1950s pin-up extraordinaire Bettie Page died yesterday at the age of 85; she had been hospitalized for the better part of a month, first with pneumonia and then a heart attack.
She spent a few years in the spotlight — a notorious spotlight, to be sure — and decades in obscurity. She wasn't a b-movie starlet or a burlesque queen: She just posed for pictures, professional and amateur, and made spicy loops sold through the back of magazines. She couldn't dance for the life of her, though she made plenty of short films in which she gives it her game best, like this one:
But Page sold men's magazines like a champ, a raven-haired siren with a handsome but human-scale figure in an age when pneumatic blondes were all the rage. And after the old pin ups were supplanted by the ever-more explicit erotica of the 1960s, she continued to inspire paintings, comic strips, tattoo art and fan magazines. Bettie Page was a bonafide star, and women are as captivated as men.
It's all about that wide smile and good-natured sauciness: Page did pictures that would be deemed too mild for Maxim; goofy "comic" spreads that attest to an admirable willingness to look like an idiot while wearing a French-maid outfit; and boondage/fetish photos and films that are pretty racy even by today's standards. But she never had that vacant look that hints at a lifetime of damage, despite the fact that she had more than her share. Page never looked like a hardened gold digger, parlaying what she had into what she wanted; she might have been better off if she'd been more tough-minded about getting paid, but she wasn't.
Page genuinely looked as though she got a kick out of posing in naughty costumes, many of which she designed and sewed herself. She made posing for dirty pictures look like good fun.
Page's self-confidence and can-do optimism were an illusion; much of her later life was blighted by poverty and mental illness. Enterprising fans tracked her down in the mid-1990s, and she finally saw some income from the lucrative industry that had grown around her old pictures. But Page stayed in the shadows, telling interviewers she didn't want to be photographed as an old lady.
She wanted to be remembered as she was, and she is.