The pin-up and the preacher

By Steve Beard

With the passing of the Rev. Billy Graham, there have been innumerable mentions of his relationship with politicians – notably Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush – as well as other celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Bono, Johnny Cash, Martin Luther King Jr., and Kathie Lee Gifford.

One of the more interesting pop culture connections was the effect that Graham’s ministry had upon the life of renowned pin-up model Bettie Page (1923-2008). Known for her jet black hair and iconic rockabilly bangs, The Los Angeles Times described her as a “taboo breaker who ushered in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.” At one point, she was arguably the most photographed female on the planet. After a religious conversation in 1959, she was never photographed again and disappeared from the public radar.

Ironically, in some ways Bettie Page is more popular today than she was in the Eisenhower-era. Her image can be found on playing cards, t-shirts, lunch boxes, beach towels, lighters, key chains, and fridge magnets. Of course, there is even a Bettie Page bobblehead.

For nearly forty years, no one knew what happened to her. Journalists Karen Essex and James L. Swanson were the first to track her down and publish her authorized biography, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend in 1996.

After her notorious modelling career, Page’s disappearance and religious pilgrimage eventually landed her in Los Angeles where she worked at what would eventually become Biola University (known at the time as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles). She also attended the Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

While she was living in Chicago in 1962, she was a counselor at a Billy Graham crusade. “I’m more proud of my work with the crusade than of anything else I’ve ever done,” she said. “I get emotional just thinking about it. If ever there was a man of God, it’s Billy Graham.”

Page wanted to be a missionary and applied to various mission boards but was rejected — not because she had been a fetish pin-up, but because she had been divorced. She spent the rest of her life living quietly and happily in obscurity, working as a secretary, a teacher, and then eventually living modestly off of Social Security. She had no idea that the world was intrigued by her whereabouts.

She never changed her name, or her famous hairstyle. When she was asked if she was Bettie Page, she would playfully reply, “Who’s that?”

“I was never trying to keep away from people, I was just through with modeling and went on to other things,” she told Essex and Swanson. “I went right on living my life in the open all the time.”

Bettie Page died on December 11, 2008, at the age of 85.

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.

To read more about Bettie Page, click HERE.

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