by Karen Essex and James L.Swanson
(General Publishing Group, 288 pp., $40)
Poor glutted smirking us. We live in an age when pop culture is our history and history is our flea market. Kitsch never dies; it lacks the gravity to die; it just circles back, with a new price tag and a hopeful air. It turns out that no junk is junky enough to be consigned to the obsolescence for which it was intended–not fake fur or Formica, not Russ Meyer or Ed Wood, not Esquivel or Abba. We do not lament the passing of things that were meant to last; we lament the passing of things that were meant not to last. We refuse to be robbed of a past by a culture of transience. It is our lot, therefore, to be overrun, or to overrun ourselves, with the schlock not only of today, but of two, three, four decades past. Oblivion, it seems, is worse than vulgarity. And so we claim ephemera for posterity.
There are technological explanations for this phenomenon, and economic ones, too. The Internet, with its capacity for linking up thousands of otherwise furtive fans and collectors, for bringing everybody and everything in from the periphery to the center, for infinitely replicating shards and shards of trivia, has accelerated the redemption of kitsch. So has the CD, for which it seems that there never was a minor composer or a justly neglected performance or a girl group too obscure or a lounge act too goofy. Consider only the Capitol CD series with such self-consciously retro titles as Bongo Land, Ultra-Lounge and Bossanovaville, risibly awful music brought proudly and brilliantly back. The shorter the history, the more relentless the recycling. (It was American popular music that invented the concept of “instant gold.”) Or consider Nick-at-Nite-type cable TV, with its endless appetite for content as familiar and as soothing as the wallpaper in our childhood bedrooms.
But behind these material facts is a sensibility, an attitude toward the past, and toward collecting, that might be described as ironic preservationism. Ironic preservationism differs from its straight counterpart–the world of genealogy and heritage movements and lovingly restored country houses–in that it resurrects objects not for their beauty or their craftsmanship or the lasting superiority of their forms or materials, but for the very inverse of these qualities: their cheesiness, their triviality, their banality, their disposability. It differs, too, from earlier preservationist movements in that the appeal of an object does not lie in the way that time has made it recondite. For the ironic preservationist, mystery holds no attraction. The more crudely legible an artifact, the better. An original poster for Reefer Madness, or Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill, is a great find partly because it is so undemanding of the mind or the sensibility, so unashamedly garish, so naked of pretension.
The ironic preservationist is ironic because he is preserving what was made to be forgotten. The danger for such a collector is that he begins to see the past as a congeries of gags, a grab bag of “novelty items” (a term of art, in the world of American kitsch, like the term “collectibles”), a freak show. He believes in regress, but he is not what you would call conservative; he is trying instead to recapture the impermanence of yesteryear. Of course, this is impossible, and so the precious artifacts are merely fetishized. In the tackiness of the B-movies and the third-rate torch songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he finds innocence. (Nobody in the ‘50s and ‘60s did.)
The ironic preservationist is not indifferent to history so much as addled by it. In part his attitude is a rejection of the discontinuities of consumer culture, the swift passing of the latest thing. By honoring all this negligible stuff, he asserts his mastery over the acceleration of the past. The “new and improved” are a joke to him. (He will enjoy them later.) The more fads and entertainments the culture produces, the more stubbornly he clings to those of earlier decades for stability. The usual explanation for historic preservation movements is that, in a throwaway society, people will hunger for something that lasts, for an object made with some care and to some kind of serious accepted aesthetic standard, and intended for some kind of posterity. But what if you determine to make the throwaway itself endure? To make it outlive the use-by date that capitalism stamps in ghostly ink on every pop cultural creation? Now that is a victory!
As the British historian Raphael Samuel writes, describing the more mainstream phenomenon of retro-chic, the idea is not to “deceive anyone into a hallucinatory sense of oneness with the past, but on the contrary [to cultivate] an air of ironic detachment and distance. Retrochic... involves not an obsession with past but an indifference to it: only when history has ceased to matter can it be treated as a sport.” There is some truth to this argument, but it is a little unfair. The motives of the ironic preservationist are complicated. There is tenderness in his inanity. He wants access to a kind of purity: the purity of pure schlock. Like Frank O’Hara, he longs to be “at least as alive as the vulgar.” He is often more sentimental than cool. Sometimes the ironic preservationist exalts the kitsch of the past–his Yma Sumac records, his velvet paintings, his pulp novels–because it is bizarre or amusing, sometimes because it reminds him, humbly, of something that’s missing from the time in which he must live now. And so it is with the lubricious dreamworld of Bettie Page.
