Betty Hutton: “This Is My Story . . .”
In my newest picture, “Spring Reunion,” I portray a dutiful daughter named Maggie. She is a young woman who never gave herself the chance to really live. Maggie was the flower of her home town, the girl voted the most likely to succeed by her high school class, but she didn’t have the guts to try. She just couldn’t cut the silver cord-nor would her father’s possessive love let her.
My friends will surely think this role is the most off-beat casting of all time as would anyone who knows the life I’ve led. My father deserted me when I was two years old. I went to work when I was three, singing and dancing in a saloon while my mother tended the bar. And the classmates in my neighborhood never voted me to succeed at anything but scoring a bull’s-eye with a ripe tomato thrown at the poor old persecuted cop on our beat. But I still had to learn to live, in the full and rewarding sense of that word. And today I know that until recently I had never really lived at all.
Sadly enough, there are far too many folks who never live. Certainly there are too many Maggies who, because of weakness, loneliness, fear or sympathy, stop halfway in life and just hang there and gather moss. Some use their parents as a comfortable crutch because they are afraid of making a life of their own.
Then, on the other hand, there are some parents who have no thought of preventing their children from leaving home; they just make them so comfortable that, without meaning to, they discourage the whole idea. This was true of a friend of mine—a charming, stimulating, brilliant woman, who made her daughter so happy at home that for years the girl wouldn’t get serious about any boy. She didn’t want to leave the lovely apartment or her mother’s exciting, glamorous friends. She loved going to Europe in the summer and to Florida in the winter, and it was too good a thing to give up for any struggling young man. As she frankly put it to her mother one day, “Why should I get married? What could they give me that you don’t?”
Which echoes the sentiments of a father I know who keeps his tribe under an iron thumb and keeps all of them under the same roof with him. Sons, daughters, inlaws, grandchildren—the whole caboodle of them living there together, too close for ordinary comfort. And the father is so strong, he’s made weaklings of the rest of them, or rather they’ve allowed him to. One son could have been a brilliant scientist, but his father insisted he follow in the family brokerage business, too. His daughter’s husband was about to leave her, but she still couldn’t break away and go with him. The son-in-law was a nice guy and he loved his wife, but he was just too miserable living that way. One day I sat the girl down and talked her into moving out and getting a house of their own. The father bought it for her—he refused to let go completely—but she’s so happy now, living her own life.
If you can just break the pattern, you’re home-free. Yet, I’m sure this father, just as many other fathers and mothers, doesn’t even realize how much he’s warping all the others’ lives.
Certainly my mother would never consciously do this. Nor would I have done it to her. But sometimes circumstances just bring this about, and the pattern is just as hard to break. I was tied to my mother from childhood primarily because of my own determination to help provide for her, and because she needed me.
If it hadn’t been for my mother, I would never have gone to Hollywood. She was the whole inspiration for me getting us out of that bloody Casbah where we lived in the tenement section of Detroit. Mom had worked hard, very hard, since she was nine years old. When I was a kid she worked as a “tackspitter” in an automobile factory for a long time, tacking upholstery into the car seats. She would come home at night with her hands bleeding—where she’d missed. Seeing her hands like that infuriated me, and I vowed that someday I’d make it all up to her. I was determined she wouldn’t go through life and not live at all. Never have anything. I decided I would be a movie star, and I dedicated myself to the day when Mom would have all the necessities and comforts life holds.
Our relationship was in reverse. Mom was in essence my “child.” I took care of her and I worried about her, and during my teens I was her best friend and her provider. I tried to be everything to her, to make up for the years she’d given up, struggling to feed and clothe my sister, Marion, and me.
Later on, after I went into show business, I needed Mom all the time. She traveled with me and took care of me. She was my third hand. She cooked for me, sewed for me, helped me with my costumes, and she was my Gal Friday. The whole works. When I married and this turned out unhappily, Mom was always helping me with my problem. She was just always there.
Thus we were unusually close. Too close. Finally I realized this, but breaking the pattern of such close relationships necessarily takes time. It seems almost unbelievable now, but when my children, Lindsay and Candy, were born, it was hard for my mother even to acknowledge them at first. I was her baby and she felt she was losing me.
I knew it was essential for Mom’s future happiness for her to have a life of her own and to feel free of me. I bought her a house in the San Fernando Valley, and in a sense that became her child. I hoped this would give her some roots and security of her own, and eventually it did. When she married my stepfather, she began building her own life, and gradually divorced herself from mine.
She gave me her “final notice” the last time I went out on the road to play nightclub dates. One night, in my dressing room, Mom said, “Betty, this is the last time I’m going anywhere with you.” Throughout that trip she kept worrying about her house and her garden. She was more concerned about the devil-grass back home than about her daughter’s night-club act. And since I married Alan Livingston, she’s let go completely, and she knows how happy I am.
