Don’t Be Afraid: In the Spirit of Bettie Page

Bettie Page - Bunny Yeager - Petra Mason - SimplyGood
Alarming current events, looming disease, and the insidious tremors of fear-mongering continuously plague the news these days, polarizing this country, smashing our dreams of a better world, and diverting attention to the negativity of human nature. So let’s not ignore the madness (as a force to be reckoned with), but also turn to the moments in culture that evince our beautiful humanity —

Say, perhaps, the fascinating life of Bettie Page?

Bettie Page - Queen of Curves - Bunny Yeager - Petra Mason

A chance encounter with Petra Mason — the noted cultural historian and Miami-based Bettie expert — piqued our desire to rediscover the curvaceous, indomitable icon (and iconoclast). Bettie Page embodies concepts of freedom and open-mindedness with playful authenticity. And that’s a breath of fresh air. We need it in this Age of Anxiety (beyond what W.H. Auden once wrote).

And so, good readers, please enjoy here a revealing interview with Mason about the real Bettie Page, along with exclusive images by Bunny Yeager that should tickle your fancy — a SimplyGood treat.

SimplyGood: What originally drew you to Bettie Page and the work of Bunny Yeager? Was there an impetus?

Petra Mason: I’ve always been into retro-style, and also culturally obsessed since I was a kid. As a teenager in the ‘80s, stars of the silverscreen Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable shared bedroom wall-space with punk legends Nina Hagen and Siouxsie Sioux set to a soundtrack of Toots and the Maytals, Marvin Gaye, and Amampondo. Bettie Page images by Bunny Yeager formed part of that formative collage.

Bettie Page - Queen of Curves - Bunny Yeager

Sweet & Savage: In the ’40s and ’50s, the Tarzanesque jungle girl was a popular female adventurer archetype. Bettie and Bunny’s “Jungle Bettie” remains among the most celebrated of their collaboration. The off-the-shoulder was made of fabric, as spandex did not exist. Bettie wore this outfit for sessions in New York and Miami, and sewed it herself. — Petra Mason

Moving to Miami from New York in 2010, I was aware that the pin-up model turned pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager lived nearby. The first book I did with her, Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom (featuring photographs by Yeager and a foreword by Dita Von Teese), unintentionally became part of what is now a vintage pin-up photography book trilogy. Bettie Page: Queen of Curves (foreword and photography by Bunny Yeager) is the second. Then I looked into what the boys were up to from the 1940s to the pre-disco era in Beefcake: 100% Rare, All Natural, published last year.

Describe how and why you perceive Bettie as an icon.

Icon is such an overused word these days, so I thought I’d look it up to be reminded of its true meaning. While Bettie was no saint, she has been, and continues to be, worshipped. Men and women love Bettie; her fans are all shapes, sizes, and shades, and many have Bettie tattoos. She’s a patron saint of her craft, not just the dark angel of her bondage era. As a woman, I feel rather protective about her.

Bettie Page - Bunny Yeager - Petra Mason

It’s lesser-known that Bettie did many of her beach shoots in Miami and South Florida. So what made her come to Miami in the first place?

She was on the run from the law. The Blue Heat in New York were on her tail for an obscenity rap relating to the bondage sessions she did with the downtown Irving Klaw Studio. Irving Klaw and his sister Paula Klaw were Bettie’s main photographers — Irving is mostly credited with the photography, but Paula was an equal partner. Paula had the smarts to hide some of the Bettie bondage images that were supposed to have been destroyed. The three of them seemed to have been pretty chummy, and for most parts laughed on set while reading, and enacting, the smut-by-mail order requests for which Bettie was their most requested S&M model.

What are some fun anecdotes of Bettie’s time down here in Miami? Both on- and off-shoots. 

I wish I could say she was living it up at the hotels and nightclubs with the Rat Pack, but sadly not. In Miami, between shoots, she seems to have spent much of her free time alone sewing in a little caravan by the Miami River or sun-tanning naked — all alone. She worked hard with Bunny on set and location. Those were the days when you did it all yourself, hair and makeup and carrying your own props and equipment, unlike today.

Irving Klaw seems to have been here part of the time and she filmed some pretty ghastly mini-movies and continued to do lucrative bondage photography poses.

Palm trees, leather, and whips! A weird combination.

Bunny mentioned that the rich guy who owned the Chris-Craft vessel Bettie poses on in the Boat Ride section of the book was (understandably) enamored of her. But she seems not to have been impressed by wealth. She even turned down Howard Hughes!