From 1950 to 1957, Bettie Page was America’s underground pin-up queen, the secret crush of thousands of men who married young and wondered what they had missed. Her career as an erotic icon took her from moderately saucy beach blanket shots (the stuff of calendars hung discreetly in the garage) to mail-order stag films with sadomasochistic themes and titles such as Captive Jungle Girl (the stuff of congressional investigations). It took her from a time in porn history when nearly nude pictures of nearly pretty girls in static cheesecake poses were still scandalous enough to pack an erotic charge to a time in which psychosexual motifs such as fetishism and domination were increasingly mass-marketed and porn was supposed to tell a story (with a beginning, a middle and a climax).
She started out posing nude or in homemade bikinis, frolicking in the Long Island surf for the benefit of amateur “camera clubs”–hobbyists, shutterbugs and geeks who took pictures for their personal use and so were not bound by the obscenity laws that limited nudity in men’s publications of the day. From there, she did cheerful photo spreads for magazines such as Wink and Tattler and Eyeful; Dare and Bold and Peek; Art Photography and Modern Sunbathing. And finally, in what Bettie Page’s fans call her “Dark Angel” period, she did a noirish series of photos and silent film loops shot in New York by a genially sleazy stag photographer named Irving Klaw and his devoted sister Paula.
Bettie and the other Klaw models, all women, usually wore the distinctive, thickly armatured underwear of the ‘50s–appropriately called foundation garments–and high, high heels as black and glistening as wet asphalt. Sometimes they performed burlesque shimmies, sometimes they donned leather corsets and gloves and brandished whips and hairbrushes, sometimes they trussed one another up. As in all S&M, props played a vital role and were lavished with beady-eyed attention. The settings were always delightfully low-rent; the action slow, deliberate, exaggerated. Since no men appear in the films–to include men would have been to guarantee an obscenity conviction–these short films sometimes suggest a sort of lesbian theme park, an underground network of tacky motels where you could always find tough babes playing cards in their underwear, smoking cigarettes in their underwear, menacing one another with hairbrushes in their underwear, rolling around on shag rugs in their underwear.
In each of these guises, Bettie Page looked much the same. She always wore her dark hair long and loose, with pageboy bangs, which gave her a modern, intelligent look. In almost any decade, this particular hairstyle–straight hair and bangs, the bob or a variation on it–seems to grant its wearers a purchase on modernity. (Think of how contemporary Louise Brooks appears next to other stars of the 1920s.) Partly by virtue of its association with the flapper, the straight-hair-and-bangs style has long signified free-thinking, self-possession and a crisp, unromantic Bohemianism.
Bettie Page was nearly always well-toned and smooth-skinned, with a flattering all-over tan. But she had a body that was unusual among sex goddesses then and now in that it was lovely in a plausible way–neither as impossibly sinewy as a contemporary fashion model’s nor as busty as Mansfield’s or Monroe’s. It was, above all, a body in which she always managed to look supremely at ease. She seemed as comfortable as a pre-adolescent girl, though with her full breasts, and the womanly pooch of her slightly convex tummy, she hardly looked the gamine.
We know all this about Bettie Page not only, or even primarily, because she was so fervently admired in her brief heyday. Those first admirers tended to keep their obsession to themselves. We know it because she is so fervently admired today, the object of a cult that has done nothing to keep its secret to itself. Page is the subject of a two-hour documentary that aired on the cable network E! Entertainment Television last spring, and of a forthcoming HBO movie. On the web, you can find more than 100 sites dedicated to her. Her photographs from the ‘50s fetch good money at trade shows and at groovy little downtown shops and at Bettie Page theme nights hosted by clubs in Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. Hip models have been photographed to look like her (they don’t); hip designers claim to have been influenced by her. There is a fan club, The Bettie Scouts of America, based in Kansas City, Kansas, and a magazine, The Bettie Pages, published in New York by an unusually devoted Bettie buff named Greg Theakston. And now there is a handsome, besotted tribute book, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend by Karen Essex and James L. Swanson, a biography of a sort, which has an anecdote-laden text based on interviews with the 74-year-old Page.
