The Queen of Curves was born Bettie Mae Page on April 22, 1923, in Nashville Tennessee. Her father was an auto mechanic, and the family moved several times during her early childhood. The parents separated shortly after the Great Depression arrived, and Bettie’s mother was forced to put the three daughters into an orphanage. It was there that Bettie discovered that she loved to entertain and would spend hours with the other girls, improvising dramatic scenes, singing songs, and dancing. Betties remembers that the girls all liked the way she did the hula, and everybody always requested it. Eventually, the girls moved back in with their mother, and brother Jimmie.
Bettie was a star student at Nashville’s Hume-Fogg High School and very active with student activities. Everybody knew who Bettie Page was and all the boys longed to date her. They tried every imaginable approach but none ever seemed to work. It didn’t matter how charming, how handsome, how athletic, or how smart the boy was: Bettie wouldn’t say “yes.”
To begin with, Sweet Bettie didn’t have time for them. Her days were filled with studies, R.O.T.C. activities, work on the school yearbook THE ECHO, editing duties on the school newspaper, dramatic productions, and the debate club. Even if she could fit a romance somewhere on that agenda, one overriding factor would still have prevented it.
Bettie recalls “My mother refused to let me date boys!”
As busy as she was during her Senior year, Bettie managed to stay at the top of her class. She fully expected to be the Senior Valedictorian, and win the much-needed scholarship to Vassar College. To her shock and horror, Bettie missed both by a grade point average of one-quarter point! She'd received a B-plus in art class, and it ruined her straight A report card.
She was heartbroken, but a scholarship to the George Peabody College took the sting out of the situation. While at Peabody, Bettie was involved with the Peabody Players Radio Guild, and performed in the class production of AH, WILDERNESS. She was a student teacher during her senior year and hated the experience, she claimed, because of the rowdy students. The teen-aged boys just couldn't settle down when Bettie was at the head of the class.
Bettie met her first husband, Bill Neal, in her Senior year of high school. They tried to keep their relationship a secret but Bettie's mother eventually found out. Rather than give up her boyfriend, Bettie decided to move in with her father in another part of town. They were secretly married to Billy during her Junior year at Peabody.
In June of 1944 Bettie graduated with a Bachelor's Degree, and proceeded to follow Billy to San Francisco. He'd been drafted and shipped there awaiting reassignment in the Pacific. She took an apartment and waited for her husband's return. Shortly after Billy left, she was approached by Art Grayson, a man who had connections at 20th Century Fox Pictures. He took some test shots of Bettie and submitted them to the head office in Hollywood. They immediately demanded that she come south for a screen test.
20th Century Fox imported Bettie from San Francisco and advised her of the time and location of her first screen test. Bettie had always wanted to be an actress and an offer to test was like a dream come true.
The studio make-up men assigned to the test decided that what Bettie needed was a new image. They began to monkey with nature's masterpiece and Ms. Page ended up looking like Joan Crawford. Her hair was bunched out of the sides and her lips were over-painted to make her mouth appear wider. Bettie didn't recognize herself when she saw the test projected.
The studio executives didn't like her Southern accent, and were bothered that her agent, Art Grayson wasn't present to negotiate on her behalf. They decided against signing her to a contract, and she returned to San Francisco, her dream of stardom rudely awakened.
Billy returned from the War in April of 1946 and was reunited with Bettie. They continued to live together until August, when Billy got homesick for Nashville. They returned to the familiarity of Tennessee, but the war years had changed them. Bettie and Billy were divorced in 1947. After a brief stint in Miami and Haiti, Page decided to head for Broadway to acquire the training that she knew she needed.
To make ends meet, she landed a job as a secretary in a legal firm in Rockefeller Center. While working there she met a Peruvian civil engineer and a red-hot romance followed. Her romantic bliss was smashed when his wife arrived from Peru to claim her man. Page fled to Washington D.C. and was hired by an insurance brokerage firm.
