LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Bettie Page, one of America’s most photographed pin-up girls during the 1950s, died in Los Angeles on Thursday from pneumonia, her agent said. She was 85.
Page was a ubiquitous sight during the 1950s, propelled to stardom when she posed for Playboy as Miss January 1955. Soon her image was gracing playing cards, record albums and bedroom posters across the country.
She stopped modeling in 1957, retreated from the public spotlight and turned to religion. She enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the 1980s, as a new generation of fans became obsessed with her legacy.
Her agent, Mark Roesler, said Page was admitted to a Los Angeles-area hospital four weeks ago. She never regained consciousness after suffering a heart attack earlier this month.
With her dark bangs, alluring blue-gray eyes and wide smile, Page cultivated an innocent girl-next-door persona. The one-time school teacher was nice, but clearly also naughty. Some of her photos featured spanking and bondage.
“Bettie Page embodied the stereotypical wholesomeness of the Fifties and the hidden sexuality straining beneath the surface,” authors Karen Essex and James L. Swanson wrote in their 1996 book “Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend.”
Page professed to be mystified by all the attention, saying she never felt particularly attractive and had to wear a lot of makeup to cover up her large pores. After she found God, she was initially ashamed of having posed nude.
“(B)ut now most of the money I’ve got is because I posed in the nude,” she told Playboy last year. “So I’m not ashamed of it now, but I still don’t understand it.”
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.
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.
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. Her comeback gathered momentum with the 1991 movie “The Rocketeer,” based on a comic book where the hero’s girlfriend was Page. Fan clubs and websites proliferated, and Page made a good living signing memorabilia at conventions. On the rare occasions that she gave interviews, she insisted that she not be photographed.