Who is the real bettie page?
For generations of men and women, Bettie Page, “the Queen of Curves,” transmits more sex appeal via a single eight-by-ten glossy than Pamela Anderson Lee or Jenny McCarthy could dream of generating in their combined lifetimes.
It takes very little introspection to arrive at one of the primary reasons for Bettie Page’s appeal. Her image, as silently projected through thousands of photos (and even a few hundred yards of film), creates a personal illusion for each and every one of us.
The mystery is almost sacred. We have no idea who she is, yet each of us feels as though she’s a personal friend. We are convinced her smile is genuine. We are assured that her grimace is a put-on.
Many have posed, but few are chosen: Bettie Page was --- is --- a blank slate for our fantasies, the epitome of pinup art.
The publication in 1996 of Page’s official biography, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend (General Publishing Group; re-released in softcover this March), by Karen Essex and James Swanson, only heightened her allure. Written with Bettie’s cooperation, the book relates the struggles of her childhood and teen years: cruel treatment at the hands of wretched parents (lecherous father and inhumane mother); early heartbreak (Bettie missed her high school valedictorian title, and resultant scholarship to Vanderbilt University, by a quarter of a grade point); and brushes with near-fatal violence (alone in New York, Bettie survived a vicious gang-rape). Though beset by such grim fate, we never for a moment get the impression that Bettie expended any pity on herself. On the contrary, she was all forward momentum.
Her career around the fringes of the public eye, self-driven and self-managed, emerges as a tale of independence from an era wherein women at any level of show business rarely controlled their own fate. True, it was a man (policeman and photographer Jerry Tibbs, to be specific) who suggested her trademark bangs, but everything else that makes up the “Bettie Page iconography”--- the costumes, poses and poise, seemingly effortless smile, gleaming eyes, whim-imposed geographic wanderings, avoidance of the casting couch, and even blissful ignorance of the fetishes driving Irving Klaw’s leather-and-whips shoots-sprung from her alone. Bettie, it seemed, lived a full life, followed her bliss, and adhered to her own standards to the end.
And survived. When the lifestyle became onerous --- by dint of the Kefauver hearings, predatory men, and impending age (her pin-up career peaked while she was already in her thirties) --- Bettie simply slipped away into a life of religion and unfortunate failed marriages. Notwithstanding the lack of a Hollywood-type tidy ending, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend leaves us with the image of Bettie that we desperately want to believe in: that of a woman who has grown old without major regrets, aware of the fact that she created something special. The impression we get from her contemporary voice in the book is that of a strong, content woman. “Women who don’t express themselves sexually become repressed,” Bettie states in the closing pages. “And that causes them to suffer.”
An almost delightful --- and comforting --- reconciliation of an unclothed career by a devout woman. It’s no wonder that so many embraced the tale wholeheartedly. Outre magazine ran excerpts and photos from Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend, and writers (including myself) gladly wrote exuberant reviews. Beyond the fact that it’s a well-written, beautifully-produced book, who could be blamed for clinging to the romantic version of Bettie’s “soft landing” and well-adjusted demeanor contained within? We could further believe that, through the efforts of co-author/lawyer/agent James Swanson, Bettie was finally seeing some financial rewards for the ongoing popularity of her irresistible persona.
Into this partial reality emerges Richard Foster’s new book, The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of Pinups (Birch Lane Press). The provocative title is no mere come-on; the tale within is devastating.
We are shocked immediately by the cover. It features, along with a large picture of the leopard skin-suited Page, a smaller image of her more naked than anything ever published by Titter or Eyeful. Her face is utterly defeated, haunted. The eyes, so familiar, are astonishing, heartbreakingly unmistakable, yet blank and defeated. A dated placard below her chin tells us that these pictures, mug shots, were taken on October 10th, 1972, at the Hialeah, Florida police station.
The image speaks volumes: we know without reading a police report that this depredated snapshot is not the product of a mistaken shoplifting charge, not the vestige of some misunderstanding after a public scuffle, not a DUI. Foster challenges us immediately; open this book and see your comfortable vision of Bettie Page’s post-pinup career crumble.
