The most popular pin-up model of the 1950's, second only to actress Marilyn Monroe, tragically but not totally surprisingly died in 2008, following a lengthy period of declining health. However, in the wake of her death, and in the decades prior, Bettie Page left behind a vast legacy of photos and indelible images reproduced millions of times. Those photos; a saucy, sexy combination of naughty and "girl next door" nice; coupled with Bettie's own unique on-camera charisma and dazzling, approachable smile, continue to entice, endear and generate the admiration of multitudes of men and women alike.
Her long jet black hair and signature bangs have been imitated and assimilated by legions of fans around the world, and her unique look and style continues to influence artists, fashion and a variety of performers to this very day.
One need only look at the continuing and overwhelming popularity of Bettie Page portraits by famed pin-up artist, Olivia De Berardinis… or, a 2005 film based on Page's life, "The Notorious Bettie Page" starring actress Gretchen Mol… or, even singer Katy Perry's signature long hair and bangs to see that Bettie Page lives on in the pop-culture of today.
Even music superstar Beyonce' paid homage to Bettie Page by directly imitating the pin-up queen in the video to her popular 2010 song, "Why Don't You Love Me".
This week, a long gestating film biography by filmmaker Mark Mori, titled "Bettie Page Reveals All" has made it's debut and is making the rounds in movie theaters across the country. Today, Bettie Page is more iconically popular than she was in her supremely successful heyday as a pin-up model in the 1950's.
Had she lived, Bettie Page would be celebrating her 90th birthday next April.
As a TV and print journalist, I've been blessed and fortunate enough to meet and interview all sorts of unique, special and talented people over the course of my career. Many of them have been famous film stars and celebrities who embrace, and indeed, crave the limelight that comes from their fame and star status.
However, Bettie Page was a unique celebrity, in that, at the time of her greatest popularity via her old photographs that kept her forever young; she had been living the life of a quiet recluse in her more mature years.
During the 1950's, Bettie Page's pin-up image was seen everywhere, from countless men's magazine covers, calendars, fetish films, photographs, album covers, playing cards and more. Indeed, Bettie was very much in demand as a model among both amateur and skilled professional photographers in both New York City and Florida.
It was easy to see why she was so popular. Like her more mainstream and popular contemporary Marilyn Monroe, Bettie was able to combine an aura of genuine sweetness and approachability with an undeniably generous dose of smoldering sensuality.
Eventually, Page would decide to abruptly exit the modeling business, leaving behind a legacy of thousands upon thousands of images of her posing either sexily attired or innocently frolicking in her own home-made swim-suits; as well as posing nude or semi-nude. However whatever the pose or garment worn, each of those images of Bettie displayed a sweet smile that made her photos more playfully memorable and coquettish than overtly erotic.
For years, Bettie Page seemed to have completely fallen off the face of the Earth. She had intentionally immersed herself into obscurity. Much has been written about her troubles during that period, mostly in books and articles that seem more designed to diminish Bettie's image, rather than enlighten. She suffered three failed marriages, a mental breakdown in her middle age and, despite the popularity of her photos over the years, she failed for a long period to be financially compensated for her body of work.
Only until her later years, with the help of famed illustrator Dave Stevens, whose comic book "The Rocketeer" ( and film ) which featured a character based on Bettie, and later Playboy's Hugh Hefner; did Bettie Page receive a proper and reputable management agency to make her senior years far more comfortable and financially stable.
However, before that long overdue compensation arrived, Bettie Page lived in relative solitude, unaware that her beautiful images photographed decades earlier had generated an interest that far surpassed her prior success as a working model
In 1996, Bettie Page began to personally resurface. Bettie's fan base had only grown, unbeknownst to her, during her self-imposed exile from the limelight. Her photos continued in circulation creating a new generation of fans.
An authorized biography of her life, "Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend", was about to be published. At the time, I was working as a reporter for a daytime news / entertainment magazine program for NBC called "Real Life". My executive producer had one day mentioned quite casually that she was a fan of Bettie Page, and wondered aloud how great it would be if we could get an interview with her.
However, at the time, such a wish was a pure pipe dream. Or, so we thought back then. Bettie was known to be extraordinarily reclusive and did not want to be seen nor photographed. Not that there was anything wrong with her appearance. Bettie just didn't understand what all the fuss was about, over photographs she had posed for decades earlier.
Additionally, Bettie simply wanted the new fans that she became aware of, to remember the sexy image of her the way she used to be in the old photographs. Still vibrant, still alluring, still youthful and beautiful. She felt being seen in her present, more elderly state would detract from the mystery that her photos kept alive and young looking forever.
