Inspiring pinup names, looks and themes the globe over, the first ever iconic 'Pinup Girl' Bettie Page is now a household name within tbe vintage, pinup and burlesque pop culture. 100 years after the birth of Page so many still come to emulate her look, her name and her fame.
When the documentary Bettie Page Reveals All was released in 2013, it would have been easy to assume we would never again hear directly from the adored icon. After all, the film is narrated by Bettie Mae Page herself and she spills on lots of subjects that she had previously kept private – even in her authorized biography – though she does maintain her own decades long, no-photos rule in the movie. She loathed the effects of aging, said it made her sad to see her own celebrity idols when they were older, and wanted people to remember her as she looked in her pinup days.
Fortunately for the hordes of Bettie fans worldwide, a bounty of unreleased Bettie material awaits. For years, since before Bettie’s death from heart failure in December 2008 at the age of 85 –boxes and file folders of Bettie mementos have been gathering dust in the closets of Bettie’s nephew’s house.
Ron Brem, a musician living in Bakersfield California, is the only child of Bettie’s beloved sister Goldie Jane Page. Bettie unfortunately never had kiddies, other than three stepchildren during one of her four marriages to three men (she married one twice even!). Goldie was also an aspiring model and actress but later settled into house wifery before eventually becoming an art teacher and gallery owner. Goldie passed away during the summer of 2004, but in the several years before her death she had carefully stored a hoard of incredible family photos, the bulk of which feature Bettie as either the sole subject or part of the image.
None of these hundreds of photos has ever been published until now, and few people even know they exist. Goldie, Bettie's sister, also saved approximately 29 letters from Bettie spanning the years from 1949 to 2000 ranging in length from note size to 18 full pages, which tell the unknown story of Bettie’s “lost years” following her retirement from modeling in 1957.
Chatting with Tori Rodriguez of Bettie Page Fitness, author of Bettie Page, The Lost Years and The Little Book of Bettie, taking a page from the Queen of Pinups as well as Mr Ron Brem, the nephew of our beloved Bettie Page I delve into the hearts and minds of those knowing more of the much loved icon than any of us ever will.
Pearl Davies to Tori: It makes my heart so sad that Bettie was so destitute. The image of Bettie Page was being monetised yet Bettie Page herself was not reaping these rewards?
Tori of Bettie Page Fitness: The book definitely has some serious doses of sadness. I don’t know if she really was framed as she tells it in the letters or whether she was in denial, either with herself or not wanting her family to know, about the severity of her mental illness. It’s would be quite a coincidence, considering that there are at least two other documented incidents in which she was violent with a knife.
She didn’t seem to have many friends, but she consistently had a few close people in her life: She kept in touch with Goldie and her other family members over the years, and Harry Lear was an important person in her life for many years whose care and support she felt deeply grateful for. Later she became good friends with Dave Stevens – even called him her best friend in one of the letters. But overall, yes, I would guess that she probably felt quite lonely sometimes, although she also enjoyed her solitude and doing her own thing.
Pearl Davies to Ron: At what age did you realize your Aunt's work and how did this make you (and your mum) feel?
Ron Brem, nephew of Bettie Page: I was about five when my mom told me she and Bettie had both been photographic models. I remember her saying Bettie did a lot of modeling because she was very pretty.
Pearl Davies to Ron: When did you first discover the letters between your sweet mother Goldie and her sister Bettie Page and how did this make you feel?
Ron Brem, nephew of Bettie Page: I have known about the cards and letters my whole life; most of the family kept in touch by mail. I remember my mom having me write to Bettie from an early age. She told me Bettie didn’t have any children of her own and that she really liked me and thought I was a good kid. I remember liking my Aunt Bettie a lot and thinking she was very nice.
Image: Bettie and Goldie as young teens
Pearl Davies to Tori: Reading through the letters and imagery between Goldie and Bettie Page must have been emotional. How did you feel unavailing never known before history between the first ever pinup girl in history and her sister, Goldie (Gloria)?
