new generation. But Bettie also plays durably in revival in other venues. Her old photographs have reappeared in the slick skin magazines, as well as in trendy fashion journals such as Details. Copies of the fetishistic "photo sets" that made her notorious have been repackaged in deluxe collectors' editions. Original prints fetch steep prices in the esoteric, cutthroat market for what Stevens calls "vintage cheese."
Bettie inspired Los Angeles painter Robert Blue to create a series of controversial photo-realist paintings that figured strongly in the 1984 feature film Heartbreakers. Chris Spedding wrote a rock & roll anthem about her, "Hey Miss Betty," which would certainly have astonished the real Miss Bettie, who favored big-band music. Her old 16-mm loops were a surprise hit at this year's LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) Valentine's Day benefit party, always a showcase for the West Coast art world's latest enthusiasms. The L.A. Weekly characterized the films as "chockfull of useful fashion tips." These same films, which sell briskly in a videotape package available by mail order, were used as atmosphere at artist Robert Williams's recent opening at L.A.'s La Luz de Jesus Gallery.
Bettie even rates her own fanzine, the Betty Pages, published quarterly at $4.50 a copy. Its first issue sold out in two weeks. That's pretty high visibility for a model who hasn't worked since Kennedy was elected president and a Coke cost a dime. (Note: It seems appropriate that even something as simple as the spelling of Bettie's first name is disputed by experts, but documents indicate that Bettie preferred the -ie spelling.)
Never a big favorite of the fundamentalist right, Bettie is also a troubling icon to the feminist left. It is possible to view her as an exploited victim or as a cynical collaborator in the exploitation of others. To some observers, her current popularity is an ominous sign of retrogression. But like Frances Farmer, Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus and other proto-feminist culture heroines, Bettie Page challenged the hypocrisies of a smug, pious era. She staked out an eccentric career on the frontiers of respectability, and she paid a price. In the process, she helped define America's ideas about what was sexy.
Bettie's original success was almost as remarkable as her comeback. Although she was undeniably striking, with lustrous dark hair (which she wore in the straight, blunt-cut bangs that were her trademark), pert, wholesome features and an athletic build, her looks did not conform to the ideals of the day. In comparison with a Marilyn Monroe or a Kim Novak, Bettie was lean and tomboyish.
Moreover, at a time when women were expected to be childlike and sexually unaware, Bettie was disturbingly capable and self-assured in the clumsily contrived peepshow skits she played out in front of the camera. Her allure resulted from a uniquely incendiary mixture of coyness, frankness and implacable girl-next-door perkiness.
Born on April 22nd, 1923, in Kingsport, Tennessee, Bettie spent her childhood in Appalachia, but she was no Dogpatch Daisy Mae. At Nashville's Hume Fogg High School, she was known as a good student, ambitious and competitive. A homecoming queen and a mascot of the ROTC company (perhaps an early example of her enduring affinity for men in uniform), she graduated in 1941 and subsequently joined the eternal migration of the star struck to Hollywood.
Screen success eluded her. Part of the problem lay with her corn-pone-thick accent, which would prove to be ineradicable despite years of acting and diction lessons. And if her later film loops were representative, her acting abilities were, let's say, specialized. Still, movie careers have been built on much less. In later years, Bettie would complain with uncharacteristic bitterness that her one screen test had failed to get her a job because she had refused to entertain the producers after hours.
According to her most tireless archivist and hagiographer, Betty Pages publisher and editor Greg Theakston, Bettie would later tell a boyfriend why she had washed out in Hollywood: "I don't mind sleeping with someone to get ahead," she said, "but I'm not going to sleep with everyone."
"I have never heard a sex story about Bettie Page," declares Bélier Press chief J.B. Rund, who, in collaboration with the artist, social commentator and boulevardier Richard Merkin, published Private Peeks, the first Bettie Page reissues, back in 1979.
Ironically, Bettie's very reluctance to do certain things in private would ultimately lead her to do even more controversial things in public. Rather like Jessica Rabbit, she wasn't bad, she was just drawn that way.
After a brief marriage to a sailor, Bettie turned up in New York City in 1948, hoping that the stage would do what the screen would not–take her seriously. As the rest of the country snoozed in Cold War hibernation, Manhattan was just awakening to the Great Bohemian Renaissance. It was the age of Charlie Parker and Lenny Bruce, of the Actor's Studio, of the beat poets and the Tenth Street School.