The official version of Bettie’s life, as told in the Essex/Swanson book, says that she began a religious immersion on New Year’s Eve, 1958. Both the Essex/Swanson biography and Foster’s book, in fact, relate Bettie’s “moment of clarity” as occurring minutes after a particularly bitter fight with her second husband, Armond Walterson --- 21 years-old to her 34 --- over her desire to celebrate the holiday by going out dancing.
She’d already retired from the world of pinups, so one can conjecture that her new consuming passion for religion, which very quickly ended the short-lived marriage to Walterson, emerged as a replacement for the careerism she enjoyed as a model. Whatever its cause, Bettie’s new laser-like focus on God seemed to jar free childhood-spawned demons she kept in check for her entire professional life. After leaving Walterson, her interactions were marred by that single-mindedness;
Foster’s exhaustive interviews of persons who encountered her in this period reveal a plainly disturbed individual. Bettie’s remarriage to her first husband --- she desired the reunion because it would clear her for missionary work -- quickly and predictably dissolved. Foster’s excellent reporting skills bring us through a bumpy ride in the ‘60s, during which time Bettie married her third husband, Harry Lear, and gained three stepchildren and a home in Florida. Her emerging mental dysfunction and aberrant behavior, however, doomed the union. Bettie separated from Lear and moved into to a Bible community. Upset with the finalization of the divorce, she created a public disturbance with a .22 pistol, and Lear had to claim custody of her from the Boca Raton jail. As would become his pattern, Lear cared about her too much to turn her out into the street, so he allowed Bettie to stay in his house.
A few months later, the situation became truly frightening. Marching Lear and his three children before a picture of Jesus in the living room, she held them at knife point and allegedly said: “If you take your eyes off this picture, I’ll cut your guts out!” The situation was defused, noisily, with the arrival of police, and Bettie was committed to a state mental care facility. Incredibly, when she was released four months later, Harry let her stay in an addition to his house specially built for her. Her demeanor was calm, but that ended by October of the same year when police were summoned to quash another loud disturbance at the Lear home. Bettie was extremely violent, and the arrest meant six months back at the institution. Again, Harry Lear gave her a place to stay in his home upon her release, and his faith was rewarded by a blessedly uneventful coexistence with Bettie --- once his wife, now his tenant --- until he moved to South Carolina in 1978.
With no home in Florida, Bettie relocated to California at the invitation of her newly divorced and lonely brother, Jimmie. Foster reports that Bettie was not living with her brother by April of 1979, but instead in a trailer on property owned by an elderly married couple. One day, without warning, she approached the elderly woman and stabbed her. When the husband quickly came to his spouse’s defense, she stabbed him as well. The elderly man was able to incapacitate Bettie with a blow to the head; luckily, the wounds inflicted on both husband and wife were non-fatal. Bettie was found mentally incompetent and committed without bail to the Patton State Hospital in Highland, California, but was released in under a year upon recommendation of her doctor.
About 12 months later, at the age of 58, Bettie was placed by Westside Independent Services into the home of 66 year-old Leonie Haddid. Though Haddid described Bettie as a rather unpleasant roommate given to noxious cooking and long religious rants while locked in the bathroom, she had no clue as to her violent history. One night, after a day during which they quarreled, Haddid claims she woke to see Bettie straddling her, a knife posed in the air, hissing: “Don’t scream. Don’t shout. God has inspired me to kill you!” Bettie stabbed the woman over a dozen times before a defensive blow ended the attack, which, fortunately, Haddid survived. After standing trial for attempted murder in 1983, Bettie was ruled insane and sent back to Patton State, this time for ten years.
The violent period described above, unknown to the world at large until uncovered by Foster, represents quite a coarse dose of reality to those of us who felt gratified by the Essex/Swanson version of Bettie’s life. Indeed, reading The Real Bettie Page is a painful experience. We’ve stared at her photos for so many decades, looked into those eyes and perceived so many countless life-affirming fantasies. We’ve assigned to her superhuman attributes on the basis of a consistently and profoundly confidant photographic demeanor. Given the brutal facts of her post-pinup life, we’re left to wonder whether we can still sustain the precious illusion.
