Love Is A Long Shot—Betty Grable
Once when she was very young, Betty Grable shed bitter tears over a love that had failed. Like Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Temple and Jane Powell, who in later years were to experience the folly of too-early marriage against parental objection, Betty cringed from the explosive publicity that accompanied her divorce from ex-child actor, Jackie Coogan, and swore to herself that next time she’d know the real thing. Yet, she admits that when she married orchestra leader Harry James, the “wise money” in Hollywood was betting that their marriage wouldn’t go six weeks. The odds were simply against it. The recipe was one that had never worked.
Take one superb blonde movie star who had become the pin-up idol of millions of service men and the meal ticket for thousands. of theater owners. Take one top band leader, required by the nature of his profession to bounce endlessly around the United States away from home for ten months out of the year. Mix them together in a marital state and any sensible person will tell you that the result must be unpalatable chaos.
Today, while the verdict may still be out on the love futures of Liz Taylor, Shirley Temple and Janie Powell, it appears that the marriage of Ruth Elizabeth Grable to a horn player named Harry James on July 5, 1943, has tossed normally sound reasoning into the ash can.
How have they managed to do it?
“We both like horses,” Betty answers simply.
To some of the psychologists who prepare those deep thinking articles, such a statement is ridiculous in the extreme. Yet, the brainy efforts of these marriage experts over the years have done little to stem the tide of divorce. It would seem, then, that any young MODERN SCREEN reader pondering matrimony would do well to ignore the advice of the big thinkers in favor of the “horse sense” apparent in the life of Betty Grable.
“Harry and I have one big mutual interest to which we anchor our love,” Betty explains. “Then, too, there are other elements in our successful life together. We respect each other. I suppose I could feel sorry for myself because he spends more time on the road than a traveling salesman. I don’t. I admire him for sticking with his band even though business hasn’t been very good in the last five or six years.”
During wartime, when the country took to the dance floors to relieve its tension, Harry James earned upwards of a half million dollars a year. Now, with the decline of interest in orchestras. his earnings have been cut to around $290,900. Like a man used to earning a hundred dollars a week who is cut to fifty, Harry could well become morose and difficult to live with.
“He isn’t,” Betty points out. “Harry likes the band business more than ever and wants to stay with it, even though he doesn’t have to. A lot of musicians don’t know anything else; some of them can’t even read music. But Harry can arrange and conduct. He could easily get a job in some studio or do radio and TV work. That would make life a lot easier for him. But he sticks to his band.
“He maintains the quality of his organization, too. Some band leaders disband their outfits when they come back into town. But even when he’s home and not playing dates, Harry keeps five key men under contract and on salary. He pays them too money, too. Right now he’s got Buddy Rich with his band, and he’s great.”
Although musicians are supposed to be a shiftless lot, Betty finds that living around music is the best possible existence for her. She refused for years to bring scripts home from the studio or rehearse scenes at home. Despite the fact that she held all sorts of records for being the biggest money maker in pictures, there is no evidence of movie star Betty Grable’s triumphs in the residence of Mr. and Mrs. James.
“Yes,” Betty says, “I think it’s true that ‘love is a long shot’ Certainly, I’m the luckiest girl in the world. But I want to make it plain that with Harry and me it has never been a case of emphasis on fame or money, whether anyone will believe it or not. We’ve worked for happiness, not for money—and we’ve had setbacks that could have cost us our last dime in the end if we hadn’t worked together.”
Betty and Harry didn’t start out in the racing and breeding of thoroughbred horses by throwing sevens and elevens. When they first decided to enter the “sport of kings,” they took the plunge like a couple of naive chumps. Betty had been crazy about horses since she was a tiny tot. Her mother had to bribe her to take dancing lessons by promising bony rides afterward. And Harry James fell in love with horses while he was playing with circus bands.
A few years ago, they cut a huge slice out of their savings to purchase a string of horses at a fabulous price. The result was a big nothing. Only about one of these expensive buys amounted to a thing. Betty and Harry felt that they had a legitimate squawk, so they took the case to court, claiming rank misrepresentation on the part of the man who acted as agent. The case never reached trial. A settlement was made out of court, but Betty and Harry had learned a cold, hard, cash lesson the hard way.
Instead of brooding about this defeat, they talked it over and wound up with more determination than ever to breed and raise their own horses. They dipped into their savings still deeper to purchase a thirty-eight-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley.
Meantime, the kidding about their folly was even more severe than the cheerful abuse heaped on Bing Crosby for his non-winning nags. Today, Betty and Harry have only six brood mares, but in the last three years from this small band have come two brilliant stakes winners. (In racing, “stakes” is a major race, like the Kentucky Derby or the Santa Anita Handicap.) One of their victorious horses is Big Noise, named for Harry’s high falutin’ trumpet, and Betty will never forget the day he ran under their colors at Bing Crosby’s Del Mar track in the $100,000 Futurity Handicap.
