Images of Bettie like the one here to the left still to this very day, hold the power to take my breath away.
I'm not going to attempt to tell her story here, most of you already either knew it, or have spent the past day or so getting acquainted with the realities of her life.
Her life beyond the photography studios and outdoor sets took her to people and places and parts of the world far from those idealized moments captured in the images.
So in writing this, I begin how it began for me, with the images themselves and the now long lost world they came from.
Her passing is an occasion to contemplate the vast changes that have taken place in the world of fetish and BDSM in relation to communications and community.
Bettie became the icon she was due to the growth of the camera clubs and Irving Klaw's mailing list of then deeply closeted (purely for day to day survival purposes) clients. She was for all intents and purposes the first bondage supermodel to what was not so much a "community," as a matter of individuals secretly purchasing the images.
The photographs and films she starred in were not so much depictions of her own sexuality, rather they were often based upon requests from those purchasing the materials.
For me, (like many of her fans,) it was always about a certain look in her eye. Be that playing the confident, playful, or sultry Mistress, or the looks of concern or even fear at impending suffering that might lie ahead of her, depicted as the helpless beauty usually whist held captive in some form of bondage.
Her acting classes aside, the photographs capture the feeling of some of the most rare moments that Kinky people treasure; looks of apprehension and loss of control, becoming a canvas to an artist, both needing and fearing what comes next.
Or the slight smile at the corners of one's owner's mouth as she prepares to correct or discipline a girl who is clearly in need of it.
Being S/switch, I've both worn and known each of those looks myself.
I've seen similar on the faces of those I've loved.
Most of all though, I understand Bettie's frequent expressions of playfulness or triumph or of sheer joy.
We catch glimpses of these, from time to time, sometimes on the faces of others, sometimes on the faces of those we love.
We know what those moments feel like.
Perhaps that was the secret of why Bettie connected with her audience in the ways in which she did.
Yes, she was beautiful, that was clear from the start. Beautiful in an iconic idealized, unattainable way when it came to real life for most. But we could recognize in those photographs moments that we ourselves had either cherished (for those so fortunate as to actually have lived such out,) or for those at the time, much more likely merely fantasized about.
Looking through the images today, one of the more interesting aspects of them is how contemporary the tools appear. So many of the same sorts of fetish items and tools were in use back then as well; laced up hobble skirts, arm-binders, hoods, leather corsets, furs, extreme heels and thigh high boots, metal fetters and shackles, chains, and clips, spreader bars, harnesses, leather gags and blindfolds, and of course, the ever present seductive lingerie.
Plenty of everyday household items make appearances as tools as well, plenty of rope and hairbrush spankings.
Another thing I find very striking about the images is that Bettie Page taught the world that yes, real Femmes can wield whips.
In a day and age where gender roles are so frequently broken down into Butch or Masculine being equated to "Dominant", and Femme or Feminine as equated to "submissive", it's remarkably refreshing to see images of a no-doubt-about-it Femme fatale not in the roles of "Service top" to a man, but as an active Mistress in her own right, secure in her own oh so Femme skin.
Which happily brings us to the obvious. Many of these were portrayals of womyn playing with other womyn- unapologetically so. While such clearly had much to do with the inner fantasy life of the (male) clientele, the interactions still portrayed possibilities.
For Queers such as myself, who discovered Bettie during her 'cult following' resurgence, these were some of the few images of womyn training, controlling, and "correcting" one another we had available to us that provided a sense of ourselves as having a form of a pre-existing historical yet fully modern context.
"Coming to Power" was first published in 1981, but by and large any form of organized Leather was in many ways still a male domain. Straightforward images of womyn "doing THINGS" to one another along these lines while certainly practiced, had very little imagery as fodder for fantasy.
You can only imagine my happiness at having discovered images of Bettie on her knees 'in service' as a Lady's maid, or of her lovingly domineering a bound and gagged female victim.
While these may have been images created for men, certainly the Lady's maid imagery implies a fantasy relationship wherein for even just a snapshot, the world narrows down to just these two womyn, a shared intimate moment, and a smile.
These images were important, not only to me, to other kinky and Leather womyn as well. They were more than fantasy material.
For S/switch womyn they held double meaning, did we want to submit to her or feel powerful and beautiful like her when we are in control. Did we empathize with her as the bound beauty or did we long to be with, and a possess a womyn like Bettie ourselves?
These were images that related to how we envisioned structuring our relationships, not of an occasional hot date on a Saturday night.
They had to do with both womyn we dreamed of sharing our lives with and at the same time, our own self images as womyn of Leather.
Unfortunately, unlike the fantasy world of the images themselves, and the aspects of womyn's sexualities portrayed in them, Bettie's own life experiences beyond the lens had a very great deal of sadness to it.
Her "real world" actions and religiosity cast a dark cloud over the photographs which had been at the time so important to me.
In the late 50's she underwent a religious conversion experience that ultimately aligned her with the very people who sought to stamp out the very things she herself had participated in. This led to a self imposed closeting, and later life fraught with contradictions.
(For more detail on some of the following see Chapter 10 of "The Real Betty Page" by Richard Foster. The book is well, the book, but this particular chapter does give an account, with many of the names and dates being useful.)
On New Year's eve 1958, she attended a service of what has now become the Key West Baptist Temple (At the time it was the "Latin American Baptist Temple." The preacher that night was Morris, or M.O. Wright. He had gotten his start in the jesus business after killing a man in a fatal car wreck. He was sentenced to a year in jail. While there, he got religion, and got his start by preaching at cellmates. )
Having been born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1923, and lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Betty found herself attracted to the interracial service.
