The hundreds of thousands of images which have been sold, and are still being sold of her in various classic states of undress, tell a different tale. She had something which has lasted. Maybe, it was being the first real pin-up legend who wasn't famous for something other than modelling, or that iconic look that has been copied so many times since. Playboy boss Hugh Hefner, who made Bettie one his first ever Playmates, has said: "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."
There have been two biographies written about Bettie and most recently a full-blown Hollywood biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page starring Gretchen Mol. Yet much of the details of her life still remain clouded in uncertainty and disputed facts. One thing's for sure, though, it wasn't all glamourous. There was the dysfunctional childhood with an abusive father who eventually ended up in jail, parental divorce and a brief spell in an orphanage. There were three ultimately unsuccessful marriages in her own life, later breakdowns and spells in hospital. There was the woman who wasn't even aware of her 1980s revival, with thousands of her images and rare movies being sold all over again, while Bettie lived penniless in California not even having been paid all the royalties due to her fame the first time round. But there was, and always will be, fame.
Her life could have gone so many other ways. She was born Bettie Mae Page in Kingsport, Tennessee, on 22 April 1923. She missed earning the title of her school valedictorian and a scholarship to Vanderbilt University by just a quarter of a grade point. She went to Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville on a Daughters of the American Revolution scholarship instead and graduated in 1944 with a Bachelor Of Arts. She went to New York to study drama and was paying the bills working as a secretary when a chance meeting strolling along the beach at Coney Island changed everything. Amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs admired her 36-24-36 figure and asked if she would consider posing for him. The rest is history.
Nudity didn't bother her; she said if it was good enough for Adam and Eve, it was fine by her. Her first shoots were for private camera clubs. Soon she was becoming a big hit and the magazines came calling. In 1951, she came under the influence of Irving Klaw, a photographer who specialized in S&M. It was he who suggested cutting her iconic jet black hair in to what would become her trademark bangs. Bettie began to attain renown as the 'Queen of Bondage', famous for her saucy come-hither looks and controversial sadomasochistic poses. She also appeared as a performer in over 50 burlesque films. The photos and films were publicly denounced as perversion. Klaw was later arrested for 'conspiracy to distribute obscene material' through the U.S. Mail, and Bettie was called to testify in a private session. She never did appear and, getting married and becoming a born-again Christian, she disappeared from public life soon after.
Bettie's legend started rising all over again in the late 1970s when Belier Press began to reprint some of the pictures from the private camera club sessions, reintroducing her to a whole new generation. A regular comic, The Betty Pages, followed in the 1980s and another comic book author Dave Stevens openly based the love life of his hero Cliff Secord alias The Rocketeer on Bettie. After so long out of the public eye, Bettie Page was finally tracked down in the 1990s for a documentary. She occasionally granted interviews afterwards and sold autographs, but refused to allow her picture to be taken in her old age, arguing people should remember her at her best. Today Bettie Page is considered by many as much an iconic figure of the 1950s as Marilyn Monroe, having helped burst the bubble of sexual repression which paved the way for the swinging sixties and, ironically for a nude model, becoming what many feminists have argued a pioneer of women's liberation. No doubt, Bettie herself would have given one of her trademark cheeky smiles at the thought of that.