Unwilling to give up her goal of a career in the theater, Bettie became involved with an summer stock company in Nyack, New York during he summer of 1950.
After the summer stock season ended, Bettie returned to New York City and began to plan her future. What she could not have predicted was the turn of events in store for her on a beach at Coney Island.
It was early fall, and most of the sunbathers had retired for the season. A few hold-outs could be seen enjoying the brisk conditions. Bettie Page was not one of them. Fully-clothed, she strolled the shoreline until she came across a muscular black man in the middle of his work-out. When it was over, he introduced himself to her. His name was Jerry Tibbs and he was one of the city's first black policemen. He was also an amateur photographer who was constantly on the look-out for new models. Bettie agreed to try some test photographs with him, and though she didn't know it at the time, the decision changed the course of her life.
Jerry Tibbs may have been an amateur photographer, but he certainly knew what he was doing. Bettie Page had done a series of test photos with him, and she was improving with each shoot. Still, something wasn't quite right.
After some consideration, Tibbs decided to change Bettie's look. After discussing the matter with her, Jerry cut Bettie's jet black hair so that thick black bands covered her forehead. That style had been popular during 1948, and by 1951 had become outdated. It didn't matter a bit. Bettie's face and those bangs were a perfect combination. The rest is popular culture history.
Though her hair has gone gray, Bettie Page still sports her trademark bangs.
Shortly after Tibbs convinced Page to start wearing her hair in bangs, he began selling his photos to Robert Harrison. Harrison was the publisher of a group of sexy magazines with titles that included WINK, FLIRT, and TITTER. Harrison's books featured custom made photo features that dished up burlesque cuties opposite slapstick comedians. The gags were cheap and the budget was low, but the work was regular and lots of people read those magazines (whether they admitted it or not).
Bettie shot dozens of layouts with Harrison during their four year working relationship. He would usually shoot the sessions himself, and occasionally posed with the models.
Robert Harrison's magazines had a lot of dedicated readers who loved the gags and the girls. Irving Klaw studied the magazines with a more professional intent. He was scouting new models for his pin-up business.
A few years earlier Klaw had expanded his movie star photograph mail-order business to include girlie shots. Custom-made shots that included cheesecake, gals wrestling, female models spanking each other, and women in bondage. His audience was growing at a rapid clip, and they demanded new faces. Irving saw shots of Bettie and wanted her to work for him.
A photographer friend introduced Bettie to Klaw, and a classic combination was born.
Fans from all over the world contacted Movie Star News in New York City in search of photographs that they wanted. In an effort to keep the masses up to date on his products, Irving Klaw produced a series of catalogs. The Hose Hounds had their own mailer called CARTOON AND MODEL PARADE.
Irving was so pleased with his first shoot with Bettie that he put her on the cover of his next issue, C&MP #53 . It was amazing for a newcomer to make the cover, more unusual is the fact that no photos of Bettie were available inside! The fans immediately demanded shots of the new girl, and Bettie's fame was growing by the day.
The cheesecake fans immediately recognized Bettie Page as their new Queen. The bondage enthusiasts tied her to the throne and followed suit. She was as believable doing flirt sessions as she was doing rope tricks, and the Movie Star News photos sold hundreds of thousands
Paula Klaw was the rope expert, and whenever a bondage session was scheduled she was on hand to hog-tie the ladies. Having Paula around made the models comfortable, and some wouldn't do bondage photography for anybody else.
"Bettie was fantastic," Paula Klaw remembers. "She was as convincing doing pin-up as she was doing spanking, wrestling, and bondage. Always cooperative, and always friendly. She was the best!"
Always on the lookout for another way to promote his business, Irving Klaw and Movie Star News produced more than special interest photos. MSN also offered fifty foot film shorts that featured dozens of Klaw's models doing cooch dances and strutting their stuff. The films were available in both 8mm and 16mm formats. The fad of the moment was 3-D entertainment, and Irving made a cozy spot for himself on the bandwagon by offering 3-D slide views of his hottest models, Bettie included. Klaw even hired writers to create fiction that starred Bettie Page in the most outrageous situations.