She was close to tears as she trained her binoculars on the big chestnut horse who was approaching the starting gate, kicking up his heels and giving jockey Ralph Neves a bad time. With her fingers crossed, Betty swung the glasses up toward “moocher’s hill,” where there were hundreds of people who couldn’t afford the admission price to the track. In a moment, she located Harry, sitting in his sleek convertible, looking hot, glum and impatient. He should have been sitting next to Betty, but he was late for a band engagement in nearby La Jolla.
“They’re off and running!”
Betty closed her eyes as the pack thundered past the grandstand the first time. Seconds later, she opened them to see that Grey Tower, the horse they feared the most, was a length and a half in front. Big Noise, number six, was trailing next to last.
“Come on Beautiful, get moving,” Betty yelled in anguish. Her voice was lost in the roar of thousands, but the big chestnut horse began to gain on the leaders. He was on their heels as the horses rounded the far turn. Coming into the stretch, Jockey Neves barely touched Big Noise with the whip. They passed Grey Tower like a breeze and nosed ahead of the number four horse, Count Me Out.
As they swept across the finish line, Big Noise winning it by a length. Harry James stood up on the back seat of his car and clasped his hands above his head in a victory salute, hoping Betty could see him. Betty could as she walked on air down to the winner’s circle to accept congratulations for their first big winner. To the delight of thousands, she planted a great big kiss on Jockey Neves’ dirt-stained face, an act that caused the diminutive rider later to exclaim, “When I ride for the Jameses, it’s not just my ten per cent of the winnings I’m after; it’s the kiss I get from Betty when I win. Wow! She’s the greatest thing that’s happened to racing since the invention of the starting gate!”
That night at a ringside table as Harry James tootled his trumpet victoriously, Betty grew serious, explaining what the day had meant to them both. “When one of your own horses, whose mating you’ve planned by poring over pedigrees for months, wins a big stakes, your cup of joy runs over. Here is complete satisfaction that has no equal. The praise and profit are like bubbles in a windstorm compared to the urge—yes, passion—to have your Own convictions bear such a marvelous harvest. To win like this is something you know cannot be assured even with the help of unlimited money. Many fortunes have been squandered by people who have the challenge because they thought they could “buy” success in breeding as they had in almost everything else. That’s ridiculous. Too many people have the idea that money and happiness go hand-in-hand. Of course, Harry and I needed money to start with, but all it takes is one good colt to win a race, and plenty of people have done it on a shoestring.”
Betty went on to tell, two years later, of the excitement and misfortunes attendant to the ruling love of their lives. Early this year, their stable fell into a slump. Every time a horse won, neither of them was present. Each accused the other of being the jinx. When Harry went back east for band engagements, Betty trailed along for a vacation. Big Noise won another feature race and the stable manager wired them both to “stay lost.”
However, Betty came home, defying superstition. It was then that their horses, Bingo, Laughin Louie and James Session won a batch of races. Betty was gleeful as a kitten with a ball of yarn. The pressure was all on Harry. Betty called him every night by long distance telephone to recreate the race and sent him air mail special photos of their horses winning. And wouldn’t you know it? When Harry came home, Laughin Louie went to the post with their high hopes that he would win his first stakes race. Louie started from the gate in sixth position and finished a bad seventh.
“I think,” Betty said on that first night Harry was home, “that you’d better hit the road again.”
Harry didn’t bend his trumpet over her head. He said he’d stick around and prove that the horses didn’t win just for her, even though they act that way. The truth is that every member of the family feels personally responsible for their racing luck. Daughters Vickie, nine, and Jessica, six, are also wild about the nags. They take a personal interest in every horse from the time it is foaled. The little girls have seldom been to the track, however, because they’re bored with adult conversation during the long waits between races.
Betty is not a wild better on her own horses. When she decides to lay a wager she can usually be seen at the ten-dollar window, but she seldom bets on her own horses. “I figure if my horse wins and collects a purse, my small bet wouldn’t make much difference in the take-home pay. Besides, if I don’t wager on my own horses, I’m never sore at them when they lose!
“But there is one wonderful thing about our horses. When I’m not making money, they are. When I went on suspension for turning down the role in The Girl Next Door, Big Noise eased the situation by winning a hundred thousand dollars. When I was suspended for refusing to go to Columbia Studios on loan-out, James Session copped a $20,000 stake race.”
It may be hard to believe, but Betty was busting out all over with joy the day she parted company with 20th Century-Fox.
“I’ve been trying to get out of the studio for a year and a half,” she glowed. “I kept reading in the columns that all I had to do was to ask for my release and I’d get it. It didn’t turn out that way. Every time I asked, the bosses just shook their heads.”
Of course, there are always two sides to every story, and the studio undoubtedly had its reasons, but this is the way Betty looks at the situation: “I couldn’t see why the studio would want to keep me. They didn’t seem to have any important pictures planned for me. The only thing I could figure was that they were worried that I might go out and make a lot of money for someone else.
“I figured that it was time to leave the studio. I had wonderful years there, but I don’t think it’s smart to stay with one studio for more than ten years. Enthusiasm begins to wane and executives are continually losing their excitement about your possibilities every time they see a newcomer.”
