From 1952 to 1957, a not-so-shy model and camera-club girl named Bettie Page worked for a New York City men’s magazine publisher named Irving Klaw. His younger sister Paula was the photographer and director of the black-haired beauty, who posed for the bondage and fetish photography market that Irving helped create.
Though mostly tame by 21st century standards, many of the Page images would be considered very disturbing even today. Little wonder, then, that along with comic books and other forms of printed material, the Klaw’s Bettie Page photos became a target of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the mid-1950s. Klaw and his sister were eventually compelled by a court to destroy their inventory of all Bettie Page negatives to avoid being prosecuted for sending pornography through the mail.
At the time of the court order, Paula had 6,000 negatives of Bettie. She destroyed three-quarters of them—the worst of the worst—to satisfy the feds, but she hid the rest. In the late 1980s, Klaw slowly started to print and sell Page photos again.
According to Bettie Page photograph collector Chuck Keefe, “If Bettie Page had only done normal pin-up poses, we would not be talking about her. She wouldn’t have become the multi-million dollar business she is today. It’s this ‘dark side’ of her career that has made Bettie Page historically significant. The way Paula photographed and directed her made Bettie the icon she is now.”
Keefe’s interest in Bettie Page began in the late 1970s, when he purchased about 300 vintage pin-up magazines from the estate of a recently deceased Hells Angel, who had lived near his art studio in Southern California. “Someone was selling his property out of a dingy, moldy old room behind a roofing company,” Keefe recalls. “I think I paid maybe 20 bucks for them.” Naturally, many of those magazines featured images of Bettie Page.
As a painter, Keefe was looking for a subject—vintage photographs of Page seemed perfect. “I did a few small paintings of her,” he says. “Then, out of the blue, in the early 1980s, comic-book artist Dave Stevens based the Rocketeer’s girlfriend on Bettie. Bettie Page became a big thing, and I started to wonder, ‘Who is this girl, anyhow?’”
Throughout the rest of the ’80s, Chuck continued to paint images of Page. He also scoured articles and books to learn more about pin-ups and their history. Among other things, he discovered that there was a mystery surrounding the sudden disappearance of Page in the late 1950s. Speculation ran from suicide to her abduction by aliens. For more than 30 years, no one had seen or heard from Bettie Page.
Then, in 1990, Keefe came across a reference to Movie Star News, where Bettie had worked as a secretary in the 1950s, and where Paula Klaw had taken the notorious bondage photos of her. The company was still in business, so Keefe gave them a call. On other end of the line was none other than Paula Klaw—it was the first of about 30 phone calls between the two.
“This was before computers,” says Keefe, “so I would mail her photographs of some of my Bettie paintings to show her what I was up to. She would write me back saying ‘This was not one of mine’; she thought I was sending her images of paintings based on photos she had taken. Finally she sent me a thick catalog of everything Movie Star News had for sale. It was full of movie posters, tons of pin-up girls, and a whole section on Bettie Page. I wanted all of the Bettie photos, but I didn’t have the $10 for each.
“Over the weeks we became phone buddies and talked about all kinds of stuff. Turns out Paula had been looking all over the country to find Bettie, even going to her hometown, but had turned up nothing. One day I asked her if she’d sign her photos of Bettie if I bought a bunch of them, so it would prove they came from her original negatives. She said, ‘Chuck, how many is a bunch?’ I said 100, and I offered pay double the cost, $20 each. She said, ‘Only if you never sell them to the public while I’m alive.’ That was fine with me. She then wrote me a note agreeing to sign them, and the deal was sealed.”
During the next three months, Keefe received three shipments of about 30 photos each of Bettie Page, from 8-by-10s to 20-by-24s. Paula’s son Ira printed the photos, using his mom’s original 1950s negatives, and gave them to his mother to mail to Keefe. In the years that followed, Keefe hand-colored many of the photos that had not been perfectly developed, and he sold others to a girlfriend—who kept them to herself, knowing Keefe’s promise to Paula—to make ends meet. As it turns out, Paula passed away only a few years after her correspondence with Keefe.
Around the same time, Bettie Page was finally found alive and well. Her brothers in California had basically forced her to come out of hiding and claim the rights to her image, which was being marketed now all over the world. In 1993, she signed with CMG Worldwide, which represents the intellectual-property rights of some of the world’s biggest celebrities, living and deceased.
Then, in 2006, Keefe read that Bettie Page had recently been in Los Angeles, in an office on Sunset Boulevard, signing large prints produced by an artist named Olivia, who had made a career for herself out of her ability to capture Bettie Page on canvas and paper. This gave Keefe a wild, improbable idea. He decided to try and get Page to put her signature next to Klaw’s.
Keefe contacted CMG. At first, staffers at the west coast branch of CMG rebuffed his assertion that he had Paula Klaw’s signature on Bettie Page photos. Eventually, though, he reached the company’s CEO, Mark Roesler, at the company’s home office in Indiana. Roesler patiently listened to Keefe’s claims, but he also challenged Keefe to prove that the Klaw scrawls on his Page photos were authentic.
“I then went back to square one,” says Keefe, “and called Ira. I was shocked at what he said. He told me flat-out, ‘You don’t have anything signed by my mother; I don’t have any Bettie Pages signed by my mother, no one does.’ It had been 15 years since he had printed his mom’s photos, and he didn’t remember me, but he offered to look at some of my photos to authenticate Paula’s signature. I sent him the worst two I had, in case they got lost or stolen.”
A week later, Keefe received a phone call from Ira. “He says, ‘Chuck, where did you get these photos?’ I said, ‘You made them for me in 1991.’ He says, ‘You have a fortune!’ That’s when we realized what had happened—when he gave the finished prints to his mother, she had signed them, sent them to me, and never told anyone.”
Today, Ira is happy to confirm his mom’s signatures on the Page photos. “As far as I know, Chuck’s the only one who has that,” says Klaw. “It’s very cool.”
Eventually, Ira agreed to tell CMG the same thing. Keefe also had Paula Klaw’s signature on a cancelled check, which matched those on the photos she had sent him. And he had a note from Paula that read, “Yes, I will sign them.” He now had the proof he needed to go back to Mark Roesler, who was the only person who could approve going to Page to get her signature on the photos.
“Chuck was very persistent,” Roesler recalls. “Bettie was reluctant to sign images because her hand often hurt, but she would sign things if she could. Bettie was very appreciative of all of her fans, so she liked to be as respectful as she could. Chuck’s photos were special because they were signed by Paula, so she was happy to also sign those.”
In the end, Roesler only charged Keefe $50 each for Bettie Page signature on Keefe’s 40 remaining Klaw photographs, which was a fraction of what her signature commanded at the time. By now, though, Page was very frail (she passed away two years later in 2008), so the process of getting the photos signed took about three months.
Keefe’s almost-three-decade quest was finally complete. “I now have the only Bettie Page photos in the world autographed by Paula Klaw, with the signature of Bettie Page, the queen of the pin-up world on them, too,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for the kindness of Paula and Ira, and especially Mark of CMG, I would not have this incredibly unique collection.”
As for Movie Star News where it all began? “Bettie Page still pays the rent,” says Ira.
(All images courtesy Chuck Keefe, except as noted. For more information, visit Keefe’s website.)