Three Sex Symbols

Jacquie Roland, a writer of wonderful blog comments on some of my posts—several of which we’ve turned into posts in their own right—has sent a short personal essay via e-mail this time, occasioned by the death of the 1950s sex symbol, Bettie Page. Miss Page (no “Ms.” in those days) was the “IT” girl for pre- and post-pubescent guys like me, and Jacquie thought that I might like to know about Bettie’s passing. She was so right, of course. In fact, when I received her e-mail I merely had to look over my left shoulder to see a favorite picture of Miss Page pinned to the wall. (I’ve reproduced it here.) Enjoy that image (click on it for a larger view) and the delightful word images Jacquie creates in her memoir.

bettieBy Jacquie Roland
Bettie Page died December 11, 2008, at the age of 85. For young men of a certain age she was the most beautiful, exotic, woman they had ever seen. She filled their every fantasy. Those boys—men now— must have felt a certain pang, a loss, when they saw her obit in the New York Times. They couldn’t have forgotten her. How do you forget your youth?

In recent years, Bettie had become a cult favorite. Websites, books and calendars were devoted to her. In her 80’s, she again had fans who remembered her heyday, when they were all living high. A movie THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, starring Gretchen Moll was well received , as were several books, telling her life story. I hadn’t given her much thought until I saw the listings in BUD PLANT’S ART BOOKS catalog. It was then I remembered the woman in the fishnet stockings and the whip that had been taped inside notebooks, and on the back walls of gas stations when I was a kid. No thought of “PC” in those days. Ladies would just look away.

There always seemed to be two pinups, now that I remember… Bettie Page and Jane Russell… one in little or nothing, and one in the most incredible sweater. Both were sex symbols, both world famous. Although I wasn’t sure about the sex symbol stuff, even as a child, I understood fame. Jane Russell was a famous movie star, Bettie Page a famous model, or “Pin-up”, as we called them then. Her claim to fame was her body and , for their day, her provocative poses. And they were provocative… enough so that she was called to Washington by no less than Estes Kefauver to testify in his anti- pornography campaign. Both women went through what could be termed ” a bad patch” as adults, but came out whole on the other side. Both became Born Again Christians. Read their biographies.

Ms. Russell had a more secure upbringing than Ms. Page, to say the least, but both ended up being married three times. Neither woman could conceive a child. Bettie had no children, while Jane had three. She adopted two boys and a girl. I never met Bettie Page, but because Ms. Russell was an adoptive parent, and because she founded WAIF ( World Adoption International Fund), I met her in Washington, DC during the CHILDREN GROW BETTER IN FAMILIES adoption initiative, under President Reagan. A staunch Republican and adoptive mother, she would be the perfect keynote speaker. Would she come to Washington, and help out her old friend Ronald Reagan? I hung up the phone happily… she would.

The day she was to speak, however, I was panicked. The “green room” was full, the Great Hall of the Health and Human Services building was as well… and no Jane. The other celebrities were waiting to go on, and time and celebrity waits for no man ( or woman) but she was nowhere to be seen. When I rushed out of the green room one last time, I saw guest Art Buchwald look at his watch. The kids from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE , Melissa Gilbert and the Laborteaux boys, were getting restless. Will Sampson, the American Indian actor who was so good in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST was talking to baseball great, Steve Garvey. They were all wearing that ‘lets get this show on the road’ look. Time was, in fact “a-wasting”. I literally ran out of the elevator into the Great Hall. Nope, none of the greeters had seen her. My god… a no show… I was about to lose my job. …. But then…In the middle of that vast room stood Ms. Russell, (to this day in my mind’s eye) in a sunbeam, surrounded by a nimbus cloud. A perfect angel in a belted, print, no nonsense dress and sensible pumps. She was older, of course, but who could miss her? She was a queen… a real celebrity… every inch a star.

My greeters, sweet, lovely and handsome youngsters had each been given her bio, so that they could answer intelligent questions and in fact were looking for the Jane Russell of THE OUTLAW, cleavage ‘down to there’, or at least a Madonna look-a-like. No official greeter was near, in any case… they were still craning their necks out the front doors. I feared that “my “star was not prepared to be swept up by some small, panicked art director, but that is how it was. I said the first thing that came to mind, to put her at ease… I may have been less than truthful, but I was quick. “Ms. Russell, Mr. Buchwald was just asking about you… may I take you to him?” Which I did, when I got her downstairs I opened the green room door and said “Mr. Buchwald, it’s Ms. Russell, sir, she’s here.” Art Buchwald, Pulitzer Prize winner, took his cue like a man from Central Casting, and introduced her to the others. Perfect.

I spoke to them both several times that day, saw to their welfare, took care they were both filmed and interviewed… and though I don’t remember a word of her speech… I do remember that it was spectacular. Years later, I heard that Art Buchwald was ill. While still working for the Reagan White House I had the opportunity to call on Mr. Buchwald now and again for small favors. He was always gracious. I wrote him, reminding him of those days on Capitol Hill. I finally asked if he remembered what he and Jane Russell talked about that day. He wrote back July 20, 2006:

Dear Jacquie, thanks so much for your nice letter and reminding me of my tete-a-tete with Jane Russell. I cannot reveal what we said to one another, WOW, was I living high at that time. Love- Art Buchwald

I could almost see the twinkle in his eye, as I read the words. Yes, Mr. B, we WERE living high, weren’t we? Mr. Buchwald died January 17, 2007. Ms. Russell, now 87, lives in California. And lest you feel mislead by this post’s title—to me, there is nothing sexier than a kind, intelligent, witty man. That gets me every time. And I’m willing to bet that is why men were so drawn to Bettie Page… she was intelligent, and had the twinkle in spades. The leopard skin helped, though. I do so wish I had also met Bettie Page back then, but meeting two out of three iconic sex symbols in one day…not shabby.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.

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