THE REAL BETTIE PAGE By Richard Foster Birch Lane Press 314 pages. $21.95 Owner of Aunt Agatha's Book Store Bettie Page is the greatest model in the short history of the photographic medium. From 1 951 to 1 957 she was the subject of pinup, camera club, nude, fetishbondage and other "low culture" pictures, subversive and fascinating images which have been resonating within our culture ever since. Bettie is a true Underground Woman, esoteric, existing in memory and through her influence, possessing a quality that makes her eternal within the disposable, a Venus rising, like Hammett or Woolrich, from the pulp that surrounds her. Her myth is also shaped by the fact that in 1 957, at the height of her popularity and in the middle of her controversy, she disappeared, avoiding the public gaze as assiduously as she had once sought it. But even when Bettie stopped posing herimage continued to have a life of its own, being reprinted, passed from hand to hand, and serving as fertile germination for paintings, comics, fashion, music, sex, the Internet - thewholepulpyzeitgeist that passes for civilization these days. It's gotten so that, as journalist Karen Essex said, once Bettie Page "enters your consciousness you begin to see evidence of her everywhere." (My latest epiphany s that Xena is just another exploration of a facet of Bettie - Lucy Lawless certainly has the haircut). The slow mainstreaming of Bettie created a desire to rediscover the historical Bettie Mae Page, to try and find out if she was still alive, and if she was aware of the worid's appreciation. The modem media being what they are, Bettie was quickly ferreted out, an old woman who still guarded her privacy (despite the telephone interview on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"), and seemed mildly bemused by all the attention.(lcan't help thinking of Rimbaud, another sudden drop-out, who was incredulous when told in his African exile that his childhood verses were still revered in Paris). Bettie's reappearance brought the ftrst "authorized," above ground biography, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pinup Legend, by journalist Karen Essex and Bettie's then lawyer James Swanson(whom she later sued, claiming he had denied her a fair shareoftheprofits). Though it featured a wonderfully laid out selection of her pictures, the biographical portions were not as lucid. Bettie's precipitous exit was played down, and her time since modeling described as innocuously filled with church and family. Now Richard Foster, the journalist who originally ran her in the ground, has published The Real Bettie Page, which presents cli nically the details of her childhood poverty and abuse, and even more shockingly, her slow post-pinup decline into madness. The story of the religious mania and outright violence that caused the woman who seemed so strong, sane and self-possessed to be institutionalized for almost ten years is compelling, if not enjoyable, reading. But the book also reveáis that the Bettie of 1951-1957 was the woman reflected in the photographs - headstrong, freespirited, unconventional, a taboo breaker, an unlikely combination of "feariess derringdo and country girl naiveté." Part of her modeling appeal is that she betrays no guilt or bravado about displaying her body. She's secure in her skin, giving the world the provocative, frank gaze of Goya's Maja or Manet's Olympia. While other pulp queenslikeBlazeStarandTempest Storm presented themselves as hard, used, debased and temptingly damned, Bettie retained a primal innocence even in the tawdry milieu of Irving Klaw's fetish pictures. Outside, Bettie bloomed even more astoundingly , shining like a real Eve, in her natural state, gnorant of sin. Astonishingly here in the hung-up '50s is a message from the '60s: Sex is Good! The Body is Beautiful, but delivered serenely , without the Boomer's combati ve smugness. Given her subsequent history it's easy to see Bettie as a sort of Wilhelm Reich in black stockings and high heels, a Pandora opening her box, the cute dominatrix letting the cato'-nine-tails out of the bag decades before Hollywood. Like Reich, Bettie was persecuted by Federal authorities for embodying such a message of sexual freedom. In 1955 Senator Estes Kefauver (D.-Tenn.), a political "cnjsader" specializing in televised hearings, having cleaned up organized crime and comic books, tumed his attention to dirty pictures. Even though her employer Irving Klaw was never indicted, Bettie as his cynosure was subjected to McCarthy-like tactics, and the subsequent official pressure and nasty public proval shook her sense of self. It's tempting to make her a martyr in her subsequent decline, a visionary manqué like Reich, a person, as Artaud said of Van Gough, "suicided by society," but apart from all theory there remains a real woman, with real demons in a real life, who now seems somewhat content, just beginning to see how much her image is appreciated in the world. To me an artist's life is secondary to their work, and Foster's book, like the text in all the other Bettie books (see my list), remains secondary to the photographs. They remain extraordinary, the domain of a presence so memorable that people still savor their first glance 45 years ago, so fresh that her aficionados still sift the cultural detritus for one more glimpse of her. A genius in a world where a model no longer relied on a painter, her work was her self presentation, her ability to express the feminine in all its variety and power. It's there, in the photographs, in her many manifestations and exposures, that she remains Bettie Page. A Few Other Bettie Books: The Bettie Pages Annual: Volumes I and II edited by Greg Theakson; Bettie Page Confidential by Bunny Yeager; Bettie Page: Queen of PinUp by Taschen; Bettie Page: Queen of Hearts by Jim Silke. Klaw photographs, like the one above, are still available from: MOVIE STAR NEWS, 1 34 West18St., NY.NY 10011.
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