On the margins of the downtown scene, raffish characters like Lord Buckley, Mezz Mezzrow and John Willie heemed and scuffled, skimming off the extra bucks pumped out by the postwar prosperity machine. The city offered many opportunities to bright, pretty, enterprising young women.
One hot summer afternoon in 1949 at Jones Beach, Bettie attracted the attention of a black police sergeant and part-time photographer named Jerry Tibbs. Tibbs's friend Cass Carr, a courtly Jamaican bandleader, ran a shutterbugs' club that held classes at the YMCA. Carr had been turned on to photography himself, he says, "by someone you may have heard of, a gentleman by the name of Weegee." He always needed new models.
Predictably, in Carr's words, "Bettie took the YMCA by storm." He describes her as "hard-working and not given to undue gaiety."
"She was a brilliant typist," he says, "and sometimes she would bring in work to do on my typewriter in between posing sessions. I would call her a most controlled young woman, quiet and composed. She didn't smoke or drink and didn't much care for those who did."
It wasn't long before Bettie's clientele included professional photographers as well as amateurs. Soon Carr was arranging outings to a farm upstate in New Salem Dairy, where Bettie would pose for a couple dozen lens men at a time. Bettie then made her way into girlie magazines like Wink and Flirt and from there to an early Playboy Christmas centerfold, in which she was photographed wearing a Santa Claus hat and a smile.
It was inevitable that Bettie would come to the attention of Irving Klaw, who was known as the Pinup King. Like Bettie, Klaw was, as the photographer, agent and cheesecake historian Eric Kroll puts it, "a vortex personality."
The balding, roly-poly Klaw had found his market niche by catering to customers who wanted pictures of bound women wearing high heels, stockings and the other trappings of sadomasochistic sex. Sex itself, sadomasochistic or otherwise, was never depicted, and the models were better covered than today's average Venice Beach roller skater, but this was the Fifties.
Irving Klaw's sister, Paula, still runs the family business, which is now called Movie Star News. A soft-spoken but formidable woman, she chooses her words carefully when she talks about her association with Bettie.
"Sometime around 1950," Paula says, "she was brought in to meet Irving by some photographer we used, but I don't remember which one. Bettie and I didn't really socialize much. I only saw her when we worked together. Sometimes we would all go out to El Morocco after work and have dinner, but that was about it.
"She was a quiet gal, prim and proper, didn't run around, wasn't promiscuous. She wasn't a gold digger. I remember when word got back to us that Howard Hughes wanted to meet her. After the things she'd heard, she said that she didn't want to meet him. She had a boyfriend she supported, but I never saw him. I know she sent money to her family.
"Bettie lived in a very plain little fourth-floor walk-up on 46th Street, with just a bed, a dresser, a TV set, not much else. She usually came to work in a sweater and dungarees. I never saw her dressed up. She really wasn't aware of her appeal. She laughed at all the fan letters."
The Klaws had been introduced to the bondage market in the late Forties by a wealthy patron, a lawyer known to everyone as Little John. He appears in candid photographs taken at the shoots, a small, shy, round-faced man with a sweet, embarrassed grin, surrounded by buxom, towering models.
"John was allowed to be present at the photo sessions and to direct," Paula says, "but he wasn't permitted to touch the girls, so they got me to do the actual rope tricks. Bettie never objected to anything she was asked to do, but I don't think that they were necessarily things she would have done if she hadn't needed the money."
By today's standards, Irving Klaw's product seems quaint and innocuous. It was shot mostly on a tiny, bare stage dressed with thrift-store living-room furniture, but its very amateurishness lends it a sort of nostalgic charm.
In photo sets and film loops with titles such as, "Teaser Girl in High Heels" or, "Betty Gets Bound and Kidnapped," Bettie acted out short scenarios in which she and other indecently overdressed women took turns modeling fetish gear, getting wound up in ropes and leather and administering the occasional spanking.
