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Betty Page Confidential
By Stan Corwin Productions, Bunny Yeager
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1994 Stan Corwin Productions Ltd.
All rights reserved.
The Betty Page Story
She was the queen of fifties pinups, the princess of whips and chains. She became a living legend, disappeared into seclusion — only to emerge again as a nineties cult goddess and national obsession. She became the Betty Page of our dreams and the Betty Page of our memories.
She was an icon from another nostalgic time ago — a different kind of Marilyn Monroe image — that spawned a cult obsession that would transcend a forty-year generation. Betty Page would belong to the ages. She would belong to our national popular culture. Betty Page would live on forever in our fantasies.
It began on April 22, 1923 — pre-Roaring Twenties, Warren Harding's scandal-ridden presidency. Like Davy Crockett, Betty Page was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee — Kingsport, just outside of Nashville. She was the daughter of Roy and Edna Page. Her mother was part Cherokee Indian. Her dad, part boozer and womanizer. When her father died during the deep depression of 1938, Betty and her brother and sister were sent to an orphanage.
A young and voluptuous teen, Betty Page attended Nashville's Hume-Fogg High School where she was active in thespian and debate club extracurriculars. She maintained an A average and generally disdained dating and social pursuits. Upon graduation, her academic achievements earned her a DAR scholarship to Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville. With her eventual B.A. degree and a teaching certificate in hand, Betty taught English at a local high school. But her career as a teacher was short-lived.
She married her high-school sweetheart, Billy Neal, in 1942, just prior to his World War II enlistment in the Navy. Betty soon relocated to San Francisco where her sister lived. But she was restless and ambitious, and her unusually sexual look soon beckoned her to Hollywood, U.S.A.
While her husband was off in the Pacific theater, Betty consumed Hollywood — taking acting classes and singing and dancing lessons. But she was not "discovered" until a man named Art Grayson, chief honcho of a tiny talent agency, took some spec pictures of her and submitted them to the august studios of 20th Century-Fox.
Overleaf: This was the world Betty Page tried to conquer. Pictured is Times Square in 1952, in its post-burlesque and pre-video arcade era. (UPI/Bettman)
Her Fox screen test in 1945 almost paralleled the birth of Marilyn — at the same time, some studio. But her Hollywood debut fizzled from its inception. "Not the look," "Too strong a Southern accent," was the word handed down.
When her husband, Billy, returned from the war in 1946, Betty Page said good-bye to Hollywood and the dream factory and moved back home to Nashville. But the convenient marriage of high school sweethearts soon evaporated. Betty departed to Miami, then to Haiti briefly.
She came to New York City in 1948 — as a secretary on Wall Street — but in search of a career as a model and actress. Betty took acting lessons which cost money. To supplement her income she posed as a model. She also appeared in some summer stock theater in New York and Pennsylvania over the next few years, but her distinctive accent and sensuality limited her acting roles.
Circa 1952, as the legendary story goes, Betty Page was discovered — by an amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs. He found her on the sand at Jones Beach, Long Island, and took some photo shots of her. He also suggested that she comb her black bangs down to just above her eyes.
Tibbs submitted his new-look photos of Betty to Robert Harrison's beauty magazines — Wink, Titter, and Eyeful. The covers of these sizzling magazines always featured a pinup and were filled with scantily clad beauties in burlesque-type poses. Harrison was duly impressed with the new standard of beauty that Betty set with her dark black shoulder-length hair, accompanying bangs, and exotic, voluptuous figure. It was Harrison who then introduced Betty to Irving Klaw, the self-promoting impresario of mail-order girlie pix. It was the early 1950s, a time of Ike and Willie Mays — and Betty Page was about to become a girlie pic superstar of Irving Klaw's famed Movie Star News and Movie Parade. She was about to become the queen of bondage pinups.
Irving and his sister Paula Klaw were one of the first to sell movie star pictures. When their business grew, they realized that there was an overt demand for "naughty" pictures which featured light bondage and sprawling situations, something the Klows could not supply through Hollywood. It was then that they began using local New York models. Irving Klaw had sensationalized the world of girlie pix with sultry sirens in bondage poses — girls fighting with each other, women being tied up or "tortured" with whips and chains, women in peril or in simulated pain. Betty Page soon became his star performer. A photographer's dream, she began to appear in Klaw short films with enticing names like Teaserama and Striporama (which also costarred famed stripper Lili St. Cyr). She had that look, that curvaceous body, and the sensual aura that turned on the stag-party audience and libidos of men and boys. For several years she appeared in over fifty Irving Klaw film shorts. She had captivated mole fantasies everywhere. She was truly the "Queen of Bondage."
