Bettie Page's death last week shook me. It also got me thinking.
Early exposure to Ms. Page had a profound effect on my art, my libido, and my career. It's not unfair to say that my visceral reaction to this young lady shaped my life.
But what, exactly, was doing the shaping? It strikes me that the Bettie Page we were all so sad to see go was, well, already gone.
Bettie was a pin-up model for seven years. In those few years (1950-57) she became one of the most photographed women in the world, and the better of those photos (she was often shot by rooms full of untalented amateurs more concerned with seeing her naked) were enough to make her an icon.
The Bettie we see is 27-34 years old, always. Forever. Years before I'll admit to being born, this woman who changed my life hung up her garter belts and went to work for the Rev. Billy Graham. That wee nymph up there frolicking in the surf was gone.
Except that she isn't. Bettie, *that* Bettie, is immortal. And ageless. Like thin Elvis, sober Marilyn or young Marlon Brando. Or old Leonardo daVinci. Or bearded Abe Lincoln. That part of her life has been frozen and cut away from the usual march from birth to death. I remember when the rumor was that she had already died, years ago in a mental hospital. (She was committed, but for 20 months only) Finding out she was alive and unaware of all the fuss gave me a warm fuzzy feeling, but really, deep down, it didn't matter.
Those pictures were what was important.
The real woman's gone now. The loss hurts for some reason, but I don't know why. I never knew her, might not have gotten along with her if I did. The thing that influenced my life (it's alive, it's powerful, but it isn't human-- I don't know what to call it) is still alive and well, possibly more powerful than ever, now that it is free of the troublesome human it was once chained to. I don't know.
I want to say this is a construct of our media. Young Johnny Cash, whacked out of his head on speed, sings Big River on my iPod several times a week. Rita Hayworth breaks my heart a little any time I care to fire up the DVD player. Somewhere in the world right now, Marilyn Monroe is having her skirts blown up by that same damned subway grate.
But our media is only our servant. We invent the damn stuff to make our campfire tales more efficient, to do the things to us that we've been doing in one form or another ever since we crawled out of the trees.
Cúchulainn is forever raiding cattle, Herakles doing penance for one *nightmare* drinking binge, Gilgamesh wrestling that damned serpent. Somewhere in the world, right now, Achilles is dragging Hector around behind that same damned chariot. We won't let them die either, even after we've forgotten whether or not they ever existed...