As disturbing as that particular material is, The Real Bettie Page also dissects, in fascinating detail, an ongoing calamitous legal nightmare that began at the time of Bettie’s release from Patton State in 1992. Soon after she reentered “civilian life,” her brother, Jack, brokered an audio “appearance” on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (the irony of which requires no further comment). That feature led to contact with lawyer and show business agent Everett Fields, grandson of W.C. Fields, who had worked hard to put in place laws which allowed the relatives and heirs of famous people to retain control of rights to their images and a financial piece of any exploitation of their relative’s famous name or pictures. Fields signed an agreement with Jack and Bettie Page to act as Bettie’s agent, but passed the actual responsibility for the commitment to another partner in his firm, James L. Swanson. Soon, the official biography co-authored by Swanson and Essex appeared, and Bettie Page-though she still adamantly refused to be photographed-began doing interviews and online chats in support of the project.
Swanson, described by sources in The Real Bettie Page as “iron-fisted” and “threatening to deal with,” becomes the pivot point upon which much of the “battle of Bettie” revolves. Foster details a pretty messy picture, including Swanson’s potential conflict of interest as Bettie’s agent and co-author of Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend, alleged misappropriation of monies derived from licensed products, expensive loss of a dubious lawsuit he filed in Page’s name against Something Weird Video, and his defection from the Everett Fields firm with Page’s contract. When Jack Page began to express concern and displeasure over some questionable transactions, Swanson recommended that his contract be dissolved and that Glamourcon Inc., a convention business run by longtime Bettie Page fan Bob Schultz, take over as Page’s agent. Swanson did not disclose, however, that he was a principal in Glamourcon.
Even as you read this, suits and counter suits fill the air. CMG International, Page’s current agent, is suing Swanson, Schultz, and Glamourcon for, among other things, misappropriation of their client’s funds and conflict of interest. Swanson, with Schultz and Glamourcon, Inc., have had subpoenas served to Bettie and Jack Page, charging them with defamation, breach of contract, and interference with past contracts; they seek almost $3 million in damages. Foster reports speculation that Swanson is counting on an out of court settlement, since Page would have to show herself publicly to defend herself in any actual court proceedings.
Blood from a stone? Based on Foster’s summation of her grotesquely meager financial take on licensed merchandise while a client of Swanson, Page has no assets to speak of, but one could conjecture that any litigant against Page senses richer booty in the shadows: namely, Hugh Hefner, who has reportedly stepped in on her behalf in the past.
It’s a lot to digest. In particular, Foster’s revelation of Bettie Page’s mental problems and violent acts creates a psychic wound. He calls it “the biggest scoop in my life as a journalist,” and, in terms of his craft, he has every right to be proud of the accomplishment. The publication and ongoing promotion of Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend made Bettie a public person again. Had she remained “underground,” one imagines that Foster would not have pursued and revealed the story.
It can also be argued that the omission of her mental health struggles in Bettie’s official biography shouldn’t be seen in a negative light; surely, she had far more to gain had she chose to participate in a shocking “tell all” book and resultant appearances on the shows of Jenny Jones, Larry King, Sally Jessy Raphael and their ilk. In classic pinup style, Bettie instead shared the best of herself with us --- as if she didn’t want to burden us with too many rough spots.
Bettie was to cooperate on a sequel to the Swanson/Essex book, and it’s worth wondering whether she planned to take that opportunity to discuss her nightmare years. Foster reports that the sequel contract specified a $1000 advance to her, $500 of which was payable up front and $500 upon publication, along with a small royalty. A deal almost poetically consistent with the short end of the stick that she’s seen her whole life—the average proofreader gets $1000 per book.
An interview with Bettie Page published in the January ‘98 issue of Playboy magazine stirs the pot a bit more. In this particular encounter, Bettie reveals a humorous frankness and unguarded manner only hinted at previously. Consider this concise response:
Playboy: [Bettie’s first husband, sailor Billy] Neal was kept under 24-hour guard before the ship departed. He had gone AWOL to be with you. Once he even escaped the stockade to spend the night with you.
Page: As a wife, I was always a good lover.