Yet, one day, as I was scanning the pages of a USA Today newspaper, my eye caught a glimpse of a small article about a publicity party in New York City for the newly published biography on Bettie's life. The article mentioned Bettie had agreed to address the attendees at this public relations event via a phone conference call voice greeting.
I immediately thought that if Bettie was willing to surface to that limited extent, certainly an attempt at a limited television interview would be worth a try. After a few phone calls, I was connected with the publisher of Bettie's biography, who in turn, connected me with one of the book's co-authors.
I made my pitch to the writer, who told me he would get back to me after conferring with Bettie. Only a short time passed before the co-author returned my call saying Bettie had agreed to an interview. To say I was both thrilled and dumbstruck would be an understatement.
With only a few simple phone calls, somehow the reclusive Bettie Page had agreed to allow me to interview her for our program. Giddy with anticipation and shaking with nervous energy, I was soon aboard a flight to Los Angeles where I would be among a select few people who would ever speak with the renowned Bettie Page face to face about her life in detail.
After years of seclusion, Bettie Page was about to allow me to be the first television reporter to interview her face-to-face. Little did I realize I would be the only television reporter to ever interview Bettie Page in a lengthy, in-depth manner for specifically for television.
Bettie's only other known television "appearance" of sorts, was a few reflective sentences at the tail end of an "E! True Hollywood Story" about her life during that same period. However, her comments were brief and cursory and her image obscured in dark silhouette; an appearance easily missed if one were to blink or channel surf.
When faced with the unique opportunity to chat with Bettie in-depth about her life, my mind raced with thoughts about what to ask her. What would she answer? Most importantly, I wondered what Bettie Page would look like after all these years.
I arrived in Los Angeles and met with my cameraman and we prepared for the interview the next day. I had arranged to meet with the book's co-author and Bettie at an address he had given me earlier.
When my cameraman and I arrived, we were surprised to discover the location arranged for us was at some kind of shabby industrial park on the outskirts of the city. I knew we were choosing a location that would be remote and secluded to ensure Bettie's privacy and facial anonymity; but this location was technically impossible to conduct a professional TV interview. The logistics, locale and surroundings were; well, simply too seedy and rustic to do the kind of interview I wanted to do. I wanted a location that was wonderfully suitable and befitting an icon like Bettie Page, and the one this author/manager had chosen was far from anything approaching that.
Eventually, a vehicle pulled up driven by the book's author. In the front passenger seat was a dignified, somewhat matronly looking woman with grey hair. However as I moved closer, the woman smiled at me and I immediately recognized the signature Bettie Page smile that still beamed with radiance and warmth.
Her hair, though grey with age, still was shoulder length and had her signature Bettie Page bangs across her forehead. Though it was decades after her last pin-up photo, this woman sitting in the vehicle was undeniably THE Bettie Page… and she was still an attractive woman for her age.
"Hello, I'm Bettie Page", she said with a somewhat gravely pitched, Southern-drawl tinged voice. "Pleased to meet you".
Immediately, my heart melted at the warmth of this woman before me and the realization at whom I was speaking to. After we all exchanged introductions, I told the author we simply couldn't conduct our interview at this location. It took some convincing and some serious, somewhat intense ( shall we say ) negotiating as well before he agreed to consider another location.
All the while, Bettie patiently waited in the vehicle. It became apparent to me that Bettie put her trust in this man and she simply was along for the ride; perhaps not entirely calling all the shots in terms of the interview details.
Eventually, we agreed to try and hold the interview at a Los Angeles hotel suggested by the author. Oddly enough, the hotel was hosting a large scale convention event called Glamourcon; where fans of pin-up art, Playboy magazine and many imitators, sexy "cheesecake" modeling and much more in the genre; would meet, mix and mingle with live models and memorabilia dealers hawking their wares.
Somehow, the author had convinced Bettie to do the interview in this hotel. As we made our way to the room where we would conduct the taping, the supreme irony of this situation could not escape being foremost in my thoughts at the moment.
Here we were, among perhaps hundreds of Bettie Page fans deeply engrossed in buying books and photographs of their idol, each perhaps dreaming about what it would be like to meet the object of their admiration and desire. Yet, unbeknownst to them all, the elderly woman quietly walking among them, beside them, behind them to our interview room was the one and only Bettie Page.
However, they all were so intently focused with the event and the purchasing of images of Bettie and others, they never looked close enough to notice the elderly woman walking with us had Bettie Page's bangs, smile and twinkle in her eyes. I imagine many in that hotel to this day, who wish they had actually met Bettie Page once during their lifetime, still have no idea how close they were to achieving their dream had they just looked close enough.
Finally, we arrived at the room and began to set up for our interview. Bettie gently and with courtesy made it clear that she did not want to be seen on-camera. I was prepared for that eventuality. My cameraman and I had planned to simply interview Bettie in the tried, true and cliched TV technique of lighting her in silhouette.
