The Garbo of Bondage

  • Share
  • Read Later

Gretchen Mol stars as Betty Page in "The Notorious Bettie Page" which is set to be in theatres on April 14, 2006.

(6 of 6)


She did indeed become a lay missionary (assisting in a Billy Graham campaign) and spent about a year back at Peabody, to take credits for a Master's degree she never achieved. Fact is, though, her life was much more stable when she was posing for the Klaws' bondage films than it would be in the service of the Lord. In the decade after she left New York, Bettie was wed three times: to the teenager Armond Walterson, again to Billy Neal and finally to Harry Lear, a lineman for Florida Bell. Each marriage ended in divorce. But that was the least of her troubles — of the trouble she made for herself and those she lived with. Her rap sheet, as persuasively documented by Foster, is extensive, instructive and sad.

Jan. 1972: Police alerted Harry to an incident at Bible Town, a ministry retreat in Boca Raton. "Bettie was running through the motel complex, waving a .22-caliber pistol and shouting about the retribution of God." Harry, taking pity on his volatile ex-wife, brought her home to stay with him and his children — Larry, 16, and Linda, 12.

Apr. 13, 1972: Bettie brandished a knife and forced Harry and the kids to pray before a portrait of Jesus. "If you take your eyes off this picture," she shouted, "I'll cut your guts out!" Foster reports that she was charged with breach of the peace and confined in Jackson Memorial, a state hospital, for four months. Then Harry took her back home.

Oct. 28, 1972: Hialeah policeman Tom Fitzpatrick was called to the Lear household, where Bettie was tearing the place up. He sat her in the patrol car while he took a statement from Harry. Returning to the car, he "saw Bettie in the back seat, with her dress pulled up, panties around her knees, masturbating with a coat hanger that the officer had left" there. Fitzpatrick's report: "defendant psycho." Assault and battery and disorderly conduct charges were dropped after she recommitted herself to Jackson Memorial, where she spent six months, part of it under a suicide watch.

Apr. 19, 1979: Having relocated to Southern California, living in Lawndale in a trailer owned by her neighbors Esther Trevin, 67, and her 77-year-old husband, Bettie unprovokedly attacked Esther with a knife and was subdued by Mr. Trevin, who, after warning Bettie to drop the knife, knocked her out with a crescent wrench. Charged on two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, Bettie was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

On July 24, 1980, she was sentenced to five years' confinement at Patton State Hospital. Just seven months later, on her doctor's recommendation, she was released.

June 12, 1982: At four that morning, while a boarder in the Santa Monica home of Leonie Haddad, she entered the bedroom of her sleeping landlady, straddled her and shook her awake, brandishing a foot-long serrated bread knife and whispering, "God has inspired me to kill you!" She attacked Haddad, "slicing her from the corner of her mouth to her ear ... Bettie stabbed Haddad four times in the chest, narrowly missing her heart... stabbed the hand eight times, severing the top of Haddad's third finger." Summoned by Haddad, police "found Bettie in the shower with her clothes on, trying to wash out the blood stains. She kept the police waiting for an hour before she dried herself off." When brought to court, "Bettie pleaded not guilty but changed her plea to not guilty by reason of insanity after two California Department of Medical Health doctors testified that she was insane and had confessed to the attack." She was sentenced to 8-1/2 years in Patton. She stayed there until 1992.

Haddad sued the state of California for $1,750,000, arguing that Bettie should not have been released from Patton and that a prospective landlord should have been alerted to her history of violence. The state settled for $70,000, which, after lawyers' fees, brought Haddad about $40,000 — hardly enough, she told Foster, to cover her medical expenses. When he interviewed her in 1994, she still had no feeling in two of her fingers. Bettie, while in confinement, got word to Haddad that she hoped to meet again some day and express her remorse. Haddad said no thanks.


Maybe it's a mistake to ask who Bettie was, or what her underground eminence signifies. As Buck Henry writes: "The oft-told Betty Page story is peculiar — a morality tale with no discernible moral, not much plot, and a leading character who is at least elusive."

Elusive indeed. Watching Bettie dance, or being touched by her smile, or monitoring the inane dedication she brings to tying up or getting tied down, may give viewers the feeling they know Bettie Page the person, when all they're getting is what Bettie Page the performer wants them to see. She has given her audience what artists impart: the illusion of knowing someone. Indeed, it may be a tribute to the mystery of Bettie's personality that neither Mary Harron nor the host of Bettie-maniacs, young and old, can penetrate it.

I'm pleased by reports that the real Bettie Page has buried, or tamed, her demons. I hope she had a happy birthday, and that the people she hurt have healed themselves and forgiven her. Three years ago, she finally posed for a public picture, her first in more than 40 years that wasn't taken by a police photographer. Here it is. For 80, she looks great. I'd like the real Bettie Page to have a happy ending.

But there's a Platonist streak, deep in the movie critic I have been all these years, that believes the truth is up there on the screen — that the shadows on the wall have more answers for me than the people who put them there. To me, the real Bettie Page is that two-dimensional image, forever young, tender, sexy and smiling.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. Next