Bettie Page (1923-2008)


Bettie Page died today. I’d heard, several days ago, that she’d suffered a heart attack, and as I was typing a movie review on one laptop, my girlfriend was on the other and said, “Bettie Page died. Who was Bettie Page?” (Forgive her, she is young, and was born behind the Iron Curtain.)

It was a sad thing to hear. Knowing of her illness, there was context, of course, but still, it’s awful when an icon who meant something to you passes away. The Internet will be full of obituaries (Reuters, BBC) and fan ramblings, so I’ll just say that I was the right age to discover Bettie on her second coming. As a teenager, she reappeared in Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer comics, and Olivia de Bernardinis’ airbrush art, and in a tiny fanzine called “The Betty Pages” that mulled her late-fifties legacy and disappearance, the latter cleared up when Stevens’ work and others’ brought her out of obscurity again. Somewhere in my closet is a red binder holding a few of those fanzines, a couple sets of trading-card reprints of her photos, and even a few of the 3x5s I bought from Irving Claw’s still-extant near-porn mail-order operation.

Bettie Page combined a healthy, athletic sexuality with an innocent playfulness (never more evident, ironically, than in her incongruous “kinky” bondage shots) that is timelessly charming. In her heyday, she represented the cutting edge of sexuality, but in mine, there was a nostalgia to her, a softcore wit and elegance in a hardcore world.

It’s gratifying that her most recent generation of fans was enthusiastic enough that she saw the revival, and enjoyed some celebrity and some royalty payments in her last years. That’s a bit of warm comfort on a strangely cold winter night.