After suddenly disappearing from the spotlight in 1957, Bettie Page’s later life was shrouded in mystery — but then she resurfaced years later in a series of violent scandals.
Though Bettie Page was the most famous postwar pinup girl in American history, her later life proved to be far less glamorous. By the end of ’50s, the most photographed model of the 20th century had become a total shut-in.
Page’s introduction to the limelight was unusual. She went from a Homecoming Queen to an aspiring Hollywood starlet, but her one and only screen-test was an utter bust as she boldly rejected the producer’s advances to meet her after hours.
But her stardom was fated, and she ultimately made her mark in New York City where beatnik photographers like Irving Klaw made her famous with BDSM photoshoots.
Between 1949 and 1957, 20,000 mail-order photos of her in bondage costumes were taken, drawing the attention of an ambitious United States senator who launched an investigation on pornography’s impact on youth.
The investigation uncovered a scandal that marred Page’s career and she shortly thereafter vanished from the New York City scene for good. But tragically, her troubles as a recluse had only just begun.
The Rise And Fall Of Bettie Page, The Pinup Queen
Born on April 22, 1923, in Kingsport, Tennessee, Bettie Mae Page was the second of six children — and didn’t have it easy. With a mechanic’s salary during the Great Depression, her father had trouble paying the bills, and Page was 10 when her parents ultimately divorced, relegating her and two sisters to an orphanage for a year.
Despite the fact that her father molested her when she came back under his roof, she excelled at Nashville’s Hume-Fogg High School. She became Homecoming Queen and garnered a scholarship to George Peabody College. Graduating in 1943, she married her high school sweetheart Billy Neal and moved to San Francisco.
Page modeled on the side and worked as a secretary by day, but she failed her first screen-test in Los Angeles for being faithful to her spouse. “I don’t mind sleeping with someone to get ahead,” Page later said, “but I’m not going to sleep with everyone.”
Ultimately, Page and Neal divorced in 1947, and just a year later she moved to New York City and met the man who would change her life: Jerry Tibbs.
A cop by day but a photographer by night, Tibbs first saw Page on Jones Beach in Long Island in 1949. He urged her to pose for his nude camera club, and she agreed.
She soon made it into the pages of magazines like Wink and Flirt, but her 1955 Playboy centerfold brought her career to the next level. The shoot garnered the attention of Irving Klaw, a “Pinup King” photographer who specialized in bondage shoots that saw models tied up in rope and leather.
He photographed Page this way and sent thousands of 4-by-5-inch photos across the country, making her a pinup star. But her pictures didn’t excite everyone. For Senator Estes Kefauver, Page and photographers like Klaw were “a bad influence and degrading.”
Kefauver formed a sub-committee on juvenile delinquency to investigate just how bad of an influence they were and found the case of a man named Clarence Grimm who said his son’s suicide was influenced by Page.
The investigation saw Klaw subpoenaed on May 19, 1955. Klaw collaborator and friend Eric Stanton said that “it was the only time I ever saw Bettie upset. She was horrified at the prospect of having to testify against her friends.” While she was spared as much, the proceedings laid a teenager’s suicide at her feet.
Florida man Clarence Grimm testified that his dead son Kenneth was found hanging by his knees and neck. The committee’s special counsel Vincent Gaughan led him to confirm that this position was wholly inspired by Klaw’s BDSM photos of Page, with the photographer left in ruins as a result — and Page leaving town.
The Violent Crimes That Landed Her In A Hospital
Kefauver’s plan to rise in the political ranks failed, and Page left New York for quieter pastures. She moved to Florida, where an experience at a multiracial Baptist church on New Year’s Eve 1957 saw her born again.
She had only recently remarried, but was divorced just as quickly — and remarried for a third time in 1967. It was together with her third and final spouse, Harry Lear, that Bettie Page’s mental health truly began to deteriorate.
With uncontrollable bursts of anger, Page ran through a Boca Raton ministry retreat with a .22-caliber pistol in January 1972. In April, she forced her husband and his children at knife-point to pray to Jesus.
While she was committed to Jackson Memorial for four months as a result, Page voluntarily recommitted herself in October, during which she was left under suicide watch. It was around this time in 1978 that Lear decided to separate from her and Page returned to California where she could be close to her brother.
But her proximity to family didn’t help her mental state. After an argument with her landlady, during which she assaulted the woman with a knife, Page was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to Patton State Hospital for 20 months.
Her next episode would be her worst. The details of this attack vary, though some claim Page repeatedly stabbed another one of her landladies multiple times, and even managed to cut off one of her fingers and slice her face from the mouth up to the ear.
The victim survived and a judge found Page innocent by reason of insanity. She was sentenced to 10 years at the same California hospital. But then when she was released in 1992, Bettie Page suddenly found herself an unwitting icon in a new era.
Elderly Bettie Page Confronts Her Past
In Bettie Page’s absence, the public grew increasingly curious about her. So much so, in fact, that Penthouse magazine offered anyone who could prove she was dead or alive $1,000.
And while Bettie Page was busy wrestling with her mental health, a whole new generation had taken note of her.
Her photos had inspired an illustrator named David Stevens who molded a popular comic book character known as the Rocketeer after her. Page managed to collect royalties from Stevens’ work upon its release, and the subsequent attention she received from the comics landed her story a segment on the popular show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
After years of living on Social Security benefits and royalties, Page ultimately died of a heart attack on Dec. 11, 2008, after being hospitalized with pneumonia days earlier.
From an impoverished Tennessee girl to an iconic 1950s model who helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Bettie Page lived nothing if not a full life. She inspired comic books, fashion, and even action figures, and today she’s best remembered as an icon of feminine power and sexual expression.