By Jim Linderman
Not seen in over 50 years, and certainly not identified as Bettie Page at the time of publication, these photographs were in such questionable taste even the “notorious” pin-up model has to hide her face. This should give some Bettie fans pause. Miss Page’s dead celebrity brand has weathered her being hung from a rack and ball-gagged while bound. I am sure it will survive this revelation too. Still, let’s see if this turns out to be scandalous at all. The model was “acting” after all. Bettie Page was a working woman and model of sorts. Now she is a brand.
Celebrity branding is fraught with controversy and peril. For both the branding organization and the dead celeb. I didn’t really want to see Fred Astaire repurposed into a vacuum cleaner advertisement, but I remember when it came along. The ghost of Fred Astaire, shilling a Dirt Devil as though it were his lover. No one asked Fred if he wanted to be seen in a colorized, bastardized pitch for product. It was beyond offensive, but nothing is sacred when it comes to commerce. The misuse resulted in the passage of California Senate Bill 209 in 2001 which was designed to protect dead celebrities, I guess. Figure out the law if you can. I’ve seen plenty more apparitions selling things they never heard about since… and whether they lived or died in California or New York matters, as each state has their own law.
A recent article in The Atlantic by Tori Rodriguez under the banner “Male Fans Made Bettie Page a Star, but Female Fans Made Her an Icon” claims “Page’s liberated sexuality and unflinching body positivity are what still resonate today.” Apparently based on an interview with director Mark Mori, whose recent bio-pic is making the rounds of theaters now, it also reported, “One of the biggest surprises Mori discovered in making the movie, however, was the changing nature of Page’s fan base. Once comprised mostly of men, the bulk of her fan base is now young women—so much so that now, they’re the film’s target audience. Heterosexual men tend to love Page for obvious reasons, but for many women, Page symbolizes self-confidence, unapologetic sexuality, and bold authenticity.” Another critic calls Ms. Page a “sex-positive feminist…” Well, no wonder the film was authorized.
The Atlantic article reflects the now standard revisionist view of Bettie Page, yet few, if any of the writers fully grasp the model’s work. Neither do many of the consumers who admire the model. Are these the photographs of a feminist role model? Posed in lingerie and mask while a cross is burned behind her in a lurid Ku Klux Klan ceremony? A “Hooded Honey of Horror?” They are unmistakably Ms. Page. The photos ran in Robert Harrison’s Whisper Magazine in 1953. Harrison was a publisher of numerous girlie magazines, and Whisper was the most graphic of the lot. The model appeared in Harrison magazines frequently, but they are certainly not the best known examples of her modeling sessions. Most were fairly goofy, harmless underwear layouts which men masturbated to. As she is masked and unidentified in this offensive and logic defying spread, scholars and collectors have missed it for decades. Author Henry E. Scott, who documented Robert Harrison’s scandal magazine Confidential knew of the shoot… but apparently had no idea it was Bettie. In his book Shocking True Story Scott writes “…he had his first brushes with the law, ranging from a relatively minor arrest for photographing half-naked models posing as Ku Klux Klan members on a New Jersey golf course…” You see the results here. I need not document the Klan, nor elaborate on whether the layout was bad judgment. The photos speak for themselves, from the past, just like a dead celebrity. Bettie Page, Southern girl, posing as a Klan victim for the delight of the male consumers of Whisper Magazine.
I guess there is some justice in scandal mogul Robert Harrison having a little scandal of his own after death, but the real scandal here is certainly the sex-positive feminist with remarkably bad career choices.
Bettie Page was, by far, the most beautiful and interesting pin-up model of all time. She isn’t “tied with Einstein at No. 8 on Forbes’ 2013 list of top earning dead celebrities” for nothing. The informal New York nude “camera clubs” she emerged from were a good thing. Safe, positive, ground-breaking outings for camera (and nude women) enthusiasts. Glamour photography can be traced to the events, and the names of shutterbugs who took advantage of the surreptitiously arranged group shots are legendary. They were the fun, interracial predecessor of modern-day risqué fashion photography. Then came Irving Klaw’s dirty couch. The later photographs Bunny Yeager took of Ms. Page in Florida further reveal Page’s astounding appeal in far less dingy locations…but still both are a far cry from posing nude to posing in a phony Klan rally.
You will not see the striking sadomasochistic photographs from Irving Klaw’s studio at the Mall of America Bettie Page clothing branch. You MIGHT at their Manhattan location on the Bowery, several gentrified steps from the old location of CBGBs, but I doubt it. You generally won’t see them at all, as the most dramatic are seldom seen, even to this day. Many of them, if hung in the window of a shop would literally and unquestionably bring the police. Not too many kids search them out before heading to the mall fully armed with debit cards. A “rockabilly” tattoo here, some sparkling f-me pumps, a billowing dress and we are ready for the weekend.