For some of these productions, Bettie did no more than attempt to stay upright in oversize pumps (clearly intended for a male cross-dresser) while pacing back and forth for a camera fix-focused below her knees. In more ambitious episodes, Bettie swung suspended from elaborate rope-and-pulley rigs or abducted other models and loaded them into car trunks. Whether as stern dominatrix or hapless captive, she emoted in the exaggerated style of a silent-film star, which, in effect, she was, since the loops had no soundtracks.
According to Paula, the Klaws paid Bettie 10 dollars an hour for the sessions, which typically lasted five hours, with another fifty bucks thrown in as a tip. With sessions scheduled every Saturday and sometimes on Thursdays as well, the money was pretty good. At the time, secretarial work paid, perhaps, a dollar an hour. And in those days, even brilliant typists had to make coffee. It was a good time in Bettie's life, but the storms would soon begin to roll in.
First, there was the grisly death of Little John. During a commercial transaction with a drunken prostitute, John was tied to a chair with a lighted cigarette in his mouth. The prostitute passed out, and he burned to death.
Then there was Bettie's skirmish with the local police up in New Salem Dairy. On August 17th, 1952, Bettie, Cass and three other models were arrested at the farm by local cops. They were fined only five dollars each, but the story made the New York Mirror and may have helped attract the attention of more powerful adversaries.
The really bad news came in the spring of 1955. As the presidential election drew near, the field of potential Democratic challengers was still overcrowded, with the young John Kennedy running hard to unseat the party's previous standard-bearer, Adlai Stevenson. Hoping to emerge as a compromise candidate, Estes Kefauver, a senator from Bettie's home state, had also entered the race.
Kefauver's handlers hoped that they could raise his national profile by holding a flashy, sensational investigation, then (as now) a great source of free air time. Kefauver, who was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that he would be leading an investigation of juvenile delinquency and the effect of movies, television, comic books and, especially, pornography on impressionable young minds.
As Paula Klaw says, "There are always some do-gooders wanting some print."
On May 19th, 1955, Senator Kefauver sent Irving Klaw his personal greetings, in the form of a subpoena delivered by what Paula describes as "some men with gold badges." He was ordered to appear five days later, at 9 a.m., in room 104 of the United States Court House in downtown Manhattan.
No one knew how damaging the investigation would be, but having seen countless lives and careers wrecked by similar extrajudicial proceedings over the previous few years, Klaw's circle had plenty of reasons to fear the worst. Half a decade of blacklisting had created a climate of fear. "It was the only time I ever saw Bettie upset," says the renowned bondage photographer and artist Eric Stanton, who got his start as a Klaw employee. "She was horrified at the prospect of having to testify against her friends Irving and Paula."
As it finally went down, Bettie did not have to testify, but she hardly escaped unscathed. Following the established pattern, the committee first took testimony from an "expert," one Dr. George W. Henry, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Cornell University.
To no one's particular surprise, when asked to examine a copy of Klaw's publication Cartoon and Model Parade, Henry agreed with Kefauver that it was "a bad influence and degrading to even grown-ups, let alone young people."
The next witness was a self-employed electrical contractor from Coral Gables, Florida, one Clarence Grimm. His testimony would live up to his name. He had come to talk about the recent death of his son, Kenneth; "an Eagle Scout and a B-plus student."
Vincent Gaughan, the committee's special counsel, showed Grimm an artist's rendering of the boy's body from the Miami Daily News, asking him, "Would you say that was an accurate sketch of how the boy was found when you saw him?"
"Yes," Grimm responded. "Very accurate."
"The picture at which I am looking," said Gaughan, "shows two saplings with forks, and a one-by-two-inch board is suspended between the two forks of the tree. Hanging by his knees and, of course, in an inverted position is Kenneth Grimm. He is trussed up with ropes, tied around his ankles, the same ropes reaching from his ankles to his arms, and looped around his neck, so that his body is pulled back in a very grotesque-looking position."
Gaughan then handed Grimm a copy of the previously introduced issue of Cartoon and Model Parade, helpfully flipping it open to a photograph on page 8. "This picture here illustrates a model known as Bettie Page," he said. "Does that accurately reflect about how your boy was found?"
"It is more or less the same," said Grimm. "It is a very similar position; there is a resemblance to the way I found him."
