Pin-up queen was a pop culture phenomenon
Bettie Page, the 1950s secretary-turned-model whose controversial photographs in skimpy attire or none at all helped set the stage for the 1960s sexual revolution, died Thursday. She was 85.
Page was placed on life support last week after suffering a heart attack in Los Angeles and never regained consciousness, said her agent, Mark Roesler. He said he and Page’s family agreed to remove life support. Before the heart attack, Page had been hospitalized for three weeks with pneumonia.
“She captured the imagination of a generation of men and women with her free spirit and unabashed sensuality,” Roesler said. “She is the embodiment of beauty.”
Page, who was also known as Betty, attracted national attention with magazine photographs of her sensuous figure in bikinis and see-through lingerie that were quickly tacked up on walls in military barracks, garages and elsewhere, where they remained for years.
Her photos included a centerfold in the January 1955 issue of then-fledgling Playboy magazine, as well as controversial sadomasochistic poses.
“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 society,” Playboy founder Hugh Hefner told The Associated Press on Thursday. “She was a very dear person.”
Page mysteriously disappeared from the public eye for decades, during which time she battled mental illness and became a born-again Christian.
After resurfacing in the 1990s, she occasionally granted interviews but refused to allow her picture to be taken.
“I don’t want to be photographed in my old age,” she told an interviewer in 1998. “I feel the same way with old movie stars. … It makes me sad. We want to remember them when they were young.”
The 21st century indeed had people remembering her just as she was. She became the subject of songs, biographies, Web sites, comic books, movies and documentaries. A new generation of fans bought thousands of copies of her photos, and some feminists hailed her as a pioneer of women’s liberation.
Gretchen Mol portrayed her in 2005’s “The Notorious Bettie Page” and Paige Richards had the role in 2004’s “Bettie Page: Dark Angel.” Page herself took part in the 1998 documentary “Betty Page: Pinup Queen.”
Hefner said he last saw Page when he held a screening of “The Notorious Bettie Page” at the Playboy Mansion. He said she objected to the fact that the film referred to her as “notorious,” but “we explained to her that it referred to the troubled times she had and was a good way to sell a movie.”
Page’s career began one day in October 1950 when she took a respite from her job as a secretary in a New York office for a walk along the beach at Coney Island. An amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs admired the 27-year-old’s firm, curvy body and asked her to pose.
Looking back on the career that followed, she told Playboy in 1998: “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 gets monotonous.”
Nudity didn’t bother her, she said, explaining: “God approves of nudity. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they were naked as jaybirds.”
In 1951, Page fell under the influence of a photographer and his sister who specialized in S&M. They cut her hair into the dark bangs that became her signature and posed her in spiked heels and little else. She was photographed with a whip in her hand, and in one session she was spread-eagled between two trees, her feet dangling.
“I thought my arms and legs would come out of their sockets,” she said later.
Moralists denounced the photos as perversion, and Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Page’s home state, launched a congressional investigation.
Page quickly retreated from public view, later saying she was hounded by federal agents who waved her nude photos in her face. She also said she believed that, at age 34, her days as “the girl with the perfect figure” were nearly over.
She moved to Florida in 1957 and married a much younger man, as an early marriage to her high school sweetheart had ended in divorce.
Her second marriage also failed, as did a third, and she suffered a nervous breakdown.
In 1959, she was lying on a sea wall in Key West when she saw a church with a white neon cross on top. She walked inside and became a born-again Christian.
After attending Bible school, she wanted to serve as a missionary but was turned down because she had been divorced. Instead, she worked full-time for evangelist Billy Graham’s ministry.
A move to Southern California in 1979 brought more troubles.
She was arrested after an altercation with her landlady, and doctors who examined her determined she had acute schizophrenia. She spent 20 months in a state mental hospital in San Bernardino.
A fight with another landlord resulted in her arrest, but she was found not guilty because of insanity. She was placed under state supervision for eight years.
“She had a very turbulent life,” Todd Mueller, a family friend and autograph seller, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “She had a temper to her.”
Mueller said he first met Page after tracking her down in the 1990s and persuaded her to do an autograph signing event.
He said she was a hit and sold about 3,000 autographs, usually for $200 to $300 each.
“Eleanor Roosevelt, we got $40 to $50. … Bettie Page outsells them all,” he told The AP last week.
Born April 22, 1923, in Nashville, Tenn., Page said she grew up in a family so poor “we were lucky to get an orange in our Christmas stockings.”
The family included three boys and three girls, and Page said her father molested all of the girls.
After the Pages moved to Houston, her father decided to return to Tennessee and stole a police car for the trip. He was sent to prison, and for a time Betty lived in an orphanage.
In her teens she acted in high school plays, going on to study drama in New York and win a screen test from 20th Century Fox before her modeling career took off.