Bettie Page died Thursday, Dec. 11 at the age of 85. If you haven’t heard of her, you’ve seen her, on T-shirts, on cigarette lighters, painted on classic cars. THE iconic model of the 1950s, and perhaps the greatest of all photographic models, she’s unmistakable with her raven tresses, long bangs and smoky glare or sweet smile.
Her photographs, more than 20,000 in all, ran the full range from gentle and innocent to naughty to completely out-there; if there was something someone found appealing, Bettie Page was probably photographed that way. She only stayed on the cultural scene for a few glorious years in the 1950s, peaking as a Playboy centerfold in 1955. Then, in 1957, fearing advancing age and pursued by moralists in Congress, she pulled the greatest disappearing act in modern pop culture when she vanished from the scene completely. For many years, fandom wondered if she was even alive or dead. Apparently, even she wasn’t aware of her own underground popularity for many years.
We know now that she had what might gently be called a varied life — some painful marriages, time in a mental institution, unhappy periods. There’s a very popular picture, entitled “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” featuring 1950s and 1960s icons such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe who died far too young. Bettie Page lived on that street for decades. But she also found joy in some unexpected places, particularly religion — she worked for Billy Graham’s ministry for some time.
But although she sometimes seemed a bit mystified by her past and present popularity, she never turned her back on it, either. She re-emerged in the 1990s, though she almost never allowed herself to be photographed, preferring her fans to remember her as she was. She needn’t have worried. A single photo of the latter-day Page exists, from her visit to the Playboy Mansion in the 1990s. Though she was nearing 80, she was instantly recognizable. Seriously. If you wandered by her on the street you’d say, “Oh my god, that’s Bettie Page!” So many of the elements that defined Bettie Page completely defied aging.
She remains one of the most influential of all pop-culture figures. Great swaths of gothic, emo and rockabilly culture freely lift the look. Without Bettie Page there would be no Suicide Girls, no Hot Topic, no Dita Von Teese, no modern burlesque movement. (Some years ago, when the original members of what would eventually become Bottoms Up Burlesque first gathered to figure out how the hell we could make this work, we watched hours of old Irving Klaw footage, including Bettie Page acts. In some of them, she only seemed to be half trying, and she STILL knocked everyone else off the screen.)
As a young photographer, I studied her photographs obsessively — not just because of the admittedly pleasant aesthetic value, but to figure out exactly what it was that made her Her. But a lot of it wasn’t anything that could be easily captured in words or explanations. She fully embraced the camera in a way not often seen before or since, completely committing herself to the image, whether it was a whip-wielding bit of naughtiness or innocently sitting on the beach with a flower in her hair. She never flinched from the lens, and maybe that’s what made it work.
Bettie Page was the greatest, not just an influence on models and photographers for decades to come, but an invitation into the world a half-second out of phase with our own, where you could cut loose and explore seemingly forbidden sides of your personality, and then bring it all back home with a wink and a feisty smile. She’s the embodiment of the slow emergence from the repression of the era — scandalous at the time, fully embraced by the public now.
Jungle Bettie, Bondage Bettie, Devil Bettie — at the end of the day, she’d ditch the crazy outfits, put on a sensible skirt and go out for chocolate shakes and apple pie. Both the innocence and the hidden lust of the 1950s personified in a single model.
But there was always that sly smile, that left eye just slightly raised higher than the right, that gleeful insouciance that reminded you it was all a joke. Underneath the sex appeal was a reassurance that it was all OK, that there was nothing wrong with finding this all just a little bit fun. She once said that she tried to imagine that the camera was her boyfriend and she was just putting on a bit of a show to entertain him. It certainly worked.
She rarely spoke on camera, which only added to the appeal and mystique. The handful of times her voice was heard, it was with a rough-hewn accent somewhere between street-talkin’ New York girl and country bumpkin. Somehow that didn’t hurt. More than the girl next door, she was Everygirl.
I’m glad we have that sole photograph of elderly Bettie, if only so we know that it really is possible to age that well, but I’m also glad that it ends there. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe had to die to achieve eternal youth. Bettie Page had a good run, and maybe even found peace and happiness in her twilight years. But even though she passed at 85, Bettie Page will be forever young — even though she lived to see the sexual revolution that she played so crucial a part in bringing about. She’ll always be that sultry, alluring young lady with the jet black bangs, letting us in on the joke even as she reminds us that it’s all going to be OK.