The conversation is also noteworthy for the fact that this was no mere sit-down with a freelance writer and his tape recorder. Though The Real Bettie Page and its revelations are noted in the interview’s preface --- indeed, the Essex/Swanson book is referred to as “partly whitewash” --- further reading makes clear the extremely friendly circumstances of the conversation:
Bettie Page appeared at Playboy Mansion West, home of her longtime supporter Hugh Hefner. Accompanied by David Stevens, the comic-book artist who immortalized her in The Rocketeer, she spent the day with Playboy Editor-in-Chief Hefner and Contributing Editor Kevin Cook.
The chaperoned, boss-monitored situation sounds ripe for a series of soft-focus, softball questions. To interviewer Cook’s credit, however, he presses Page to a surprising degree on the “prayer at knifepoint” incident with Harry Lear’s family. After her initial flat denial, Cook confronts her with Lear’s corroboration of the event. Suddenly, her answer is shaded slightly: “I don’t know, maybe I was out of my head. I don’t remember doing it,” she allows.
(The same parenthetical editor’s note containing Lear’s confirmation of the event also gives voice to a proclamation of very limited credibility: “I don’t like that guy Foster,” Lear states. “He told me he would do anything for money.” One can hardly imagine that, in the course of interviewing a man who has made clear his continued affection for Bettie Page, Foster would blurt out his alleged mercenary intentions. Playboy’s inclusion of Lear’s vindictive statement is odd, to say the least.)
Page is unequivocal in the interview when asked about The Real Bettie Page: “That book is full of lies. Richard Foster is the devil posing as a human. A monster.” Interviewer Cook invites Page’s accounts of the shocking stabbing incidents in 1978 and 1982 with passive statements (“You had other run-ins with the law”; “There would soon be more troubles”) and Page is allowed to unreel contradictory, sanitized, blood-free versions of these events that go unchallenged by follow-ups.
Richard Foster, who was given no chance to respond to comments made in the Playboy interview, has heard second-hand that Hefner had access to an advance copy of The Real Bettie Page and was predictably unhappy with it, feeling that the book was unfair.
“I was astonished at being referred to as ‘the devil’ in the pages of Playboy magazine,” Foster said. “But that’s not so hard to take. I am disturbed, however, by the fact that Playboy didn’t bother to contradict her with the facts. To deny that significant bodily harm was done in the 1982 incident negates the pain and suffering of Leonie Haddid.”
Indeed, while fans of Bettie Page were jolted by Foster’s book, they also seemed more than willing to sympathize with her struggles with mental illness. Even fervent supporters, however, expressed dismay at her vigorous denials in Playboy, as well as the fact that the magazine allowed her contradictory explanations to lay unopposed. If the interview was Hefner’s way of giving Page a platform from which to address the incidents contained in the book, he has seriously misfired.
Bettie Page was very much alone during her darkest hours. It is encouraging to note that she currently has access to people with her best interest at heart.
Steve Brewster, founder of the Bettie Scouts of America fan club, says he gets letters every day from fans regarding The Real Bettie Page. “Ninety percent are extremely positive, and they’d like me to forward to her their letters and words of encouragement,” he said. “There are very, very out there who are just, ‘Bettie’s a psycho, I’ll never recover.’”
Brewster got an advance galley of The Real Bettie Page before even Foster himself had seen one. “I read it and was in shock. This was a major bomb,” he remembers. “The galley was from the publisher, and I suppose they wanted a jacket quote or something from me. A cover letter warned that I shouldn’t copy it, but I immediately did and sent one to Bettie’s brother, Jack, wondering if we should stop it. He was upset; he didn’t know about any of this stuff.”
According to Brewster, Jack read the most shocking parts to Bettie over the phone; she explained that the police reports were trumped up and she wasn’t allowed to speak in her own defense at the time.
Brewster also sent copies of the book to Dave Stevens, perhaps Bettie’s closest friend, and J.B. Rund, a business advisor to the Page family whose Private Peeks magazines of the later ‘70s was instrumental in the Bettie Page revival.