As evidence, it was pretty thin. Grimm didn't even claim that his son, or anyone Ken knew, had ever seen this particular magazine. But that didn't stop Gaughan from leading his witness to the desired conclusion. "And you are now in your mind thoroughly convinced," said Gaughan, "that he was a victim of this thing that we have been discussing this morning with Dr. Henry, called the bondage and fetish?"
"That's right," said Grimm. "In some way. Yes, sir."
Without ever having to bring the charge in a genuine court of law, Gaughan had essentially accused Irving Klaw and, by extension, Bettie Page, of participating in the murder of an Eagle Scout and B-plus student. After that, it wouldn't have mattered much what Irving said when his turn in the box came.
It's probably just as well that he didn't say a whole lot. On the advice of his lawyer, Klaw took the Fifth to all of Kefauver's inflammatory questions. Kefauver dismissed him with the threat of a contempt citation.
It was the beginning of the end for Klaw. Following the hearings, Congress amended the postal code to prohibit the mailing of nonsexual bondage materials, and Klaw was finally charged in 1963 with violating that statute. He ultimately beat the rap on appeal but not before destroying all his negatives as a sacrificial offering to the court. He died shortly thereafter of peritonitis, essentially a ruined man.
Ironically, Estes Kefauver didn't fare too well, either. The hearings were widely derided as hollow grandstanding with few tangible results beyond the creation of the Comics Code. The Democratic nomination went to Stevenson again, with Kefauver tacked onto the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate. After Ike's reelection, Kefauver faded into elder statesmanship.
For Bettie, the whole experience was like being sideswiped by a passing semi. She was only an incidental target of the Kefauver team, but incidental was good enough, especially in those days. Bettie did the sensible thing, putting as much open space between herself and Irving Klaw as possible. The last communication Paula Klaw remembers receiving from her was a Christmas card in 1956.
Bettie quietly began to disappear from the New York scene. The legendary pinup photographer Bunny Yeager had started shooting Bettie down in Miami in 1954. After Bettie's estrangement from the Klaws, the partnership flourished. "I took her out of the boudoir and onto the beach," says Yeager, who still lives and works in Florida.
There's no doubt that Yeager's outdoor spreads achieved a hygienic gloss, but the innocence was all artifice at that point. When closely examined, these later beach nudes reveal an older, harder, sadder Bettie. Bettie made a sortie out to Los Angeles around 1960, perhaps to try again to get into movies or television. The trip led to a sojourn in a religious community, which Yeager characterizes as "a convent."
It wasn't a long stay, but its impact appears to have been decisive. She vanished from the public eye.
There have been many unconfirmed sightings of Bettie over the years. Various rumors have her dead, living in London or married to the brother of the B-picture actor Lash LaRue. But the consensus among longtime Bettie watchers is that she returned to Florida, got married and settled down outside Tallahassee, where she remains to this day, living quietly and studying the Bible.
If she ever does reemerge, it will be to a world over which she has exercised a powerful, if subliminal, influence.
Will she see shadows of her earlier self in Helmut Newton's photographs? In George Michael's videos? In the parade of Bettie clones tottering up and down L.A.'s Melrose Avenue in their killer pumps and latex bullet bras? Could Bettie explain why her whole look, which has been adopted by women rockers from Madonna to Annie Lennox, has come back so dramatically? God knows everyone else has a theory.
Greg Theakston thinks that tease and titillation have returned because AIDS has made real sex too scary. Dave Stevens sees a modern audience that is jaded by too much hardcore porn. Richard Merkin attributes Bettie's lasting luster in part to her timely disappearance. "She has the charm of the inconclusive," he says. "We grow older, but she stays young."
Part of the explanation may lie in the tendency of fashion to recapitulate fetish. What is worn in the bedroom in one generation is likely to appear on the street in the next. But Bettie's story is really about the pendular swings of public opinion.
As the social restiveness of the Depression and the war years gave way to Cold War regimentation, so that, in turn, yielded to the experimentalism of the Sixties. Perhaps that is why, in the grip of a gray, joyless conformism once again, we turn to this teasing, contrary seductress of the past for inspiration.
To an era that just says no, Bettie says, "Well...maybe."
"Bettie Page was a sexual figure of a sexually repressed time," says Richard Merkin. "Rubbed up against her era, she made sparks. As Cole Porter would say, she was one of those bells that now and then rings."