What would you say are some of Bettie’s idiosyncrasies that the general public may not know?

Let’s call them virtually unknown facts:

  • Her coolest boyfriend by far was visionary American industrial designer Richard H. Arbib. He was a dapper man-about-town of Egyptian descent, whose designs for space cars, boats, and automobiles were wild and wonderful. What a pair they must have been.
  • Page was “discovered” by two African-American men. Jerry Tibbs, a Harlem policeman and amateur photographer who spotted her on Coney Island and then introduced her to his photographer and jazz musician friend Cass Carr. Her first cover story was for a Harlem magazine.
  • She preferred flats or bare feet, not those sky-high stilettos (those were strictly part of her bondage role-play sessions). The fact that she was 32, not 22, when she posed for Bunny. She got good grades at school. She worked as a secretary in Haiti. Even though she came from Tennessee, she was very open-minded and multicultural.

Bettie Page - Bunny Yeager

Let’s discuss your comprehensive volume, Bettie Page: Queen of Curves. Can you refer to her styles of posing in the book? What distinguishes her from other women-in-images, erotic or not?

I think it’s about the pure athletic delight she took in posing, her lack of self-consciousness, and how her free-spirited approach to pin-up was liberated. The fact that she was a self-made woman fits into feminism unintentionally. I tried to get under her beautiful olive skin. I walked to streets of her New York neighborhood, on the edge of the Theater District and Hell’s Kitchen. I went to the locations she and Bunny shot at, and I discovered a pin-up pier she posed on, when the tide was low.

Bettie Page was so raunchy, and clearly had a sense of humor. While other models looked non-threatening, playing cute and coy, Bettie looked you straight in the eye as if to say: “Let’s do this my way!” (which was way ahead of the pack). She was a true nudist, and she oozes ease — “Nude, not naked,” to quote Bunny. Men and women love her. She’s become a role model too, for freaks, for fashion, fat girls, and tough chicks. She’s never out of style and always gets reinterpreted. Each time she is discovered, people make her their own.

Bettie Page on the beach

Bunny Yeager got her first break as a young pin-up photog in 1955 with a shot of a scantily-clad Bettie in a Santa hat, which she sold to Playboy magazine. That jump-started a long, compelling collaboration, and Bettie represented a beautiful alternative in the collective conscious. The Anti-Blonde. The Non-Monroe. Please give us some insight on what your research has revealed on Bettie’s true nature and career. 

Bunny was very strategic and kept her eye on the prize: she approached Playboy with her Bettie Page in Santa hat image shortly after the magazine hit the shelves. They only worked together for about 10 months in Miami — but shot over 800 images. Yes, Bettie was the Anti-Blonde. Raven tresses and olive skin were no doubt considered very exotic back then, and there was even a rumor that she was part American Indian, which added to her Pocahontas appeal.

Bettie and Bunny’s Miami collaborations produced very natural pin-ups, and both were nature lovers. They’re our founding beach babes.

Marilyn Monroe was very glam Hollywood West Coast, and Bettie was very edgy New York East Coast.

Careers, as we know them today, were a luxury reserved for the wealthy or the truly bohemian creative set — Bettie was blue-collar and working class. She did what she could with what she had. She was smart, educated, and worked as a secretary, but modeling paid better. Later, when she left New York, she wound up in Key West as a schoolteacher.

Bettie Page - beach

Tell us about Camera Clubs back in 1954.

On the East Coast, unofficial Camera Clubs boomed and kept Bettie busy over weekend getaways mostly upstate. Bunny reportedly tried to get a Miami Camera Club started, but the locals here were not as committed as they were in the New York area. Official Camera Clubs were prestigious, but there also were the rogue camera clubs: basically, unattractive guys using an interest in “figure photography” and “artistic lighting” as a way to see scantily clad chicks. 1950s newspaper headlines screamed: “Camera Clubs: Where Sex-Starved Creeps Pay!” Camera Club types do exist to this day, and they still inhabit Bettie’s world.

There’s a section in Queen of Curves called “Nutty Cheesecake.” Can you please delve into that particular style of photography?

“Nutty Cheesecake” is a term I saw scrawled on one of Bunny’s boxes in her Miami Shores studio the first time I met her. Cheesecake photography is the better-known genre, but “Nutty Cheesecake” took some research and was a definite style that echoed the screwball comedy of the time. Making funny faces, vaudeville, and slapstick humor — Bettie did “Nutty Cheesecake” better than anybody.

All photography © Bunny Yeager, Bettie Page: Queen of Curves by Petra Mason, Rizzoli.

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