Bettie Page had remarkable and unmatched photographic beauty. No one looks better in a still photograph than Bettie Page. It is fine to appreciate the ground-breaking photographs which have influenced popular culture more than most can even imagine. There are not enough superlatives to describe the results of her modeling work, or their impact today. Even the ones which were hidden for decades. They have been published legitimately, as in the high-quality Belier Press editions unfortunately now out of print, but also stolen wholesale by bootleggers who turn them into cheap novelties and even as bogus “vintage” images aged with tea leaves on eBay. Fifty years on, her image is still being traded on the black and grey market by criminal pariah, and on a far greater scale than Klaw could have imagined. Ms. Page survives them all.
On the other hand, she couldn’t act her way out of a pulp magazine. She aspired to the stage, but got nowhere. There was a single brief appearance on a Jackie Gleason show. She couldn’t dance a step, though she is commonly, widely and mistakenly thought of as a burlesque dancer. She never danced on stage that I know of, except several times in horrible, clumsy approximations of seduction for Irving Klaw’s static stag films and the real stinker Stripoarama. On the big screen, she carries out a placard like the women between rounds in a boxing match and winks. Other than feigning a few fairly inept strip poses, her acting in total consists of repeated eye winks at the camera. She couldn’t speak without her drawl. Didn’t sing. And yes, the S & M photographs taken by “Pin-Up King” and pornographer Irving Klaw and his sister were problematic then and now. After being hounded out of business by the government and censorship, Irving Klaw’s inventory of bondage material including Ms. Page was valuable enough to be passed along to a member of organized crime who continued to market the photographs across the river in New Jersey. He knew the value, but whether he appreciated her beauty is questionable. To this day, while Bettie Page continues to generate profit for someone, the vast majority of those who love her have never seen the most, shall we say, “active lifestyle” photographs. Klaw got in trouble and Ms. Page retired early.
Apparently, her lifestyle choice was for work only, but I judge not regardless. Fortunately, we are approaching a time when consensual lifestyle choices are acceptable in all shape, size and form… but a good many of the bondage photographs I have seen would certainly raise eyebrows still. I need not mention (or show) the full open crotch shots which apparently Ms. Page once dismissed as a drunken mistake (though it was a mistake which happened more than once) and I’m not quite sure what feminists think of those. She was raped young. She married often. She suffered personality disorders. She was arrested. Rather than emerging victorious with a positive body image… she unfortunately retreated into obscurity, having been taken advantage of and tossed away by those who used her. Legal representation from those who wished to control her image for licensing purposes later helped her pay some bills. Hugh Hefner made her a centerfold, but it was certainly no leap to a reality show.
The shallow appreciation of Bettie Page seems based on a massive myth perpetuated to make money. Her life was no more glamorous (and it increasingly seems far less) than any of ours. It is based on looking no deeper into the surface of the story than much of what passes for news and entertainment today. She has become no less than a beacon of corporate hypocrisy and shameless product marketing. Truthfully? An example of how women are abused. Unquestionably the most strikingly beautiful model of the 1950s, but if I had a daughter, I might encourage her to look for a feminist role model elsewhere.
NOTES: The story of Robert Harrison and his misanthropic pin-up periodicals is HERE… sorta. While there were hundreds of issues under numerous titles, the contents were never indexed and virtually no library holds copies. Harrison published Wink, Eyeful, Flirt, Titter and Whisper along with Confidential. They were magazine rack staples for many years. The best anthology to date was published by Taschen Books in 1997. It is over 700 pages, and while they print numerous Bettie Page photos from the magazines, they missed those here. The Atlantic Magazine article referenced above is HERE. The new Bettie Page film is HERE. CMG Worldwide, Inc. is the exclusive agent for Bettie Page LLC. You can stay informed of how her career is going HERE. CMG also represents the estates of dead James Dean, presumably dead Amelia Earhart, dead Jackie Robinson and well over one hundred other dead people. Oh… and both “Spanky” and “Buckwheat,” believe it or not. Also Chris Farley… who I guess they have put “down by the river in a van” for now. Essentially they represent the gamut from national treasures who should belong to us to buffoons who could hardly sell an autograph at a fan convention. You can read the list HERE and see the company headquarters HERE. They seem proud of the business, and the windows of their gauche and ghoulish headquarters are proudly filled with photographs of the dead. The story of “The Astaire Bill” protecting dead celebrities is HERE in Backstage Magazine. The CBS News Magazine 60 Minutes exposed CMG a few years ago, see HERE. The highly entertaining Shocking True Story by Henry E. Scott which documents the foibles of Robert Harrrison is HERE. Much of the original Irving Klaw material, including model release forms and original negatives were sold by Guernsey’s Auction House HERE. The Bunny Yeager site is HERE and the recent book by Petra Mason which collects stunning examples of her photographs is HERE. Ms. Yeager was an artist who put Ms. Page into the sunshine.