By Hella Goode
What would you do if a random woman walked up to you and asked you if you had found God? You’d probably brush her off. Bettie Page walked the Jesus walk for many of her latter years, unrecognized and hardly recognizable, even participating in the Billy Graham Crusade. She felt she had quite a bit to reconcile, but nude modeling wasn’t really what she wanted to wash clean.
In fact, Bettie was known to say that nude modeling came naturally to her and that it was only once Adam and Eve sinned that they needed to wear clothes. Bettie did not regret most of her modeling, however, the government probing into Irving Klaw’s photography; accused of being pornographic and derogatory could have made Bettie begin to feel a bit dirty about her work. The photos taken of Bettie in various dominatrix outfits and gear were not blatantly sexual and did not involve nudity, yet filth is in the eye of the beholder. Just as a mother nursing her child in public can be seen as beautiful and natural by some, yet overexposed and even a turn-on by others, the images of Bettie became seen as something to be ashamed of.
Bettie modeled for fun, for the money (which paid better than her prior secretarial work), and for attention. She had never had a stable home life, unconditional acceptance, or stability, and strangely, her modeling-risque at the time, gave her all she sought after.
Bettie Page, born Betty Page on April 22, 1923 to Walter Roy Page and Edna Marie Pirthe in Tennessee, had no idea that her childhood longing for attention and acceptance would help bring about a cultural revolution.
She was the second of six children, and as any innocent child does, she needed attention. She wasn’t getting much of it. Her father wasn’t around much and wasn’t pleasant when he was. He was abusive and in and out of jail. Her mother became so desolate that she sent Bettie and a sister to live in an orphanage until she could afford to have them back. Yet, Bettie kept smiling and enjoying the simple joys of life. She and her brothers and sisters competed at keeping a chicken feather in the air using their breath, and she dabbled in art with the oil from her fingers. Bettie would always find a way.
Then, in 1950, while strolling along Coney Island, a random photographer snapped her photo. His name was Jerry Tibbs, and he had just discovered black gold. Although yet to have her signature bangin’ bangs that would be emulated for generations to come, she was still pretty and charismatic. The bangs came later as a suggestion to keep her face from appearing too long.
Bettie was a hit! She appeared in numerous magazines including Playboy, a move which would prove unexpectedly helpful later in life. Her career shot as high up as the Rocketeer, whose girlfriend in the movie was inspired by Bettie’s look. This is the part of Bettie’s life, from 1950 to the beginning of the 60’s, that we know the most about.
Then, just as Jesus disappeared for a few years, so did Bettie Page. Until recently, little was known about what she did for so many years. She was often assumed dead. Then she popped up as a Golden Girl of the faith. Turns out that between her three failed marriages she had become part of the Christian faith and devoted herself to God. Also a motivator in her newfound Christianity, her trouble with her temper. Bettie had been arrested for the attempted murder of her landlady after a fiery dispute. She was deemed mentally instable and diagnosed with schizophrenia. She served out many months in an institution, trying to heal herself.
During these turbulent years she had no way of supporting herself, not realizing that others were rolling in green by selling her images. Yes, the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, had Bettie blowing up years and years later. Playboy’s Hugh Hefner extended his hand to Bettie, helping her bring in some profits from her images, most of which she did not own the rights to. After the government’s investigation of Irving Klaw, she was surprised any of the images still existed.
Bettie had no desire to create new images though. She wanted to be remembered even in life for her heyday moments, those glorious images of Jungle Bettie, fetish Bettie and the gorgeous Playboy shot of her, naked hanging the ornament on a Christmas tree. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to see her growing old. Meanwhile, Bettie was more popular than ever, with countless websites, books (including the great The Real Bettie Page: the truth about the queen of pin-ups by Richard Foster), and movies about her, including 2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol.
That’s how Bettie chose to live her last quiet years, with psalms on her lips, her signature bangs (peppery gray) on her face, and memories in her head. A rarity amongst the legends of her day, Bettie did live a long life. At the age of 85, on December 11, 2008, Bettie Page passed away as a result of pneumonia and a heart attack in Los Angeles. Impossible to forget, rest in peace, Bettie Page.
So, next time someone approaches you thinking you look like you need a bit of faith in your life, look closely, you never know who you might find.