Tori Rodriguez of Bettie Page Fitness: I can clearly remember how I felt the first time I read Bettie’s letters to Goldie. I had flown out to California to meet with Ron and to look through the letters, photos, and tons of other family mementoes that Goldie had saved. It was exhilarating reading the letters for several reasons – one, I was holding the very pages in my hands that Bettie held, and I was reading firsthand – in her own eloquent words and beautiful penmanship – her accounts of various events and points in her life.
As I read the letters and looked through the photos, I realized that so many of these images and details of Bettie’s life had never been shared before, so I was thrilled to discover these and knew her fans would be too.
That first night, I got about halfway through the letters (some are super long – up to 18 pages!) before going back to my hotel room. That’s when the letdown hit me after the initial excitement. As the material sunk in and I thought back over everything I had read, I felt so sad and heavy. I felt like we already knew Bettie had a rough life, but these tales drive home just how hard it really was, and it seemed unrelenting – just one knockdown after another with little relief. I was thinking, “My God, it just kept getting worse.” I had hoped to find, despite what we knew, that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. But it absolutely was.
However, the next day, when I continued reading, I saw that things started looking up for Bettie… and alas, they went south again. But then things got better again, then dipped and improved again and on and on. So one of my points is that this is the nature of life for most people: Even if we don’t face the enormous challenges that Bettie did, we have ups and downs and the story rarely goes the way we want it to.
And that’s the very thing we humans need to be better at accepting – all the ugly messiness along with the beautiful moments. That’s one of the things Bettie symbolizes in the first place – she’s authentically human, with all of our beauty and flaws. Yes, some of it is undeniably sad, and that’s okay. We can handle it; we’re strong. Just look at Bettie!
But there are also many touching, joyful, optimistic moments, and lots of humor – that’s one of the main things that stood out for me was how damn funny Bettie was, and her letters show that she maintained that sense of humor throughout her life. This is really a story of sheer resilience, which Bettie completely embodies.
I don’t want people to get stuck on the details of her life events as much as I want them to notice the consistent thread despite what’s going on her life – she remained hopeful. That’s perhaps one of the most important human qualities that keeps us evolving, or just putting one foot in front of the other. We can best honor Bettie by witnessing her story, listening to her words, and admiring the fierce tenacity and survival instincts that she displayed throughout her fascinating, inspiring – and yes, often sad and difficult – life.
Her story can also offer hope to those who do struggle with severe hardship like Bettie did. It doesn’t define you and it doesn’t have to crush your spirit, though it will rough you up some for sure. And again, it does illuminate the fact that she was real person with lots of problems that many of us can relate to and look to as an example of someone who persisted and always made the most out of what she had – and did one hell of an amazing job at it overall.
She teaches us that while there may be sadness and tragedy at times, there can also be gratitude, humor, connection, grace, and hope.
Pearl Davies to Ron: Your mother is a warrior woman within her own right, she was a hard worker and encouraged you to fulfill your dreams within the music industry and making music. What is your favorite memory of your mum (mom sorry, I'm Australian) Goldie in having you pursue your own dreams?
Ron Brem, nephew of Bettie Page: My mom was always very supportive of me wanting to be a musician. She even took up writing poetry and wrote a lot of song lyrics for me to use for original songs. She would often help talk my dad into buying me a new part for my drum set or guitar.
Pearl Davies to Ron: Your mum (mom, sorry, that Australian thing again) was a fabulous artist in her own right – she painted, she was a performer, and even a musical lyricist. She "hung up her pasties" as a burlesque performer to get married and have a family, as her baby boy, did you see any regret in her decision? Did you see happiness in this choice?
Ron Brem, nephew of Bettie Page: I do believe there were times that my mom missed the modeling and dancing she had done earlier in life, but she was extremely creative and fun, often telling jokes, and she truly loved being an artist. She did continue to sew some of her own clothes, as she and Bettie both did. I remember when I was very young, my mom would dress up in some of the old costumes and take photographs with a camera rigged up with a string on the shutter. I still have those photographs and some of the costumes as well.
Pearl Davies to Ron: What's next, Ron – can we see more news of your mum and her life, not as the sister of Bettie Page but as an artist (and hardworking mommy) in her own right?
Ron Brem, nephew of Bettie Page: Yes, there is certainly more to come. There are so many more photos and some of the old costumes which I hope to share. I also still have many of the oil paintings my mom painted throughout her life, as well as all of those song lyrics.
