She was a victim, she was a survivor. She was trash, she was an American Icon. She was the dirty magazine under the mattress. She was a missionary of the Baptist Church. She wasn’t perfect. She was a woman trying to make it one day at a time.
Bettie Mae Page was born on April 22, 1923, in Nashville, one of six children. She and two sisters were sent to an orphanage after her father went to jail and her mother could not cope on her own. Page later described her father as “a sex fiend” who started sexually molesting her when she was 13.
She was smart and beautiful. She had good genes and the right stuff. But she was not born at the right time.
A strong student and debate team member at Hume-Fogg High School, she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed”. During her early years, the Page family traveled around the country in search of economic stability. As the salutatorian of her class,on June 6, 1940, Page graduated from high school with a scholarship and enrolled at George Peabody College with the intention of becoming a teacher. However, the next fall she began studying acting, hoping to become a movie star.
Remember that in those times a woman could be a teacher, a nurse, a nun, a secretary, a spinster, a wife, a whore, or a famous and admired actress. There were other options, but she would have had to cut her own path, and few of us are able to do that. The privilege of being able to be a woman in an ordinary job — mathematician, cab driver, convenience store manager — is not to be taken for granted. Bettie Page did not come from a place where her mind was respected, or her childhood was protected. Judge not.
Page, armed with an arts degree with Peabody College in Nashville, did her first modeling work in the 1940s after moving to San Francisco with the first of her three husbands. After they divorced in 1947, she pursued modeling in New York. Photos from a shoot with Miami photographer Bunny Yeager ended up in the pages of Playboy.
The layout featured Page winking at the camera wearing only a Santa hat as she decorated a Christmas tree. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner described it as “a milestone in the history of the magazine,” which he had founded less than two years earlier.
Later in life, Page was furious that Yeager made a fortune from the photos and never compensated her.
Decades later, a young woman in a more liberated time, Madonna Ciccone, would make sure she had the copyright.
Some American lawmakers were not as impressed with her modeling abilities. Page was served with a subpoena to appear before U.S. Senate investigators trying to discover a link between juvenile delinquency and pornography. Page never appeared. Soon after, she completely disappeared from the scene.
After two other brief marriages failed, Page battled acute schizophrenia beginning in the early 1970s.
‘Schizo — characterized by or involving cleavage’ — Webster’s dictionary. We used to call it a split personality. Could someone go crazy from the pressure of contrary demands? Imagine a woman who sold her soul before she knew what it was worth — who watched her ‘friends’ get rich while she ended up poor. And then a financial rescue from Hugh Hefner and some of the guys who hid her pictures under the mattress. She was an erotic fantasy, but unlucky in love. Three divorces. She was so alive, so carefree in her image, but she gave herself to a religion that promises salvation in exchange for your life, and fulfillment after you’re dead.
It’s amazing she survived as long as she did. She sold her young self at the going rate, but her mature self was not for sale. She didn’t allow herself to be photographed, though she was said to be a beautiful older woman with a gleam in her eye. She said she wanted to be remembered as she was when she was young. But maybe she had something precious in her maturity that she saved for those who loved her.
If there’s a heaven, Bettie Page, I hope you are there. You were no saint, but you never killed anyone. You never started a Pogrom or an Inquisition. That’s more than they can say for many of the Saints. And you might have despised me. But this bluestocking feminist only wants one thing. That women have choices. And that their choices be truly free.