Wednesday, September 20, 2006

CHAT: Richard Foster, Author of "The Real Bettie Page"

Chat: Richard Foster, Author of 'The Real Bettie Page'

Court TV Host: Perhaps America's most popular pin-up model, Bettie Page appeared in everything from Playboy centerfolds to cult bondage film shorts. Then, at the height of her popularity in the 1950s, she disappeared, while her status as a pop culture icon only continued to grow among artists, writers and filmmakers. What happened? Journalist Richard Foster answered the question in his book, "The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of Pinups," the source for the new film "The Notorious Bettie Page," starring Gretchen Mol as Bettie.

Court TV Host: Our guest, Richard Foster, is here. Welcome, Mr. Foster, thanks for being our guest online today.

Richard Foster: Thanks. It's really exciting having the movie out. Strangely, I haven't gotten to see it myself yet, but I'm really looking forward to seeing it. I actually had a friend in Seattle take a photo of my screen credit with her camera phone this weekend. She e-mailed it to me. lol

Court TV Host: A number of people online have asked how you got started on research about Bettie Page.

Richard Foster: I started researching Bettie Page in the early 90s - 1990 actually. I've collected comic books my whole life and discovered that some artists had used her as a model, had a friend who turned me on to her pictures, and I became fascinated with the mystery of whatever happened to her. There were a lot of rumors at the time I got into her that she disappeared in 1956 at the cusp of achieving fame, and there were varying rumors she was killed by the mob, she had found religion, she was an elderly grandmother living quietly somewhere. Some of them had a hint of truth, but none of them were quite accurate. I started out researching this as an article for the local newspaper while I was in college, doing a piece about the cult of Bettie Page, how college students were discovering this 1950s pinup model, the punk culture in particular. I started digging and it turned out I found her brother, who was living in Nashville. He eventually told me she was still alive and offered to send a letter to her. About three months later, when I had forgotten all about it, I received a letter in the mail from Bettie Page, and I became the first journalist to find out what had happened to Bettie Page some 40 years earlier.

Question from Cosmo: How and when did Bettie go missing?

Richard Foster: At about the time she went missing she was subpoenaed to speak before a congressional subcommittee, looking into the bondage-suicide of a Boy Scout in Florida. It was sort of a witch hunt. Frightened off by that, Bettie left New York City and her modeling career forever. After a brief detour in Florida, she found religion again, and began attending Bible colleges. From there, she met her third husband, a man named Harry Lear. And that's where my book starts getting interesting.

Question from JERRY: Is it true that Bettie Page was in and out of mental institutions between 1983 and 1992?

Richard Foster: Yes. The short answer is yes. Actually, her mental problems predate that time period. In doing interviews with people who knew Bettie Page, as I was researching her biography, I got hints here and there that Bettie had had mental problems. Eventually, I was able to get court and police records that verified this. The first such incidents happened in the early 1970s in Florida where she was living with Harry Lear. During this time, she held Lear and her stepchildren at knifepoint and ordered them to pray to a portrait of Jesus. She spent some time in a Florida mental hospital, though later in California she committed three stabbings -- very violent acts that are the crux of my book. And they are also not in the film The Notorious Bettie Page, which ends with her disappearance.

Question from madaboutbettie: I loved the first chapter of your book! Why isn't it in the movie?

Richard Foster: Good question. I had spoken with the director Mary Harron about this very fact, and people behind the production at HBO. Harron's vision was really to capture that 1950s period, and the idealized Bettie Page -- Bettie Page the idol. I really think there is much more to her story, obviously. And I think her later years are much more filled with drama, and I think they also give a better picture of her as a full and complete three-dimensional human being. But again, I think it was a choice of Mary Harron's, because the film was her film. We had talked on several occasions by phone, sometimes as long as two hours, and she would ask me questions like: What would Bettie's apartment look like, how would Bettie have dressed - that kind of thing. But again, I really appreciate the praise for my book. Thank you.

Question from Cosmo: What kind of mental problems ?

Richard Foster: In some court records, I saw paranoid schizophrenia listed, but obviously her medical records were sealed, and I'm really limited as to what was revealed in court, which wasn't much, other than that the court found her criminally insane, and thus not legally liable for the charge of attempted murder.

Question from Cosmo: Where is she from?

Richard Foster: Bettie Page is from Nashville, and, incidentally, she is still alive. She now lives in California, and is 83. Much of her early years I know you'll learn about in the film. For instance, Bettie was salutatorian in her high school, which is pretty remarkable. And speaks to the fact that she was more than just a pretty face.

Question from JERRY: Hi Richard: Did Bettie Page know Marylyn Monroe?

Richard Foster: Not that I know of. At that time period, Monroe was a big star and Bettie was a struggling starlet. Bettie did, however, take acting classes with actors who would later become Hollywood names, such as Buck Henry and one of the cast members of I Spy, the television show, Robert Culp.

Question from JERRY: I thought they might have run into each other at Hugh Heffner's place..didn't Hugh Heffner bail Page out of financial woes?

Richard Foster: Bettie was a Playboy centerfold in the 1950s - one of my favorite pictures wearing a Santa hat and smile - while hanging an ornament on a tree. But though she has always been one of Hefner's favorite centerfolds, he has said, they never met in the 50s. He invited her to the Playboy mansion after her re-emergence in the 1990s, and that may be what you're talking about.

Question from Cosmo: Who did she stab and was she charged ?