If you can just break the pattern, if you have the honesty and the courage to try—that’s the important thing. My difficulty was there were just too many patterns of thinking, feeling and living that needed breaking before all the pieces could fall into perspective and I could know what it means to live fully—as I am now.
Growing up, I had personality problems no one’s even named yet. And I’ve always been probably the greatest living authority on that well-worn word—insecurity. During most of my early years, I was a miserable misfit. My sister, Marion, was the pretty one, the popular one, the good one. I was homely and lonely and too loud. Being loud, I’d found, was the only way I could attract any attention.
“Poor” is a relative word. And if you’ve never experienced it, it’s hard to explain the kind of poor we were. Sometimes my husband, Alan, gets to reminiscing about how tough times were during his school days. He’ll say, “I’ll never forget when I was going to college. I had it so tough then. Some days I had only a dollar a day to eat on.” That really breaks me up. College, yet! “Yep—that’s real tough, Alan,” I’ll joke. “Rough deal. If our whole family had a dollar a week, we were well off.” I can’t remember when I first learned my father had deserted us and run away with another woman. I just always knew it. The way we lived, you couldn’t hide anything—our life was too bare. Sometimes, with a kid’s imagination, I would have the strange feeling that he was watching me. When I was eight years old I almost died of pneumonia, and one day, while a neighbor was sitting with me, a man came to our door and asked how I was. I always felt he was my father . . . but I never knew.
I never wanted to see him anyway. All my life I felt nothing but hatred for him. Today I can be more adult and more tolerant, weighing the differences in my parents’ ages and temperaments, and realizing how humanly difficult the circumstances might have been. But watching my mother working so hard and seeing her suffer and knowing my father had deserted us, I really hated him then.
During all the years of struggling, I never heard from him. Then six years ago, when a national magazine was doing an extensive cover story on me, their research staff traced my father to Sawtelle Veterans’ Hospital in Santa Monica, California—right next door to me. He had shot himself only four months before. He must have known where we were, but he never tried to contact me or to cash in, and that sort of cleaned him up with me. I’ve always wondered how he felt seeing me in movies, knowing I was so near—and remembering how he’d run out on me.
With my father for a first example, I grew up having small use for men. I was a bitter kid anyway, and the type of men I’d meet didn’t inspire any girlish visions of orange blossoms and old lace. Living in tenements and singing in bars, I saw the worst side of men. Nor were they attracted to me. I never had a real boyfriend until I was nineteen years old. I wasn’t the type guys would ask for a date. I was too self-sufficient. Men didn’t feel needed with me. You have to play all the womanly angles to be desired, and I’d never played any of them. Furthermore, I had neither the time nor the experience. I’d been working all my life and I had no time to learn how to play games. I’d been in a man’s shoes all the time and, in a sense, I’d been raising my own family. I was always battling with men, always competing with them, and I just didn’t know how to go about being womanly.
And, I must add, marriage and the family institution as I saw them offered small attraction anyway. There were sixteen families packed into our tenement house, and every family had a few extras living with them. The women were always arguing, the kids crying, and the men were always beating up their families.
These were our neighbors, and I couldn’t stand any of them. Neither could I stand the dirt. I was a fanatic about cleanliness. I only had one dress, but I had to wash that dress every night. It’s hard to explain, but this was very important to me. This was the only thing that made me “different,” above the mob.
And there was another thing—the tremendous desire to better our situation, to be a success so I could take my mother out of that rat trap. This was like a fever with me, and I was going to get us all out of there if I had to blast us out. And the way I sang, I just about did.
If I hadn’t been able to assume the burdens when I did, I don’t know what would have happened to us. I’d been singing, after a fashion, since I was three years old, when my sister and I sang and danced for the customers in the “blind pig” my mother ran then.
While I was still under age, I started singing in clubs and bars around town. You were supposed to be sixteen years old and accompanied by a parent to even visit those places. I never went, except to sing. I would make up and try to look older an go over to some club. Sometimes they had “Amateur Night.” Other times I would just go over and sit by the piano player and they would let me sing. The customers would throw money on the floor, and some nights I would make ten or twenty dollars, which was a big help to my mother. And on some nights, two truant officers would find me and escort me home.
I’d been on speaking terms with some of the truant officers before. By the time I was twelve, I was twenty years old in looks, experience and emotion. I was bitter and full of hate, and I’d decided the whole world was wrong. I had no respect for anybody. I’d throw tomatoes at the cops on the beat. I had gangs, and we’d go into a dime store and prowl around. But for the miracle of God, I could have gone wrong about then. Real wrong. But that was about the time Mom and Marion and I all started going to church.
We went to the Holy Roller Tabernacle in the neighborhood, and I thought the evangelist, Brother Kline, was the most godlike man I’d ever seen. I can still see his face—it just shone. And I loved going to church there. We’d go each Sunday and stay all day. The congregation would get pretty emotional, they’d sing hymns with a lot of spirit, and they would talk in “unknown tongues.” One night I saw a woman who was blind “talk to the Lord” and see. This was miracle enough for me. This was just about the greatest thing that had ever happened to me.
