(April 22, 1923 – December 11, 2008)
was an American model who became famous in the 1950s for her fetish
modelling and pin-up photos. Her look, including her jet black hair and
trademark bangs, has influenced many artists.
She was also one of the
earliest Playmates of the Month for Playboy magazine. "I think that
she was a remarkable lady, an iconic figure in pop culture who influenced
sexuality, taste in fashion, someone who had a tremendous impact on our
founder Hugh Hefner told the Associated Press.
Her later life was marked by depression, violent mood swings and several
years in a state mental institution.
In the 1960s, she converted to Christianity and served as a Baptist
missionary in Angola.
After years of obscurity, she experienced a resurgence of popularity in the
1980s and has a significant cult following.
Page was born Betty Mae Page
in Nashville, Tennessee, the second child of Walter Roy Page and Edna Mae
Pirtle. At a young age, Page had to face the responsibilities of caring for
her younger siblings. Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old.
her father, whom Page would accuse of molesting her starting at age 13, was
imprisoned, Page and her two
sisters lived in an orphanage for a year. During this time, Page's mother
worked two jobs, one as a hairdresser during the day and washing laundry at
As a teenager, Page and her sisters tried different makeup styles and
hairdos imitating their favorite movie stars. She also learned to sew. These
skills proved useful years later for her pin-up photography when Page did
her own makeup and hair and made her own bikinis and costumes. During her
early years, the Page family traveled around the country in search of
A good student and debate team member at Hume-Fogg High School, she was
voted "Most Likely to Succeed".
On June 6, 1940, Page graduated as the salutatorian of her high school class
with a scholarship. She enrolled at George Peabody College, with the
intention of becoming a teacher. However, the next fall she began studying
acting, hoping to become a movie star. At the same time, she got her first
job, typing for author Alfred Leland Crab. Page graduated from Peabody with
a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944.
In 1943, she married high school classmate Billy Neal in a simple
courthouse ceremony shortly before he was drafted into the Navy for World
War II. For the next few
years, she moved from San Francisco to Nashville to Miami and to
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she felt a special affinity with the country
and its culture.
In November 1947, back in the United States, she filed for divorce.
Following her divorce, Page worked briefly in San Francisco, and in
Haiti. She moved to New York City, where she hoped to find work as an
actress. In the meantime, she supported herself by working as a secretary.
In 1950, while walking along the Coney Island shore, she met Jerry Tibbs, a
police officer with an interest in photography. She was a willing model, and
Tibbs took pictures of her and put together her first pinup portfolio.
In the late 1940s, what were known as camera clubs were formed as a means
of circumventing legal restrictions on the production of nude photos. These
clubs existed ostensibly to promote artistic photography, but many were
merely fronts for the making of pornography. Page entered the field of
glamour photography as a popular camera club model, working initially with
photographer Cass Carr.
Her lack of inhibition in posing made her a hit. Her name and image became
quickly known in the erotic photography industry, and in 1951, her image
appeared in men's magazines with names like Wink, Titter, Eyefull and Beauty Parade.
From 1952 through 1957, she posed for photographer Irving Klaw for
mail-order photographs with pin-up, bondage or sadomasochistic themes,
making her the first famous bondage model. Klaw also used Page in dozens of
short black-and-white 8mm and 16mm "specialty" films which catered to
specific requests from his clientele. These silent featurettes showed women
clad in lingerie and high heels acting out fetishistic scenarios of
abduction, domination, and slave-training with bondage, spanking, and
elaborate leather costumes and restraints. Page alternated between playing a
stern dominatrix and a helpless victim bound hand and foot. Klaw also
produced a line of still photos taken during these sessions. Some have
become iconic images, such as his highest-selling photo of Page shown gagged
and bound in a web of ropes from the film Leopard Bikini Bound.
Although these underground features had the same crude style and clandestine
distribution as the pornographic "stag" films of the time, Klaw's all-female
films (and still photos) never featured any nudity or explicit sexual
In 1953, Page took acting classes at the Herbert Berghoff Studios, which
led to several roles on stage and television. She appeared on The United
States Steel Hour and the The Jackie Gleason Show.
