Bettie Page was America’s pinup queen in the 1950s who was probably considered at that time to be the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe. But her persona and her disappearance from the public eye for decades made her all that more romantically mysterious.
Bettie was the stuff male fantasies were made of in the buttoned-down Eisenhower era. After being a vital part of the workforce during World War II, women were suddendly supposed to be June Cleaver, whose place was in the kitchen. The career woman of the 1950s seemed to be limited toprofessions concentrating on beauty — be it in the movies or in magazines. Grace Kelly went from Oscar-winning beauty to Princess of Monaco. Bettie was at the other end of the spectrum — primarily in under the counter publications because she was featured in sado-masochistic attire, photos and movies — even though it was all just a gimmick. No covers of “Life” or “Look” for Bettie, but rather magazines like “Wink” or “Slick” or “Rare.” Magazines that got church groups and God-fearing politicians hot and bothered — but not in the same way her photos enticed adolescent boys and sexually frustrated married men, who were willing to face an eternity of fire and brimstone just to catch a glimpse of Bettie with the trademark black bangs and black stockings.
Bettie was a failed actress, but she never gave a bad performance in front of the camera, even for amateur photogs. She had a killer smile to go along with that killer body. But she made it all look like fun. She was popular back then and popular now because she brought a sense of innocence and vulnerabilty, even to those silly bondage photo shoots. Bettie didn’t have that come-hither, sultry look that was Marilyn Monroe’s calling card — and because of that she seemed to be more approachable. The girl-next-door look that Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy” would personify.
Bettie’s nature girl attributes were best-served by photographer Bunny Yeager, herself a rarity in the 1950s since most photogs were men. (“Playboy” sometimes used Yeager to shoot centerfolds because some women were too shy to disrobe for a man.) Yeager’s is a portfolio of class, not crass. But the woman she called “a natural nudist” was always ready to do her best work no matter who had the Kodak. The ultimate career gal of the era.
A movie was made about Bettie’s life a few years ago with Gretchen Mol cast as the pinup queen. Fetchin’ Gretchen was very good at capturing Bettie’s vulnerability and sense of fun and joy — never making it gratuitous, even though a movie with that theme could’ve easily fallen into that trap. Maybe it was because a woman directed the movie. Still, Mary Harmon’s “The Notorious Bettie Page” doesn’t succeed in the end. Harmon may have let her reverence for Bettie dominate her vision of what the film should ultimately say. Then again, Bettie’s life after her short, but memorable, career didn’t have much conflict necessary to make a biopic very effective. Bettie was never called before the Senate subcommittee on pornography that the film used as its antagonist. And there seemed to be much ado about nothing concerning the fact that Bettie suddenly disappeared from the public eye and got religion.
Bettie Page died Thursday at age 85. But to her legion of fans she will always be 30. The Notorious Bettie Page was more like the Mysterious Bettie Page. Even after she was raised to that highest of honors America likes to bestow on their celebrities — pop culture icon — Bettie still remained in seclusion, never wanting to be photographed. One might attribute that to vanity, but maybe she just wanted people to remember her as she was in her prime. She didn’t want to disappoint her fans. Can’t blame her for that.
Bettie was in her primeat a time when women were seen primarily as sex objects. Artists have since empowered Bettie in fantasy dream sequences that are apt for the in-your-face culture of today. She is seldom depicted anymore as the free spirit who some have credited for being a role model for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She is nowportrayed as the ultimate femme fatale — a strong woman who seems to be getting back at those male oinkers of the 1950s. Yet, she is still drawn nude or near nude. More buff in the buff.
In any case, Bettie endures in books and magazines. The ultimate Page turner, if you will. A lot of men — and even some women — always smile when Bettie Page is mentioned. Like Marilyn or Elvis — who also came to prominence in the 1950s — Bettie is difficult to dislike. Still, Bettie won’t share the same degree of immortal status as those two. There won’t be a stamp commemorating the life of Bettie Page. Such things areseldom reserved for the girl next door.