Keep in mind this was America in 1958. The Civil Rights movement was in many ways in its early years. 1958 was after the Montgomery bus boycott and Little Rock, when President Eisenhower had called up the paratroopers to escort the nine black students to Central High, but well before the Freedom Riders, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, the King assassination, etc.
She went on to be described as having had a "born-again" experience when she returned to the church and participated in the altar call the following week. (Not terribly long thereafter, in 1959, the English speaking growing portion of the congregation under Wright would go on to break away from the pre-existing Cuban and Spanish speaking congregation.)
When Bettie arrived at the Latin American Baptist Temple that night it was after an argument with her then husband, Armond Walterson, one of many such arguments, that ultimately led to the end of her marriage.
A series of misfortunes had struck her in the year before, from enduring a back injury that had left her in a wheelchair for four months to financial woes that led to her being evicted from her New Jersey storage space, the owner selling all her possessions including her modeling portfolio.
In a very real sense, she had come to a place of her past being gone, and her marriage being in a very real sense over. That night as she walked down White Street, she was at a moment of openness and vulnerability.
Evangelists often prey upon those who have as they like to put it, "come to the end of themselves." And Bettie was no exception.
Though she didn't speak about her past, she was incorporated into the religious infrastructure just as many "trophy converts" are. Wright counts the infamous Betty Page among his converts.
She worked full time for the Billy Graham organization, and while at Multnomah, one of several bible school programs she was involved with, (BIOLA, the Bible Institute of Los Angles, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Multnomah School of the Bible, in Portland Oregon, and a christian retreat called "Bibletown" put on by the Boca Raton Community Church in Florida,) she volunteered at "The Louise Home" (a nonsectarian missionary proposition focused upon "unwed mothers".)
Also while at Multnomah she wanted to go to Africa as a missionary, but the Multnomah Mission board disqualified her for having divorced. She went on to briefly remarry her first husband, Billy Neal, which did lead to her being able to do missionary work, but that marriage was but one of her many that ended in divorce.
So why go into all this?
Well, I too have spent some long dark nights in Key West wandering down White Street towards the shore. Fortunately though, her story is most definitely not my story.
The Baptist Temple is out on Stock Island now, but it's still the local damnation awaits YOU "problem child."
They are, in short, the resident bat-shit homophobic church.
Wright can be counted onto make comments the likes of, for example, him having decided Key West's annual Halloween festival, Fantasy Fest, is "a revial of demonism and Babylonianism" and brings down the wrath of god upon Key West.
I'm not saying that Betty herself was anti-gay, merely that the preacher and church that she turned to based on her impression of its inclusiveness that was such an instrumental aspect of her conversion process, has gone on to be known for being anything but.
Betty did not talk about her former modeling career and the "naughty pictures" in her past, but clearly, if her newfound "friends" would reject her for having divorced, you can imagine what they would have thought of her had they known the full story at the time.
She embraced an identity that precluded her own history. Her quest for acceptance, while not invalidating her earlier life in any way, led to it being buried and lost to everyone except those few who perhaps having kept the pictures of the jet-haired beauty keeping memory itself alive.
A number of Bettie's later years were spent in mental hospitals under state supervision. She was finally released in 1992.
In one of the better summations of her life I've seen since her death, Peter Tupper on Beauty in Darkness: the history of BDSM described her as a "cipher," going on to explain:
"Maybe it's because she dropped out of public view before the sexual revolution really got going, and issues of sexual expression became politicized. She was an icon to a revolution that she didn't really participate in. A sex object without sexual politics, never a speaking subject."(Although as I'll mention below Bettie herself came to be a key example of politicized sexual expression due to the Congressional hearings.)
In the end, I don't know whether or not she ever understood how much she meant to the men who hid and kept her pictures, let alone the Queer womyn who later saw in them important reflections of our sexuality, self images, and desires.
The sexual abuse and poverty she endured may have made it difficult for her to look back on parts of her modeling days.
But certainly in recent years, she has been celebrated and as new generations have found her, they too have seen in those early pictures images of beauty, or strength, of power, and a womyn not ashamed of either her actions and interactions with other womyn, nor of her body.
Klaw and thereby Bettie were subjects of the notorious Kefauver Hearings (of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.) She was called before Congress to explain the photographs but in the end was excused from testifying. Many of the negatives of the original prints were destroyed by court order.
Those that survived, survived by acts of both defiance and love.
They survived long enough for me to see myself, and the womyn I've loved in them. Long enough to provide a role model of sorts in today's kink community, that of a strong womyn of both whips and lace, a womyn whose otherwise invisible sexuality is outside of state sanction, and in relation to other womyn.
The images helped some of us see some of our desires reflected in an external culture, enacted by someone who despite her conversion experience did not feel regret over them
To quote Bettie herself, commenting on her pin-up career in a 1988 Playboy interview:
"I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal."In feeling "normal" before the cameras, she helped some of us feel a bit more "normal" as well.
When I look at her bondage pictures now, I take them at face value, as what they were at the time. Beyond a girl earning a living, they represent a moment in time, when the " Leather community" had more to do with a bunch of gay fellas riding motorcycles who had been home from WWII for a few years.
Finding such images as close as a web search to those who lived in that climate, is an undeniable quantifiable change, (and in many ways, simply beyond comprehension.)
These were "dangerous" images that came close to being destroyed forever. Those who would if they could are still with us, many of them wearing crosses around their necks.
While remembering the history, I try to look past those whose bigotry nearly led to the destruction of these images and Bettie's own embrace of Wright, hiding her past lest she no longer be considered part of the fold, and instead, look to all that I first saw in those images.
So so long, and thanks for the memories.
Nothing can negate those.
(With special thanks to "It's just Jack"'s Bettie Page flickr photo collection and Queen of Pinups- Bettie Page)