A little over two decades ago, I began a project that would change the face of popular culture. If at that time, you’d forecast my future I doubt that I’d have believed you. The search for Betty Page changed my life, and in a smaller ways your life too.
To fully appreciate the story, you have to understand what Bettie represents to me and her fans you have to read on.
MY GUIDES TO THE UNDERWORLD
"Someday I'll have all of the girlie books I want!" my nine-year-old vocal chords exclaimed, cursed. My six-years-older brother never heard my vow. He was peeling down the Detroit street on his bike, and even though my "little yellow book" was clenched between his teeth, he laughed maniacally. That was the last time I ever saw my first skin magazine.
I was one pissed nine-year-old, but what could I do? Go to my folks? Call the cops? Nope. I was powerless to get my property back because I wasn't supposed to have it in the first place.
I discovered my first mens’ magazine in the spring of 1962 while cutting through an alley on foot my way to the Ella Fitzgerald Elementary School. It was in a dumpster behind the Puritan Market, among some rotting vegetables. I was (and still am) a paid-up member of the League of Garbage-Pickers, and though I usually avoided organic trash, the flash of yellow had caught my eye as I popped over the edge of some stinking dumpster. The book was 5 1/2"X8 1/2", and showed a picture of a topless woman on the cover. I was shocked. It was the first pair of breasts that I had ever seen, other than my mother's, and the sight of it made my young blood race. Surprisingly, the book was clean, and I fished it out of the morning trash immediately.
The cover featured the model's name, Ann I think, and the interior consisted of pictures of this blonde lounging around some house in various states of undress without text. We know what we like.
Trembling, I quickly checked it out, page by page, looking over my shoulder in the morning air, knowing I was doing something “wrong,” actually still in the dumpster. It was an unforgettable rush of excitement and, strange as it sounds, I had a difficult time looking the model in the printed eyes. Fear of my being discovered with this dirty book, and the rush caused by viewing the photos was almost unbearable. Even though I knew it was only paper and ink, I was completely absorbed by the experience. Even the shots where the model was looking away caused this feeling of embarrassment. I half-expected her to look up and see me peeking at her, thinking me a naughty boy. The only image that I was comfortable looking at was a one of the woman "asleep" on a sofa, and this non-threatening image immediately became my favorite. If I was quiet and didn't disturb her, I could finally get a sexual thrill from the sight of a nude woman. I knew that as far as the adults were concerned, looking at this book was wrong, but the male inside of me felt initiated. While I didn't understand any of the mechanics of sex, my body and brain still responded, and my whole being shouted a unanimous "YES!"
It was the first time I suspected that people were lying to me about sex.
Taking the book to school was far too dangerous, and I stashed it in one of the dozens of great hiding places near the store: Under a garbage can. All day long I worried that someone might stumble upon it as only a kid of nine can worry, but it was still there seven hours later. Rather than risk taking it into the house, I stashed it in our warehouse of a two-car garage. A couple of days later, I was showing it to my goofy friend Alan Bard, and as we exited the garage, my older brother Pat entered the yard. Alan gulped, and immediately proclaimed that we weren't doing anything wrong. That immediately tipped Pat off that we WERE doing something wrong and bolted into the dark garage and began to rummage around the junk stored there. No dice.
"I don't know what you guys were up to, but I'm gonna find out!" Pat remarked with a smirk. He was six years older than I was and hated it when I got the better of him.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMARICA. Doc Doom not so much.
Later, I decided that it might be better if Alan took the "yellow book" home for a while, until things cooled off and I could decide what to do next. Next day, Alan came tearing into our backyard-after school in a sweat. "I think my brother knows something is wrong!" he shouted, as he pulled the “yellow book” from his jacket and shoved it into my hands. Pat heard the commotion and bolted out of the back door, heading straight towards me. He had the physical advantage, and he wrestled the mag from my hands in a moment. Then he hopped on his bike and took off down the street, laughing like a maniac, yellow book between teeth.
That was the last time I ever saw my first mens’ magazine and the moment I made my vow.
A year or two later, Murphy and his family moved in next door. He was my age, and we immediately became best friends. About six months after, early in March, Murphy phoned me. There was a strange urgency in his voice. "Get over here right away! I've found something!" I hung up and bolted across the yard without even putting on a coat. He ushered me through the house and into his father's music study, and knelt in front of the blonde-wood bookcase. I knelt, too, though I didn’t know why we were at worship.
"Everybody is gone until six o'clock. I was snooping around and decided to open this drawer." He pointed to the bottom drawer of a set that had been built into the bookcase. "This is the drawer that must never be opened." he proclaimed, and with a dramatic gesture, he pulled on the handle. My eyes popped out of my head as a stack of skin-magazines a foot deep came into view.
It might have been the chilled air of the den, or it might have been the idea that we were doing something we shouldn’t, but whatever it was, I began to shiver. We'd opened the drawer that must never be opened, and peering into that Pandora's box was my next rite of passage.
Murph's dad had very good taste when it came to girlie books. He had a selection of everything from PLAYBOY to nudist magazines, and a smattering of mens’ magazines that had been published over the preceding five years. Murph wouldn't allow me to touch them, and I was satisfied to let him turn the pages. We were careful not to get them out of order, for fear of discovery. One at a time we quickly leafed through the mags and saw hundreds of nude women in a single sitting: A crash course in femininity. Inside some of the cheaper magazines we found women who were scary, decked out in strange outfits, sporting heavy make-up, and weird hairstyles. I distinctly remember Honey Bee, and how Murph and I agreed that she looked hard. Time has not changed that perception. Some of the ladies were very appealing, and it was the first time I ever saw a picture of Betty Page, top Pin-up queen of all time. Must be so, they listed her full name.
I returned to my home a happy boy. I must have looked like the cat that swallowed the canary: I had a new source of nude images of naked women and sometimes in full color! (Somehow, an important thing to me in 1962.) Even better, I had a "dirty" little secret.
Pat spotted it immediately and snorted, "Ha! You're up to something."
Something was up all right.
As I grew older I continued to read and collect skin-magazines, and like the rest of the males of America yearned for stronger stuff. PENTHOUSE finally showed pubic hair, HUSTLER showed wide-open legs, and video-tape blew the roof off the rest of it. In my quest for explicit sexual material, Bettie Page and her Pin-up sisters were virtually forgotten: Relics of my childhood.