While the majority of the Klaw Cuties have been forgotten to time, Bettie Page remains their most popular Pin-Up model. The store continues to offer still photos of the Queen of Curves, though the 8mm films have been replaced by video tape!
While work for Harrison and Irving Klaw contributed to a large portion of her income, Bettie regularly posed for camera clubs in the New York City area. Typically, a group of photographers would pay a fee to a promoter who would, in turn, provide the nude models and locations to photograph them in. The Concord Camera Club in mid-town Manhattan was her third principle source of income. Organized and run by Cass Carr, Concord boasted Bettie Page as his star model. Page lived in the next block, and this made it convenient for her to make it to work. If she was late for a shoot (which she chronically was), Carr would dispatch a trustworthy member to knock on her door until she appeared!
During the week, the Concord Camera Club photographed in the confines of the studio. Warm weather weekends found the shutterbugs loading into busses and cars and heading for parts unknown. Though the locales varied from week to week, the group could frequently be found shooting around Fire Island, and the New Salem Dairy.
During on such outing, the entire group was arrested. On August 16, 1952 a group of twenty-three shutterbugs invaded the farm with Bettie and two other models in tow. The ladies disrobed and began to pose around the dairy settings. The gang arrived at a stone wall a short distance from Old Waccabuc Road, and the shutters began clicking. The police suddenly appeared from their hiding places and arrested the group. They were each fined five dollars and and warned not to return. Cass was charged with conspiracy, but eventually cleared things up.
By 1953, Bettie had appeared in dozens of Irving Klaw short subjects but feature length films still seemed out of her reach. Spring of that year found producer Martin Lewis gathering acts for his new nudie film review STRIP-O-RAMA. While it wasn't the kind of movie she would have preferred, it was feature length, and it was in full color. Bettie performed a scene in a bathtub that was described in the pressbook as "Most Daring!"
Once Irving Klaw saw the grosses for STRIP-O-RAMA, he began planning his own production. He originally planned to call it MUSICAL VARIETEASE, but later shortened it to VARIETEASE. The project included dancing by Bettie. The success of VARIETEASE ensured the creation of a follow-up burlesque review. Klaw called it TEASERAMA, and in it Bettie performed with noted stripper Tempest Storm.
Bettie Page loved Florida, and would escape to there whenever possible. Rather than quitting work altogether, Bettie occasionally posed for the Miami photogs. Hans Hannau did a series of postcards that featured Bettie, and some of these timeless images are still being sold over the counter. The most famous card features an alligator ready to bite Ms. Page's rear end, and the slogan "We Alligators do have fun in Florida!"
Her happiest working relationship materialized in the summer of 1954 when Bunny Yeager appeared on the scene. The model-turned-photographer was looking for beautiful girls and Bettie Page fit the bill. Yeager borrowed her photographic instructor's studio and their first session produced dozens of striking images, including Bettie as a devil girl.
The first teaming of Bunny Yeager and Bettie Page produced a series of moody and atmospheric photos that were most impressive. Still, Bunny wasn't satisfied. She was a model, and recognized how talented Page really was. Instinctively, Yeager knew that Bettie was like a caged cat when they worked in the studio. A beach shoot was arranged, and the result was an entirely new look for Bettie. The Harrison and Klaw shoots were almost entirely shot indoors, and the impression was usually on of drawn shades and locked doors. A world of eternal night. In contrast, the Bunny Yeager shoots were full of light, and bursting with energy. Not satisfied with the standard girl-on-beach-blanket approach, Yeager encouraged Bettie to run, jump, and play in surf and sand. The editors went mad for the new Page a la Yeager.