So, you might reasonably ask, what is it about Bettie Page? Why does her image still capture the imagination, while legions of her cohorts in the nudie modeling trade could barely sell a publicity still to save their pasties? Bettie’s fans tend to answer that question with the naughty-but-nice paradox. For Karen Essex and James L. Swanson, Bettie Page “embodied the stereotypical wholesomeness of the Fifties and the hidden sexuality straining beneath the surface.... Her fresh-faced beauty was the perfect camouflage for what lurked beneath her veneer–the exotic, whip-snapping dark angel. In Bettie Page, forbidden longings were made safe by an ideal American girl.” For Steve Sullivan, the author of a methodically researched history of the pin-up called Va Va Voom!, there’s a “fascinating duality” in Bettie’s photographs, “which run the gamut from sunny innocence to sinister darkness.” Truth is, though, that’s a gamut run rather often in pornography. The appeal of the sweet-faced girl with the bod for sin is as old as the oldest dirty postcard, and as common as guilt.
It is true that Bettie Page may have been especially gifted at conveying the naughty-but-nice fantasy. Hers was an era in which the expectation of female frigidity was still a widely accepted axiom of sexual lore. When it came to sex, explained an article in Life magazine in 1953, the female is “simply by virtue of her own physiology and through no coyness or stubbornness of her own, disinterested, unresponsive, and in fact sometimes downright frigid.... The average woman... can certainly take sex or leave it alone.” She “considers the human body, if anything, rather repulsive.” In such a context, the look of sweet sexual eagerness–neither too aloof nor too ravenous–that was Bettie Page’s specialty must have gone a long way.
Still, it can’t entirely explain her popularity, particularly today. To account for it, we have to go further afield–into the realm of nostalgia and the yearning for a vanished sense of the illicit, a sense of the illicit that was the other side of a sense of the innocent. We could do worse, though, than to start with her smile.
Bettie Page’s smile–it looks more and more bemused, especially in some of the Klaw photographs–is crucial not only to the naughty-but-nice effect, but also to something more complex and lasting about her appeal. Above all else, perhaps, her pictures, and the expressions that she adopts in them, convey a sensation of joy in her work–her joy, not the viewer’s. It is the joy of a talent finding an outlet, and it hardly matters that the talent is not for painting or policy analysis, but for exhibitionism. These are images of a woman who will not be ruined by sex, but made by it. In her nude photos, she holds her head up high. She wears her insouciance like a halo. If eroticism is the promise of pleasure, then these pictures are not, strictly speaking, erotic. For they promise nothing. They are not images of desire, they are images of happiness. And so what they demonstrate, in a way, is the unerotic character of happiness. If one tingles at the sight of them, it is almost with envy.
In fact, when it comes to certain cliches of nude modeling, Bettie Page is clearly inept. She never stares vacantly into the middle distance, dreamy and compliant. She can’t really smolder, and she doesn’t do sultry. When she acts the part of the dominatrix in the Klaw photographs, she narrows her eyes and knits her brow fiercely and mostly looks silly. When she plays the passive role, tied up by another Klaw model, her moue of distress is goggle-eyed, comically exaggerated; she might as well be a silent movie heroine lashed to a train track. She’s game, she’s diligent, but she never seems to inhabit a role or to let it consume her. She won’t take it seriously. And no woman ever inflamed a man by giggling.
In Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, Paula Klaw praises Bettie as a woman of many expressions who “could have been an actress.” But the truth is that she always looks the same; and that is her particular grace. What lifts her photos above the blankness and the deadness of so much porn and pseudo-porn is the stubborn, exuberant persistence of a self, the irreducible core of a personality shining through. Bettie is never inert; she is always Bettie; the girl can’t help it. Often her pictures are curiously unarousing, as though the undeniable presence of a particular person in all these erotic set-ups (Bettie in pom-poms, Bettie in heels, Bettie in chains) could only undermine their purpose. The effect is of objectification without anonymity; objectification without abstraction. In this way, the aim of pornography–to let the viewer generalize from this body to other bodies, including his own–is unwittingly thwarted.
