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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,552

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This is the grave of Bettie Page.

Born in 1923 in Nashville, Page, who used her real name in her career except changing the spelling of Betty to Bettie, grew up hard. The family was quite poor and moved around a lot trying to find work and some kind of stability. It didn’t work. Her father was also a criminal. He was convicted of car theft in Georgia and spent two years in prison. Her parents were divorced by this time and her mother was deeply poor too, so poor that at the age of 10, she dropped Page and two siblings at an orphanage for a year. When the father got out of prison, he started sexually assaulting his daughter. This is when she was only 13 years old.

This would mess anyone up. But perhaps more than you might expect if you don’t already know her story, Page really did try to rise above and overcome it. She was a good student and was even named most likely to succeed by her class. She enrolled at George Peabody College in Nashville, which later merged with Vanderbilt. She started studying teaching. But she always loved the movies and celebrity, so as a sophomore, she switcher her major to theater and worked to become an actress. It was the classic dream of the poor kid who has seen a lot of pictures and wants to be a Film Star and get all the glamour and attention. She graduated in 1944. She was married by this time–the classic high school sweethearts marry before he has to go to war deal–but that fell apart and they divorced in 1947.

Page moved to New York to pursue her dreams of becoming a star. She got a job, started to support herself…and then was raped by a group of men shortly after arriving. She fled back to Nashville, but realized she didn’t want to stay there. She gave New York another try, not willing to give up on her dreams. So she went back. Now, one day she was walking along the beach at Coney Island. A cop who was a photographer on the side approached her said he would photograph her for free if she was willing to do it. She was. He also suggested she go with heavy bangs and she agreed. A look was born.

Now, Page didn’t have any problem posing nude or semi-nude, which is an interesting choice for the time. Obviously this was going to limit her career if she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. But then she had no actual career. This was something so she took advantage of what she had. Unlike the general opinion of the 50s, it wasn’t some unusually sexually oppressed period. It was that the legal formations of the period created oppression that was related to the larger anti-communist mania, giving the worst people power to enact their preferred Comstock ideal. But the overall culture was utterly sex-crazed. Marriage happened young, kids happened all the time, affairs were rampant for both men and women. Page was certainly a sex-positive person. Lord knows that she had gone through some terrible stuff in her life and that probably influenced her in ways I can’t even imagine. But still, she was a willing advocate for herself in her new career.

Page became the queen of the underground nudie publication. Her poses are tremendously outdated and looking at them, it’s hard for me to even see the appeal, but whatever, it’s not for me. By 1951, she was appearing in men’s magazines with ridiculous titled such as Titter and Eyefull. She got the attention of bigger photographers in this world and Irving Klaw began photographing her. He was kind of the king of the pin-up photographers. This was early BDSM stuff. She could play dominatrix and victim with great energy and verve. Page thought this stuff was ridiculous, but as she later stated about this work, it didn’t hurt anyone so whatever.

Page made a lot of money too. She traveled, lived a nice lifestyle. When in Miami on vacation, she met another photographer who shot her with cheetahs, one of her iconic shoots. She was also the Playboy Playmate for January 1955. Of course Hugh Hefner would be ready for her. That was probably her peak year of popularity. She was a pretty big deal. But in 1957, she stepped away. Some of this was probably the Kefauver Committee trying to bust the smut business, which she didn’t want to deal with. There was at least a rumor that some dude died in a BSDM thing inspired by her, but I have no idea if there is any truth to the matter.

Page moved to Key West. There, she converted to evangelical Christianity, which precluded her from returning to her pictures. Despite my general contempt for evangelicalism, someone who had been through what she had been through, well, I am withholding judgment. She became a fervent believer, attended some Bible colleges, and even tried to be a missionary in Africa, though she was rejected for having been divorced. Later, she worked for Billy Graham!

But Page’s evangelicalism didn’t exactly lead to a more stable lifestyle. She went through men pretty quickly and she had a couple of divorces in there. She had a nervous breakdown in the late 70s and the 80s were rough for her, with a nearly two year forced hospitalization in California to deal with her schizophrenia. She stabbed her landlord after that and had another eight years of state-supervised hospitalization. Sad.

However, this story has a better end. The 1980s saw a huge revival of 50s nostalgia, as anyone who watched TV in those years can remember. This nostalgia included in the art community and there was a revival of Page’s modeling work. People wanted to find her but they didn’t know where she was. Finally, it was Robin Leach, of all damn people, who located her and told her she was famous again. She said she had no idea and, moreover, was penniless and damn near homeless. Her brother helped her out, hired a team to help her, and get royalties for her work. Entertainment Tonight ran a piece about her. She was nervous about all this, but she started to get more comfortable with it, agreed to interviews, and openly stated that she was proud of her work.

By the end of Page’s life, the money was actually rolling in. She died in 2008, at the age of 85, with an estate now over a million dollars. The Notorious Bettie Page, from 2005, certainly brought her a lot of late life fame and while I haven’t seen it since it was in the theaters, I recall it being at least a reasonably interesting biopic.

Bettie Page is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other Playboy Playmates of 1955, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. This could be a quite fruitful line of inquiry just given the stories they have told. Page was the Playmate for January 1955. Jayne Mansfield, who was February 1955 and who demonstrates the point of how interesting this could be, is in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania. Eve Meyer (wife of Russ and who yet again demonstrates the point), who was the Playmate in June 1955, is in Sunny Side, Georgia. This also reminds me that I am heading to Georgia for graves tomorrow and New Orleans in April, so help a graver out! Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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