HANK: It's really difficult to go to a group appearance with Toni Kelner. She is SO FUNNY--and so droll and so soft-spokenly southernly hilarious, she has the audience in stitches (whatever that means) and they mob her afterwards, thronging for books. Her husband is a motivational genius, and her daughters are marvelous and hip and smart.
Bless their hearts. (Little southern humor I learned from Toni.)
Anyway--Toni is everywhere! Writing her own books, editing anthologies with someone named Charlaine Harris (heard of her?) and winning awards. She also is the absolute QUEEN of TV trivia! (We should try to stump her. Anyone? It's kind of impossible..)
But today, she's talking about another queen. A pin up queen.
The Mystery of Bettie Page
There were lots of pinup queens during the fifties, but only one Queen of the Pinups: Bettie Page. Her photos range from outdoorsy bikini shots that wouldn't even raise an eyebrow to seriously kinky bondage and domination pictures, and everything in between. But whether she was posed as a dream girl next door, a sultry vixen, a bound beauty, or a stern dominatrix, the camera loved her. Her photos were ubiquitous from 1951 to 1957--the best estimate is that she posed for half a million pictures and worked with almost all of the amateur and professional photographers in New York City. Then, at the height of her popularity, she left the modeling business.
That could have been the end of the story, but in the 1980s and 1990s, Bettie's photos started re-emerging, and artists based a multitude of drawings and comic books on her. As interest grew, the search for her began in earnest, and there were endless theories about her "disappearance." Had she been murdered by a mobster? Been abducted by a sheik for his harem? Gone into a convent? What could have happened to the so-called Dark Angel?
In 1993, Bettie finally came forward after having heard about the frenzied search. She was amazed that anybody even knew who she was, let alone cared. She'd been living in obscurity for most of her life, and was nearly broke at that point. For a few years, she would only give interviews by phone and if her likeness wasn't shown, saying that she wanted her fans to remember her as she had been, not as an old woman, but in 2003, she did allow her picture to be taken for Playboy, in which she'd last appeared as a Playmate of the Month for January 1955.
So what was the mystery of her disappearance? It was no mystery at all, really. She stopped modeling for a combination of reasons: she was getting older, the laws surrounding pinups--particularly where bondage was involved--were getting more strict, her acting career had never taken off, and she got religion. So she left New York and went on to live her life. She had some good times and sadly many bad times before fame found her again. Bettie died just over a year ago, but still continues to inspire artists, models, film makers, and even musicians (including Bob Dylan, who included an image of Bettie on the back page of the album booklet of his brand-new album, Christmas in the Heart).
More importantly to me, Bettie inspired this mystery writer to write Who Killed the Pinup Queen?, the second in my "Where are they now?" series. My protagonist Tilda Harper is a freelance entertainment reporter who specializes in tracking down the formerly famous to write about them, so Bettie Page's story is right up her alley. Tilda interviews the once buxom Sandy Sea Chest, who has discovered late in life that there's still plenty of interest in her, and who has gone public with her story. When the former model is bludgeoned to death, Tilda sets out after the killer.
When I decided to use pinup queens for a backdrop for a mystery, I knew I wanted to draw on Bettie's story. But which story should I use? The story of the disappearance, and the fans' search for her years later? The real story of her life? Or the legends about what could have happened to her? I decided to use all three.
Sandy, the murder victim, takes pleasure in her pinup past and capitalizes on it with a web site from which she sells autographed photos and t-shirts. But another former pinup Tilda encounters is desperate that her past--which she considers sordid--stay deeply hidden. And a third has disappeared completely, even more thoroughly than Bettie did, creating a special challenge for Tilda.
Of course, none of these stories are exactly what happened to Bettie Page and none of these characters are exactly like Bettie herself. Despite all that's been written about her, and all the pictures, and the movies of her, and the movies about her, she's still a bit of an enigma. I suppose the irony is that even though Bettie bared all for the camera, she still kept her secrets.
Of course you can't wait to read the book--comment for a chance to win an autographed copy! And if you have a TV trivia question for Toni--let's see if she can answer..
Toni L.P. Kelner multitasks. In mysteries, Who Killed the Pinup Queen?, the second in her "Where are they now?" series, is just hitting the shelves. In urban fantasy, she edits anthologies with Charlaine Harris. Death's Excellent Vacation is due out in August. In short stories, she has her first noir story coming out in March in Carolyn Haine's anthology Delta Blues. Kelner has won the Agatha Award and a Romantic Times Career Achievement Award, and has been nominated for two other Agathas, four Anthonys, and two Macavitys. She lives north of Boston with author/husband Stephen Kelner, two daughters, and two guinea pigs.