There is a wonderful photo in Essex and Swanson’s book, a candid shot taken in Irving Klaw’s “studio.” Klaw is in the background, rumpled and overweight and grinning because he’s just put his foot through a shabby prop staircase. Bettie is standing in front of him, wearing black-and-white lace lingerie and vivid coral-red lipstick. She has her head thrown back and she’s cracking up–laughing, one imagines, at the whole enterprise of dirty pictures. And what’s wonderful about the photo is that it’s not really so different, in its mood of gentle mockery, from some of the posed photos taken in the same setting. It reminds you that in interviews Bettie Page always described her modeling as a kick. “I was happy cavorting around stark naked on the beach,” she said. Or, of the Klaw photos, “The other models and I enjoyed doing these crazy things. The craziest thing I was asked to do was pose as a pony, wearing a leather outfit with a lead and everything. We just died laughing.” Bettie Page represents something unusual: she’s the sex joke who’s in on the joke. Unlike the Judy Holliday type, the sexy ditz who isn’t supposed to know that she is sexy, Bettie Page is fully aware of the comedy of desire. It was altogether appropriate that in October 1955 she adorned the cover of a magazine called Chicks and Chuckles.
Of course, remarks such as the ones I’ve just quoted might suggest that Bettie Page achieved her equanimity about her work at the price of a certain lack of imagination. To this day, she can’t seem to fathom why anyone would have considered Klaw’s work pornographic. By today’s standards, it wasn’t–it contained no nudity, no simulated sex acts. Still, her disingenuousness can make her sound a bit thick. About the Kefauver Commission, the congressional investigation that targeted Klaw in 1955, Page professes bafflement. “They thought Irving was doing pornography. I don’t know where they got that idea,” she told Essex and Swanson. “Irving was a very nice fellow, his models were never naked and there were never any men in the photographs.” And her own role in the fetish photographs? “It was part of posing and posing was very natural to me.” Besides, she says, “I was young and open to new experiences.”
Anti-porn feminists, among others, might dismiss such attitudes as evidence of false consciousness, a numb refusal to acknowledge a career built on her own abjection. But Page’s comments remind me of something else: the attitude of a whole generation of entertainers who came to Hollywood or New York from small towns in middle America, propelled by their good looks, prepared to work hard and generally modest in their expectations of success. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of such B-movie actors in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They never studied the Method, never thought of what they did as art, never figured on living like Hollywood royalty. They called their work show biz, and felt forever grateful that it was a biz at all, that they could actually be paid for playacting. (They tended to be rather dim when it came to managing money.) There was about performers like that–and about Bettie Page and some of her peers in the middlebrow cheesecake line–a common but sublime sincerity, an ability to laugh at themselves but not ironically, a disposition workmanlike and quietly exultant. Call it the dignity of silly work.
It is this sincerity, incidentally, that makes Bettie Page an unfit subject for an academic field such as cultural studies, which has produced so many admiring tomes on the likes of Madonna, Mae West and Larry Flynt. Some of the discipline’s leading practitioners are certainly drawn to porn and its above-ground analogues (Calvin Klein ads, Victoria’s Secret catalogs, Spice Girls videos). There is Laura Kipnis, an associate professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at Northwestern University, who lionizes Flynt as a symbol of “Rabelaisian transgression” in her book Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America; and there is Constance Penley, who teaches a class on dirty movies at U.C. Santa Barbara and has written an essay called “Crackers and Whackers: The White Trashing of Porn.” For Kipnis and Penley and their ilk, self-described feminists who argue earnestly for the “transgressive” and “subversive” qualities of, say, Hustler magazine, an interest in salacious pictures must always be justified in (leftish) political terms. As Kipnis writes, in the introduction to Bound and Gagged, pornography poses “a number of philosophical questions... questions concerning the social compact and the price of repression... questions about how sexuality and gender roles are performed, about class, aesthetics, utopia, rebellion, power, desire, and commodification.... [Porn] speaks to its audience because it’s thoroughly astute about who we are underneath the social veneer, astute about the costs of cultural conformity and the discontent at the core of routinized lives and normative sexuality.” For all their assurances that they are really wild women, capable of slinging obscenities and laughing at gross-out jokes, there is something priggish about the work of these professors, and its insistence that there is far, far more to porn than getting off. They’re like middle-class radicals swilling Pabst Blue Ribbon not because they like it, but because it’s what the proles drink.
