Three years before Page’s quiet disappearing act, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published the Molotov cocktail of a book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Within in its pages, the German-born headshrinker made an erroneously convincing case to parents that graphic depictions of violence in comic books influenced delinquency in minors.
Wertham’s book sent shockwaves through a society whose nerves were already raw from Red Scare paranoia related to the ongoing Cold War with Russia that had gripped the nation then.
The impact of his theories would change the nature of subject matter drawn into comics for the next several decades. They also caused EC Comics, which once specialized in horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, to back away from publishing comic books altogether.
Collateral damage caused by Seduction of the Innocent would also hit the careers of 1950s pin-up models, the uber popular Bettie Page in particular.
This occurred after a Congressional inquiry sparked by Wertham’s work was convened in 1954 to investigate the comic book publishing industry. But the inquiry promptly expanded to include a look into any possible role that exposure to men’s magazines could also play in the lives of troubled youth.
At the time when she was called to testify in New York before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, Betty Page (born Bettie Mae Page) was one of the most popular pin-up and fetish models in America. Her angelic face, framed with charcoal tresses and trademark bangs, could all but guarantee a boost in magazine sales.
As good looking as she was, it also didn’t hurt that Page was virtually fearless before the camera, taking on all manner of titillating modeling assignments short of actual pornography.
Subpoenaed for the purpose of explaining her appearance in countless provocative photos, scores of which featured depictions of bondage and girl-on-girl spanking, Page would ultimately find herself spared from testifying; the subcommittee had collected enough testimony to render its verdict.
But the damage to her psyche and her career by the government witch-hunt had been done.
Ultimately, the negatives of hundreds of photos featuring Page were designated to be destroyed by an order of the court. For several years, it was actually illegal to even produce photographic prints from a stash of negatives that had somehow escaped destruction.
The Senate Subcommittee hearings also took a toll on the life of one of Page’s closest cohorts.
Irving Klaw, a self-styled photographer and filmmaker, was well known for his novelty mail order business through which photos of sexy women in high heels and lingerie were sold from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
Between 1952 and 1957, Page served as a reliable muse who was featured in the majority of Klaw’s print and film work. And business was a-booming for the kinds of work they produced.
The Senate Subcommittee hearings, though, sounded a death knell over Klaw’s then nearly two-decade old enterprise.
Faced with steadily increasing scrutiny from the government, followed by the surrounding New York community where his studio and mail order business was based, Klaw quit the business forever and reportedly torched the negatives to all of his films and photos featuring Page and other pin-ups.
That pyre would signal the end of a era.
By 21st century standards, the 1950s naughty work featuring Ms. Bettie Page seems somewhat tame. But the images in which she appeared were years ahead of their time and pushed the envelope of sexuality in pop culture in ways that resonate to this day.
From modern advertising and commercial art, to the 1950s-style fashions of rockabilly-punk musicians and the stiletto pumps of burlesque and strip club dancers, the influence of Bettie Page is undeniable.
Now more than half a century since she walked away from pin-up and fetish modeling at the age of 34, the distinctive image of Bettie Page still lingers in our collective consciousness where she forever remains a raven-haired bombshell with the body of a devil and the face of a saint.
Sparked by the spirit of nostalgia felt even by folks born decades after her 1950s heyday, vintage images of Page taken by Irving Klaw and other shutterbugs crop up in comic books like The Rocketeer, fanzines, and coffee table pictorials. Each page serves as a testament to Bettie Page’s enduring place in the pantheon of pop culture icons and in the hearts of millions.
Long live the Queen.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.