In the mid-fifties, Betty ambitiously sought to free herself from her bondage: aura. She took acting lessons from Herbert Berghof, tried to get into The Actors Studio, and regularly auditioned for Broadway and summer-stock roles. She made several appearances on the summer circuit at Long Island playhouses. She also played a small dramatic part on "The U.S. Steel Hour" and was included in a few television variety programs. It was rumored that Howard Hughes solicited Irving Klaw about the availability of Betty Page, but she turned him down.
Although nothing starworthy or memorable materialized in her acting career, Betty found adulation and remuneration from her "camera club" shootings. Professional and amateur photographers would continuously snap her pictures for an hourly fee. During this period of "Betty exploitation," her personal life was remarkably quiet and nondescript, with no particularly known men or lovers as companions. She had fewer female friends.
It was during the summer of 1954 that Betty fortuitously met glamour model and photographer Bunny Yeager during a brief Florida respite. Bunny and Betty were an ideal connection. Bunny was totally oblivious to Betty's "scandalous" stint as the queen of Irving Klaw's gidie caravan. What she perceived was a stunning brunette with a curvy figure and a sensual, sexual face to match. Bunny created lingerie scenes for Betty, as well as outdoor shots in bikinis and swim apparel. A "new look"-Betty emerged from the sessions with Bunny Yeager — some of the most celebrated and much-collected photos of Betty Page ever taken. Bunny created a Betty Page aura of a clean-cut yet very sexual woman that led to Betty's instant success as one of America's top models of the mid-fifties.
The culmination of the Betty-Bunny photographic association led to the ultimate pinup accolade. Bunny's now-celebrated "Santa Claus" photo nude of Betty became the Playboy centerfold for January 1955. Betty Page had graduated from whips and chains and girlie cheesecake magazines to the centerfold of Playboy. She was one of the first playmates chosen by Hugh Hefner and his young publication. Soon she would capture the sexual fantasies of almost every man in America.
And that fleeting moment of instant fame turned out to be the pinnacle of Betty's career. The McCarthy era had begun to purge America. It led to witch-hunting and Congressional committees and a man with a coonskin cap named Senator Estes Kefauver, whose eponymous committee moved into the world of obscenity investigation. They descended upon New York City in 1955 looking for evil purveyors of smut and obscene materials.
They soon found their prototypical culprit. Irving Klaw and his bondage and girlie magazines and catalogs were subpoenaed, investigated, and virtually put out of business. His sister, Paula, tried to move the operation to New Jersey but to no avail. Klaw was subsequently indicted for United States mail fraud and for publishing obscene literature. Thousands of bondage negatives, including many of Betty Page, were destroyed in a shredder. Irving Klaw was a busted, broken man. There was nothing left, and he died just a few years later.
Betty was subpoenaed, and testified before the investigative committee counsel. She pleaded Irving Klaw's innocence, but Senator Kefauver reprimanded her with a lecture about the evils of sin and pornography. There is a (perhaps) apocryphal tale told about an encounter between the colorful senator and the coquettish Betty. When Kefauver asked her opinion of black mesh stockings and lacy lingerie, Betty remarked, "I think they're quite cute."
The Kefauver Committee went home to Washington but, in its wake, left a broken Irving Klaw, a shattered girlie sex industry, and a Betty Page at a career standstill. By 1957 Betty's pinup career was on the wane, and her acting aspirations had never materialized. It was time to leave New York for good, to leave behind a legendary collection of classic bondage and pinup photos and memories.
Betty migrated to Florida once again — first to Fort Lauderdale, then on to Key West where she married a man named Armand. She floated in and out of teaching and secretarial jobs but found no life fulfillment. In 1960, she left her new husband and returned again to Hollywood, California.
Instead of seeking the acting or modeling life, this time she sought religion. She attended Bible classes and was a disciple of the Billy Graham Crusade which took her to Chicago, then bock home to Nashville and then to Miami — where she married and divorced again — this time to a man named Harry Lear. By the late 1970s, Betty was living in a Los Angeles suburb, as reclusive and mysterious as ever.
But the Betty Page cult began to creep into nostalgia and then obsession. The original Irving Klaw bondage flicks were being sold in comic and pop art stores across America. The "collectors" postcards started to appear and proliferate. And then the catalyst arrived in the emergence of Betty Page as a fictionalized love interest in Dave Stevens's popular graphic comic, The Rocketeer.
In 1987-88, Greg Theakston created The Betty Pages — a magazine pastiche of the best and worst of Betty. It was the catalog of Bettymania and Betty collectibles. Betty had become an almost overnight cult icon — with national profiles on Robin Leach's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and "Entertainment Tonight," and features in Rolling Stone and Playboy magazines.
This ignited a national craze of Betty Page memorabilia: trading cards, dolls, mugs, posters, T-shirts, a play, Bunny Yeager photo collectibles, and every conceivable kind of merchandising likeness of the Betty Page pinup. Like Elvis, like James Dean — the Betty Page business had become a national obsession.
