Oct 022015

Foster. Richard. 1998. The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pinups. Carol Publishing Group.

I approached this book looking for information on the 1950s bondage picture and stag reel culture Page was a part of, when she was one of the most popular models working for Irving Klaw. I didn’t find anything I hadn’t already learned, and it left me as puzzled as I was before.

Bettie Page in leather bustier and gloves, holding a whip

Bettie Page as the Dark Angel

Bettie Page was, undeniably, a beautiful woman with a curvaceous body and a megawatt-intensity smile. She was neither an intimidating vamp nor a vulnerable girl-woman like Marilyn Monroe. Even in the Irving Klaw bondage and fetish shoots and loops, she could look like she was having fun. Her heavy black bangs became an icon.

Like fellow early Playboy Playmate Marilyn Monroe, Page’s modelling career abruptly ended, but with a mysterious disappearance instead of a tragic suicide. A few claimed she had been killed by the mob, but most agreed she was still alive, with stories ranging from having a husband and kids to doing missionary work to living in a mental institution.

Page, the image, attained a kind of mystique far beyond any flesh and blood woman. She became Marilyn Monroe for hipsters, a sex symbol and style icon, forever frozen in her prime with her black bangs. She both harkened back to the days of Vargas Girls and gestured forward to the modern fetish subculture. Yet she herself was a mystery, never a speaking subject. What did a woman who had been molested by her father as a girl, and had done missionary work in Haiti, and was a near tee-totaller and part-time school teacher, think of her iconic status as the queen of bondage?

Foster’s book endeavours to tell Page’s full life, but this is an unauthorized biography. The only direct contact Foster had with Page was a single letter she sent him before he started on the book. Nearly all of the material is from second and third hand accounts, and some of them are a bit suspect.

There’s also two areas where I think Foster went beyond journalism into exploitation.

The first is documenting Page’s descent into paranoid schizophrenia. This is something far too many people suffer through, and Page’s story was mostly just sad. Her authorized biography says that she lived with her brother for 9 years, but Foster asserts she was wandered from place to place and was eventually institutionalized after she became violent. Foster’s excruciatingly detailed reconstructions of Page’s supposed outbursts don’t do any good to her or the people she allegedly assaulted. Not all stories need to be told in gory details.

The second is the legal squabbling over Page’s likeness and legacy and the money they generated. Foster’s unauthorized work, which has been criticized by Page fans for inaccuracies, is just another attempt to cash in on her.

I’m tempted to say that Foster’s book ultimately fails in that it doesn’t deliver any real insight into who Page was, or why she did the things she did. However, Page’s life is so opaque that I can’t really blame him for that. The real Bettie Page remains such a shadowy figure, rarely photographed and only giving the occasional audio tape or letter, that even the more unlikely scenarios seem plausible, like the claim that the woman glimpsed in the 1990s is actually an imposter.

So what did Page think of her career as fetish queen? It’s hard to say, as Page herself was notoriously reclusive. Was she a good Christian girl, damaged by childhood abuse, who wandered into a scene that exploited her, or was she a tigress with an eye for young muscular men and who loved the spotlight? There are rumored to be certain hardcore shots of her, which she later claimed all came from a single night of drunkeness in an otherwise sober life. [See Pg.137] She also said she hated the raunchier pictures of her smoking.

The most plausible account in Foster’s book actually comes from J.B. Rund, a publisher, expert on erotica, and who was briefly Page’s agent in 1996. [Pg. 135-136] He said that Page’s seven-year modelling career and her forays into Hollywood were just a minor diversion on a life devoted to Christian faith and academic study.

…Rend says that he found Bettie’s take on the picture, particularly the Klaw Bondage photos, to be innocent and “naive.”

“She said, ‘Irving used to get suggestions from his customers as to what kind of photos they wanted to see. A lot of Irving’s customers liked me with a ball gag in my mouth.’ Very matter of fact,” Rund recalls.

“I realized right then and there that she doesn’t understand any of this. She doesn’t understand foot fetishism or bondage. I said, ‘Bettie, does it ever occur to you that guys are masturbating over these photos?’ and she says, ‘Yeah, I guess so,’ you know, like it doesn’t matter. She had no understanding of any of this.

“She said to me she thought it was funny. She does not understand that people get erections from it. Her sexual interests are very normal. Bettie still drinks milk.”

He says, “The thing is, she really doesn’t have anything revealing to say about her work. She went there and posed and that’s it.” [Pg.172-173]

Is that it? So many of the men who reminisce about Page talk about her as innocent, as pure. Page wasn’t a fool; many of the men described her as intelligent and well-informed. Perhaps Page was playing another role, one that she understood her fans wanted. Was Page retroactively revising her own biography as she lived it?

