The Quiet Happiness—Betty Grable
My parents drove me to my first Sunday School session back in St. Louis when I was five years old. They let me out in front of a synagogue, which was just across the street from the Episcopal church to which they belonged, and told me to wait there until they parked the car. When they got back I was gone. Nor could they find me with the other children in church. They hunted around the streets and eventually my mother looked into the synagogue. There were no services that day, of course, yet there I sat, all alone in the dark, but unfearful and quite content. Spiritually I have sat thus ever since, boasting no sure knowledge, bathed in no great light, but a believer, trusting and content.
I am still an Episcopalian. My children, whose prayers I hear every night, are being brought up in confidence that there is a Guide who also gives ear (and sometimes it takes them almost an hour to squeeze in all for whom they ask His blessing) Yet I cannot say that I am one to whom religion has come. with sharp, clear definition. It is something that I, like most of us, have accepted in such trust, without knowing its full meaning, as I have accepted the beauty of a blue sky, the smiles of my little girls, or the quiet happiness that can fill a household of an evening. There is more to faith than this, I suppose, but for what there is for me, I am grateful. And . . . content.
It may be that I have yet to come to serious thinking in my life—a life that without much credit to myself has brought me far more, in material success, I feel, than I deserve. When and if such thinking comes, and with it a deeper meaning of the mystery of existence, I shall welcome it. Yet it is not something that I feel can be hastened. And, of course, I cannot be dogmatic about my belief, I do not feel it has given me a special distinction, I cannot presume in such a direction in any manner.
There are some people who are extremely self-confident and this confidence often extends to every phase of their activity, even to their religion. They seem to know their way in the spiritual world as they do in the temporal one. I have seen such in my profession, moving surely and oblivious to anything which questions the correctness of their attitude. I can wonder at them, admire them, but I cannot emulate them.
I am reminded of an actress with whom I have worked who was such a person.” When it was suggested after a rehearsal that she needed further study of her lines (something that would send me flying to my script) she merely replied, “That remains to be seen.” And when this girl, as it happened, turned to religion, she did so intensively, even militantly, and sought to convert all whom she knew to her form of worship. Some people can move with such certainty in all they do . . . and others, like myself, must feel their way.
I don’t think that in my whole life I have ever planned anything. It just hasn’t been that kind of a life. Even today, when my husband starts off something he has in mind by saying, “Two weeks from today I think we ought to. . . .” I always come back with, “Let’s don’t plan, Harry. Let’s just see what happens.”
I am not an actress because I planned it—or particularly wanted it. And I was singularly devoid of ambition. I didn’t care for dancing school when my mother brought me to it. It was her idea for which I’ll be eternally grateful. I honestly feel that she has had more satisfaction from whatever success came my way than I have. And her instinct is still the same. “You can be a better dancer, a better singer,” is a steady refrain from her lips. I know; but I am content. When my elder daughter, Vicki, wanted to take ballet I agreed. When she got over the notion, I forgot about it too. I don’t consider a career essential to happiness however much happiness it has given me.
I have never pressed for anything with a desire so strong that it shut out everything else, and, I suppose, it is a form of irony that such a girl should have so much. I admit it. My own reaction, in fact, is to compensate for the good fortune by thanking God for it and refraining from swinging my weight around to the disadvantage of others. It is the least I can do now. Perhaps some day a way will open up to do more.
A friend once asked why I didn’t insist to the studio heads that I be given a certain part which she thought would be wonderful for me. She wouldn’t believe it when I told her that not once since joining the studio have I ever done this. The closest I came was to have my agent suggest a few years ago that I liked the idea of starring in a musical which was on the market and would be pleased if they bought it. The name of it was Annie Get Your Gun. They didn’t buy it, as you know. MGM did, and starred Betty Hutton.
Only recently there have been a lot of reports around Hollywood detailing my disappointment at not being assigned to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. My reaction to this talk has been a mixed one—and without any sense of disappointment in the mixture. First of all I cannot understand why others have been able to worry so much more then I have about the matter. Secondly I cannot get over an impression that those who sympathized with me did so because they unconsciously put themselves in my place. They would have felt terrible had they been eligible for the part and lost it, therefore I must. It is a human way to reason, I suppose, but only if you are the sort with drive behind you.