I went through a year of wonderful religion, guided by Brother Kline. After that year I could never go back to being ‘the little monster I was before, because I’d gotten religion and I’d learned the rule. Brother Kline had taught me that, if I believed and if I prayed, whatever I wanted would happen. You had to get the bitterness and hatred out of your heart, and you had to replace them with love and understanding. Then, if you had faith and prayed, it would happen.
This gave me the confidence I needed, and it changed my whole life. Now I believed I would make it. Instead of just having the fight and the desire to succeed, now there was faith and prayer to carry me through. And down through the years, just before any important performance, Mom and I knelt in the wings and prayed.
What I wanted, what I prayed for, was success in show business. To become famous enough and to make enough money to break the pattern of living for us. I never gave marriage, or a happy home or family, a thought. I just wanted to be a movie star. I wanted to be accepted and loved—and one person, one man, wasn’t enough. Everybody had to love me. I’d been too lonely too long.
Through the magic of motion pictures I soon had millions of new friends. And eventually, through the magic of birth, I began to mature more, personally. When Lindsay and Candy were born, I learned the womanly things. How to feel more feminine. How to give something of myself. And how not to feel so self-sufficient any more. Having a child does this. With a child you have to give yourself so completely, if you’re a good mother. And the minute a baby’s born and they put it in your arms and you feel this tiny warm sweet something who needs you, all your phony defenses melt away. My babies loved me for myself. They weren’t thinking, “What can I get out of my mother?” All they asked was love and security.
Marriage, however, was a less happy experience. When my first husband, Teddy, and I were married, I thought this was it. I’d never had a home or a lot of relatives, and Teddy’s strong family ties seemed to insure a lasting relationship. But our marriage proved to be a mistake. And about this time I lost all heart for show business.
Why? I was worn out physically, mentally and emotionally. A succession of things happened, but none of them were big enough to matter if I hadn’t already been too exhausted to go on. I was really fed up, and I was ill. I needed to rest and get a new slant on the business—and on Betty Hutton, too. I told myself show business had brought me fame and money, but no personal happiness. But then, from the very beginning, that was all I’d asked for, and prayed for—success and fame.
Then I met the first man who had ever loved me for myself. A man who thought Betty Thornburg, of the Battle Creek and Detroit tenement Thornburgs, was worthy of all his love and respect. To me, this was an almost unbelievable and a wonderful thing. When I met Alan, I was so destroyed inside he was able to meet the real girl, stripped of everything—all the ego, the defenses. Alan had never known Betty Hutton, the performer. He fell in love with me.
After we first met, we’d sit for hours discussing our lives, and I would be amazed to hear myself telling him all these things I’d never told anybody before. Actually, this wasn’t necessary, for Alan knows me very well and he’s even told me a thing or two about myself. When I shout, he knows I’m just defending myself, and he will say, “You know what’s wrong with you now, Betty? You’re embarrassed and you’re just taking it out on me.”
I’ve always thought of myself as a strong sister, and for years I’ve battled and competed with men, but here’s a man much stronger than I. He lets me rave and rant and he doesn’t say a word. Then when I get through he says quietly, “Now, Betty, this is what we’re going to do.” And brother, it is!
Alan’s a brilliant businessman and he comes from a fine background. He can’t understand why I belittle mine. He’s doing his best to straighten me out.
“Don’t be ashamed of your background, Betty.” he keeps telling me. “You shouldn’t be. Think how far you’ve come and what you’ve done. I would give anything to have had your background and to have achieved what you have. Don’t fight it—be proud of it. You’ve been tested and you know what you’re made of and what you can do. So few of us ever find out.”
I had never thought of my life quite this way, but then Alan has helped to give me a healthier realization of everything.
I’m back before the cameras, but my career doesn’t consume me any more. I’m taking time to live. Oh, I work hard and I still get good and upset when things go wrong, but it just isn’t my whole life any more. In the past, when I finished a picture, I would start pacing and asking, “What’s next?” Nowadays it’s different. I couldn’t wait to finish “Spring Reunion,” and pack the whole family off to Lake Tahoe. The fever’s gone. My career is no longer a frantic thing.
Nor am I fighting myself any more. I know now that everything that happens to each one of us has its own meaning and worth. All the shouting and the praying and the crying and the hating. And out of my countless experiences has come maturity and tolerance and understanding and a better picture of what’s really worth fighting for. The important thing is to bank each experience and draw on it when you need it in life.
I’m happy that my background should be of help to me in guiding my daughters. Like any mother, my thoughts and prayers are for them. But whatever the future brings, I’m not afraid. There can’t be anything that I’m not equipped, out of my experience, to help them handle. And this is reason enough—and reward enough—for all the pain of the darkest years that have been.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE DECEMBER 1956