The real Betty Page is still alive — a recluse living somewhere in the midst of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. The Betty Page cult phenomenon is also very much alive — a fifties icon who lives in our hearts, minds, and libidos and makes us lust for the good ol' days when Betty was the pinup of our youth.CHAPTER 2
by Bunny Yeager
Betty Page was the best pinup/glamour model I have ever photographed. She had excellent facial features and she knew all the body positions to make her figure look like it was perfect, even though it was not. When a camera was pointed at her, she was always "on," full of energy and with numerous animated expressions. When she was posing for me she always seemed to look like she was having the best time of her life, and maybe that was it ... maybe it was the best time of her life. Perhaps when she posed playfully in the ocean's surf, it took her back to a younger time in her life when she was more innocent and simple things like water and sand could make her feel good. We worked well together and we took photos that have become classics. She was like an orchestra and I was the conductor, and we created poetic picture symphonies together.
The question I'm asked most often is, "How was your first posing session together?"
The year was 1954. I had been enjoying a successful career as a print and fashion model and had earned the reputation of being Florida's most photographed model. I knew all about modeling. I didn't know much about photography. But I had just taken a photography course at Lindsey-Hopkins Vocational Education School in Miami. They taught me the essentials of photography, so I did know about lighting, developing film, and making prints in the darkroom. Creating photographs was something else; they can't teach you that. They can give you tips about how to make the creative process happen, but they can't make it for you. That gift comes from within. In school we used mostly cameras that took 4" x 5" film. When I started shooting girls, I bought a semiprofessional camera called a Rolleicord which took 120 size film and made negatives 2¼" × 2¼". The film advanced in the camera by turning a knob on the side. The professional version of this camera was a Rolleiflex, but I couldn't afford that model until the following year, after I started selling my work.
Somehow Betty got in touch with me when she came to Florida and we set up a shoot date at my friend's photo studio. I didn't know what Betty looked like, but the opportunity to shoot a real New York model was something I couldn't pass up. Until that time, all the girls I worked with were amateurs and wanna-bes. I was used to fixing their hair, doing their makeup, and making them over. I was really looking forward to shooting a professional model who did all this herself. Still, I was a little apprehensive because I knew Betty was older than me and I didn't know how she'd react to my directing her when I knew so little about photography at that time. I didn't know it then, but actually Betty had been posing mostly for amateur photographers every weekend in New York. There would be twenty or twenty-five men of all ages who would go on field trips with Betty and she would pose for them just as spirited as she did for people like Irving Klaw or Harrison Publications. So she really didn't care about my photographic qualifications, as long as she got paid for doing her job. But I know she really enjoyed posing for me because she told me so in an interview I had with her for Interview magazine this year (1993). She loved my pictures that I took of her in 1954.
Back to my friend's studio. ... Betty got there before me and was in the little dressing room adjacent to the shooting area. I walked in and introduced myself and she continued to work on her makeup and brush her hair. She wore a leopard-print silk robe tied around the waist. I was somewhat shy in those days and not good at making small talk with strangers, so I busied myself in the shooting area setting up the lights and placing a hassock in the center for Betty to pose on. It seemed to take forever for Betty to come out of the dressing room. I wasn't used to waiting for a model because, as a model myself, I had always been told I should arrive on the job ready to shoot and not do any makeup or hair styling when I got there. Also, the models I used were beginners and I never had to wait for them because it was I who had to do their hair and makeup. But Betty was always worth waiting for, no matter how long it took.
She came tiptoeing into the shooting area completely nude and ready for instructions. She walked up on her toes because her legs looked better that way ... and also longer. She didn't want anyone to see her walking like normal people with heel and toe both on the ground at the same time. She instinctively knew that walking around on her toes gave the impression of wearing very high heels even when she had no shoes on. You just couldn't catch Betty looking bad. I shot over 1,000 photos of Betty and I think that she only blinked and closed her eyes in one photo. She was always ready for the camera.
When I saw Betty in the nude for the first time, I know my mouth must have dropped open. Here was a live girl who looked like a perfect doll or mannequin. I wasn't used to seeing a girl with an allover tan. Although Betty was from New York, she started nude sunbathing shortly after she arrived and kept her glorious golden color by spending some time in the sun every day without her clothes. She was nude, but she never appeared to be naked. Her skin was flawless — no freckles or moles, and satiny smooth. She used baby oil rubbed sparingly over her body. Her makeup was just what I had wanted. No eye shadow but lots of mascara on her lashes to accent her beautiful blue eyes. She wore no cheek color, but her lips were a bright true red color. It was the shade of red I most preferred for my models because it photographed well both in color and black and white. I never let my models wear the darker reds or purple shades because it made the lips come out too harsh and cheap-looking in black and white. And we were shooting mostly black and white in those days.
Excerpted from Betty Page Confidential by Stan Corwin Productions, Bunny Yeager. Copyright © 1994 Stan Corwin Productions Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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