Bettie Page died on Thursday 11 December in Los Angeles. These pictures are a tribute to her.
In 1954 post-war America, while The Creature From The Black Lagoon was terrifying teens in thrilling 3D, American pin-up model Bettie Page and photographer Bunny Yeager were launching an artistic collaboration that would remain legendary into the 21st century.
Their union was to provide lovers of cheesecake pin-up art with some of the finest images ever to appear as centrefolds, posters, stills and magazine covers. From imaginative jungle scenarios involving real cheetahs to moodily-lit studio set-ups, Bunny’s images of Bettie are full of spontaneous energy and a coy sense of humour. And 50 years later, they’re still damned sexy.
Their collaboration led to immortality when published in Playboy at the height of its popularity. This work left an indelible mark on popular culture, with Bunny’s Bettie pictures adorning album covers, lunch boxes, stickers, packets of incense, posters and fridge magnets.
In the early 1950s, Bettie Mae Page was an up-and-coming underground glamour star. She had appeared in a variety of pulp magazines and began working for Irving Klaw’s Movie Star News company, posing for glamour stills and making shorts for 16mm and 8mm release – movies that were some of the earliest examples of commercial bondage films.
Unbeknownst to many of her fans, Bettie had also appeared in illegal, under-the-counter sets of nude photos. Looking to both expand her profile (she desperately wanted to be a movie actress) and pay the rent on her small New York apartment, the future Queen of the pin-ups was always on the look for new opportunities.
“I met Bettie in 1954 and shot most of the pictures I took of her during that year. A friend of hers told me I might give her some photo modelling work”, explains Bunny Yeager. “She told me she also posed nude, so this was a plus for me to meet and work with her.”
Born of European descent, Bunny (real name Linnea Eleanor Yeager) was initially a model herself, soon becoming the most photographed model in Miami. Out of school, she carefully studied the pin-up calendar art of the 30s and 40s, learning beautiful poses to appear happy, playful and generally fun to be with.
“I never intended to become a professional photographer but after I took a course it seemed like it might be a good idea – something to pursue after I got too old to model. In class, one of my photos of my model friend Maria Stinger caught the eye of my teacher and he suggested I send it in to a magazine. I did, and sold it immediately.”
The picture appeared on the front cover of pulp glamour mag Eye. Foreshadowing Bunny’s work with Bettie Page, the images were taken at the Africa USA safari park and featured two live cheetahs, with the model wearing a leopard-print bikini designed and made by the photographer.
By the time Bunny met Bettie (the ‘temptress from Tennessee’), she was already establishing a name for herself in a pin-up industry dominated by men. Her male peers weren’t totally above patronising her, however. In August 1953, she was bestowed the title of ‘Prettiest Photographer in the World’ by US Camera magazine.
Nevertheless, this paid off in increased prestige and opportunities which were most welcome as Bunny certainly wasn’t affluent. When Bettie travelled to Miami in 1954, during one of her annual pilgrimages to the sun, sand and surf she adored, Bunny could only offer her a meagre for her time.
Whether jiggling as a devil girl, roaming the green inferno as a jungle girl or camping it up as a baby doll, Bunny’s pictures of Bettie have a style that has been oft imitated but never equalled. Bettie looks a true Hollywood star in her photographs, with physical near-perfection and an adorable, girl-next-door face.
The magic was in that elusive connection between the model and the photographer. Bunny would shout adjectival instructions like “Alluring! Mysterious! Tempting! Vivacious!” at Bettie during their sessions and the model would perform the tasks with unnatural ease.
For one of their studio sessions, Bunny had Bettie kneel wearing nothing but a fur trimmed Santa hat, putting a bauble on a small white Christmas tree. The session was originally intended for a calendar company, but soon afterwards, Bunny happened to be passing a newsstand and noticed a new men’s publication called Playboy.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I try them first?’” she recalls with a broad smile. “I mailed them in and not long after I got a call from Hugh Hefner in Chicago. He said he would pay me 0, which sounded fair to me at the time.” The image appeared as a centrefold in the holiday issue of Playboy, dated January 1955.
Both women would subsequently grace the publication’s pages many times. Hugh Hefner once declared Bettie to be one of his favourite ‘Playmates’ of all time. “She had a saucy innocence that is both contemporary and provocative, and also nostalgic,” he famously commented.
Despite this almost instant success and the tremendous rapport the two beauties shared, these 1954 sessions were virtually the only time they worked together. Bettie Page disappeared from the public eye
in 1957, causing gossip hounds to theorise she had married a sheikh and left the country, or even that the Mafia had had her bumped off for spurning the advances of one of their capos.
The reality was even sadder – Bettie had succumbed to a mental illness. She was later involved in three stabbing incidents, but in the end, Yeager believes her career was brought to an end by Jesus.
“It was in the Florida Keys that one night she saw a neon cross on top of a little church and was drawn to it to go inside. From that day on she got religious and decided to give up posing.”
After her inspirational collaboration, Bunny continued as a highly successful and acclaimed pin-up photographer. She created the iconic still images of Ursula Andress ascending the Caribbean beach
for Dr No (1961) and discovered a huge array of pin-up stars and glamour models, many of whom became
Playboy ‘Playmates of the year’.
She finally realised her life’s ambition to appear in films too, playing herself in some saucy semi-documentaries in the 60s, before acting as a Swedish masseuse opposite Frank Sinatra in the swinging Lady In Cement (1968).
But in the history of popular culture, she will always be associated with a certain vintage vixen with the smile of an angel and devilish sex appeal.