Bunny Yeager would roar up in front of Bettie Page's place just before dawn. The back seat of the red convertible was stuffed with photographic brick-a-brack. The breathtaking salt and pepper combination soon arrived at dockside where the rented boat was waiting. The sun was usually up by the time they reached a deserted key or sand dune in the area. Once there, the camera equipment was lugged ashore and the ladies started to make magic.
Ironically, Bettie's home-made beach costumes were usually skimpier than anything she'd posed in for Klaw. There was more of Bettie to see, and the added bonus was her fabulous tan. She radiates health and beauty never captured in the Harrison or Klaw shoots. The men introduced her to the public, but it was the Yeager who made her famous.
When Bunny Yeager's pile of color transparencies arrived on Hugh Hefner's desk, he instantly recognized one of his favorite models: Bettie Page. Hefner had been a fan since her Harrison days, and the chance to have her appear as his fifth centerfold was not to be missed. Even better, one of the best shots of the bunch featured Bettie attaching a small ornament to a tiny Christmas tree. The photo was the result of their first shoot together, and was a generic "Season's Greetings" shot. It was a natural for the issue on sale during December, and Hefner bought the shot for $150.
Over the years, Yeager shot eight centerfolds for PLAYBOY, and has been the subject of several articles, most recently in the May 1994 edition.
Bettie returned to Florida in the Summer of 1955 and she and Bunny immediately picked up where they had left off. They celebrated the centerfold, and plotted their next shoot. Bunny was anxious to do another outdoor shoot, this time at a wildlife park called Africa, U.S.A. The attraction was full of lush vegetation, waterfalls, and exotic animals, and offered endless photographic possibilities.
Bettie had recognized that the work that they had done was special, and she was anxious to support the project any way that she could. Page agreed to construct a leopard-skin bathing suit to give the whole scene a primitive mood. The park agreed to let the ladies shoot in the park prior to its opening to the general public.
Bettie had found the perfect material for her leopard-skin bathing suit. With the help of her sewing machine and a little thread, it would be a snap to put together. Bunny had given Bettie a sketch of the daring design, now it was strictly a matter of cutting and stitching.
Just as she was putting the finishing touches on the piece, she noticed a face at her window. Her scream scared the man away, but Bettie was a nervous wreck, and spent the night on the screened-in porch of her landlady's house. Bettie recalls, "I was so scared that I didn't sleep at all that night. I didn't look good, and felt horrible during the shoot."
Of all of the shoots that Bunny and Bettie did, alone or together, the Africa, U.S.A. session is one of the most memorable. Page is at the height of her beauty (fully rested or not) in a remarkable costume Bunny designed for her. The jungle setting adds color and pattern to each shot, and the primitive surroundings are convincing recreations of African locations. Beautiful flowers abound and the wild animals almost steal the scene from Sweet Bettie. Almost.
More than just pretty photos, the Africa, U.S.A. produced photo illustrations that told a story. Each image suggests a scene from the story of the life of a Jungle Princess. Page acts and reacts in this jungle setting, and always manages to project a cat-like sensuality.
During the photo shoot at Africa, U.S.A., Bettie and Bunny were warned by the park animal handler that the cheetahs might be in a bad mood. Page said "I still had a good feeling about the cats and was willing to pose with them." Both leopards seemed to sense that the moment was special, and they acted like pussycats until the shutter clicked for the last time. Their presence adds a sense of danger and serenity not found in any other photos of Bettie.
The result was a memorable series of photographs that are some the team's best work.
The reasons why Bettie left modeling can't be summed up on the back of a collector's card. The Keafauver Investigations, and the government's continued hounding of Irving Klaw had something to do with it. She was at the tale end of her modeling days, and that was also a factor. Her apartment building was about to be torn down to make way for some superstructure. Her acting career hadn't ignited, and hanging around Broadway must have been depressing. All of these things contributed to Bettie Page running away and never looking back. But the main reason Bettie Page retired her crown has never been revealed, not even guessed at. So when people tell you that the mystery of Bettie Page's disappearance has been solved, don't you believe them.
