Bettie Page was the biggest sex symbol of the 1950s. Her pin-up spreads are iconic, her body was unreal, and she’s forever known for her trademark vantablack hair with those sleek brow-sweeping bangs. Bangs that have unfortunately been imitated by cringeworthy indie hipster girls everywhere, but she has yet to be outdone by them.
But what happened when the most famous sex symbol of the 1950s got tired of being ogled by dirty old men? Unfortunately, psychological decline, violence and disaster. Her later years were punctuated by schizophrenic and scary mental breakdowns.
To best understand what brought poor Bettie to point of insanity, it would be advisable to peer back into her troubled youth. Although she looked like a sweet clean-cut girl next door, Bettie was tormented by her abusive rapist father and neglectful mother. She was the second of six children and was horribly deprived of loving, normal parental relationships.
Her mother even deigned to tell Bettie what a period was, and Bettie claims “when I started menstruating at 13, I thought I was dying because she never taught me anything about that.” When her mother’s lover hit on her and tried to pull her into his car, Bettie was blamed and accused of seduction, and sent to go live with her creepy father. The girl who would go on to sell sex had her views of it warped at an early age through no fault of her own.
After graduating school, Bettie tried to become a teacher. She could not control the leering boys in the classroom. She tried her hand at secretarial work, became a typist, learned to sew, do her hair and makeup, got married and subsequently divorced.
In 1945, Bettie landed a screen test with Fox. She declined the advances of a perverted studio head, and they declined her contract. In 1947 she went to New York to try and become an actress. Instead, she was raped by a group of men and quickly left the city.
At this point, anybody in Bettie’s shoes would have lost it. Can you blame her? But she soldiered on and in 1950, an ex NYPD officer with a roaming eye approached Bettie while she walked alone along the dreamy Coney Island shore to offer up a card for his services. Services which were: pin-up model fetish photography. She accepted. As a girl, she had always dreamed of becoming an actress. This wasn’t exactly what she had prayed for, but it was something.
Bettie said of herself at the time ; “I had lost my ambition and desire to succeed and better myself; I was adrift. But I could make more money in a few hours modeling than I could earn in a week as a secretary.” She had a point.
At this time, Bettie grew her trademark bangs to cover her large forehead, which she disliked, or was made to dislike by the cop photographer. He told her the bangs would prevent the sheen of her large forehead from being reflected by the flash of the camera.
From this time onwards, Bettie would do a lot of bondage and S&M photography, partnering up with talented sleaze-makers like Irving Klaw and Bunny Yeager. She starred in striptease movies, she was on magazine covers. The 1950s were a time of prosperity for Bettie Page. Even the FBI tried to have her cheesecake dance clips burned. Everybody wanted a piece of Bettie.
But what did Bettie want? Sci-fi authour Harlan Ellison wrote her salivating praise: “She is simply pure fantasy. A dream girl in all the nicest ways, in that undiluted human passion way that we all shared at some point in our innocence. She is lust in an ice cream cone (two scoops), enthusiasm in the whisper of nylon, postpubescent rambunctiousness in the back seat of a Studebaker Commander. … She was an icon, Venus on the spike heel, the goddess Astarte come again, smoother and sleeker and possibly available.”
The thirst was real.
In 1967, Ellison would write the iconic science fiction short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. And in the late 1950s, Bettie had no mouth (it was revoked from her), just her body, but she was ready to scream.
Bettie left fetish modelling in 1959 to become a born-again Christian. She was 35 years old, in a dull marriage, and felt used and regretted her nude photos. Some claim that Bettie had been informed that a man had died in a bondage session which had somehow involved her photos. This was just too much.
Bettie became a disciple of the showboating reverend Billy Graham. She said of it, “When I gave my life to the Lord I began to think he disapproved of all those nude pictures of me.”
In 1958 she attended a multiracial sermon and became inspired by ideas of peace and equality. She tried to become a missionary in Africa, but was rejected due to her several divorces. She dropped out of college while pursuing a master’s degree.
And then, her life fell apart. 1972 was not a good year for Bettie Page. It reads like one long rap sheet.
In January, Bettie ran wild with a .22 caliber pistol screaming about “the retribution of God” at a ministry retreat. Her sympathetic ex-husband took her home with him.
In April, however, Bettie threatened to stab her ex-husband and children if they refused to pray in front of a portrait of Jesus. “If you take your eyes off this picture, I’ll cut your guts out!,” were her words. She was taken to a mental institution for 4 months, then released.
In October, a cop was called to her ex-husband’s place yet again after Bettie went on a destructive rampage inside. After the officer left the car and returned, 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.” She spent another 6 months in a mental institution.
Things were quiet for awhile until 1979, when she attacked 2 neighbours with a knife. The neighbours were forced to knock her out with a wrench. This time she spent 7 months in an institution.
The worst was yet to come. In 1982, she stabbed her landlady 20 times while yelling “God has inspired me to kill you!” The poor landlady woke up to a possessed Bettie sitting on top of her with a foot-long serrated bread knife. Bettie stabbed her four times in the chest, narrowly missing her heart, stabbed her hand eight times, severing the top of her third finger.
When police came, they “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.” Afterwards, Bettie would spend 10 much-needed years back at an institution.
Following these deranged incidents, Bettie managed to get the help she desperately needed for her schizophrenia, and she stopped attacking people. Sadly, she was penniless for many years, until her son and a team of lawyers helped her profit from royalties of her likeness which were being used in the media. She signed autographs of her pin-ups in her old age, and managed to gain a semblance of stability. Bettie died of a heart attack in 2008.
Her conflicted legacy still remains to this day. Every girl obsessed with vintage glamour wants to look like Bettie. But did we really understand her? Said Bettie in 1998 of her career, “I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It’s just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous.”
With her looks and brains, she never had to pound on a typewriter again. Instead, we intrigued devotees pound on our keyboards to churn out her tragic yet thought-provoking life story.