Page was born in Nashville, Tennessee, the second of six children to Walter Roy Page and Edna Mae Pirtle. At a young age, Page had to face the responsibilities of caring for her younger siblings. Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old. (In the 1930 Census, a few weeks before Bettie’s 7th birthday, her mother Edna Pirtle Page was already listed as being divorced. After her father, whom Page would accuse of molesting her starting at age 13, was imprisoned, Page and her two sisters lived in a Protestant orphanage for a year. During this time, Page’s mother worked two jobs, one as a hairdresser during the day and washing laundry at night. As a teenager, Page and her sisters tried different makeup styles and hairdos imitating their favorite movie stars. She also learned to sew. These skills proved useful years later for her pin-up photography when Page did her own makeup and hair and made her own bikinis and costumes. During her early years, the Page family traveled around the country in search of economic stability.
A good student and debate team member at Hume-Fogg High School, she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed”. On June 6, 1940, Page graduated as the salutatorian of her high school class with a scholarship. She enrolled at George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University), with the intention of becoming a teacher. However, the next fall she began studying acting, hoping to become a movie star. At the same time, she got her first job, typing for author Alfred Leland Crabb. Page graduated from Peabody with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944. In 1943, she married high school classmate Billy Neal in a simple courthouse ceremony shortly before he was drafted into the Navy for World War II. For the next few years, she moved from San Francisco to Nashville to Miami and to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she felt a special affinity with the country, its people and its culture. In November 1947, back in the United States, she filed for divorce.
In 1949, Page moved to New York City, where she hoped to find work as an actress. In the meantime, she supported herself by working as a secretary overlooking Rockefeller Center. In 1950, while walking alone, along the Coney Island shore, Bettie met Officer Jerry Tibbs, with New York City police department. Jerry was an avid photographer, and he gave Bettie his card. He suggested she’d make a good pin-up model, and in exchange for allowing him to photograph her, he’d help make up her first pin-up portfolio, free of charge. It was Officer Tibbs who suggested to Bettie that she style her hair with bangs in front, to keep light from reflecting off her high forehead when being photographed. Bangs soon became an integral part of her distinctive look.
In late-1940s America, “camera clubs” were formed to circumvent laws restricting the production of nude photos. The existence of these camera clubs was to ostensibly promote artistic photography; but in reality, many were merely fronts for the making of pornography. Page entered the field of “glamour photography” as a popular camera club model, working initially with photographer Cass Carr. Her lack of inhibition in posing made her a hit, and her name and image became quickly known in the erotic photography industry. In 1951, Bettie’s image appeared in men’s magazines such as Wink, Titter, Eyefull and Beauty Parade.
From 1952 through 1957, she posed for photographer Irving Klaw for mail-order photographs with pin-up and BDSM themes, making her the first famous bondage model. Klaw also used Page in dozens of short, black-and-white 8mm and 16mm “specialty” films, which catered to specific requests from his clientele. These silent ‘one-reel’ featurettes showed women clad in lingerie and high heels, acting out fetishistic scenarios of abduction, domination, and slave-training; bondage, spanking, and elaborate leather costumes and restraints were included periodically. Page alternated between playing a stern dominatrix, and a helpless victim bound hand and foot.
Klaw also produced a line of still photos taken during these sessions. Some have become iconic images, such as his highest-selling photo of Page—shown gagged and bound in a web of ropes, from the film Leopard Bikini Bound. Although these “underground” features had the same crude style and clandestine distribution as the pornographic “stag” films of the time, Klaw’s all-female films (and still photos) never featured any nudity or explicit sexual content.
In 1953, Page took acting classes at the Herbert Berghof Studio, which led to several roles on stage and television. She appeared on The United States Steel Hour and The Jackie Gleason Show. Her Off-Broadway productions included Time is a Thief and Sunday Costs Five Pesos. Page acted and danced in the feature-length burlesque revue film Striporama by Jerald Intrator in which she was given a brief speaking role. She then appeared in two more burlesque films by Irving Klaw (Teaserama and Varietease). These featured exotic dance routines and vignettes by Page and well-known striptease artists Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm. All three films were mildly risque, but none showed any nudity or overtly sexual content.
In 1954, during one of her annual vacations to Miami, Florida, Page met photographers Jan Caldwell, H. W. Hannau and Bunny Yeager. At that time, Page was the top pin-up model in New York. Yeager, a former model and aspiring photographer, signed Page for a photo session at the now-closed wildlife park Africa USA in Boca Raton, Florida. The Jungle Bettie photographs from this shoot are among her most celebrated. They include nude shots with a pair of cheetahs named Mojah and Mbili. The leopard skin patterned Jungle Girl outfit she wore was made, along with much of her lingerie, by Page herself. A large collection of the Yeager photos, and Klaw’s, were published in the book Bettie Page Confidential (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).
