I realized this morning while reading obituaries for legendary pinup Bettie Page, who died yesterday at 85, that I really didn't know anything about the woman, despite her ubiquity as a pop culture icon for my entire adult lifetime. I never saw the movie "The Notorious Bettie Page," never read a biography or even a magazine article about her. Truth be told, I didn't even realize she was still alive until a week or so ago, when I read that she was gravely ill.
Yet I knew her face and body extremely well. In the last 15 years or so, her image has been plastered on everything from shot glasses to jewelry to one of the stalls at my local bar -- not to mention the endless homages to Page, from retro clothing designers to every second Bust magazine cover girl to most of Marilyn Manson's girlfriends. It was sobering to realize that was all I knew -- what she looked like 50 years ago -- about someone who seemed so overwhelmingly familiar.
According to the L.A. Times, Page wanted it that way, refusing to have her face photographed in recent years, saying, "I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times." She certainly will be remembered as such, but the rest of the story is so much more interesting. After she quit modeling at age 35, Page married and divorced twice, became a born-again Christian, attacked her landlady with a knife, and spent 10 years in a mental hospital -- emerging to learn that people were once again going gaga over her pinup photos. After having struggled financially for years, "with the help of admirers including [Hugh] Hefner, Page finally began receiving a respectable income." In the last five years, Bettiepage.com has reportedly received about 600 million hits. Nice recycled work if you can get it.
Page said she got into pinup posing because "I could make more money in a few hours modeling than I could earn in a week as a secretary." In light of her status as a darling of third-wave feminists -- between the sexual liberation and the cute bangs, what's not to love? -- it's worth remembering that her fame came, at least in part, from a lack of options. Page had already tried and rejected being a teacher, a secretary and a housewife when she got into modeling -- there weren't too many more careers available to women of her generation. And although Page was, according to her New York Times obit, a nearly straight-A student and a graduate of teacher's college, she's best known today in two dimensions, as a young face and body on posters, playing cards, Zippos, T-shirts, tattoos and tampon cases. I'm not sure if it makes me feel better or worse that she said that's how she wanted to be remembered.