Fifty years after the fact, she earned pop-cultural icon status. There are a dozen books about her, and a half-dozen movies, including the 2006 biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol. Not to mention a bunch of tribute songs, countless websites and, almost always, more than a thousand products for sale on eBay. For just $6.99 you could get a Bettie Page 'Don't Tread on Me' Metal Candle Tin & Candle, which "features an image of Bettie Page in red lingerie and licking a whip." And who'll bid $19.99 for the Bettie Page Retro Cincher Corset Lot? The annotation reads: "Bring out your inner Bettie!" (See pictures of Bettie Page.)
The hallmark of modern pop culture is that everyone's famous and nobody's shocked. And when fans search the past, they look to venerate artists who were once pariahs. The movies of Bettie Page, the actress-model who died Thursday, Dec. 11, at 85 in Los Angeles after a heart attack, couldn't be more infra dig: they were sold under the counter, mailed in plain brown wrappers. Yet decades later she was elevated to the status of pulp goddess. The beatification process began in 1980, when artist Dave Stevens created a Bettie character in his graphic novel The Rocketeer. Jennifer Connelly gave her full-figured life in the 1991 movie version, and the cult was under way. In a 1997 episode of The X Files, there was a talking Bettie Page tattoo, voiced by Jodie Foster. (See TIME's Top 10 Fleeting Celebrities of 2008.)
But being a bondage babe wasn't much of a distinction to the mass audience of the '50s, who didn't know Bettie Page existed. Back then, Bettie was caviar only to the purchasers of girlie mags, tatty titles like Wink, Whisper and Flirt, where she was the preeminent pinup queen of her day. In January 1955 she was also the 13th model to grace the centerfold of a new slick magazine called Playboy.
As a movie actress she had a different appeal, limited but intense. Bettie was rich Corinthian leather to connoisseurs of specialized, subterranean erotica the kind that showed women, dressed in black undergarments and stockings, and pumps with six-inch heels, getting spanked, trussed and gagged. But primly; this was the 50s. And primitively: no retakes, no expert lighting, no dialogue, no sound. Just the girls. Rather, the girl. The Girl in the Leopard Print Bikini, as she was dubbed. Satan's Angel. Bettie Page.
BETTIE'S JOYFUL DANCE
Bettie Page was the Garbo of bondage movies. Granted, Greta Garbo played Camille and Anna Karenina, while Bettie played Bettie or, as it was usually spelled then, Betty in five-minute, 8 mm epics with titles like Betty's Clown Dance and Dominant Betty Dances With Whip. Garbo, in Hollywood, had Irving Thalberg, the prince of MGM, as her boss and protector. Bettie had Irving Klaw. Calling himself the "King of the Pinups," Irving and his sister Paula ran a seedy Manhattan emporium called Movie Star News, which peddled celebrity glamour shots to the public and specialized photos and loops to a more discriminating clientele. A brunette Betty Grable type who wanted to be Bette Davis, Bettie couldn't get a job as a Broadway actress. But on East 14th Street she was the star of Movie Star News, the big fish in a brackish pond.
But what Garbo and Bettie Page both had was It a radiance, a mystery of personality, that transcends technique and passeth understanding. Bettie had a message that defined her medium, and a magic that defied it. The dance films she did may have been cheesy documents of bump-and-grind; the bondage films, creepy if dainty invocations of sadomasochism. But what everyone remembers about Bettie, aside from her trademark bangs, is her smile. Guileless and guiltless, it conveyed an Edenic sensuality. To her fans and her official detractors, who might have agreed that sex was dirty, Bettie's giddy energy said, "Heck, no, it's fun!"
One last detail shared by Garbo and Bettie. Each retired in her mid-30s, preserving the movie image of her youthful allure. But unlike Garbo, who was often cornered by paparazzi in her Manhattan neighborhood, Bettie seemingly did disappear. She left New York for Miami, where she modeled for a few more years, then vanished, reemerging in Southern California in 1992.
In the decades of her silence, all manner of rumors spread. She had run afoul of the Mob. She became a nun. She had kids and grandkids. She was dead. All these speculations were wrong. The truth, as revealed in Richard Foster's sympathetic and scrupulous book The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pinups, is even stranger.