A chance meeting on a Florida beach became a lifetime friendship between contributor Ellsworth Boyd and 1950s pinup favourite Bettie Page
Text and Photography by Ellsworth Boyd
The year was 1957. I was lifeguarding in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, one of a dozen Ocean City, Maryland, beach patrol nomads who made the sunshine state pilgrimage in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There weren’t many lives to save in the calm waters of this party town that one of the guys dubbed ‘Ft. Liquordale’. The beach was the focal point of social activity, and pretty girls were as bountiful as seashells on a shoreline that stretched for more than five miles (8km) from Port Everglades to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. But of all the girls I had seen during my six-months in the sun, none were as beautiful or more stunning than Bettie Page.
Word had spread like wildfire that Ms. Page, one of America’s most beloved pinup models, was on the beach at Las Olas Boulevard. By late afternoon the beach was emptying when a lone figure came walking along the water’s edge. It was Ms. Page, her striking bikini partially hidden by a thin, sleeveless, waist length, see-through garment unbuttoned down the front. You just didn’t see outfits like this in the 1950s. It was as if this fantasy figure had stepped off the page of one of the Swedish magazines guys used to bring to school in the eighth grade.
I was determined to talk with her and if I were fired from my beach patrol job then I could tell anyone who asked me why: “I got caught talking to Bettie Page.” On the return from her long beach walk I could see her heading my way so I stood directly in her path, hoping for the best. When she was close I smiled and she smiled back. I blurted out: “How far did you walk?” She replied, “About two miles.” I introduced myself and she did the same. I told her I knew who she was. I tried to be cool. She smiled.
Bettie was no different than any other friendly tourist, chatting amicably about everyday things. She was so nice, the butterflies left my stomach and soon I was telling her about my best friend, Jim Kelly, also a lifeguard, and how we liked to take friends snorkeling on a pretty coral reef near shore in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
To this day, I can’t believe my brashness when I gushed, “Would you like to go snorkeling with us tomorrow? It’s our day off.” To my amazement, she smiled and said, “I’d love to! What time?”
She took to the water with ease, swimming to the reef 400 yards (366m) offshore where schools of brightly coloured tropical fish greeted us. It was difficult for Kelly and me to keep our eyes on the reef with our beautiful dive buddy alongside. Fascinated by what she saw, Bettie dived 15 feet (4.5m) to the bottom where she tried to pet an angelfish.
After two hours I was feeling a chill, but never heard a complaint from the lovely mermaid. When we did get back to shore I asked if I might shoot some photos and write a short article about our dive for Skin Diver, a publication I read from cover to cover and yearned to write for.
“Oh sure,” she said. Here, I’ll pose for you.” With that, she put a swim mask on her head, grabbed some gear and modeled for us in her homespun bikini. Kelly and I thought we’d died and gone to heaven.
Bettie was leaving for Miami the next day to see a friend and said it was doubtful she’d return, but if she did she’d like to learn to scuba dive. I wrote my piece for Skin Diver, published in June 1958. It was the first of more than 200 articles I wrote for the magazine over the years. I thank Bettie for this. She was my inspiration and directly responsible for my first big break.
In 1996, a producer from E!TV interviewed me for True Hollywood Story: Bettie Page, a two-hour special on the life of the famous pinup model. When it aired I learned for the first time that my photos were the last pinup poses taken of Bettie before she retired.
We all carry fond memories of the special people in our lives, the ones who leave a lasting impression. Bettie Page, the lovely lady who I taught to snorkel one summer afternoon many years ago, was such a person in my life.
Her beauty was more than skin deep. She was kind, thoughtful and cordial—traits that were immediately apparent. We spent a lovely time together but when she left I failed to ask for a forwarding address and lost contact with her. My inquiries to locate Bettie over the years were met with a recurring response: “She got married, became a born-again Christian, and then disappeared.” But no one seemed to know where, so I stopped searching.
Time passed and then on the Internet I spotted an item about the ‘Bettie Scouts of America’, a fan club started by devotee Steve Brewster of Kansas City, who knew her whereabouts and offered to forward a letter. Bringing me up to date he said that Bettie had been married and divorced in Florida, after which she left the state and joined a religious group in the Midwest. Later, suffering a nervous breakdown, she was hospitalized and received treatment for some years. Improved, she was moved eventually to an independent living home in Grenada Hills, California.
In my letter I asked Bettie if she remembered our day on the coral reef. Indeed she did! She was ecstatic and replied directly to me with her return address on the envelope. She told me that our experience had inspired her to learn to scuba dive in Miami. It had been 40 years since we met on a Florida beach yet we renewed our friendship as if we’d become acquainted the day before.
We exchanged letters and I sent her copies of Skin Diver Magazine with many of my articles in them. We also exchanged small gifts at Christmas and although we were 3,000 miles (4,800km) apart—Maryland to California – our correspondence kept us close. I was happy to learn she had moved into her own apartment and was doing well. Although she had many offers to make public appearances, she turned them all down. She did well until her late 70s when her health started to fail.
When Bettie’s letters stopped coming, I learned she was in a Los Angeles hospital and not doing well. She fought valiantly, caught pneumonia and eventually died from heart failure in December of 2008, at age 85. She was interred at Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, the cemetery of celebrities, three gravesites away from Marilyn Monroe.
Only a small number of relatives and friends were invited to her memorial service. I was one of them, but my mother-in-law was ill at the time and I could not attend. I found out later that had I gone, I would have met Hugh Heffner and three of his Playmates. Bettie was the centerfold in a premiere issue of Playboy and Heffner had remained a friend for over 50 years.
I shall always cherish my brief time with Bettie and our memorable correspondence. I know that lasting impression will last as long as I do.
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