Pearl Davies to Tori: What do you think made Bettie go into exile in the height of her fame?
Tori Rodriguez of Bettie Page Fitness: She said in an interview that she thought she was getting too old to model and that there were so many pictures of her out there already. Other accounts suggest that she was shaken up after her brush with the FBI during their investigation of her boss, Irving Klaw. Her departure from modeling has also been attributed to her becoming a born-again Christian. As with many Bettie mysteries, no one really knows the reasons for sure.
Pearl Davies to Tori: Bettie was destitute in a way in which we would never want any of our loved ones to be. Bettie's image has been used since the 1940's throughout pop culture in artist designs, characters, cinema and more. How does it make you feel that although her image was used to make profit, Bettie herself was made to be destitute and desperate for work?
Tori Rodriguez of Bettie Page Fitness: She started modeling in the 50’s and was typically paid for her work (with the camera clubs and Irving Klaw, for example). Her image wasn’t jacked on a widescale until much later, starting with her resurgence of fame in the 90’s thanks to Dave Stevens, the artist who created The Rocketeer comic books with a character named Betty who was inspired by Bettie, of course. As I understand it, it wasn’t long before an explosion of Bettie themed products hit store shelves, and since no one knew where Bettie was, it was like a free-for-all with companies using her image to sell stuff.
It is terribly sad that she struggled for so long while others profited. It’s an interesting experience to read her letters in The Lost Years during the time when we now know this was happening and yet she’s writing about how horribly broke she is.
When Hugh Hefner learned about this, he connected Bettie with Mark Roesler of CMG Worldwide, who began managing the use of her image and making sure she got paid for it. (I don’t know what year it was.) Fans would send her money too, so thankfully, she did have greater financial security in her later years.
Pearl Davies to Tori: Bettie seemed to have a scattered sense of stability, throughout her time in the mental institutions to halfway houses and back again. She seemed to find comfort in those that didn't know of her as 'The Bettie Page'. She also loathed the thought of aging. How did reading these letters on her negative sense of image make you feel?
Tori Rodriguez of Bettie Page Fitness: I already knew how she felt about aging and her appearance as she got older – after all, she famously refused to be photographed in her later years (though, thankfully, there are a few shots of her at Playboy events around age 80, still looking stunning and vibrant even after all she went through – that indomitable spirit still shone through brightly). But it was interesting to read in detail, over the years, how much she despised getting older.
She knew what all of us know – that society values people, especially women, much less as they age, and has an obvious disdain for larger bodies. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Bettie’s later struggles with her self-image should be a reminder to all of us that we need to work hard to make this world one in which Bettie might have felt more comfortable showing her older, larger-bodied self in public. It makes me sad that she didn’t feel that way, but it makes perfect sense that she did.
For me, reading her letters put it all into context for me and now it makes so much more sense why she hated aging. Those of us who view her as a symbol of body positivity may have trouble reconciling the young, strong, joyful, confident Bettie with the aging, less confident – even ashamed – Bettie. But we should really try to accept and embrace that both are true of our Queen, and to reject one part is to reject the whole. That might be a sign that we’re projecting our own need for perfection and neat endings onto Bettie.
I would hope that people reading these letters will have compassion for the fact that this was a woman who did the best she could while enduring ongoing physical and mental ailments throughout the years. It becomes quite clear why she hated aging – she felt like she was deteriorating, and she even said as much in one of her letters to Goldie: “I guess we’re beginning to get old and our health is going to pot along with it. I’ve been falling apart more and more the last few years.”
Bettie went from having nearly superhuman strength and flexibility, embodying health and the joy of movement, to a point where everything became difficult and painful because of her arthritis. She mentions it many times in her letters. It hurt when she painted her room, when she typed, and when she wrote. I read that, once, when she was autographing photos, it took her about 10 minutes to sign her name because of the arthritis. In The Lost Years, she writes to Goldie how she longs to go dancing like she used to – and Bettie fans know how much she loved to dance – but now she didn’t even know if she could because of her arthritis and other problems. She dealt with several other health issues as well.
