(I wrote this while working briefly in the mainstream earlier this year. [See the series “Reality Bites” for more on my jaunt into these nether regions, if interested.] As with everything else, it needs work, but I’m posting it today because there’s apparently a new movie on Bettie. And because she deserves it.)
I was not trying to be shocking, or to be a pioneer. I wasn’t trying to change society, or to be ahead of my time. I didn’t think of myself as liberated, and I don’t believe that I did anything important. I was just myself. I didn’t know any other way to be, or any other way to live.
— Bettie Page
Bettie Page was one of a kind, light years ahead of her time. The quote above illustrates why I love her dearly. Bettie was innocent, direct, uncomplicated, yet one of the edgiest and sexiest women to emerge during an era obsessed with good girl social mores. Unlike the era’s most glamorized sexual icon, Marilyn, who used sex and persona quite smartly to lift herself from poverty and become the quintessential sex product, Bettie’s sexual approach reflected a lust for life, simplicity, and, most important, to this writer, her free spirit.
Bettie really was no man’s woman, without even thinking about it. Bettie was just Bettie, doing what she loved. Marilyn became every man’s victim in achieving icon immortality, hitching herself to the most famous men of her generation: the Kennedy brothers, DiMaggio, Miller. She was for at least three of these men, a trophy. Seemingly not much more, if you prod a little. (Miller has said some pretty shitty and inappropriate things about her, leaving a nasty taste in my mouth for any of his so-called literary achievements.) By most accounts, Marilyn’s career behind the scenes belied an intelligent if not shrewd woman who sold the illusion of innocent, helpless female sexuality, a deliberately played angelic persona that still besots most of us, and was famously worshipped by Norman Mailer.
But Bettie, who made her own fetish clothes and bathing suits for her photo shoots, lived freely. She simply loved being nude and healthy, loved the camera, saw nothing wrong with the body’s beauty, didn’t use her own beauty with ulterior motives. She exercised on the beach, every day. She made her own clothes. She modeled, and then she paid her bills, most of the time. She lived with an open heart and free spirit, no strings attached.
Marilyn knew what to do with her gifts, and became their slave while writing herself in the collective imagination; Bettie enjoyed an off-beat dialogue with the fringes of culture, and overcame a painful personal history while remaining true to herself. Bettie never played the victim, on or off camera.
Her life was beautiful, poetic, tragic, and quasi-heroic, though I have off-beat ideas of heroism.
I admire Bettie’s sweetness, her guilelessness, and her joie de vivre. In front of the camera, she often portrayed the vixen, a smoldering cauldron of dark sexuality and all things forbidden, the fallen angel ready to escort you to the recesses of hell. In fact, she never saw the same morality boxes as others, and she lived her life as Bettie, a beautiful woman who saw no shame in G-d’s creation, including her own.
In her later years, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was unaware of her impact until much later in her life. She lived quietly and anonymously, and only when a very persistent journalist managed to eventually track her down, did she learn of her popularity. Her uncomplicated, straightforward egoless approach left a star less bright than many of her mainstream blonde contemporaries, but her personal life was just as riddled with pain and hardship. Failed marriages, a gang rape, overwhelming financial difficulties, miscarriages.
In her later years, after discovering her cult status, she avoided having her picture taken, for fear of disappointing those who had come to know and love her as she was in her youth. Vanity? Perhaps. But I think she really was afraid of disappointing her fans — it was a vanity of sentiment, a respect for those who held an image of her in their hearts that she didn’t want to ruin. Not female vanity, but human generosity.
Bettie Page, an angel unaware.
Sex is a part of love. You shouldn’t go around doing it unless you are in love. — Bettie Page