Her fan club president, Steve Brewster, who has met her, said:

“She’s a very devout Christian lady,” Brewster says. “She takes her religion very seriously. We’ve had some discussions about it. She’s not ashamed of her past. She said she does not feel guilty then or now. She has a very positive attitude about her career. She thinks those sever or eight years she modeled were kind of a time in her life when she was kind of lazy. The time period we think of as the Golden Age of Bettie Page, to her, she kind of kicked back in New York and made a few dollars modeling. She left New York and went to Bible college and started her real career.[“] [Pg. 174]

Perhaps Page was such a recluse before her death was because if she went into the public eye, she would have to express some kind of opinion about her career as a model. She’d either have to repudiate it or champion it; either way, it would define her life, and obscure anything else.

Dec 072013

After the war, a generation of men returned home to peacetime. Whether due to awakened homosexuality in the all-male society of the military, or just a distaste for the new American dream of job and family, many of these men created an alternative culture that continued the outdoor homosociality and initiatory experience of military life.

Samuel M Steward describes his early life in S/M before there was a Scene:

…in the 1930s, I had become interested in S/M [….] In those days there were no leather shops, no specialty stores; and leather jackets were unheard of and unavailable except in police equipment outlets that would generally not sell to civilians. I finally found my first one in Sears-Roebuck’s basement in Chicago. And I had unearthed– literally, for his saddlery shop was in a cellar on North Avenue– a little man who braided a few whips for me, and even found a “weveling” Danish cat-o’-nine-tails crocheted from heavy white twine, and located also a handsome crop of twisted willow wood.

My introduction to S/M had begun with my answering a personal ad in the columns of the Saturday Review of Literature, a weekly publication out of New York City. In those days some of the wordings and contents of the ads were mildly outrageous for the times, growing wilder until the publishing of them was entirely stopped by the guardians of our American purity. The one that caught my attention [in August 1947] ran something like:

Should flogging be allowed? Ex-sailor welcomes opinions and replies. Box…i

Answering that ad put Steward in touch with Hal Baron, a former sailor dedicated to connecting every S (sadist) with an M (masochist) he could, who connected Steward with other men who had answered the ad.ii

Steward, then a college teacher, was interviewed by the controversial Dr. Alfred Kinsey, and became an unofficial collaborator on Kinsey’s sexual research. The two men share an interest in sexuality and record keeping; Steward kept a comprehensive list of his many sexual encounters in his “Stud File”, often noted as “sadie-maisie” or “sad-mashy”.iiiKinsey invented the term “S/M” (pronounced “ess-em”) as part of his group’s elaborate alphanumeric code for discussing sexual topics discretely. In 1952, Kinsey arranged a meeting between Steward and Mike Miksche, a freelance illustrator and erotic artist under the alias “Steve Masters”, as M (masochist) and S (sadist) respectively. Kinsey filmed this two-day encounter, the first homosexual encounter so recorded for the archives, as if documenting the mating habits of a rare species of lemur.iv (The film was financed by funds earmarked for “mammalian studies.”v)

Later in his life, Steward pursued many other men whom he hoped would be the “S” of his fantasies, often to great disappointment. Having to instruct the young hustlers sent by Chuck Renslow, Chicago-based publisher of beefcake magazines and owner of the Gold Coast leather bar, in how he was to be (mis)treated, Steward typed up a numbered “handout” which he had each new arrival read before the session. Titled “WHAT THIS PARTICULAR M LIKES”, it included instructions like “Please remember: his is your absolute slave” and “Piss in his mouth (a little, not too much…)” and “Give him a few whacks on the ass with your belt. Or use whip if one present.”vi Like Sacher-Masoch, Steward’s desires were so insistent he wanted nothing left to chance.

When leatherman culture began formalizing in the late 1950s, the aging Steward couldn’t adapt. His ambivalence about other homosexuals made him solitary and antisocial, and he believed that his desire, for rough, working-class or criminal-class, heterosexual men and sex that was always on the brink of real violence, could not be domesticated. He wrote an essay called “Pussies in Boots”:

An artificial hierarchy, a ritual, and a practice have been superimposed over a very real need of the human spirit [to locate that which is authentically masculine]… [but] the entire affair has become a ritual, a Fun and Games sort of thing, and in essence there is no difference today between a female impersonator or drag-queen and a leather-boy in full leather-drag. Both are dressing up to represent something they are not…

It is difficult to say at what point in such a “movement” the degeneration sets in, and the elements of parody and caricature make their first appearance. Perhaps the decay began when the first M decided that he, too, could wear leather as well as the big butch S he so much admired. And so he bought himself a leather jacket…vii

In Steward’s day, the closest thing to gay literature were hand-written or typewritten stories circulated in the homosexual underground. In America, no publisher or printer would touch the stuff. When Steward managed to get access to a hectograph, a device that could make maybe fifteen or twenty copies from a single master sheet, to reproduce his own stories, it was a huge leap forward.

