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Bettie Page Let Us Peep, Perchance To Dream

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008

Someone probably collects them today. It was a little tube of cheesy plastic, pale green, that came into my grubby, fervid possession in the '50s as part of the real life of boys, not the idealized Beaveresque interpretation on television. You held the tube to the light, peered through an aperture via some sort of magnifying lens, and it seemed to vacuum you into the vortex and maybe you never got out.

That's where Bettie Page, who died yesterday at 85, lived in full flesh-o-rama glory, a transparency frozen in novelty product flimsiness. The gizmo had a chain, so you could carry it with the keys to your Ford Fairlane -- how '50s is that? -- the Fairlane and Bettie Page entwined in two inches of ball chain. Someone stole it from his dad, and somehow the hellish contraption came into my possession, to be treasured more passionately than love. I think the photo must have been one of the set that Bunny Yeager took at Jungleland early in the decade. Bettie and Bunny, hot-babe sex guerrillas, working brilliantly to destroy the empire from within.

Bettie in some kind of cheetah-skin wrap, palm trees speaking of the turbulent, jungly complexities of the id in the background, but her body, liquid, encompassed in that circle of hot Florida light, alive with the music of curves, sexualized in ways that seem kitsch today but were abuzz with erotic vibration then. If you saw the picture now, you'd laugh, because you can't feel the constriction that was society back then, the fury in the utter domination of the rational over the irrational.

That's the subversion Bettie represented, even if she was only one-inch tall through a plastic lens back behind the garage in the alley of the big house. It was the idea that this "sex" thing, whatever it was, had the lewd power to take over the brain and push it to do things it might not otherwise even be able to conjure. It was like a red fog, coming in on big lion paws to take over and drive the frail structures of society away. It seemed to suggest that there was a jungle in us all, and the beat-beat-beat of the tom-toms could obliterate our consciousness -- which we needed for important duties such as beating the reds -- and make us soft and decadent and foolish. Hmm, I think they were right, come to consider it, but still, it's been a hell of a good ride.

Bettie didn't invent sexuality, of course. She merely acknowledged it by way of presenting it and was probably less complicated by far than the forces she represented. The life story is less interesting than you might think. Small-city girlhood in Tennessee, early marriage to a sailor . . . such a common '40s pattern. Aware of her looks, she drifted into modeling. The camera loved her. She loved it. She'd meet somebody who knew somebody, became a popular item on the New York "camera club" circuit, which toyed with the idea of nude photography. Ultimately she met a friendly pornographer named Irwin Klaw and laughingly joined with him in a series of sets with no actual nudity but a lot of implied sadomasochistic content.

We'll let the anthropologists and the psychiatrists ponder that one.

Why do so many men enjoy seeing photographs of women subjugated to ropes and trusses and frames, while dressed in the various subspecies of fetish, including heels, corsets and nylons? What's the thing about spanking? Whips? Handcuffs? What is wrong with you people?

What Bettie brought to this world was what she brought to all the worlds of semi-porn that she came to dominate. And that was pure animal joy. She had a sunny quality that spoke kindly and gently to the pervert in the raincoat at the Times Square "French book store" and said to him, "There, there, it's all right. There's nothing wrong with you," although clearly there was. And she never really left this world, never betrayed it, rose beyond it, denied it.

But she did go kind of mainstream, or as main a stream as was then available. In Florida, she did the Jungleland photos with Bunny and beach photography with others. Always, the lens adored her charisma and caressed her perfect curves. In a world where "measurements" defined a woman, hers were the ne plus ultra: 36-23-36.

She was the hourglass that made the grains of sand in your otherwise bleak '50s life of family, duty, church and college football slip away painlessly.

She was one of the early Playmates of the Month in the flagship of redefined sexuality called Playboy that the man from Chicago, Hugh Hefner, was launching.

In a sense, this was a kind of regression from her earlier identity.

The Hefner notion was that sex was normal, and his beauties always were spun as girls-next-door. They were perfect American girls, albeit with their blouses off. The Bettie shot, which appeared in Playboy in January 1955, was an example of this tendency. It's not very -- oh, what's the word, oh yes -- "hot." She's wearing Santa's hat and crouching next to a baby Christmas tree. Her knees are arranged to keep the picture tasteful and legal (as they always would be) and the prominent feature is her breasts, again perfect but in no way sexualized. There's no sexual content; she's naked, not nude. The best thing is her radiant smile, the gleaming shamelessness of her face. She's advancing the Hefnerian agenda on the normality of all this.

Perhaps, the broad, lascivious wink acknowledges the essential fraudulence of the pose; she seems to be saying, "Okay boys, soon as you put the camera away, we're going to get into some real funky stuff!"

Still, it's a far distance from her fetish work, with its netting of nylon and hemp, its implied content of submission and the pleasure of pain, its proud proclamation not of normality but of abnormality, its secret joy in subverting the right and proper world. But if she understood the contradiction, it clearly made no difference to her.

Of course, time caught up with her. Once started, the unraveling of mores can't be stopped, and she was in some sense a victim of her own radicalism in that she was replaced by younger, edgier girls who would go further and further, until her mild offerings of nipple and behind seemed almost comically naive. She also aged, and after a long, long time before the camera, she more or less gave it up by the mid-'60s.

The rest of the story is melancholy and banal at once. Clearly, it's hard to stop being famous. A few marriages, a serious religious conversion to evangelical Christianity and missionary work (she spent two years in Angola). A mental breakdown led to institutionalization in California for 20 months.

Then, the late 20th century's eternal narcissistic fascination with its own roots led to a kind of Bettie Page renaissance in the late '90s. She must have enjoyed that -- a documentary and two films about her life appeared in the last decade, and the Internet made all her old materials available at the push of a button.

If you know where to look, you can see her do the dance of the seven veils 24/7 as a "harem girl" (she only gets through about five of the veils before the thing runs out). You can see her in the eternal sunlight of Jungleland or gartered and nyloned in Irwin Klaw's attic, bent over and offering her posterior for someone's hairbrush.

She might have been an incidental player in the transfiguration of the rigidly demure into the casually blasphemous, and if it hadn't been her, it might have been somebody else, but you have to say: She brought class to the project of turning the peep show into the big screen.

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