“Dave Stevens knew nothing of Bettie’s forced incarceration or brushes with the law until seeing the book,” says Brewster. “He was extremely upset that these things were being made public and wanted the book stopped.“
Brewster, on the other hand, is actually recommending The Real Bettie Page to every Bettie fan. “I would be the first to say that Bettie denies this stuff. I’m not convinced all of it is true. Still, I feel that I know her better having read it.”
As one of the few persons who regularly speaks with Page, Brewster faced an awkward situation after he’d read the book. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t mention this!’ Yet, it was foremost in my mind,” he said. “So when I called, I played dumb. Thank goodness she brought it up in our conversation.” Page didn’t know at the time that it was Brewster who’d procured advance copies of the book, so she forthrightly explained to him that there was trouble brewing; a “book of lies” was about to be published.
“Bettie told me, ‘I’m afraid people will look down their nose at me. It’s all lies.’ I was worried about her having a breakdown,” Brewster related. “So I told her that the book was well-written, which it is. She has not read the book nor will she ever, so I read her the ending --- which is very nice --- and the rip-off part. She was pleased with that; she wanted that part of the story known.”
The “rip-off part,” an engrossing chapter entitled “The Battle of Bettie,” maps out the myriad business deals that brought Jack and Bettie Page into contact and eventual conflict with James Swanson and his convention business, Glamourcon.
Many of the contracts and deals Swanson prepared for the Pages contained language that worked much more to Swanson’s benefit than that of his client, alleges a suit filed by Curtis Management Group (CMG) Worldwide, Bettie’s current agency. It was only after much time and many unexplained losses that Bettie’s brother began to smell a rat and seek help. Swanson and Glamourcon are not stepping aside quietly, asserting their rights via the lawsuit mentioned above.
“Jack Page is not a sophisticated businessman, and he is certainly not greedy,” J.B. Rund explains. “He’s not interested in wringing every dime out of the Bettie Page phenomena.”
Rund was one of the very first businessmen to seek out Page in order to pay fees owed her on Page-related merchandise he’d marketed (including his run of Private Peeks magazines) once he learned she was still alive to collect. He has advised the family on business matters, and administers certain projects and deals for Bettie and Jack Page. He’s perhaps most proud of Bettie May Page (B.M.P.), Inc., the family-owned corporation he helped establish.
“I’m a capitalist, but it’s best to be honest,” says Rund. “Swanson has definitely misappropriated some money and he has done things a lawyer shouldn’t do.”
Rund cites as an example the contract Los Angeles’s Single Spark Productions has for rights to a Bettie Page film.
“It’s a bad deal and exploitive of Bettie,” he complains. “Swanson and Bob Schultz made the deal while Glamourcon represented Bettie. This film company has the rights to Bettie Page’s life story tied up, and their contract says they have the right to use anything they want, even fictionalize material if it suits them. Jack and Bettie aren’t at all happy about that prospect.” According to another source, Swanson has worked a clause into the film contract giving him an executive producer credit-and fee-on any film Single Spark Productions makes about Bettie Page. Now, complains Rund, the principles at Single Spark are harassing Bettie and Jack with phone calls, trying to secure their cooperation as per the contract they have with Glamourcon.
“Single Spark feels, based on their film agreement, that they own anything Bettie Page does,” Brewster says. “I’d heard they even got bothered over the ‘E’ television documentary.”
According to Steve Brewster, Swanson provided no royalty provision for Page in the contract with General Publishing for Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend. “My understanding is that the contract called for a sixty-forty split between Swanson and Karen Essex,” explained Brewster. “Swanson got the larger royalty, and he told Bettie --- and this was what she told me was her understanding --- that he’d simply give her his portion.” The book has reportedly sold out of its initial printing and is headed for a softcover reprint. The Pages, however, feel that they haven’t seen royalties from Swanson reflecting anything near that amount.
Interestingly, the person closest to Bettie on a day-to-day basis, Dave Stevens, paints Swanson as a bad bookkeeper rather than a calculating villain.
“Based on my observations, Swanson was simply overwhelmed,” Stevens explains. “While I was a bit uncomfortable, for instance, with him authoring a book about Bettie while acting as her manager, I don’t think there was evil intent. An enormous amount was going on all at once and there was a lot to keep track of. I think he was just in over his head and let things get out of control.”
