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A Golden Age for a Pinup

The State | COLUMN ONE

Bettie Page -- Nurse Bettie, Jungle Bettie -- soldiered in the sexual revolution. At 82, she finds her image earns a respectable living.

March 11, 2006|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Bettie Page was plunging into the day's work: autographing pinups of herself in various Naughty Girl personas, with kitschy bangs, high heels, mesh hose and tasseled underwear.

Nurse Bettie. Jester Bettie. Substitute Teacher Bettie. Maid Bettie. Voodoo Bettie. Cowgirl Bettie. Jungle Bettie. Wild Orchid Bettie. Banned in Boston Bettie. Crackers in Bed Bettie.

The task ahead was arduous given her many ailments, including diabetes and stabbing pains in her back, legs and hands.

But the 82-year-old Page -- a taboo-breaker who helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s -- is not a quitter.

"I'm about ready to roll," she said in a Southern drawl, freshening her bright red lipstick. "But I'm going to go slow. I won't squiggle if I write slow."

CMG Worldwide, the company that markets her image, had organized the event at its Sunset Boulevard penthouse offices. The idea was to get Page's autograph on as many prints as possible, because demand for anything Page-related is soaring.

Between 1949 and 1957 she was immortalized in thousands of saucy photos. Those images have spawned biographies, comic books, fan clubs and numerous websites, as well as commercial products -- Bettie Page playing cards, Bettie Page lunch boxes, Bettie Page beach towels, Bettie Page action figures.

According to her agents at CMG, who control the images of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, Page's official website, www.BettiePage.com, has received 588 million hits over the last five years. That's cult status.

For the last 13 years, she's been living in seclusion in various Southern California communities. Nearly five decades after the last photos of her appeared in magazines like Chicks and Chuckles, Page is finally earning a respectable income for her work.

"I'm more famous now than I was in the 1950s," she said.

Page needed about a minute to get through the 10 letters of her name. As she pushed her pen, she reflected on her life and faith and work.

"Being in the nude isn't a disgrace unless you're being promiscuous about it," she said. She added with a laugh, "After all, when God created Adam and Eve, they were stark naked. And in the Garden of Eden, God was probably naked as a jaybird too!"

"You're right about that, Bettie," said Maricel Hildalgo of the Tamara Bane Gallery on North La Brea Avenue in L.A. The gallery had hustled $100,000 worth of paintings and posters to CMG the moment Page agreed to make herself available for autographs.

"My land! Is that supposed to be me?" asked Page, surveying a painting of her reclining in a negligee with an ecstatic smile on her face.

Putting pen to canvas and concentrating mightily, she muttered, "I was never that pretty."

But to generations of men, she was.

She was born Bettie Mae Page in Jackson, Tenn., 105 miles southwest of Nashville. She was the oldest girl among Roy and Edna Page's six children. Roy, an auto mechanic, "molested all three of his daughters," Page said.

Edna divorced Roy in 1933 after he got a teenager pregnant, but life didn't get any easier for Bettie.

"All I ever wanted was a mother who paid attention to me," Page recalled. "She didn't want girls. She thought we were trouble. She didn't help with homework or teach me to sew or cook.

"She didn't go to the school plays I was in or go to my high school graduation.

"When I started menstruating at 13, I thought I was dying because she never taught me anything about that."

Two weeks before her final exams in high school, her mother's much younger lover "tried to pull me into his car. My mother nearly murdered me over that, then made me live with my father. So I couldn't review my exam notes, which were at home.

"Because of that I got beat out of graduating valedictorian by a quarter of a grade point and lost my dream of getting a scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University," she said. "It was the worst disappointment of my life."

As she continued to labor on the autographs, Page marveled at a portrait of her as a teacher -- albeit one in impossibly high heels and with voluptuous curves encased in leather.

"Look at those big long legs on 9-inch heels," she said. "I look 9 feet tall."

But she could relate to the painting's basic theme. After high school, Page earned a teaching credential. But her teaching career was short-lived.

"I couldn't control my students, especially the boys," she said.

She tried secretarial work and marriage. But by 1948 she was divorced and had moved to New York and enrolled in acting classes.

Strolling the beach at Coney Island, Page crossed paths with New York police officer and amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs, who introduced her to shutterbug clubs and suggested she wear bangs to help cover a slightly protruding forehead.

From the start, Page -- whose measurements were 36-24-37 -- preferred the skimpy outfits she designed and sewed at home.

"I made all of my bikinis and most of my lingerie," she said. "My favorite was my first bikini. It was green with a little rickrack all around it."

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