Think about the impact that chronic illness – both physical and mental, and Bettie did in fact have both – can have on a person’s sense of confidence. It certainly doesn’t make you feel very attractive, and of course, that is often the least of one’s worries in that context. The challenges that people with severe mental illness are enormous and never-ending, and it is often a huge struggle to maintain even basic functioning.
Also keep in mind that Bettie had been fiercely independent before her illness made things unmanageable. She was the rare woman of her time who graduated from college and lived on her own, supporting herself with her own money. That was no longer possible once her health began to deteriorate. She often had to depend on the kindness of others, like her generous ex-husband Harry Lear.
Lots of people complain about getting old. But if on top of the usual aging woes, you start losing your freedom, mobility, and your grasp on reality, you would probably be pretty pissed about aging too. I just want folks to see the full picture and have compassion for Bettie’s situation.
I could clearly go on and on about this topic, but I’ll spare you – for now.
Pearl Davies to Tori: Do you think this is a positive image to give to her fans? To stay away from the limelight due to aging and weight gain? What would you say to Bettie's fans today about the acceptance of body image?
Tori Rodriguez of Bettie Page Fitness: I think it’s better than positive – it’s real. One of my favorite quotes is by Carl Jung: “I’d rather be whole than good,” because as a psychotherapist, I’m acutely aware of how damaging it is to try to deny certain parts of the human experience -- it’s really a form of oppression. Body image is one of my specialty areas as a therapist, and this topic offers a great opportunity to discuss one of my pet peeves with the body positivity movement: The way some people frame it, it can become just one more thing that we’re “doing wrong” if you don’t always love your body. If that’s the case, you don’t truly want people to love their bodies -- you just want them to say they do. Why should there be shame in Bettie’s struggles with body image, weight, and emotional eating? Isn’t that what we’re trying to change?
It’s like “You better love your body all the time and never admit to feeling negatively about it or you’re a bad body positivist.” Screw that. A person can be body positive in some ways and not others, at certain points in time, and when they feel badly about themselves as we all inevitably do, it doesn’t negate the inspiration they have provided before. No one can be every single thing we want them to be, and we have to be able to appreciate their valuable contributions without needing them to be perfect. I think some in the bopo movement have misconstrued the concept and are inadvertently creating just one more way in which people feel they can’t live up or really be themselves – that they can’t tell the truth about feeling bad about their bodies, which many of us do quite often (including myself even though I’m a therapist specializing in body image and creator of the first-ever body-positive fitness videos!) People shouldn’t be punished for being honest.
I wrote about some of this in my first book, The Little Book of Bettie: Taking a Page from the Queen of Pinups (Running Press, 2018), for which of course, you shot the photos of me that appear within. In one section, a range of women (“Bettie Babes,” as I call them) describe how much Bettie has boosted their body image and self-confidence, and I wrote the excerpt below.
That doesn’t mean she never struggled with her weight or body image. In fact, the main reason Bettie wouldn’t allow herself to be shown in photographs or on video after her modeling years was that she was ashamed that she had gained a substantial amount of weight, and she wanted fans to remember her as she was in her pinup years. Though some of my therapist colleagues who specialize in body image might view this as incongruent with Bettie’s status as a body positive icon, I view it as a more complex issue. First, her status as a symbol of self-acceptance and body positivity is not based on intellectual ideas, but on the very clear sense of joy and comfort in her body that is evident in her photos.
For many women, that sort of vivid example has a more powerful impact than being told to love their bodies. All the experts in the world can’t make someone love her body by telling her to. We need visual examples of other women in the very act of loving their bodies—and for lots of women, Bettie is the prototype of that kind of body love. She literally embodies body positivity in her photos, even if she was unhappy with her body at other points in her life, and that doesn’t take away from the symbolic value she holds in women’s lives. “With all the body shaming out there in the media and online, it is delightful to see more of a body positivity trend happening,” says DC-based Miss Emmy de la Mer, also known as the Pinup Bodybuilder. “We can thank Bettie for representing that.”