After Yeager sent shots of Page to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, he selected one to use as the Playmate of the Month centerfold in the January 1955 issue of the two-year-old magazine. The famous photo shows Page, wearing only a Santa hat, kneeling before a Christmas tree holding an ornament and playfully winking at the camera. In 1955, Page won the title “Miss Pinup Girl of the World”. She also became known as “The Queen of Curves” and “The Dark Angel”. While pin-up and glamour models frequently have careers measured in months, Page was in demand for several years, continuing to model until 1957. Although she frequently posed nude, she never appeared in scenes with explicit sexual content. In 1957, Page gave “expert guidance” to the FBI regarding the production of “flagellation and bondage pictures” in Harlem.
The reasons reported for Page’s departure from modeling vary. Some reports mention the Kefauver Hearings of the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce (after a young man apparently died during a session of bondage which was rumored to be inspired by bondage images featuring Page). However, the most likely reason for Page ending her modeling career and severing all contact with her prior life, was her conversion to born-again Christianity while living in Key West, Florida in 1959.
Photographer Sam Menning was the last person to photograph a pin-up of Page before her retirement. On New Year’s Eve 1958, during one of her regular visits to Key West, Florida, Page attended a service at what is now the Key West Temple Baptist Church. She found herself drawn to the multiracial environment and started to attend on a regular basis. She would in time attend three bible colleges, including the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon and, briefly, a Christian retreat known as “Bibletown”, part of the Boca Raton Community Church, Boca Raton, Florida.
She dated industrial designer Richard Arbib in the 1950s, and then married Armond Walterson in 1958; they divorced in 1963. During the 1960s, she attempted to become a Christian missionary in Africa, but was rejected for having had a divorce. Over the next few years she worked for various Christian organizations before settling in Nashville in 1963, and re-enrolled at Peabody College to purse a Master’s degree in education, but eventually dropped out of the program. She worked full-time for Rev. Billy Graham.
She briefly remarried Billy Neal, her first husband, who helped her to gain entrance into missionary work; however, the two divorced again shortly thereafter. She returned to Florida in 1967, and married again, to Harry Lear, but this marriage also ended in divorce in 1972. She moved to Southern California in 1979. There she had a nervous breakdown and had an altercation with her landlady. The doctors who examined her diagnosed her with acute schizophrenia, and she spent 20 months in Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, California. After a fight with another landlord she was arrested for assault, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed under state supervision for eight years. She was released in 1992.
In 1976, Eros Publishing Co. published A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page, a mixture of photos from the 1950s. Between 1978 and 1980, Belier Press published four volumes of Betty Page: Private Peeks, reprinting pictures from the private camera club sessions, which reintroduced Page to a new but small cult following. In 1983, London Enterprises released In Praise of Bettie Page — A Nostalgic Collector’s Item, reprinting camera club photos and an old cat fight photo shoot.
In the 1970s, artists Eric Stanton, Robert Blue and Olivia De Berardinis were among the first to start painting Bettie images. In 1979 artist Robert Blue had a show in LA at a gallery on Melrose “Steps Into Space” where he showed his collection of Bettie Page paintings. At that time in New York artist Olivia De Berardinis had begun painting Bettie for Italian jean manufacturer Fiorucci. Olivia has continued to paint Bettie, culminating in a book collecting this artwork “Bettie Page by Olivia” published by Ozone Productions, Ltd. in 2006, with a foreword by Hugh Hefner. To mark the millennium on an international scale, renowned Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama created original art of Bettie Page style placing her on the pedestal of highly accomplished beautiful women.
A larger cult following was built around her during the 1980s, of which she was unaware. This renewed attention was focused on her pinup and lingerie modeling rather than those depicting sexual fetishes or bondage, and she gained a certain public redemption and popular status as an icon of erotica from a bygone era. This attention also raised the question among her new fans of what happened to her after the 1950s. The 1990s edition of the popular Book of Lists included Page in a list of once-famous celebrities who had seemingly vanished from the public eye.