Steward’s life also shows that what later generations of kinksters lionize as the “Old Guard” were once the new radicals.

iSteward, Samuel M. “Dr. Kinsey takes a peek at S/M: A reminiscence” in Thompson, Mark, ed. Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice. Alyson Publications, Inc., 1991 Pg. 83

iiSpring, 2010, Pg.102-103

iiiSpring, 2010, Pg.189

ivSteward, Leatherfolk, Pg.85-89

vSpring, Justin. Secret Historian: The life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010 Pg.139

viSpring, 2010, Pg.288-289

viiSpring, 2010, Pg. 302

Nov 282013

Weighing in at 6,100 words, “The Velvet Underground” covers roughly 1945-1970, including the gay male leather culture; the fetish porn production business centered around NYC with artists like John Willie, Eric Stanton and Gene Bilbrew and models like Bettie Page and Tana Louise; and a little bit about the contact-service-based heterosexual kink scene. I would like to do more about the heterosexual scene as it existed then, but I just don’t have the references yet. Thus, the chapter is a little shorter and rougher than I would like.

I want to cover Story of O (1954), but it doesn’t fit in a chapter largely about American pulp porn. I may need to do a chapter about high literary kink porn, like O and The Image.

The other problem I have to face is I kind of skipped over the 1910-1945 period, apart from a few bits in the fascism chapter, and I don’t have enough material to make a strong theme for a chapter. It would be a grab bag/”and then…” chapter. Friends have counseled me that it is better to admit the limited availability of source material and cover what I can than just skip over it.

Next up is chapter 10, roughly 1970 to 1990, which covers the first aboveground kink organizations and the articulation of the kink ethos; the professionalization of the kink porn industry; the punk-kink dialectic; and the influence on the mainstream, such as fashion and movies like Nine and a Half Weeks.

I think that pushing forwards to a complete draft by the end of the year might be feasible, but it has other values in that it shows me areas I need to research, and just having something I could show to prospective publishers with the caveat “It needs some work.”

Sep 142012

Woman in black tight clothing surrounded by leather belts and straps

Vintage Sleaze has a post on Tana Louise, the premier fetish/bondage model before Bettie Page and girlfriend of bondage pioneer Lenny Burtman.

The post ends with stating that the 1940s/1950s porn/fetish/kink world is still largely unexplored:

There are thousands of untold stories from the golden days of sleaze, as this blog proves, and that there have been over 800 posts here already only indicates how many more are to be told.  Yet, from this writer’s perch, Tana Louise is the MAJOR untold story of the 1950s.  A story not even scratched.

Jun 262012

Being Canadian, I’m always interested in Canada’s contributions to the sexual edge of culture. I was delighted to stumble across the story of Justice Weekly, a true crime tabloid newspaper published in Canada that frequently included fetish letters. “…popular topics were discipline, punishment and humiliation of males (especially ‘errant husbands’ and spoiled post-adolescent children) by authoritarian/domineering females, transvestites and authority figures such as school principals, judges and law-enforcement officials.”


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Jun 252012

Jay A. Gertzman’s article “1950s Sleaze and the Larger Literary Scene: The Case of Times Square Porn King Eddie Mishkin”, in eI15 fanzine, provides an intriguing glimpse into the proto-BDSM scene of 1950s America, particularly the previously mentioned publishing empire of Eddie Mishkin.

Mishkin employed fetish artists like Eric Stanton and Gene Bilbrew, as well as writers, some of whom wrote pornography under pseudonyms or house names to pay the bills while working on above-ground books or television.

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Jun 212012

According to a post on Vintage Sleaze, “Justin Kent” is a name that appeared on many American digests published in the 1950s, short novels with racy covers that promised more than they could deliver in terms of sex, bondage and sadomasochism. It was actually a pen name for an unsuccessful writer living in Harlem named Kenneth Johnson (possibly African American, but the record isn’t clear.) Johnson wrote at least ten digest novels, many with illustrations by Gene Bilbrew.

1950s pulp cover, shirtless man begging woman in dominatrix outfit

The Strange Empress by Justin Kent Collection Jim Linderman

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