To me, Bettie’s weight issues are yet another reminder that she was a real person, as authentic as they come, and that even the pinup queen of the universe experienced the same types of problems the rest of us have. That deserves compassion, rather than judgment, and doesn’t negate her impact on her fans’ self-confidence. Not to mention that “loving your body” isn’t always a realistic goal, and it often gets interpreted as “love how your body looks” even if that isn’t the intention. You might not be able to love how your body looks on command, but you can find ways to take care of and appreciate your body. So think of it not so much as loving how your body looks (though kudos to you if you do!) but more like focusing on how it feels, what it does, and showing love to it by giving it what you know it needs: regular physical activity, solid nutrition, and sufficient rest, to name the very basics. Body positivity isn’t just about weight, either….]
One of my main hopes in sharing Bettie’s letters, without hiding those parts that don’t fit neatly with our expectations, is to show more of her as a real, complex human being, and to encourage others to accept this same thing about themselves. We are all perfect and flawed and brilliant and damaged, destined for greatness and doomed at the same time. It’s amazing and exhilarating and terrifying and heart-breaking all at once. This is the fullness of the human condition that Bettie embodies so well, and it’s one of the reasons we continue to be drawn to her after all these years.
Nonetheless, despite her complaints, she did continually strive to care for her body and mind. And I hope people will admire that. Think about it – even between psychotic breaks and with ongoing physical pain and financial instability, she still maintained a lifelong commitment to exercise, healthy eating, spiritual enrichment, and learning new things. (And those things, by the way, can be body positive too – which, remember is not always about loving or even liking the way your body looks.) It’s hard enough for most of us to maintain these practices even in the best of circumstance, so imagine doing it in Bettie’s situation.
Pearl Davies to Tori: Do you think she ever experienced true happiness prior to her death?
Tori Rodriguez of Bettie Page Fitness: I think there were many moments of – if not all-out, enduring happiness – then fulfilment, gratitude, optimism, connection with others, even during some of her darkest times because she always looked for the silver lining and often found it. I think there were certainly many bright spots throughout her life that she enjoyed and appreciated. I do also think that the letters show that she had some lengthy stretches of time here and there where she felt more content and stable.
As we already know about Bettie, she just doesn’t lend herself to simple conclusions – if she did, we wouldn’t find her so endlessly fascinating.
Pearl Davies to Ron: If there's anything you wanted the world to know about Goldie, what would it be?
Ron Brem, nephew of Bettie Page: I know my mom kept all of the photos, cards, and letters because she wanted me to share these with the fans of my Aunt Bettie. It has truly been my pleasure to share in her own words just who the special woman really was behind the modeling photos. This is also the story of two sisters who loved and cared for one another. I know my mom would be very proud! Just like Bettie, one of her greatest desires in life was quite simply “just to be remembered.” After all, isn’t that the most we can all hope for in this world?
To ignite the legacy of Bettie Pafe and Goldie, step back in time with these never before seen images of Bettie, her sister Goldie and even a baby boy Ron.
Miami, FL – Bettie wearing the polka dot bikini that she and Goldie would share, as they did many of their handsewn threads, according to Ron. It isn’t clear which sister made this one.
Coney Island, NY – I love the tenderness on display between Bettie and Goldie
Coney Island, NY – Bettie peeking out – It’s interesting to note the difference in her body language in this series of photos; although she and Goldie are modeling for the camera, Bettie is noticeably less “formal” or purposeful, more relaxed in her posing than what we’re used to seeing.
New York – Goldie hand-colored this photo of herself with oil pastels, as she did many photos, including several included in the book.
Goldie portrait (an outake)
Goldie and baby Ron
1961 at home in IL -- Bettie, Ron, and Edna (Bettie and Goldie’s mom) during Bettie and Edna’s trip from Nashville to visit Goldie and family in IL. (An outtake)
1965-1 – note from Bettie to Goldie and family
1965-2 – more of note from Bettie
1970 Aug-14th Nashville Edna’s 69th Birthday – Bettie at age 47 looking as luminous as ever
1978 at Ronnie’s Band Gig, St Louis, MO
Dec 1993-env – just thought it might be cool to show one of the envelopes
April 1996-1 – Bettie finally sounding settled and content
Rest in Power Bettie.
Rest in Power Goldie.
Folks who order either book through bettiepagefitness.com will receive an autographed copy.
Both books can also be purchased wherever books are sold – Amazon, Target, and most bookstores including Barnes & Noble and smaller shops too.