Betty has made no secret of her unhappiness with the studio during the past two years. “I wasn’t bitter about my first suspension,” she says, “but I was a little hurt by the way it was done. I put in a request for a little rest. The next thing I knew they had suspended me. I didn’t expect to get paid on vacation, but I didn’t think I should be treated in such an impersonal manner.”
The next two suspensions deepened the wound. Betty was unhappy with the scripts offered her; important stockholders rankled over her whopping salary.
“It was different in the old days,” Betty explained. “Then I could go in and discuss my problems. Like the time Darryl Zanuck wanted me to do The Razor’s Edge, later played by Anne Baxter. I went to Darryl and convinced him that I was wrong for the role. I’m still not sorry, even though the part was so beautifully played by Anne that she won an Academy Award.”
Now that Betty has her freedom, she’s not going to go dashing off in all directions, jumping into new enterprises. For the first time in a long while. hard-working Harry James took five weeks off from his band labors, so that the whole family could go to Del Mar for the racing season. At the time. Betty said: “I won’t sign another studio contract unless I have the right to do outside pictures of my own choosing. I’ll never sign another contract with a ‘good girl’ clause that cuts off the money every time I don’t do exactly what the studio executives have planned.”
A few years ago, Betty cut a “bootleg” record with Harry, because his vocalist got sick at the last moment. Betty filled in and the record came out under an assumed name. Now she wants to do more recording on her own. About TV she says, “Maybe yes, maybe no: it all depends. I’m the kind of girl who never plans her career ahead. I just let nature take its course.”
Betty chooses to ignore the fact that her career has been no snap all the way. While she was still a small girl in St. Louis, her mother installed a small dance floor in the family apartment so Betty could practice her dance lessons at home. From the time her mother brought her to Hollywood in 1929, Betty was being pushed toward the stardom she has so long enjoyed. There was a lot of heartbreak and disappointment along the way.
Still, when Betty became the unofficial Queen of Hollywood, she wore her crown well. Although she claimed to be lazy, she always worked hard. Her pictures required weeks of tough dance rehearsal, consuming as much as six to eight months for the entire production.
A hardboiled old grip, learning the news of her leaving the studio, had tears in his eyes as he said, “I’m sorry as hell to see her go. Most stars have a bunch of flunkies hanging around to keep their egos boosted and their tempers cooled. Betty didn’t go for that junk. She doesn’t have an ounce of temperament. She never asked for anything unreasonable, but when she thought she had been done wrong she stood up for her rights, and everybody knew they couldn’t push her around.”
As for Betty, she says, “It’s nice to be able to look backward and forward at the same time. I know that a lot of people have regarded my preoccupation with racing as a silly pastime engaged in by a more or less empty-headed movie star, and I’m glad to have a chance to talk about it.
“The fascination of racing and breeding is so intangible and heartfelt that it’s difficult to explain, but I do know that it has given Harry and me the happiest days of our lives. Of course, it takes all kinds of people to make a world and I know a lot of folks will never understand me. But for those who can’t see anything to racing but betting I say, ‘Take a look at the names of the horses.’ They’re wonderful!
“Take Native Dancer, the big news horse of the year. He is the son of Polynesian and Geisha. Just the other day I noticed that Cherry Fizz, Quick Lunch and Bicarb all won at Jamaica. Oh, what a parlay! And of course, Bicarb is a son of Bride’s Biscuit out of Hard Tack. If that isn’t appropriate, what is?
“It was seven years ago that Harry presented me with my first brood mare (that’s a girl horse who has been retired to become a mama and improve the breed). Her name was Lady Florise, and she had been some shucks as a racer herself. Before long she had a foal (baby) by a sire named Special Agent. We named the filly Night Special, and she was as fast as a Hollywood play girl. But like them, she had something wrong in her head, and this impaired her breathing. Rather than risk an operation on this sweet filly that we both loved so much we added her to our band of matrons. Her romance with King Abbey resulted in a colt named James Session, after one of Harry’s recordings, and he won the coveted Haggin Stakes at Hollywood Park this last summer. Do you wonder, now, that our horses are really loved, and that they are more to us than just nags running to win a race?
“Honestly, there is so much more to racing than most people even suspect. It has practically rid itself, by self-governing, of scandal. It is the number one spectator sport, and so far as the menace of gambling is concerned, I think that’s greatly overplayed. For instance, a murder always hits page one of the newspapers. A happy marriage doesn’t get into print. It is the same way with intemperance. We hear and read all the bad things, but rarely the good. Racing is a wonderful diversion and I’m happy to live in a country where I’m given the privilege of taking it or leaving it alone. I just happen to want to take it.
“And when we add it all up, Harry and I realize that despite the comic old warning—never marry a horse-player—it’s the horse playing that has enriched our lives together. There are times when I have to agree with an old boy who hangs around the tracks when he says, ‘The more I see of people, the better I like horses!’ ”
—BY JACK WADE
(Betty Grable will be seen soon in 20th Century-Fox’s CinemaScope, How To Marry A Millionaire.)
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE OCTOBER 1953