The Notorious Bettie Page
Over the years I talked to many people who had known Bettie Page, but
the closer I got to her, the more she seemed to slip through my fingers.
Among those encounters, two stand out. The first was with a retired
army officer who had known Bettie in the 1950s and had recently been
corresponding with her. Sam Green, the researcher on the project (later
to gain fame as the director of The Weather Underground) urged
me to contact “The Captain” when I was in London. It turned
out he was living in retirement in Bath, an old spa town in the south
When I got there the taxi dropped me in front of a magnificent 18th
century terrace, and from the nameplate I found out that he was not
a captain but a brigadier general. He turned out to be a lovely man,
white haired with a rosy face and a bad leg. Though weakened by a serious
illness he managed to show me a delightful afternoon in his antique-filled
apartment, examining photos and memorabilia and pieces of lingerie.
“Look at these,” he said, showing me a pair of sheer-seamed
black stockings imported from France. “I used to get them from
a little place on Fifth Ave; they cost a fortune!” He showed me
the special feature that made them so desirable: extra long stocking
tops. A keen amateur photographer, he had started with the camera clubs
but eventually graduated to private sessions, where he would bring lingerie
for the girls to wear, including Bettie. Gloves he liked too. He showed
me a pair of exquisite full-length kid gloves that he’d bought
for his wife, who was sympathetic to his fetishes.
His face glowed as he talked about Bettie, about her sweetness, her
naïveté, her genuineness: “a real country girl,”
he said. Now they wrote to each other about illnesses, the pains and
inconveniences of old age. “Back then she would never go out with
me,” he explained sadly, but he felt protective of her and they
“I would marry her today,” he said, and it was clear that
the General’s picture of Bettie was still of a girl in her 20s,
more an idealized image than a real person. That afternoon left me wondering
about the dilemma of the beauty queen. What must it be like for your
face and body and physical presence to have such an intoxicating effect
on others—what does it do to the person within? Does it leave
a blankness inside, an absence, a feeling of disconnection? I thought
of what Rita Hayworth said was the great problem of her life, that men
would go to bed with a movie star and wake up with an ordinary woman.
Bettie made such a vivid impression on so many men she met, but did
any of them really know her?
Later I spent an afternoon with the man who probably knew her best,
outside of her own family. Sam Green, co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner
and I had gone to Nashville to check out Bettie’s early life.
One afternoon we called on Billy Neal, her first boyfriend and first
husband. His house was modest and immaculately clean and tidy; the worn
linoleum in the kitchen shone and he kept the stove on because it was
cold that day. Outside was a car with the sign “When the rapture
comes, this car will be empty.” After Bettie became born again
she went back to Nashville, and brought Billy back to Jesus. They married
again, briefly and disastrously, but the religion stayed with him.
Billy met Bettie while they were still in high school. Back then he
was rowdy, would get in fights on a Saturday night just for fun. He’d
be dancing with Bettie, a guy would try cutting in and before you knew
it the whole room had exploded. There were fights between them, too,
because he was fiercely jealous. “But I never hit her with a closed
fist” he said, by way of explanation.
Fifty years later you could still feel his bewilderment over Bettie.
It was like a wound that never healed. It wasn’t just that she
left him, although that in itself showed surprising nerve and independence
for a woman of the 1950s with no money to fall back on. It was more
than that. You felt she was still a mystery to him. For all their time
together he had never really gotten close. That elusiveness, I decided,
wasn’t just a problem in understanding her character: in a sense,
it was her character. In the end I decided to embrace the mystery, because
it was within Bettie’s contradictions that the essence of her