Bettie Page Let Us Peep, Perchance To Dream
Saturday, December 13, 2008; Page C01
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.
In a sense, this was a kind of regression from her earlier identity.