Anyway, Bettie Page is a little too sunny, a little too close to the philistine ideal of sex, for the cultural studies types. Unlike Mae West, she’s not offering a vision of femininity so exaggerated that it verges on parody or transvestism. She’s a more regular fantasy. Strictly speaking, she’s not even a fantasy. Who in his right mind would try to seduce her? And what women tend to like about her–many of her fans are women–is her ease in her body, the sense that she conveys of having made sex her ally.
One reason that Bettie Page may have managed to look as blithe as she does in so many of her photographs is that when she posed she was often surrounded by women. And they weren’t just models, but photographers, too. Indeed, one of the surprising aspects of the pin-up world in those days–surprising given what we think we know about sex roles in the 1950s and what we think we know about the “male” gaze–is the extent to which it was populated, even dominated, by women. Hardworking Paula Klaw not only trussed and tied the models on bondage shoots, she also took many of the photographs. There were female photographers in the camera clubs, who helped create what Bettie called “the homey atmosphere” on the shoots. And Bettie worked frequently with the pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager, who had herself been a model, and who considered her empathy with her subjects one of her greatest assets. (Yeager produced one of the few genuinely witty pictures of Bettie, and it’s kind of a girl joke: Bettie posing stark naked, but with the accoutrements of lady-like femininity–elegant pocketbook, tearoom hat, pursed lips, finishing school posture.)
Ironically, if Bettie Page had seemed more estranged from her body, able to speak of it (or at least treat it) as though it were a commodity, she might be of greater interest to the cultural studies crowd. Jayne Mansfield, the creamhorn with the grand tetons, always knew exactly how much her endowment was worth. And in talking about it, she sometimes sounded a note of sophisticated alienation that cultural studies scholars might find sufficiently subversive. “I have a ridiculous body. My waist is practically invisible, and my bust is floundering around somewhere in the 40s,” Mansfield once said. “And there’s no point in discussing the rest. It’s a wild body, and I’m just sick of it for being so unusual.... The only good thing about it is that it’s a commercial body.... It got me where I am.” But Bettie Page never had the pontoon-like breasts that, in the age before plastic surgery created bazongas for the masses, seemed to grant their owners the status of freakish high-priestesses in a mammary cult. Pin-up stars such as June Wilkinson (“The Bosom”) or Meg Myles (“Miss Chest 1957”) or Jayne Mansfield (whose studio chair on the Warner Brothers’ lot bore the figures 40-21-351/2 in lieu of her name) could not escape their breasts. They were their breasts. The more moderately endowed Bettie had the possibility–the luxury, you might say–of seeing her own body whole.
The Bettie Page photographs, like all pin-ups, are incitements, but not only to sex. They are incitements also to nostalgia. I look at her pictures and I wonder what it was like to be a young woman on one’s own in the city, one of those single girls who came to New York in the 1950s and early ‘60s hoping to escape their allotted destinies as young wives, young mothers and young suburbanites. In Essex and Swanson’s book, there is a scrapbook photo of Bettie and her sister Goldie as teenagers that is like a prehistory, in miniature, of that migration. The year is 1941, and Bettie and Goldie are in their backyard in Nashville, pretending to be Ziegfeld girls. Everything in the background of the picture–the smudgy clouds, the drooping telephone wires, the clapboard house, the overgrown garden–seems to suggest Home. And everything in the girls’ stance–the way they’ve twitched up their floral wrappers to show off their pretty legs, the expressions they’ve adopted, self-consciously sexy and wistful at the same time–suggests the yearning to leave Home. In a way, all the pictures that came later, all the pin-ups of Bettie in torpedo bras, fishnet stockings, harem-girl outfits, polka-dot bikinis or nothing at all, are the record of what happened to that yearning, that electric hankering to be someone new somewhere else.