Richard Foster: I'd like all of you to read my book, of course, where you'll find more detail, but briefly: she was staying with an elderly couple in the late 1970s and stabbed the husband and wife. Neither were hurt badly, but because of the assault, she was institutionalized for a couple of years. She was criminally charged for all of these assaults, I might add. The most dramatic of the three stabbings occurred in the early 1980s after she was released. Her elderly roommate at the time woke up to find Bettie Page straddling her with a knife and screaming, "God told me to kill you!" That vicious stabbing resulted in an attempted murder charge for Page, and there is a lot more detail about that, including an interview with the victim, in my book.

Question from boundngagged: So, how did she really feel about posing for pinup photos - and especially the bondage ones? The movie makes it seem like she was clueless about it all?

Richard Foster: I'd say that's accurate. There's a great apocryphal story that when summoned before the Senate subcommittee, and asked what she thought of her bondage photos, Page replied, "Why, Senator, honey, I think they're cute!" lol That's not a true story. But it's close to how she felt about her poses and how she still does speak about her modeling work. She's proud of it, she broke boundaries - what she did then is very tame by today's standards. And while she was a very familiar face in the 1950s, her bondage photos were virtually unknown to the general public. They were very underground. The average American was much more likely to see her photo on a postcard or a record album or a dime novel.

Question from Stormee: Has Ms.Page been offered any roles in any movies lately?

Richard Foster: I couldn't' tell you, but I would be shocked if she would take them. She is very reclusive these days and generally refuses to be photographed. Though there are a couple of photos on the web, floating around, of what she looks like today. Remarkably, she looks incredible for her age. She has the same hair style - those famous black bangs, though they are now gray. But she's still recognizable.

Question from Stacy: Have you met Bettie Page?

Richard Foster: No, I have never met her in person, or talked to her by phone. My contact with her was limited to that one letter in 1991, and a couple of messages passed between mutual friends since then. I'll add that Bettie was not happy with everything in my book. She did not want to disclose her years in the institutions or the violent acts she committed, and it was a very difficult decision for me as a fan of her modeling to decide to disclose it. It was really the interview with the elderly woman who she nearly killed that cemented that decision for me. But I will say that I've been told that Bettie was very happy with the writing I did about some of her present-day business dealings.

Question from RobV: With all of the fawning that goes on about Bettie in the 1950's era you'd think that people would be hungry for something with a little more substance. I don't think it takes away from her legacy that things went badly after her major career points, it humanizes her, and I think a lot of people will respond to that. I don't think people need to see another look at what they've all seen before.

Richard Foster: I agree. But you should realize that for a lot of America this film may be their first introduction to the world of Bettie Page and who Bettie Page was. Bettie's popularity has grown exponentially since the 1950s, but she is still more of a cult figure than a mainstream icon. And that's not to detract from her allure or her legacy.

Question from jberg: How did a news article turn into a book? Do you still do research on her or do you feel her story has been captured?

Richard Foster: I don't do research on her presently. The book is probably my final word about Bettie Page, though it won't be my last book. The news article, as I said, really started out to be about the fans of Bettie Page, and I was incredibly lucky to find her. And it was a great story to tell. But as a journalist, I've told many other stories as well, in newspapers and magazines.

Question from Sailor: How is her health and mental condition as of now?

Richard Foster: As far as I know, she is in good health these days, mentally and physically. But this is second hand.

Question from RobV: Did you spend any time looking into the similarities between Page and the new crop of pinup girls? For instance, Heidi VanHorne or any of the Suicide Girls?

Richard Foster: The book was written before the Suicide Girls and the new crop of striptease artists. But I certainly can see that they admire Bettie Page. I did, however, discuss how she influenced latter-day fashion and idols such as Madonna and the actress in David Lynch's Lost Highway.

Question from Anxious: Richard - Why did you choose Bettie Page to write about?

Richard Foster: Like a lot of people, I was really drawn in by her timeless beauty and the pure joy in her facial expressions. Her photos really evoke a time and place, probably mythical, but entrancing nonetheless. She has the girl next door appeal, but also some naughtiness. She's Ginger and Mary Ann in

Question from Clint: I don't think many people were focused on her facial expressions. lol

Richard Foster: You're probably right, somewhat. But again, mainstream America, at least in the 1950s, may not have seen her more risqué photos and would have known her as a swimsuit pinup model -- and her appeal shouldn't be strictly seen as sexual - you just need to see her smile and her wink to tell you that.

Question from countdown8120: The movie shows a very dark side to her life as well - her rape, and it suggests she was molested by her father.

Richard Foster: Yes. Bettie has stated in interviews that she was molested by her father and has discussed the rape - I can't say whether that led to her latter day problems or not. But I'm sure it couldn't have helped. I did talk to some psychologists for the book and they generally said that they thought that Bettie's posing may have been a way for her, even subconsciously, to gain control over her sexuality. I know a lot of women find her guilt-free pleasure in her photos liberating.

Question from Stormee: How does she feel about all this renewed interest in her and her work?

Richard Foster: Put short: she's flattered. I think she's also said she's amazed that these photos she took 50 years ago still have a life of their own. And I think she's content to know that her beauty will live on.

Court TV Host: Thank you very much, Richard Foster, for being our guest online today.

Court TV Host: Please come back!

Richard Foster: You're quite welcome.

(Posted May 16, 2006)

Updated June 7, 2006, 12:47 p.m. ET

(This article was taken from here:

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