Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Sight at the Opera

While flipping through some record albums at an estate sale in North St. Louis County this past Friday, I paused when I saw "Bizet Carmen for Orchestra" and a familiar face staring out from its cover.

I knew that face.  It was unmistakably 1950's pin-up queen Bettie Page.

I was first introduced to Bettie in the pages (no pun intended) of Dave Stevens' Rocketeer back in the early '90's after having seen the movie featuring the watered-down version of her in the role of Cliff Secord's (alias The Rocketeer) girlfriend Jenny as portrayed by Jennifer Connelly.

Bettie's story wasn't a happy one.  Graduating Salutatorian of her high school, she set out to become a teacher, but then decided to try acting.  Like so many hopeful actresses, Bettie instead found the only way she could support herself was through modeling for pin-up photographers later moving into acting in "stag" films.  She gained some fame after appearing as Playboy's Miss Janurary 1955 and was named Miss Pin-up Queen of 1955.  But with the FBI's investigation of the stag film industry along with her conversion to a reborn Christian (at one point working for Billy Graham), Bettie left the modeling world and faded into obscurity.  Her years between the late 1950's and the 1990's were marked by divorces, psychiatric issues and poverty.  During this time, and unbeknownst to Bettie, she had attained cult status, becoming a pin-up icon, her likeness appearing in painting and comics, and even developed a groupie-like following of women who emulated her bangs and dress style.  Bettie has inspired the look of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, singer Katy Perry  and burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese and even has her own clothes line.

The image on the album, which was released in 1957, appeared to be a cropped version that appeared on Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" album.

I've seen her image used on one other album, oddly enough "The Best Musical Comedy Songs".

Bettie learned of her popularity via a 1993 phone interview with Robin Leach of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous".  Finding an agent, Bettie finally began receiving royalties for the use of her likeness in her final years.  She passed away in 2007.  In 2011, her estate earned $6 million in royalties, placing her in a tie with George Harrison and Andy Warhol as 13th highest-earning dead celebrity.

In 1998, of her career, Bettie said, "I never thought it was shameful. I felt normal. It's just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day, which gets monotonous."

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