Bettie Page’s particular cohort of city girls was mostly working class. They headed for New York or Chicago after the war, hoping for a job in the expanding pink-collar sector–in some glamorous office tower with wedding cake trim, maybe. Scared girls, sexy girls, average girls; but a little bit braver. Girls with names like Gladys and Rita and Thelma. Girls who listened to Julie London and Peggy Lee records. Girls who lived in Brooklyn. Girls who went out with married men and took themselves to the Automat for Boston cream pie and black coffee. Girls with hennaed hair and pallid skin and bitten fingernails. Girls who wore tight skirts and cinch belts made of patent leather. Girls who might be played, in the movies, by Gloria Grahame or Jane Greer or Shelley Winters. Girls who left small towns where they could hardly breathe without causing a scandal. Girls with families that never knew just what to make of them. Girls who weren’t really trying to carve out a new path to autonomy, just banking on a new rotation of guys to get loaded with on Saturday night, or a new view out the window. Girls who never gave a thought to their rights, except perhaps their right to fun.
A young woman’s decision to transplant herself, alone, to the big city was a bold one in those days. She was defying generations of cautionary tales that told her the metropolis was a girl’s undoing. The last great wave of female migration to the cities–the factory girls, the telegraph operators and the “typewriters” of the 1880s and ‘90s–had produced a vast storehouse of anxious reportage by muckraking journalists, urban reformers and social hygienists. In their critical account of it, the city was above all a place of display–of glittering shopwindows, cheap finery, racy theatrical entertainments. And to this kind of seduction, the thinking went, young women were particularly vulnerable. Department stores alone, warned Zola in Au Bonheur des Dames, “awakened in [their] flesh new desires,” excited “the madness of fashion” to which eventually, fatally, they must succumb. “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things,” Dreiser wrote in Sister Carrie, which is, among other things, the apotheosis of these worries. “Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.... The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter.”
Bettie disappeared from the city in 1957. She missed the pay-off. By the mid-1960s, the single girl in the city had herself become fashionable. This new cohort had a manifesto (Sex and the Single Girl), an anthem (“Downtown”), a tony fairy tale (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and a television show (“That Girl”). It included plenty of college graduates, shiny-haired Suzy Co-eds. And it had numbers on its side: thousands of young, single women were moving to the cities, expecting to meet a husband, yes, but also to live on their own for a few years, to support themselves (as secretaries, editorial assistants, models, stewardesses) and most scandalously of all, to have sex. After 1960, these democratic adventuresses even had the Pill.
Magazines and newspapers took notice of single women, and no longer seemed so worried about them. In 1961, an article in Look magazine–”Women without Men”–still described them as an oddity, but not necessarily a source of social disruption. There were “signs everywhere that the unattached woman feels she has the same right to a sexual life as a married woman,” the author reported, in tones of wonder. Held up for befuddled scrutiny was a 19-year-old aspiring model from Cincinnati who, even though she was “extremely pretty,” blithely asserted that “she wasn’t ready for a husband yet and maybe never would be.” She worked as an usher at a theater and, in her spare time, “walked around New York staring up at the beautiful buildings and marveling that I’m here.”
And just five years later Look was reporting on the single life–”Young, Single, and a Stranger in New York”–as a certifiably groovy phenomenon with any number of commercial possibilities (singles newspapers, bars, dating services). “The habitat of the sophisticated single is the East Side, 50s through 80s, a vast honeycomb of new apartments, many of them with just one bedroom.” The Village was no longer chic; buildings with a lot of stewardesses–”the single female”–were. Singles parties had a “casual boy-meets-girl atmosphere... an extension of informal campus attitudes.” Nobody in this crowd was frenzied, or frantic–just fun, fun, fun. They were now part of a thriving singles “scene,” which even a mainstream publication such as Look could portray as an acceptable antechamber to marriage, rather than a fundamental threat to the institution.
