April 22, 1923 – Bettie Page:
“God gave me the talent to pose for pictures and it seems to make people happy. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?”Bettie Page
Bettie Page was a popular pin-up model and sex symbol in the 1950s who, after her death, became a cult figure. Her straight black bangs and innocent, playful attitude made her a fashion icon.
Her later life was marked by depression and violent mood swings. She spent several years in a state mental institution.
Page was most famous for the more than 20,000 4-by-5-inch black-and-white glossy photographs taken from 1949 to 1957. The photos show her in high heels and bikinis or negligees, bondage apparel… or nothing at all.
Decades later, those images inspired biographies, comic books, fan clubs, websites, Bettie Page ephemera, action figures, and a film The Notorious Bettie Page (2005).
Page had many naughty personas: Nurse Bettie, Jungle Bettie, Voodoo Bettie, Banned in Boston Bettie, Maid Bettie, Crackers in Bed Bettie.
After her passing, Hugh Hefner wrote:
“The origins of what captures the imagination and creates a particular celebrity are sometimes difficult to define.Bettie Page was one of Playboy Magazine’s early Playmates, and she became an iconic figure, influencing notions of beauty and fashion. Then she disappeared. Many years later, Bettie resurfaced and we became friends. Page’s appeal is a combination of wholesome innocence and fetish-oriented poses that is at once retro and very modern.“
Page never understood her place in popular culture:
“I have no idea why I’m the only model who has had so much fame so long after quitting work. I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times. I want to be remembered as the woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form.“
Bettie Mae Page was born in Nashville, one of six children. She and two sisters were sent to an orphanage after her father went to jail and her mother could not cope on her own. Page later described her father as “a sex fiend” who started sexually molesting her when she was 13 years old. After high school, Page earned a teaching degree at Peabody College in Nashville, but her teaching career did not last. Page:
“I couldn’t control my students, especially the boys.“
Page did her first modeling work in the 1940s after moving to San Francisco with the first of her three husbands. After they divorced in 1947, she pursued modeling in New York City. Photos from a shoot with Miami photographer Bunny Yeager ended up in the pages of Playboy magazine. Later in life, Page was furious that Yeager made a fortune from the photos and never compensated her.
In 1948, she had divorced her abusive husband and fled to New York City and tried to find work as an actor. She was noticed on the beach at Coney Island by a photographer who introduced her to amateur camera clubs.
Page attracted the attention of Irving and Paula Klaw who had a mail-order business selling cheesecake and bondage poses. Under contract with the Klaws, Page was photographed with a whip, spanking other women, even being hog-tied. She also appeared in 8-millimeter stag films with titles like Betty Page In High Heels.
“I had lost my ambition and desire to succeed and better myself; I was adrift. But I could make more money in a few hours modeling than I could earn in a week as a secretary.“
In January 1955, Page appeared as the Playboy centerfold, winking under a Santa Claus cap.
Some American lawmakers were not as impressed with her modeling abilities. Page was served with a subpoena to appear before U.S. Senate investigators trying to discover a link between juvenile delinquency and pornography. Page never appeared. Soon after, she completely disappeared from the scene.
In 1958, Page walked away from it all at 35 years old. She quit modeling and began Bible studies and served in the Billy Graham Crusade.
Page suffered from depression marked by violent mood swings. In 1981, she argued with her landlady and attacked her with a knife. A judge found her innocent by reason of insanity but sentenced her to 10 years in a California mental institution. She was released in 1992 to discover that she had become a pop culture icon among women as well as men, that continues to this day. Page finally began receiving a respectable income for her work.
In 2007, Page told Playboy:
“When I turned my life over to the lord Jesus I was ashamed of having posed in the nude. But now, most of the money I’ve got is because I posed in the nude. So I’m not ashamed of it now. But I still don’t understand it.“
She spent most of her final years living in a one-bedroom apartment, working for CMG Worldwide Agency autographing pinups of herself in her 1950s era prime. The agency controls her image and those of Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, James Dean, Princess Diana and many, many other icons.
Page left this world in 2008. Her estate made Number Ten on the 2020 Forbes annual list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities, where she is nestled between Albert Einstein and David Bowie:
Michael Jackson, $825 million
Charles Schulz, $48 million
Arnold Palmer, $40 million
Elvis Presley, $27 million
Prince, $25 million
Bob Marley, $21 million
Dr. Seuss, $20 million
John Lennon, $12 million
Albert Einstein, $11.5 million
Bettie Page, $11 million
David Bowie, $10.5 million
Steve McQueen, $9 million
Elizabeth Taylor, $8 million
Check out the documentary Bettie Page Reveals All (2012).