Bettie Page True Story of the Jungle Girl Bunny Yeager, a Cannibal and Humorama
Bettie Page Bunny Yeager Humorama and a Cannibal
It seems remarkable these now curious jungle scenes of Bettie Page taken by pioneer photographer Bunny Yeager were not credited when published in Gaze Digest in 1960. One of a dozen small pin-up and gag cartoon magazines for men cranked-out by Timely Features, the layout in Gaze was at the time just another set of shots in black and white place in between the staple of the line...slightly sexist cartoons of buxom babes and dumb blonds. Yet the series of shots have come to epitomize not only the model's ability to own the camera, but one of the most interesting pieces of cheesecake from the 1950s. That they were taken by a woman, a pin-up model herself no less, is one of the more remarkable stories from the glory days of smut.
The images fit soundly into a comic gag tradition going back to the early days of racist popular culture, and one of a dozen or so standard themes used by cartoonists. Was anyone ever really boiled in a metal cauldron by a cannibal? Unlikely. But like workers peering up a skirt from a manhole or a shipwrecked sailor on an island with a woman and a palm tree it was a persistent theme providing fodder for virtually every cartoonist who sold work to the myriad of smut magazines of the 1950s. Racist and ridiculous. But taken to lengths not seen before when recreated by the photographer with the most beautiful model of all time.
There were other jungle girls. Sheena, for one, who first appeared in comic book form in 1938. Sheena wasn't real, but she was almost as hot as Bettie. She was portrayed by Irish McCalla around the same time as these photos. Of course there was also Jane, the woman Tarzan swung on vines and yodeled for. There was just something about a dame in leopard spots, but this was long before PETA.
Bettie Page actually worked with at least three photographers in Florida, though none have since become as celebrated as Yeager. Bettie was a tenant of a fifty dollar a month flat on West 46th Street in Manhattan, and one who could command twice going rate of other pin-up girls working at the time. Ms. Page could well afford her annual vacations to Florida.
While in Florida in 1952, Ms. Page registered with a model agency and did a few shoots, mostly for goofy "Welcome to Florida" type postcards (including one with an alligator) but it was editor, travel writer and gossip columnist Herb Rau who introduced her to Bunny Yeager two years later in 1954. Himself a photographer of note, Rau was for 28 years an editor with the Miami News. He had moved to Florida in 1950, but first gained some recognition for covering the Hindenburg disaster.
Recognizing the model as a singular talent, Yeager had the good sense to work exclusively with Bettie for nearly a month. Good sense, but maybe not good manners...she had the model help carry the equipment and paid her virtually nothing. Yeager has been criticized (Bettie herself included) for "stiffing" the model and paying only twenty dollars for her now famous Playboy centerfold. To be fair, the photographer was paid only a hundred bucks by Hef...so let's not point any fingers. They didn't pay blues musicians much to record either, and they invented rock and roll.
Years later, Yeager was selling prints of the photos for $500 each...and more. However, it appears she left the cannibal shots out of the inventory. These shots do not appear in her book "Bunny Yeager's Photo File" from 1995 which was little more than a catalog for selling reprints of Page photographs. She did include the model with a monkey, a zebra, a cheetah, the camels and even hanging from a tree like Tarzan's Jane with a knife in her mouth,the same image shown here. She also included a novelty shot of Bettie with black gum on her teeth dressed in a feed sack dress in a misguided attempt at, well...who knows. Ms. Page had a sense of humor.
Yeager originally began working with the model indoors, but she later arranged an outdoor shoot at the once famous "Africa Wildlife Park" tourist trap in Boca Raton. Thankfully, It closed several years later. The joint even had their own horrible THEME SONG which as will see below played while "Jungle Jim" types in pith helmets drove the rubes through herds of unaware animals feeding off kibble tossed on the ground. A camel walks past a herd of zebra in a zoological gumbo which could only exist in tourist-land. I'm not sure which is more exotic...the dressed up now seen as racist "Ubangi-ish" natives, or the equally misplaced burros. No wonder it is reported Bettie Page found religion shortly after...who could pose in this giant animal cage without seeking salvation?
Mojah and Mbili were the cheetahs shown in photos purring with Bettie published elsewhere. I do not believe the "cannibal" shown here has been identified, but he certainly must have been perplexed by the whole thing. Whether he ever ate human flesh, especially that as tender and succulent as the then 30 year old model has not been reported.
When did the famous layout first appear? Good luck. Portions have been reproduced so often, it is hard to tell. It must have appeared before this group from 1960. Certainly the Humorama layout has not appeared on the web, though the company foolishly failed to renew their copyright on the material. As it has been hidden inside the issue for over 50 years now, I do not believe is has been reproduced before, so here you go. AND Complete with the inane and incomprehensible (anonymous) story line which probably made no sense in 1960 either. The only indication of the wonders within appear on the back cover, a small, green-tinted kettle shot with the line "Getting the Chief in a Stew!"
Ms. Yeager worked with Bettie Page only once or twice, but shooting well over 1,000 photos. Despite the brief partnership, the original photos have had a long life. Ms. Yeager during her lifetime published no less than 15 books on photography, a good many of them including Bettie Page. As I have written elsewhere, she was a genius, a pioneer and a serious looker of her own. But these photos, while legendary, are not her finest work.
By the way? Ms. Page sewed her own costume.
The official Bunny Yeager website is HERE. Her work was shown in a retrospective at the Warhol Museum in 2010.
My earlier tribute to the photographer, which included extraordinary photos located in an issue of Scamp magazine from 1957 is HERE
Jim Linderman is an author and collector. See also DULL TOOL DIM BULB