Bettie Page ran away to New York before the singles scene was chic. By Dreiserian standards, hers is a story of dissolution: the innocent girl with the heart-shaped face loses her soul to the fleshpots of Manhattan. Her own account of her life reads rather differently. For one thing, her youth in Nashville, where she was born in 1923, was not particularly innocent. Her father, Roy Page, was an itinerant mechanic and a lout, who molested Bettie when she was an adolescent, and bullied her mother. Bettie and her four brothers and sisters ended up in an orphanage for a year, after her mother left Roy and couldn’t support the kids. (Bettie used to entertain the other girls by mimicking the poses of movie stars and models in the fan magazines.) When she was 19, Bettie married a boy named Billy Neal, who had just been drafted into the army. He turned out to be a possessive type who accused her of acting “high and mighty” because she had graduated from teacher’s college in Nashville.
Yet she was bright and venturesome, and seemed to thrive as long as she was on her own. When Billy was shipped out to the Pacific, she waited for him in San Francisco, where she modeled fur coats, won second prize (a $50 war bond) in a beauty contest judged by sailors, and got arrested for slugging a landlord who was mean to her sister. She worked in Nashville for the Office of Price Administration and in Port-au-Prince for an American couple who were selling off their mahogany business. And in 1947, now divorced, she decided to move to New York and try her hand at acting. The first job she snagged was as a secretary at the American Bread Company, but at least she was making her own way. Besides, it wasn’t long before she had taken up with a handsome Peruvian student who taught her how to rhumba.
Her pin-up career was born one afternoon on the beach at Coney Island, where she was discovered by an amateur photographer and New York City policeman named Jerry Tibbs. Tibbs put her in touch with some of the camera clubs, which were always on the lookout for young women willing to shed their clothes and their conventions. Tibbs was black, and many of the clubs were racially integrated, which made posing for them–especially if you were a white Southern woman in 1950–doubly risky. But Bettie Page seems to have been one of those holy idiots who don’t so much transcend racial boundaries as never quite notice them.
From the beginning, she liked the work and was good at it. Once, when she was arrested for indecent exposure during a topless photo shoot near a highway, she pleaded not guilty, insisting, with some pride, that she “was not indecent and that the group was a legitimate camera club from New York City.” She never dated the photographers, but she did pal around with them, teasing them about their predilections–”Oh, you and your lingerie”–that sort of thing. “From the first time I posed nude I wasn’t embarrassed or anything,” she told Essex and Swanson. And it certainly beat the clerical grind. “I never had any trouble getting a job back in those days,” she says now. “But I didn’t like sitting at a typewriter all day.”
Even the story of her post pin-up life–she left New York and stopped modeling in 1957, when she was 34–is not exactly a story of renunciation, or creeping shame. In the ‘80s, as Page’s cult status grew, so did the curiosity about what had ever become of her. Was she alive? Was she lonely? Was she married? Was she fat? Was she living in a trailer park or working at an Arby’s? After all, plenty of other performers, some more gifted than she, had ended up poor, remorseful, dwelling furtively in the half-light of a vanished, minor fame, like so many low-rent Norma Desmonds. (There was, for example, the haute couture fashion model Dovima, of the elegant bones and the Givenchy gowns and the Avedon elephant photograph, who ended her days a few years ago as a hostess at a Two Guys Pizza in Florida.) Here and there, fans would claim that they had seen Bettie at a gun show, or slinging hash in a Texas diner. The mystery became her. Like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, she was a ‘50s icon who had disappeared in her prime. But she hadn’t died, as far as anyone knew. She had simply vanished.
When a reporter finally tracked Bettie Page down a few years ago, it turned out that she had not fallen into ruin. She had worked as a teacher, married a few times for love, gotten a Master’s degree in English, traveled around. She had also gone to bible college and served as a counselor for the Billy Graham Crusades, but her newfound Christian beliefs had never convinced her that she had done anything wrong in her cheesecake years. She does interviews now, but, to her credit in these days of epidemic exhibitionism, she won’t appear on camera. She wants to be remembered as she was. There’s nothing especially pathetic about her. She didn’t end up as a parody of herself.
