|Bettie Page - The Life of a Pin-up Legend, by Karen Essex and James L. Swanson (General Publishing, Santa Monica 1996, 288 p, ISBN: 1-881649-62-8).|
Bettie Page is a woman of integrity, she does not reveal much about what was going on under the surface in this new coffee table book about her life and career, although she has submitted a short preface of her own hand. This is truly a 90's product, an artifact from this present day, when the paraphernalia of assorted partial sexual drives have become household knowledge. At the same time the book emits the alleged naive charm of easily listenable music and cocktail parties of the 50's - when cigarettes still were good for you and chronic fatigue syndrome was unheard of - not to mention women's lib ...
|There were lots and lots of magazines like this one, but if you were even more broadminded, you had to look under the counter.|
No matter how it is written, a book like this with more than 500 pictures on 388 pages must be remarkable. The text, however, is adequate, written in a rather neutral, still sympathetic, reporting tone.
|Bettie in New York in 1949, then 26 years old and working as a secretary.|
|Some poses resembled those in the stunning drawings of Alberto Vargas, some were more like the arty postures typical of the time.|
At the same time as Bettie posed for those healthy looking beach pictures, she also posed for Irving Klaw's mail orders. Here she appeared with whips and leather, tied up, or wrestling with some other girl in underwear. This was the dark angel side of Bettie Page, according to Essex & Swanson. But with Bettie's attitude to it all, there seems to have been no discrepancy between the different kinds of modeling.
In the mid 50's there were a lot of investigations going on, not only of the alleged communist infiltration within the movie industry, but of all sorts of culture regarded as indecent and harmful to moral standards. In 1956 the Elia Kazan movie Baby Doll with Karl Malden was banned by the Legion of Decency. In 1955 Irving Klaw became subject to a senate investigation, that tried to link pornography with juvenile delinqency. Klaw couldn't stand up to this kind of pressure, and in '57 he closed his business - and that also put an end to Bettie's modeling years.
This brings us to the year 1978, when the revival slowly picked up steam with the release of the first of Belier's Private Peeks. Robert Blue also made his - in my opinion - hideous airbrush paintings of famous Bettie Page poses. (I can imagine why he made them. There is no other way to really make a paper doll a doll the other fellas cannot steal. But then, why publish them?)
During the 80's and early 90's Bettie Page appeared in comic strips, by Eric Stanton and Dave Stevens for instance, illustrators like Frank Frazetta or Olivia De Barardinis drew and painted her, she ended up on posters for rock bands, and today crowds of Bettie Page look-alikes are filling the runways and covers of fashion magazines. Bettie even paved the way for a model's right to smile again in fashion photography. But nobody can, of course, compete with the real Bettie:
"I've never seen the impish glee in Bettie's eyes in any other model," says fashion editor of USA Today, Elizabeth Snead, in the Essex & Swanson book. And photographer Albert Watson is also quoted: "She may have appeared in cheap magazines, on cheap postcards, or was shot by some bad photographers, but she always rose above that. Seventy or eighty percent of her photographs, you could run in Vogue."
Today's models may cram the fashion scene with all of Bettie Page's fetish ware in slightly updated versions by Versace or Dolce & Gabbana, and some of them may even resemble Bettie, but they certainly don't look as healthy.
As illustrator John Silke points out in his book Bettie Page, Queen of Hearts (Dark Horse Books, Milwaukie, Oregon, 1995, ISBN 1-56971-124-0), Bettie seems to be in motion, even in her stills, they have a before and an after. We can imagine Bunny Yeager or Paula Klaw asking her to adopt yet another pose, or we can invent our own narrative ... This sense of motion is not so much a question of pose, or of certain angles of legs and arms, but mostly a question of her facial expression, her gaze. Intended motion, not mimicked motion.
"It seemed she would anticipate just what I wanted," Bunny Yeager says in Silke's book, "I would just throw adjectives at her, 'Look devilish! Questioning! Seductive! Surprised! Breathless! Innocent! Vivacious! Wanton! Dominating! Teasing!' It was like we were dancing together". "I was expressing myself with her body instead of mine," Yeager explains in Essex & Swanson. Bettie, on the other hand, says to Essex & Swanson that she tried to imagine the camera as if it were a man.
... still nice and pleasant somehow. No matter how bizarre the situation, she nevertheless kept her cheerful attitude.
Bettie had a special talent for posing, that is obvious, even judging from the amateur pictures. Although they often were badly staged and lit, they convey the same persona, so it couldn't have been just in the eye of the professional photographer.
There are some pictures where she seems almost caught off-guard, were she reveals for a possibly unintended moment, an expression of some strange gravity. It would be easy to imagine this as the true Bettie - and the smiling Bettie as a commercial trademark, forced upon her by exploitation. Her sign were the smile and the bangs, and it was probably her very own. The 50's was a dashing decade alright, filled with post-war optimism - and maybe a trace of paranoia - but smiling bondage queens were not that common. The innocence of that scant and sweet clothing of her own design, together with occasional whips and ropes, made her at the same time both good and bad. But the off-guard pictures seem neither good nor bad; they just signal some kind of danger.
The both complex and straightforward, for short: enigmatic, nature of Bettie Page, together with the fact that she has not yet been used up by the proper movie industry, like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, makes her perfect as raw material for contemporary dreams. The risk of course could be that a book like this de-iconizes her, remoulds her into a human like us, with everyday problems. On the other hand, that will probably work too. After all, we do live in the age of Ricki Lake and Oprah Winfrey.
Starwave's Celebrity Lounge interview with Bettie Page, March 1996
A Bettie Page Hyperlist of Sites
About the author.