Listed with James Swanson as co-author of Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-up Legend, Karen Essex is widely believed to have written the vast majority of the book, though she will not comment on that conjecture. She has, in her words, “less than no comment” regarding her collaborator on the Page biography.
Essex currently works as a music journalist in Nashville and maintains regular contact with Bettie Page since working on her biography. She speaks very warmly of Page; they exchange Christmas gifts and talk regularly. She’s heard about The Real Bettie Page, but was not contacted by Foster during his research and probably will not read the book.
“I resent a writer who engages in that style of reporting, with no chance to respond,” she says. Essex also believes that including mug shots of Bettie is “akin to printing death photos of Princess Diana.”
Did Essex have any inkling of violence in Page’s past while researching the biography?
“I know her to be a lovely person who has experienced tragedy in her life,” Essex says. “There were vague areas, but it really wasn’t my job to do a covert investigation of this woman with whom I was working.”
The Playboy interview makes no impression. “I feel allowances should be made for people of that age. She’s very naive about the media and has no entourage to shepherd her through those experiences. She’s without artifice; she’ll say what’s on her mind.” Of Bettie’s friendship with Dave Stevens, Essex says, “Dave Stevens is a wonderful, lovely guy, but he’s an artist. He can’t be expected to be in the media-relations business.”
Media relations have, however, become relevant. As this issue of Outre goes to press, the tabloid television show “Hard Copy” is preparing a story on Bettie Page and the revelations in The Real Bettie Page. Sources close to Page claim that her current representation, CMG Worldwide, is encouraging her to participate in the report.
J.B. Rund doesn’t necessarily agree with CMG, but has advised Bettie to willingly “come out” before papperazzi-types begin to invade her privacy. He’s read The Real Bettie Page (Rund is quoted extensively in the book) and harbors no ill will toward Foster. “What would someone else do with it?” he asks. “Foster was a fan, and his feeling was that some sleazeball could find the same things he found and exploit the story in some terrible way. He told the tale as kindly and judiciously as possible.
“I told her to go on TV with it,” he continues. “I’d advise her to go public and tell the story-she’s better now. But I honestly believe she simply can’t remember these things.”
Rund met Bettie face-to-face in 1996, accompanied by Jack Page (who hadn’t seen his sister for nearly twenty years). He believes her long-stated antipathy toward being seen in her latter years springs from insecurity more than anything else. “If your grandmother looked like Bettie does today, you’d be thrilled,” he says. “Her eyes still sparkle. She really looks like her old self; still has bangs, though with shorter hair. She is still a very pretty woman.”
urthermore, friends of Bettie say that she’s taking very good care of herself through a healthy regimen of exercise and natural foods, and has lost as much as thirty-five pounds since beginning her self improvement program. She’s stated that her goal is to live to the age of one hundred.
The Bettie Page story continues; The Real Bettie Page will most certainly not be the last word on the life of the Queen of Pinups. It’s not inconceivable that, in another year or so, we’ll see her relate this ongoing story herself. Let’s hope it’s done on her own terms.
Mental illness is especially insidious for it creates multiple levels of suffering. There is, of course, the pain caused to family and innocent bystanders as a result of the afflicted person’s actions; then, later, a lifetime of regret and self loathing must be dealt with even as healing takes place. For some, the hardest part of moving forward is looking back and realizing that they were indeed not in control of their hurtful actions.
For Bettie Page, a woman who by all indications treasures self-reliance, it must be nearly beyond her senses to deny responsibility for any one of her deeds-good or bad, remembered or forgotten. She does not seek comfort in self-pity. She does not ask us to be sympathetic. She does not offer palliative explanations designed to “rehabilitate” her image. She is as she was, absolutely genuine.
“Nothing will change the fact that I want the best for her,” says Steve Brewster. It’s a sentiment shared by those who know the real Bettie Page.
Let us all wish for our friend the gift of peace. To paraphrase one of her many fans, “Good night, Bettie, where ever you are.”
Richard Foster’s book, The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of Pinups, was recently republished in a twentieth anniversary edition. Order it here.
The original cover, complete with mug shot.