Her off-Broadway productions included Time is a Thief and Sunday
Costs Five Pesos. Page acted and danced in the feature-length burlesque
revue film Striporama by Jerald Intrator. She was given a brief
speaking role, the only time her voice has been captured on film. She then
appeared in two more burlesque films by Irving Klaw (Teaserama and Varietease). These featured exotic dance routines and vignettes by Page
and well-known striptease artists Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm. All three
films were mildly risqué, but none showed any nudity or overtly sexual
In 1954, during one of her annual pilgrimages to Miami, Florida, Page met
photographers Jan Caldwell, H. W. Hannau and Bunny Yeager.
At that time, Page was the top pin-up model in New York. Yeager, a former
model and aspiring photographer, signed Page for a photo session at the
now-closed wildlife park Africa USA in Boca Raton, Florida. The Jungle
Bettie photographs from this shoot are among her most celebrated. They
include nude shots with a pair of cheetahs named Mojah and Mbili. The
leopard skin patterned Jungle Girl outfit she wore was made, along
with much of her lingerie, by Page herself. A large collection of the Yeager
photos, and Klaw's, were published in the book Bettie Page Confidential
(St. Martin's Press, 1994).
After Yeager sent shots of Page to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, he
selected one to use as the Playmate of the Month centrefold in the January
1955 issue of the two-year-old magazine. The famous photo shows Page,
wearing only a Santa hat, kneeling before a Christmas tree holding an
ornament and playfully winking at the camera.
In 1955, Bettie won the title "Miss Pinup Girl of the World".
She also became known as "The Queen of Curves" and "The Dark Angel". While
pin-up and glamour models frequently have careers measured in months, Page
was in demand for several years, continuing to model until 1957.
Although she frequently posed nude, she never appeared in scenes with
explicit sexual content.
The reasons reported for her departure from modelling vary. Some reports
mention the Kefauver Hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile
Delinquency (after a young man apparently died during a session of bondage
which was rumoured to be inspired by Page), which ended Klaw's bondage and
S&M mail-order photography business. In fact, the United States Congress
called her to testify to explain the photos in which she appeared. While she
was excused from appearing before the committee, the print negatives of many
of her photos were destroyed by court order. For many years after, the
negatives that survived were illegal to print. However, the most obvious reason for ending her modeling
career and severing all contact with her prior life was her conversion to
Christianity while living in Key West, Florida in 1959
in combination with the 1957 trials.
Years out of the spotlight
On New Year's Eve 1958, during one of her regular visits to Key West,
Florida Page attended a service at what is now the Key West Temple Baptist
Church. She found herself drawn to the multiracial environment and started
to attend on a regular basis. She would in time attend three bible colleges,
including the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, Multnomah School of the Bible
in Portland, Oregon and, briefly, a Christian retreat known as "Bibletown",
part of the Boca Raton Community Church, Boca Raton, Florida.
She dated industrial designer Richard Arbib in the 1950s. She then
married Armond Walterson in 1958. They divorced in 1963.
During the 1960s, she attempted to become a Christian missionary in
Africa, but was rejected for having had a divorce. Over the next few years
she worked for various Christian organizations before settling in Nashville
in 1963. She worked full time for Rev. Billy Graham.
She briefly remarried Billy Neal, her first husband, who helped her to
gain entrance into missionary work; however, the two divorced again shortly
thereafter. She returned to Florida in 1967, and married again, to Harry
Lear, but this marriage also ended in divorce in 1972.
She moved to Southern California in 1979.
There she had a nervous breakdown and had an altercation with her landlady.
The doctors that examined her diagnosed her with acute schizophrenia, and
she spent 20 months in a state mental hospital in San Bernardino,
California. After a fight with another landlord she was arrested for
assault, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed under
state supervision for eight years.
She was released in 1992 from Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino
A cult following was built around her during the 1980s, of which she was
unaware. This renewed attention raised the question among her new fans of
what happened to her after the 1950s. The 1990s edition of the popular Book of Lists
included Page in a list of once-famous celebrities who had seemingly
vanished from the public eye.
In 1976, Eros Publishing Co. published A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page,
a mixture of photos from the 1950s. Between 1978 and 1980, Belier Press
published four volumes of Betty Page: Private Peeks, reprinting
pictures from the private camera club sessions, which reintroduced Page to a
new but small cult following.
