Bettie Page; '50s Cheesecake Icon Revered as Queen of Retro Kitsch
By Joe Holley and Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 13, 2008; B05

Bettie Page, a pinup queen of the 1950s who posed for racy photographs that blended the wholesome and the forbidden, and decades later became an influence on fashion and pop culture, died Dec. 11 at Kindred Hospital in Los Angeles. She suffered a heart attack last week and never regained consciousness. She was 85.

Ms. Page initially made her mark posing for men's magazines, camera clubs and underground movies as an appealing girl-next-door -- albeit a naughty one.

Known for her voluptuous figure, direct gaze, alluring smile and shoulder-length hair with straight-cut bangs, she appeared in thousands of cheesecake photos, wearing tiny bikinis, stiletto heels, bondage outfits and sometimes nothing at all.

Pinned on the walls of auto-repair shops, taped inside Army barracks footlockers or slipped between the pages of school textbooks, the come-hither photos of the raven-haired Ms. Page rivaled the popularity of blond beauties Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.

She was one of the first centerfolds in Playboy magazine, wearing only a Santa hat and a wink in the January 1955 issue. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner described Ms. Page's appeal as "a combination of wholesome innocence and fetish-oriented poses that is at once retro and very modern."

After retiring from modeling at the peak of her fame in 1957, Ms. Page lived in obscurity, haunted by mental illness and broken marriages. She was baffled by a sudden revival of interest in her life and work in the 1980s, as artists, actresses and fashion designers were inspired by her rediscovered early pictures.

"I have no idea why I'm the only model who has had so much fame so long after quitting work," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2006.

Her provocative poses and costumes gradually entered the cultural mainstream.

Artists incorporated images of Ms. Page into comic books and posters, and she became the subject of songs, books, films, fan clubs and Web sites. Vintage photographs fetched high prices at trade shows, and actress Uma Thurman copied her look in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction in 1994.

She was the subject of a 1998 documentary and was portrayed in two feature films, Bettie Page: Dark Angel and The Notorious Bettie Page, all of which furthered her reputation as a mysterious pop-culture figure who vanished from public view.

In her later years, Ms. Page became a born-again Christian who refused to be photographed, but she never disavowed the risque images that made her name.

"God approves of nudity," she told Playboy in 1998. "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they were naked as jaybirds."

Bettie Mae Page was born April 22, 1923, in Nashville, one of six children. (Her name was spelled "Betty" on her birth certificate, but she was generally known as "Bettie.") Her father "molested all three of his daughters," she told the Los Angeles Times, and was jailed for stealing cars.

Ms. Page spent time in an orphanage, but despite her family troubles she barely missed being the valedictorian of her high school class. She graduated from the George Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University) and briefly tried teaching fifth and sixth grade.

"I couldn't control my students, especially the boys," she said.

She worked as a secretary and was married briefly to a man named Billy Neal.

Strolling the beach of Coney Island, N.Y., in 1949, Ms. Page caught the eye of a New York police officer and amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs. He introduced her to amateur camera clubs, whose members made her an underground sensation.

The shutterbug-club photos came to the attention of Irving Klaw and his sister, Paula, who operated a mail-order business specializing in low-budget fetish movies. The Klaws made Ms. Page their busiest pinup, as well as the star of such films as Varietease and Striporama.

They posed her with whips, tied up in chairs or in wrestling poses with other barely clad women. Ms. Page said she didn't like the sadomasochistic shots, but her contract with the Klaws required her to do at least an hour of posing in bondage positions to get paid for the other modeling work.

She became a cover-girl staple for Wink, Beauty Parade, Black Nylon and other under-the-counter magazines, but her most famous photo shoot was taken by fashion photographer Bunny Yeager, who portrayed Ms. Page lounging with leopards and frolicking in the nude on a Florida beach. One of Yeager's photos was used for the Playboy centerfold.

In 1955, Sen. Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat with presidential ambitions, summoned Ms. Page to Capitol Hill to testify about the pornography business. She was not called to testify, but the Klaws shut down their business, and Ms. Page soon quit modeling.

She moved to Florida, where she married Armond Walterson and disappeared from the public eye. Disillusioned with her failing marriage, she was lying on a sea wall in Key West, Fla., in 1959, when she noticed a church's neon cross. She threw herself into Bible study and became a counselor with the Billy Graham crusade.

After a 1978 divorce from her third husband, Harry Lear, Ms. Page moved to California and plunged into depression. She once attacked her landlady with a knife and spent 20 months in a state mental hospital. She was arrested after another fight with a landlord but was found not guilty because of insanity.

Ms. Page lived on Social Security for years, but her newfound fame allowed her to cash in on her earlier notoriety; her signed photographs went for hundreds of dollars.

"When I turned my life over to the Lord Jesus I was ashamed of having posed in the nude," she told Playboy last year. "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."