BETTIE PAGE: The Sultry Smile of a Nashville Girl
By Steve D. Stones
Just what is it about a sexy girl with jet-black hair dressed in a bikini and nylon stockings that gets our heart rate pumping so rapidly? When it comes to pin-up queen Bettie Page, it’s the sultry smile and look of innocence mixed with naughtiness that really sweeps us off our feet.
Bettie Mae Page was born April 22nd, 1923 in Nashville, Tennessee to Walter Roy Page and Edna Mae Pirtle. She was the second of six children. After the stock market crash of 1929, the Page family struggled to survive like so many other American families. This caused a break down in the Page home. Edna was forced to place Bettie and her two sisters in an orphanage while she worked as a laundress and hairdresser to save enough money to bring the family back together. Bettie soon learned to cook and sew, which proved to be very useful when she made many of herown dance costumes for her 1950s performances.
From a very young age, Bettie exhibited great talent and excellence in everything she did. She was voted "most likely to succeed" at her High School and became the co-editor of the school’s newspaper and yearbook. She also served as program director of the drama club and secretary-treasurer of the student council. At the time of her graduation, she was at the top of her class academically and received a $100.00 scholarship to Peabody College, where she majored in Education. She married Billy Neil in 1943.
After a brief period of teaching, Bettie decided to move to San Francisco to pursue her first passion; acting. While in San Francisco, she landed her first modeling job and was able to travel all over the world for her work. She developed a strong interest in Haitian culture, which would later have a large impact on her "bondage and discipline" work in the 1950s.
In 1947, Bettie divorced Billy Neil and headed to New York City. At this time, New York had become a Mecca for young people trying to make it in the entertainment industry. The post-war era of the late 1940s and early 1950s saw an economic boom in the United States. Television was the new medium, and opportunities to be a part of the entertainment business were endless.
Also at this time, an off duty police officer with an interest in photography named Jerry Tibbs spotted Bettie on the boardwalk at Coney Island and asked her to pose for some pictures. Tibbs suggested she cut her bangs, which has become the trademark look of Bettie’s now iconic appearance.
Bettie soon met Irving Klaw and his sister Paula, who were running a small mail order business to market photographs of pin-up girls. During her brief time with Klaw, Bettie created some of her most memorable photos and films that were thought to be lost or destroyed forever as a result of the McCarthy era witch hunts that took place in the 1950s. Both Bettie and Klaw were subpoenaed to testify before the U.S. Senate because of these "lewd materials." This was a time of strict moral restrictions in American culture, and Klaw’s photographs and films strayed outside those strict codes of the time. Feeling the pressures of the McCarthy inquisitions, Klaw eventually gave up his mail order business for good.
After Bettie’s appearance in the January 1955 issue of Playboy, and some photos taken by Bunny Yeager on a beach in Florida, Bettie seemed to disappear forever. In 1958, she had a religious conversion, and decided to devote her life to her newfound faith. That may have been the end of Bettie’s former life and her photos, as far as she was concerned.
Then, the 1960s ushered in a new generation of sex entertainment that immediately became mainstream culture. Audiences were treated to "nudie cutie," nudist camp and other soft-core features, which were rapidly becoming popular forms of enterainment. The strict moral codes of the McCarthy era were breaking down very quickly. The films of Barry Mahon, Harry Novak, Doris Wishman, Russ Meyer and David F. Freidman were popular drive-in fare at this time. Collectors were also seeking out the Irving Klaw films made with Bettie a decade earlier.
The 1970s saw entertainment becoming even more liberal by introducing hard-core sex films. Stars such as Linda Lovelace, John Holmes and Marilyn Chambers all were new names familiar to a sex-starved public.
Soon a cult following developed around Bettie Page and her photos. Her image could be seen everywhere, including posters, t-shirts, trading cards, comic books, fine art paintings, and even lunch boxes. Bettie became familiar to a whole new generation of fans. Collectibles of Bettie Page are a sought after commodity.
Sadly, Bettie passed away on Thursday December 11th, 2008 of heart failure at the age of 85. She was not able to achieve her life long goal of living until the age of 100, but her images and films will live on forever in the hearts and minds of her devoted fans all over the world. Her sultry smile and sexy girl with the jet-black hair image will live on forever.