To our surprise, the author informed us he had struck a deal with a filmmaker who was also planning a future feature film on Bettie's life. Part of his agreement, according to the author, was that Bettie could not be shot in silhouette because that was part of his arrangement with the other party. Other restrictions about how Bettie could be videotaped posed additional challenges. No filming her from behind, no showing her hands on her lap, no to this… no to that.
The frustration regarding these last minute restrictions on a simple previously arranged interview were trying my patience.
The only thing that kept me from totally losing my cool was the wonderful and pleasant demeanor of Bettie, who quietly waited to chat with me, with a warm smile on her face. Eventually, my creative cameraman came up with a unique solution on how to angle the camera where we would see some portion of Bettie's forearm and gesturing hand in the camera frame, while I sat looking at her, genuinely caught up and deeply engrossed in her compelling story.
Indeed, the technique worked to our advantage because Bettie genuinely held me enraptured with her life story over the course of our near hour-long interview. Bettie regaled me with stories of her modeling days. Her anecdotes about Howard Hughes wanting to meet her and her near brush with Hollywood as an actress were a joy to listen to; as she related every detail with down to Earth, home spun Southern charm and sweetness.
There were times I forgot the camera was rolling as it seemed I was just having a relaxing chat with a wonderful woman about her glory days that she looked back upon with fondness, amusement and, yes, at times, a bit wistfully.
Finally, our interview was over and it was time to say our goodbyes. I had earlier been given a copy of Bettie's biography by the co-author and publisher to aid in creating the approved visual elements of the story to come. I asked Bettie if she would sign the book for me on the title page.
I expected Bettie to simply sign her name to the book. Had she simply done that, I would have been thrilled beyond words. Instead, Bettie Page wrote the following.
"Dear Tim, I enjoyed my interview with you more than with anyone else. You are a master at making a person feel relaxed and at ease. I wish you the very best of everything, always. Love, Bettie Page".
I looked at those words, amazed and filled with deeply humble gratitude that the reclusive and very guarded Bettie Page had not only given me her trust; but also, complimented me in a manner, both personally and professionally, that I cherish to this very day.
I thanked her, and in her generous way, Bettie reached up and gave me a warm hug and a gentile kiss on the cheek. I can't recall ever getting a kiss from any of the scores of people I've interviewed in the years since that has so stayed in my memory with such fondness. However, if someone was going to do the honors, I can think of very few that could equal the distinct and special significance of getting such a gesture, than the legendary Bettie Page.
A few months later, I sent Bettie a copy of our finished interview which aired on television only once, and also accompanies this article. It remains to this day the only lengthy, in-depth television interview Bettie Page has ever given. I am deeply proud that I am able to claim that honor and distinction.
Bettie sent me a small card after she received the video, thanking me and asking me to forgive her tardiness in responding. She added "I pray God will continue to be good to you and all the days of your long and happy life. Best wishes, Bettie Page."
I never spoke to Bettie ever again after that, though I managed to keep posted on her health and progress via the kindness and friendship of one of her newly hired reputable agents that made sure she finally received long overdue compensation from the merchandising megabucks that her image continues to rake in.
As the years passed by, I would read how Bettie would become more comfortable with her renewed fame. Though she was still reluctant to be photographed, she would become more outgoing and mingle from time to time among fans at the Playboy Mansion and sign autographs.
In 2005, a Hollywood film on Bettie's life titled "The Notorious Bettie Page" starring Gretchen Mol was made. I read Bettie was not pleased with the film's title as she took particular issue with being labeled as "notorious". Apparently, Bettie was also not pleased with some of the film's dramatic content; as it's been reported that during a screening she attended, Bettie vocally and loudly referred to some of the scenes depicted as "lies, lies, lies".
Occasionally during that time, Bettie might give a brief print interview, but never again an interview for a television camera or TV program.
As I reflect on this fifth anniversary of her death, I am forever grateful that the iconic Bettie Page gave me such a wonderful opportunity to meet her and share her life via our unique and special television moment.
Bettie Page passed away on December 11, 2008. Again, it was not unexpected, but it was deeply tragic nevertheless for me, as well as for the multitudes of her fans and those select people who got to know the sweet, very private woman behind the very public pin-up naughtiness and sexy innocence. Simply put, I was very sad that day.
It's one thing to interview celebrities and individuals who crave the limelight and attention. On the other hand, it's a very rare and special opportunity to gain the trust of a once very public person who cherished their carefully crafted and strongly guarded anonymity,
I thank you Bettie Page for the memories and your trust in me. We all miss your beauty and sweetness.
Rest well, Bettie.
Tim Estiloz is an Emmy winning entertainment journalist and member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. - Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.