Bettie is alive as of 1994, and enjoying the newfound attention of a million fans. She still finds it hard to believe, but says "I'm very Flattered."
Bunny Yeager is one of the top Pin-Up models of all time. Amazingly, she's also one of the top Pin-Up photographers as well. She's spent her life involved with glamour, beauty and sexuality and she's frequently the subject of her photos. Yeager has also photographed some of the world's most beautiful women, most notably, Bettie Page. PLAYBOY thought so much of her work that they purchased center spreads from her on a regular basis for fifteen years, and she's been the subject of more than one article in that title. Her most recent PLAYBOY profile was published in their May 1994 edition.
The photos reproduced in this set are some of the finest shots Bunny Yeager ever composed and have attained legendary status.
The pattern of Bunny Yeager's life was etched early. She won her first award while still in her baby buggy at six months of age. She continued to collect awards and titles the way some girls collect hair clips: by the handful. Not satisfied to limit herself to contests, the inventive 14-year-old designed a Hawaiian costume and engineered her first pin-up photo, taken in the back yard of her home with a box camera. It was the first in an unending series of photographs that document her beauty and imagination.
Her family eventually moved to Miami and the sunshine made Bunny bloom. She continued to compete in, and usually win, the numerous beauty contests held up and down the state.
Shortly after her arrival in Miami, Yeager enrolled in the Coronet modeling school and took evening classes. The training began to pay off, and shortly after graduation, Bunny began getting professional modeling assignments. When the photos were finally printed, Bunny studied every shot and continued to polish her style.
One of her earliest triumphs was a full page photo in the MIAMI Herald's "Florida Welcome Section", issued to promote the city to tourists during the Orange Bowl. Bunny was also appearing in dozens of catalogs and advertisements running in the local papers, and she quickly became a familiar face around town.
Beauty contests were a common sight in Florida during the 1950s. The great weather allowed endless parades of lovely ladies showing off their stuff in the sunshine. These contests offered terrific prizes as an inducement to get the prettiest of the local crop of women, and you could make a lot of money posing pretty.
Bunny approached this aspect of her career as she had the others: with steely determination. As usual, Yeager was tops at tournaments, too. Her titles included "Miss Brevity," "Miss Legs," "Queen of the Sports Carnival," "Queen of Miami," "Miss Personality," and many others. Her most appropriate title has to be "Queen of Cheesecake"!
Some of the contests offered great prizes and it always brought out the most beautiful women in the area. As Bunny polished her style, she began to win first place at these bigger events, and in turn received some terrific prizes. In December of 1947, while still a teenager, she was crowned "Queen of the Trailer Parks" at the Greater Miami Trailercoach and Sportsman Show. The prizes included $500 and a trip to Havana the following May
. Two years later she was crowned "Queen of the Sports Carnival." Her prizes included a trip to New York City where Joe DiMaggio (one of the judges) officially crowned her. During her visit she met skater Sonja Heinie, and dined with bandleader Guy Lombardo.
By 1950, many of the Miami based photographers had shot Pin-Ups of Yeager, and had submitted them to some of the national magazines. The photo editors liked what they saw, and pretty soon Bunny was appearing in print. Dozens of magazines even used her as their cover girl, and in a very short time she became on of the countries top figure models.
Part of her secret was her wardrobe, and Bunny confirms this. "I shot with the same group of photographers all the time. I knew that if I didn't have some great outfits, unique styles, they wouldn't continue to use me. I made outfits out of unusual material, and when I couldn't find the exact pattern that I wanted, I'd get out a paintbrush and make it myself!"
Early in her career as a Pin-Up model, Bunny Yeager did a photographic shoot with an area photographer. Certain that she'd done a great job for him, she patiently waited for his to ask her back. Some time later, when no call-back materialized, Bunny got curious. She called the Coronet modeling agency and asked them to find out why he'd never called Bunny Back. It turns out that the problem was that she only had one smile!