By the mid 1980s Olivia De Berardinis noted that women began to frequent her gallery openings sporting Bettie bangs, fetish clothing and tattoos of Page. Olivia said, “Black bangs, seamed stockings and snub nosed 6″ stilettos. These are Bettie Page signatures, anyone who dons them wears her crown. Although the fantasy world of fetish/bondage existed in some form since the beginning time, Bettie is the iconic figurehead of it all. No star of this genre existed before her. Monroe had predecessors, Bettie did not.”
In the early 1980s, comic book artist Dave Stevens based the female love interest of his hero Cliff Secord (alias “The Rocketeer”) on Page. In 1987, Greg Theakston started a fanzine called The Betty Pages and recounted tales of her life, particularly the camera club days. For the next seven years, the magazine sparked a worldwide interest in Page. Women dyed their hair and cut it into bangs in an attempt to emulate the “Dark Angel”. The media caught wind of the phenomenon and wrote numerous articles about her, more often than not with Theakston’s help. Since almost all of her photos were in the public domain, opportunists launched related products and cashed in on the burgeoning craze.
In a 1993 telephone interview with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Page told host Robin Leach that she had been unaware of the resurgence of her popularity, stating that she was “penniless and infamous”. Entertainment Tonight produced a segment on her. Page, who was living in a group home in Los Angeles, was astounded when she saw the E.T. piece, having had no idea that she had suddenly become famous again. Greg Theakston contacted her and extensively interviewed her for The Betty Page Annuals V.2. Shortly after, Page signed with Chicago-based agent James Swanson. Three years later, nearly penniless and failing to receive any royalties, Page fired Swanson and signed with Curtis Management Group, a company which also represented the James Dean and Marilyn Monroe estates. She then began collecting payments which ensured her financial security.
After Jim Silke made a large format comic featuring her likeness, Dark Horse Comics published a comic based on her fictional adventures in the 1990s. Eros Comics published several Bettie Page titles, the most popular being the tongue-in-cheek Tor Love Bettie which suggested a romance between Page and wrestler-turned-Ed Wood film actor, Tor Johnson. The question of what Page did in the obscure years after modeling was answered in part with the publication of an official biography in 1996, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend. That year, Bettie Page granted an exclusive one-on-one TV interview to entertainment reporter Tim Estiloz for a short-lived NBC morning magazine program Real Life to help publicize the book. The interview featured her reminiscing about her career and relating anecdotes about her personal life, as well as photos from her personal collection. At Page’s request, her face was not shown. The interview was broadcast only once.
Another biography, The Real Bettie Page: The Truth about the Queen of Pinups written by Richard Foster and published in 1997, told a less happy tale. Foster’s book immediately provoked attacks from her fans, including Hefner and Harlan Ellison, as well as a statement from Page that it was “full of lies,” because they were not pleased that the book revealed a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s police report that stated that she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and, at age 56, had stabbed her elderly landlords on the afternoon of April 19, 1979 in an unprovoked attack during a fit of insanity. However, Steve Brewster, founder of The Bettie Scouts of America fan club, has stated that it is not as unsympathetic as some believe it to be. Brewster adds that he also read the chapter about her business dealings with Swanson, and stated that Page was pleased with that part of her story. In 1997, E! True Hollywood Story aired a feature on Page entitled, Bettie Page: From Pinup to Sex Queen.
In a late-1990s interview, Page stated she would not allow any current pictures of her to be shown because of concerns about her weight. However, in 1997, Page changed her mind and agreed to a rare television interview for the aforementioned E! True Hollywood Story/Page special on the condition that the location of the interview and her face not be revealed (she was shown with her face and dress electronically blacked out). In 2003, Page allowed a publicity picture to be taken of her for the August 2003 edition of Playboy. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times ran an article headlined A Golden Age for a Pinup, covering an autographing session at her current publicity company, CMG Worldwide. Once again, she declined to be photographed, saying that she would rather be remembered as she was.
Within the last few years, she had hired a law firm to help her recoup some of the profits being made with her likeness. According to MTV: “Katy Perry’s rocker bangs and throwback skimpy jumpers. Madonna’s Sex book and fascination with bondage gear. Rihanna’s obsession with all things leather, lace and second-skin binding. Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. The SuicideGirls Web site. The Pussycat Dolls. The entire career of burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese and Bernie Dexter” would not have been possible without Page. In 2011, her estate made the Forbes annual list of top-earning dead celebrities, earning $6 million and tied with the estates of George Harrison and Andy Warhol, at 13th on the list. In 2014, Forbes estimated that Page’s estate earned $10 million in 2013.
- April, 22, 1923
- Nashville, Tennessee
- December, 11, 2008
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- Heart Attack
- Westwood Memorial Park
- Los Angeles, California