Some of Bettie Page’s fans will tell you that the reason her photographs appeal to so many people today is that she was a woman more of our time than of hers, a sexual liberationist trapped in Ozzie-and-Harriet land. But in truth her pictures attract us precisely because they are so much of their time (erotically daring, but only within the context of the 1950s). Despite ourselves, we are nostalgic for a period that still retained a notion, and a realm, of the genuinely illicit–when sexually revealing photos were produced in dark corners and traded shyly, when porn skulked on the fringes, in a shadowland of desire. Now we have bondage motifs in our fashion advertising, and sex advice books that chirp about the dire effects of repression (and even reticence), and skin magazines that long ago won the battle to show pubic hair and are bored with it, and pop stars who do pseudo-serious picture books about their sexual fantasies, and chic writers who get big advances for books about their erotic humiliations, and regular people who go on talk shows to tell the world that they are foot fetishists or chronic masturbators or infantilists, and a computer network that can summon a pneumatic cyber-babe to your screen anytime you want her. In such a world, who could deny the power of a secret?
To look at these pictures, and others like them from the ‘50s and earlier, is to remember that there was a time when taking off your clothes was a potent gesture, when the mere fact of a naked woman, no matter how imperfect her body or coy her stance, could be thrilling. This is why almost all the old pin-ups have a kind of poignance. Most of them no longer arouse; the frontiers of the sexually explicit–the amount of flesh and of actual or simulated sex required to turn the viewer on–are always being pushed further. What was once erotic may now seem quaint or dumb. The Orientalist vamps of the 1910s and 1920s–Little Egypt (“See her dance the Hootchy-Kootchy. Anywhere else but in the ocean breezes of Coney Island she would be consumed by her own fire!”) or the silent screen star Theda Bara (advertised as the woman who “Ruined 50 men, made 150 families suffer!”)–look ridiculous now. Their faces are like masks, their bodies girded, gilded, unapproachable. Not only are they gone; so, too is the world in which they would have been found seductive. And the cycle moves ever more quickly. In her Gaultier bra, Madonna seems foolish and passé now. The anatomy never changes, but the body has a history.
Bettie Page still looks beautiful, and sexy too, but by today’s standards even her bondage photographs are rather tame. Nobody is naked; nobody is pretending to have sex (or having it); there are no crotch shots. If we look closely at these pictures, we can still, barely, recover the feeling that they were scandalous. After all, when Irving Klaw was investigated by the Kefauver Commission, he was labeled “one of the largest distributors of obscene, lewd, and fetish photographs throughout the country by mail,” a trafficker in “base emotions” and a contributor to juvenile delinquency.
In Hardboiled America, his elegant rumination on the fate of the pulp novel, Geoffrey O’Brien invokes the contemporary regard for ‘50s pulp writers such as Jim Thompson, who in their own day were commonly dismissed as cheap nihilists.
What would once have been inconceivable was that Jim Thompson should seem, if not exactly a voice of reason, then at least a reassuring voice from down home, a both-feet-on-the-ground messenger from a time and place where things looked just as cheap as they were.... If Thompson was supremely alienated, there had at least been a world for him to be alienated from. His industrial wastelands and hellish hotel rooms, his bus stations steeped in boredom and simmering disgust, represented some kind of geography, some minimal sense of location. He may have evoked it only to destroy it, but it had after all been there for him to destroy. His books spoke of a time when it was still unusual to feel the way his heroes felt, or at least to acknowledge the fact. It had become in retrospect a heroic period: gratuitous evil and affectless violence meant something back then.
The same could be said of the Bettie Page photographs. Finally they are tinged with pathos, since they are survivals of a time when fetishism and exhibitionism and ordinary sexual adventure really meant something, when their setting was the cheesy chiaroscuro world of roadside motels with linoleum floors and vinyl furniture, not the fake expensive world of fashion magazines and rock videos, a time before pseudo-porn seeped into advertising and was made pleasant and normal. These images remind us what it was like when erotica was mostly hidden. There are many reasons to oppose repression, but in the universe of repression, one learned the twin arts of fantasy and mystery. Bettie Page always seemed so good when she was being so bad. It is a paradox made of distinctions that we have almost completely destroyed. Poor glutted smirking us. If we cannot be bad, how will we be good?