From Porn to Born-Again: A Remembrance of Bettie Page

When a reporter from the Los Angeles Times caught up with her in 2006, Bettie Page was signing reproductions of some of her iconic pin-up work from the 1950s—a frail octogenarian slowly tracing her name across the image of a raven-haired vixen who looked ready to introduce the viewer to the business end of a riding crop.

“Look at those big long legs on 9-inch heels,” she said. “I look 9 feet tall.”

The event at the offices of the agency that controls the rights to her likeness was something of a vindication for Page, who spent four lean decades receiving no royalties from images of an alluring but distinctly empowered female eroticism that marked the beginning of the sexual revolution and that have proved evergreen as a source of inspiration for generations of latter-day feminists.

An accomplishment all the more remarkable for a born-again Christian who has never repudiated the edgy photography that made her famous.

“Being in the nude isn’t a disgrace unless you’re being promiscuous about it,” Page told the writer from the Times. “After all, when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked. And in the Garden of Eden, God was probably naked as a jaybird too!”

Bettie Page died on December 11 in Los Angeles. She was 85.

The Che Guevara of Sex

Page’s greatest asset was arguably her comfort with nakedness at a time when Americans were just beginning to crack the shell of puritan prudery around embodiment and sexuality. In 1953—the year Alfred Kinsey released Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the second in his pair of landmark studies—Page had already been modeling for underground “camera clubs” in New York City for half a decade.

“When she’s nude, she doesn’t seem naked,” observed photographer Bunny Yeager, who brought the future Playboy centerfold to the attention of Hugh Hefner.

Page’s liberation from sexual shame was revolutionary at a time when “bad girls” were expected to take the fall not just in the dominant religious discourse but also in popular cultural productions ranging from Vertigo to Singin’ in the Rain.

“She’s a kind of Che Guevara of sex,” said Mark Mori, an Emmy-winning filmmaker whose authorized documentary about Page will be released next year.

The origins of Page’s power are difficult to discern from her personal history, which could just as easily have produced a woman shackled by sexual oppression.

Growing up in an economically marginal family in Tennessee during the Great Depression, Page was molested by her father until her parents divorced in 1933, then fended off advances from her mother’s second husband before she left for college in Nashville.

She married a high-school classmate when she was in her early 20s and lived the itinerant life of a Navy wife until 1947, when she decided to heed the call of her ambitions, divorcing her husband and moving to New York to pursue a career as an actress.

“She was very smart and hardworking,” said Mori, who spent hours interviewing Page for his documentary. “And she was her own woman at a time when women just didn’t do the things she did.”

That extraordinary self-possession quickly blazed to the surface in the modeling work Page began to do to after she was discovered by a photographer at Coney Island.

“A lot of those amateur photographs are so powerful because Page co-directed most of the shoots,” Mori observed. “She created her own poses—she even made her own costumes. In a real sense she managed to coax these underground photographers out of viewing her as an object because for the most part she was very much in control of what she was doing.”

Not surprisingly, the bondage poses that Page struck for Irving and Paula Klaw—the brother and sister team behind the wildly successful mail-order pin-up business that made Page’s image a locker-room staple—were the only products of her career that she regretted. “Under my arrangement with the Klaws,” Page told the Los Angeles Times, “I had to do at least an hour of bondage poses in order to get paid for the other modeling work.”

Page’s run as the risqué muse of America’s slowly awakening sexual sensibilities lasted about a decade—including the gig as a Playboy centerfold in 1955 and roles in burlesque films with titles like Varietease and Striporama. By the late 1950s, in response to perceived depravity at home and godlessness abroad, the old moralistic impulse in the American Protestant psyche had spawned various witch hunts in Congress. The Klaws’ mail-order business came under the scrutiny of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and Page left New York for Florida.

In 1959, at a Baptist church in Key West on New Year’s Eve, the woman known as the “Dark Angel” had a conversion experience and began to pursue a new career as Christian missionary.

Bettie Page: Theology Student

Approaching proselytism with the same fervor she had brought to her modeling work, Page became a counselor with Billy Graham’s Crusade for Christ and went back to school to study theology; she is perhaps the most famous name on the roster of former students at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now known as Biola University.

Though she had the smarts and the ambition to do mission work, her status as a divorcee made her ineligible for a post outside the United States. With no outlet for her energies, Page went into serious decline. A succession of marriages ended in divorce, and she spent much of the 1970s and 80s living the kind of marginal existence she had managed to escape when she left Tennessee. At the lowest point in this period she was committed to a psychiatric hospital near Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the images that had titillated millions of men in the 1950s began to inspire the generations of women who came of age after the first wave of feminism in the 1960s. Comic book artists began to pick up on the appeal of the Page-esque trope of dark bangs and edgy female sexuality, and other would-be icons—from Madonna to Demi Moore to Uma Thurman—put their own spin on Page’s unmistakable look.

“Page really does anticipate the reevaluation of feminist orthodoxies that we’ve come to take for granted,” said Maria Elena Buszek, author of Pin-up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture. “There’s an element of comedy in her S/M photos, a kind of joyful self-awareness. That’s contrary to what many feminists want to believe about those images—that they’re somehow implicated in objectification and shame. Younger women who want to use pop-art in a feminist way have cherry-picked Bettie Page from other postwar pin-ups because there’s a real sense of empowerment there.”

In the mid 1990s, the founder of a management company that brokers the images of other iconic pop-culture figures offered a contract that ensured a stable financial future for Page, who by that time was living in a group home in Los Angeles.

“She set all these ripples in motion,” said filmmaker Mori, “but she never set out to do that and never understood why people came to like her again. She did say that even when she was a model she thought God was responsible for certain things in her life. That sounds fanatical, but I found something about her that was very genuine and straightforward. You can’t be a fanatic about religion and be like that.”

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