"I was shocked," Bunny recounts, "I went straight to my mirror and began to practice as many smiles as I could come up with. The photographer was right of course, and I learned a lot from the experience."
Yeager made the transition from local to international personality when a local photographer suggested a change in her attire. Her home-made two piece suit was bare at the midrif, but would hardly have ben considered daring. The photog suggested that she tie it differently, and much more of Bunny could be seen. At the time, the suit was considered quite daring, and the shot visualizeed the appeal of the bikini. Bunny didn't think much more about it until the shutterbug tipped her off that the wire services had picked up the photo. Before the week was out millions of people around the world got their first look at Bunny.
If you think that Modonna is like a chemeleon when it comes to style, you should see a stack of Bunny Yeager photos. Miami was a big town in the Fifite and Sixties, but the number of photographers who worked there was limited. In an effort to work as much as possible, Bunny changed her look on a regular basis. "I had dark red hair, but I always thought deep down inside that I was really a blonde. I waited until after I was married to do my hair that color. "
Because the newsstands were never glutted with shots of what appeared to be the same girl, Bunny worked regularly. Eventually, Yeager was all over the place and she oficcially bacame one of the nation's top Pin-Up models.
In late 1952, Pin-Up fans everywhere were shocked to learn that Bunny Yeager was about to give-up cheesecake modeling. She'd been posing in beauty contests as far back as she could remember, and had been doing Pin-Up photography for three years. Having mastered both, Bunny was looking for a new challenge. The only thing left was high fashion photography, and that was where she moved her sights. Bunny abandoned the Coronet modeling agency and signed with a more upscale organization. They immediately changed her style, cutting her hair short and plucking her eyebrows thin. She was miserable.
"I always regretted that move," Bunny reflects. She didn't have much to worry about, however, because her career was about to take a drastic turn for the better.
Roy Pinney had traveled the world taking photos of things that nobody had ever seen before. While visiting Miami he came up with another one. This time it was a beautiful girl who photographed other beautiful girls. Though Bunny wasn't really a photographer, she was willing to pose as though she was. A series of photos followed the fictional photographer as she took snaps of a seaside sweetie. U.S. CAMERA Magazine was so impressed with the series that they ran it as a cover feature. The article was full of information about exposures, f stops, and filters, and while it's attributed to her, Pinney actually supplied the technical data.
Bunny was suddenly deluged with offers to photograph for magazines and newspapers, and her next challenge presented itself: mastering photography.
Roy Pinney wrote in U.S. CAMERA, "MODEL, BATHING SUIT DESIGNER, BEAUTY COLUMNIST, PHOTOGRAPHER. Bunny Yeager at 23 has made an enviable reputation for herself in these fields.
"As one of Florida's most photographed models ever since she come from Pittsburgh at the age of sixteen, she has accumulated over a dozen titles including Queen of Miami, Ochid Queen, etc.
"She found it impossible to buy any ready made suits for her numerous modeling assignments. Now, all the "bikini" suits appearing in the endless publicity photographs sent out by the publicity departments of Miami and Miami Beach are of her design and manufacture.
"She writes a weekly beauty column for the MIAMI JOURNAL, and is now determined to be an outstanding photographer. "Women make a study of pleasing men...or they should' says Bunny. 'Therefore, a woman photographer would be better qualified to make provocative photographs.'"
Even before Bunny saw Bettie Page pose, she knew that she'd found a winner. Yeager was a pro, and she knew what it took to be a good Pin-Up Girl. Page had what it takes, plus. In Fact, both women had a great deal in common. Both were intelligent and well-read, and both had a clear view of what they wanted to do with their lives. They were both struggling to maintain their independence in a society that demanded conformity. Bunny and Bettie both worked hard to keep their hair, skin, and figures in top shape for an unforgiving camera lens. Neither was willing to rely on store-bought fashions, and they were expert when it came to designing and constructing great costumes and clothes. And of course, both were veterans of countless photo shoots and were highly decorated for it.