Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bondage Babe Bettie Page Dies at 85

http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1866059,00.html

Bondage Babe Bettie Page Dies at 85
By Richard Corliss
Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008

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!"

SWAMI, MEET GARBO

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 Robert Foster's sympathetic and scrupulous book The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pinups, is even stranger.

DREAM DANCE BY BETTIE

Born April 22, 1923, in Nashville, to a strictly Christian family, the future pin-up queen was more like a prom queen. Sunny and popular, Bettie May Page was a member of the high school debating team, appeared in theatricals and co-edited the literary magazine. Her grades (second highest average in the class) earned her salutatorian status on graduation day. She married Billy Neal, a good-looking football player from another school; she attended and graduated from George Peabody Teachers College, then headed for Hollywood, where in 1945 she landed a screen test at 20th Century-Fox.

Fox didn't sign Bettie. The story goes that she was sent packing after she rejected a studio executive's horny attentions. By her own account, it was not the first or last time that she had to decide whether to submit to a man's priapic predations. Late in life she declared that her father had sexually abused her as a child. She also described an incident in New York where a young fellow asked her if she wanted to go dancing and, when she got in his car, took her to a spot in Queens where she was forced to perform fellatio on a half-dozen men.

After a stop in Miami, Bettie arrived in New York City to pursue a serious career as an actress. Like thousands of other bright young things, Bettie auditioned for plays and films, without success, and got a few minor roles in early live TV. One afternoon, on the Coney Island beach, she was approached by a young off-duty policeman and asked if she'd pose for some pictures. Perform? Why not? Thanks to the cop, Jerry Tibbs, Bettie received her first lessons in modeling. Tibbs also offered Bettie some prescient advice: Wear bangs. The new hairdo hid her high forehead, provided a straight-line frame for her round face and her pert lips. Voila! She now looked like Bettie Page.

Soon she was posing for Camera Clubs — groups of amateur photographers, almost always men, who got to hone their craft and be near pretty women by taking cheesecake pictures. Professionals noticed her as well, and Bettie had a career as a skin-rag cover girl, though to her it was a rent-paying sideline to her acting studies. Why did she do it? Probably, because she was good at it. When the cameras clicked, her personality clicked on. No wonder she kept smiling.

She created an erotic illusion in men's minds — clouded and clarified them — without the airbrushing and soft focus of the Playboy nudes, without the sexy repartee that screenwriters gave Marilyn Monroe. Bettie was the sole creator of her myth; she was her own auteur. But her gifts were best appreciated in motion, not in repose. To express and exploit them fully, she needed to be liberated from the pages of Eyeful and Titter and be seen in pictures that moved. Enter Irving Klaw.

BOUND FOR GLORY

Bettie could have done burlesque; she had the fan base and, heaven knows, the moves. She did appear in three filmed burlesque shows: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955). But for Bettie and her fans, a public exhibition couldn't compete with a private audience. As mail-order products for an audience of one-at-a-time, the Klaw films — which Irving produced and Paula, usually, directed — helped Bettie create an intimacy with the solo spectator.

Shot in the '50s, these movies seem to come from a much earlier decade: They have the feel of the first Edison documentaries, when the camera recorded ordinary events with ethnographic avidity. In most of the extant Klaw movies, all Bettie does is dance.

And, boy, could she dance.

In "G-String" Dance by Betty (available on the Bettie Page Something Weird Video and on the DVD Betty Page Uncensored), she gives herself a nonstop workout: shimmying, gracefully waving her arms, pausing briefly to adjust her fringed costume. But she never loses eye and mind contact with the viewer. The erotic pull is secondary to the emotional magnetism. This is plain old star quality, and the folks at Fox must have been blind to miss it.

Bettie was a marvel, shaking her tush in those Klaw non-music videos. (Astonishingly, there was no music in the downtown lofts that made do as her movie sets; whatever she danced to was in her head.) But Irving had other aspirations than being the Busby Berkeley of schmutz. A businessman above all, he needed to please his clientele. Some wanted to see Bettie don leather frocks. That was fine with Klaw. He was open to suggestions, so long as there was no nudity; Irving thought that would keep him safe from the feds. And though Bettie posed nude for still photographers, she didn't strip for Klaw. If she did anything with clothes, it was put 'em on (Delightful Betty Dresses Up).

A few of Klaw's patrons had more elaborate ideas. Irving was happy to oblige; and Bettie, happy or not, obliged too. By modern standards, the results were mild. In films with explicitly descriptive catalog titles (Hobbled in Kid Leather Harness), a woman will be tied up, or ball-gagged, or put in the trunk of a car. This time, Bettie shared the screen with another woman, usually Roz Greenwood — the star couldn't put herself in bondage. But the performers never got hurt; at times you'll catch them giggling at the indignities they were asked to portray. If there's kink it's pure nostalgia. Kids today, seeing these (and they do), probably think it's kinky that their granddads thought it was kinky.

It was Klaw's misfortune that the FBI and the Post Office thought just that. They hounded him until he decided to burn the negatives of his films. Irving died in 1966, at 55. Paula, deputized to do the incineration, wisely saved some of Bettie's films from the flames, and gave her star a legacy.

THE FELONIOUS BETTIE PAGE

Her biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page, begins and ends in religious fervor. The film climaxes with its heroine being born again as a proselytizing Christian. It's an old-fashioned Hollywood resolution that couldn't be further from the sordid truth.

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 Robert Foster in The Real Bettie Page, 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, Fitzpatrick "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. His 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 Esther's 77-year-old husband, Bettie, unprovoked, attacked the woman 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. The following year 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, Foster writes, "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." 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.

TEASER GIRL IN HIGH HEELS

Late in life, the real Bettie Page apparently buried, or tamed, her demons. In 2003, when she was 80, she finally posed for a public picture, her first in more than four decades that wasn't taken by a police photographer. Her hair was gray, but the bangs and the apple cheeks and the Edenic smile were there, undiluted. The octogenerian Bettie still took a great closeup.

Maybe it's a mistake to ask who Bettie was. Watching her dance, or being touched by her smile, or monitoring the inane dedication she brings to tying up or getting tied down, viewers may get the feeling they know Bettie Page the person, when all they're getting is what Bettie Page the performer wants them to see. She gave 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's biopic nor the host of Bettie-maniacs, young and old, could penetrate it.

Besides, any full-time movie lover is a closet Platonist. We believe that the truth is up there on the screen — that the shadows on the wall have more validity than the people who put them there. To her generations of fans, the real Bettie Page is that two-dimensional image, forever young, tender, sexy and smiling.

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