In 1983, London Enterprises released In Praise of Bettie Page — A
Nostalgic Collector's Item, reprinting camera club photos and an old cat
fight photo shoot.
In the early 1980s, comic book artist Dave Stevens based the female love
interest of his hero Cliff Secord (alias "The Rocketeer") on Page.
In 1987, Greg Theakston started a fanzine called The Betty Pages
and recounted tales of her life, particularly the camera club days. For the
next seven years, the magazine sparked a worldwide interest in Page. Women
dyed their hair and cut it into bangs in an attempt to emulate the "Dark
Angel". The media caught wind of the phenomenon and wrote numerous articles
about her, more often than not with Theakston's help. Since almost all of
her photos were in the public domain, opportunists launched related products
and cashed in on the burgeoning craze.
In a 1993 telephone interview with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
Page told host Robin Leach that she had been unaware of the resurgence of
her popularity, stating that she was "penniless and infamous". Entertainment Tonight produced a segment on her. Page, who was living in
a group home in Los Angeles, was astounded when she saw the E.T.
piece, having had no idea that she had suddenly become famous again. Greg
Theakston contacted her and extensively interviewed her for The Betty
Page Annuals V.2.
Shortly after, Page signed with Chicago-based agent James Swanson. Three
years later, nearly penniless and failing to receive any royalties, Page
fired Swanson and signed with Curtis Management Group, a company which also
represented the James Dean and Marilyn Monroe estates. She then began
collecting payments which ensured her financial security.
After Jim Silke made a large format comic featuring her likeness, Dark
Horse Comics published a comic based on her fictional adventures in the
1990s. Eros Comics published several Bettie Page titles, the most popular
being the tongue-in-cheek Tor Love Bettie which suggested a romance
between Page and wrestler-turned-Ed Wood film actor, Tor Johnson.
The question of what Page did in the obscure years after modelling was
answered in part with the publication of an official biography in 1996, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend.
That year, Bettie Page granted an exclusive one-on-one TV interview to
entertainment reporter Tim Estiloz for a short-lived NBC morning magazine
program Real Life to help publicize the book. The interview featured
her reminiscing about her career and relating anecdotes about her personal
life, as well as photos from her personal collection. At Page's request, her
face was not shown. The interview was broadcast only once.
Another biography, The Real Bettie Page: The Truth about the Queen of
Pinups written by
Richard Foster and published in 1997, told a less happy tale. Foster's book
immediately provoked attacks from her fans, including Hefner and Harlan
Ellison, as well as a statement from Page that it was "full of lies,"
because they were not pleased that the book revealed a Los Angeles County
Sheriff's police report that stated that she suffered from paranoid
schizophrenia and, at age 56, had stabbed her elderly landlords on the
afternoon of April 19, 1979 in an unprovoked attack during a fit of
insanity. However, Steve
Brewster, founder of The Bettie Scouts of America fan club, has stated that
it is not as unsympathetic as the book's reputation makes it to be. Brewster
adds that he also read the chapter about her business dealings with Swanson,
and stated that Page was pleased with that part of her story.
In 1997, E! True Hollywood Story aired a feature on Page entitled,
Bettie Page: From Pinup to Sex Queen.
In a late-1990s interview, Page stated she would not allow any current
pictures of her to be shown because of concerns about her weight. However,
in 1997, Page changed her mind and agreed to a rare television interview for
the aforementioned E! True Hollywood Story/Page special on the
condition that the location of the interview and her face not be revealed
(she was shown with her face and dress electronically blacked out). In 2003,
Page allowed a publicity picture to be taken of her for the August 2003
edition of Playboy. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times ran an
article headlined A Golden Age for a Pinup, covering an autographing
session at her current publicity company, CMG Worldwide. Once again, she
declined to be photographed, saying that she would rather be remembered as
In a 1998 interview with Playboy, she commented on her career:
I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It's just that it
was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which
Within the last few years, she had hired a law firm to help her recoup
some of the profits being made with her likeness.
According to MTV, "Katy Perry's rocker bangs and throwback skimpy
jumpers. Madonna's Sex book and fascination with bondage gear.
Rihanna's obsession with all things leather, lace and second-skin binding.
Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction The SuicideGirls Web site. The Pussycat
Dolls. The entire career of Marilyn Manson's ex-wife Dita Von Teese" would
not have been possible without Page.
According to long-time friend and business agent Mark Roesler, on
December 6, 2008, Bettie Page was hospitalized in critical condition.
Roesler was quoted by the Associated Press as saying Page had suffered a
heart attack and by
Los Angeles television station KNBC as claiming Page was suffering from
pneumonia. A family
friend said Page was in a coma, a claim not denied by Roesler.
Her family eventually agreed to discontinue life support, and she died at
18:41 PST on December 11, 2008.
She is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
- Striporama (1953)
- Varietease (1954)
- Teaserama (1955)
- Irving Klaw Bondage Classics, Volume I (London Enterprises,
- Irving Klaw Bondage Classics, Volume II (London Enterprises,
- Bettie Page: Pin Up Queen (Cult Epics, 2005)
- Bettie Page: Bondage Queen (Cult Epics, 2005)
- 100 Girls by Bunny Yeager (Cult Epics, 2005)
- Bizarro Sex Loops, Volume 20 (Something Weird Video, 2008)
Most, if not all, of Page's existing films have been reissued on DVD,
such as Bettie Page: Varietease/Teaserama, as well as a collection of
five shorts called Betty Page in Bondage. In 1984, London
Enterprises, a producer of S&M films, added music and narration to 28 of
Klaw's silent fetish movies for the two-volume video Irving Klaw Bondage
Classics. Page appears in half of these featurettes. In 2005, both
volumes were released on a single DVD by Cult Epics as Bettie Page:
A compilation of her burlesque dancing performances from Striporama,
Varietease, and Teaserama plus The Exotic Dances of Bettie
Page (13 black-and-white dancing and cat-fight shorts) are on the Cult
Epics DVD release Bettie Page: Pin Up Queen.
The DVD 100 Girls by Bunny Yeager (also by Cult Epics) is a
documentary with behind-the-scenes footage on Yeager's photo sessions with
Page and other pin-up models. Page also appears in another set of Irving
Klaw bondage reels in Bizarro Sex Loops, Volume 20, a collection of
vintage fetish shorts produced by Something Weird Video.
In 2004, Cult Epics produced the biographical film Bettie Page: Dark
Angel. This low-budget straight-to-disc biopic centres on the 1953–1957
Irving Klaw period, faithfully recreating six lost fetish films she did for
Klaw. Model Paige Richards plays the title role.
Another biographical movie, The Notorious Bettie Page (2005),
follows her life from the mid-1930s through the late-1950s. It stars actress
Gretchen Mol as the adult Page. Bonus footage added to the DVD release
includes rare color film from the 1950s of Page playfully undressing and
striking various nude poses for the camera.
In 2009, Academy Award nominated director Mark Mori will release the
official authorized documentary biography, Bettie Page Reveals All.
After more than 10 years of working with Bettie Page this film provides a
unique look into her life. The film contains exclusive interviews with
Bettie Page and important figures in her life and career, such as Hugh
In 2006, Bettie Page and Halo Guitars collaborated to produce a limited
edition of custom guitars, released at the 2007 Winter NAMM show in southern
California. The total run of one hundred guitars were hand-made and designed
by luthier Waylon Ford, art was designed by Pamelina H. and the only
collector guitar series authorized by Bettie Page.
In popular culture
- In one of his numerous fictional back-page biographical sketches,
Harlan Ellison claimed to be "writing a biography of Bettie Page for
- Alternative country band BR5-49 recorded an ode to Page named
"Bettie, Bettie" on their 1996 debut EP Live From Robert's. In
interviews, Page stated that this was her favorite of the songs written
- The Jazz Butcher included the song "Just Like Betty Page" on the
1984 album, A Scandal in Bohemia using Page for a simile in the
chorus "You have me/As far as I can see/roped and trussed just like dear
- The BD-3000 luxury droid in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the
Sith was inspired by Bettie Page.
- In The Simpsons episode "Maximum Homerdrive", Homer sends
Marge a postcard with Bettie Page on it that says, "Wish you were her."
- In the Onion anthology "Our Dumb Century", a headline from
1961 reads "Betty Page Spanked by Authorities."