The world needs such people, undoubtedly; progress apparently depends on it. An actress who has had tremendous ambition and who has driven herself steadily until she has risen to the top, probably gets a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of any achievement . . . and a sense of shock out of failure. But I am not such a one. My career made steady headway and it seems as if I just went along for the ride. It is impossible for me to take myself too seriously as an artist, and certainly not as an important person. When I do, something brings me right down to a realistic evaluation again. I remember five years ago, driving home in a new car and getting for a moment, as girls sometimes will, a sort of Queen-of-all-I-survey feeling. I was listening to the radio when an announcer come on with some news flashes. The very first one proved to be a dilly. “It has just been reported,” he declared quite calmly, “that Betty Grable has been killed in an auto accident while on her way home from the races.”
When I could get over my amazement, which came only after I was able to convince myself that it wasn’t so, and that I was alive\ not dead, I gripped the wheel as hard as I could and drove the rest of the way very carefully. It was just a wild rumor turned into a wilder news bulletin . . . but it sure had a punch in it for me.
Or, just the other evening I took my little girls, Vicki and Jessica, to see Call Me Mister. After a few minutes of watching me on the screen, Jessica, who is five and has seen her movies mostly on TV, started to twist in her seat restlessly. “Mommy,” she asked, “could we tune this out and get another program?”
No . . . whatever happens to me, professionally, personally, whatever my spiritual future, I think I will know who I actually am and not be confused by what I am painted to be in billboards or newsprint. When you read that I have turned down a picture (as I have sometimes been known to do!) it is not always because I felt the picture was not good enough for me. Some time ago I refused an opportunity to star in a new film (Pickup On South Street) because I thought the part was too good for me. I couldn’t see myself doing it justice. Lack of self-confidence? Maybe. I like to think that it was a case of having a sense of responsibility to the public. But perhaps I am just making excuses for myself. People do that, and Betty Grable, as I have tried to point out, cam never pretend to be anything but people.
People are happiest, everyone agrees, when they are doing that which gives them the most satisfaction. Perhaps this is why I sometimes think I was as happy working in the chorus as I have been in pictures. I knew back then, that I was the best dancer in the line. That was something. Now . . . well, I won’t discuss how far I might be from being the best actress in my profession.
I can remember vividly my stage fright the first time I ever played a straight part in a picture, instead of just dancing and singing my way through the production. The name of the film was A Yank In The RAF and the star was Tyrone Power whom I had met but never worked with before. I don’t think I could have gone through with it had it not been for the understanding of the director, Henry King, and his clever way of handling me.
For the first two days of shooting there wasn’t a scene in which I would be needed but King didn’t tell me that, and made sure no one else did. Instead he had me report in costume with full makeup as if I was about to go on any moment. He kept me around like this, thinking any moment I was going to go in front of the camera, and finally my nervousness turned to boredom and even resentment. That was what he wanted. When my first scene did come up it was a relief to work instead of a strain!
There were others who helped me forget myself. Don Ameche with his dead pan kidding turning my scare into a laugh, or Walter Lang sitting in his director’s chair and crying big tears until I, too, finally started sobbing . . . as called for by the scene he was shooting, and despite my conviction that I would never be able to weep on order.
Perhaps the reason I don’t cry easily (and the reason, it might be, why I do not spend much time thinking of the metaphysical) is that my life has not only gone along smoothly, but there have been no great emotional depths or peaks; no one close to me has ever died, no tragedies or near-tragedies have ever happened; none in my family has ever been seriously ill; I can recall no special heights of joy. I think the happiest moment of my recent years was when my horse, Big Noise, won the Del Mar Futurity a few years ago. But there was more than just winning of another race involved. Big Noise was born on our breeding farm, a stilt-legged little colt who for several days could barely stumble around. It was that little colt I was seeing, not the magnificent animal the crowd watched, when he showed his heels to the other horses.
The night before the race someone asked me if I was going to pray that he won. Of course I did not. Whatever my relationship to religion I know that one does not pray for the trivial, and this, and anything involving self advancement or aggrandizement in any way is trivial. If I did this and the time came to pray for a life I would feel that I had used up whatever spiritual good will I had with my Maker. It reminds me, too, of some of the kind of praying you hear about at the track. There are thousands of people there every day who would be very happy to praise God if by so doing they could also pray a winner in whenever they wanted one. I don’t imagine He goes in for bargaining.
Life rarely turns out the way you expect it will, not in large ways or in small. My mother’s great ambition to be a singer was never fulfilled. I was indifferent about a career yet I got one . . . thrust upon me practically. On the other hand, some minor little dreams I had were never attained. Some of these, I admit, were inconsequential, like my idea of what life as the wife of an orchestra leader would be like, or his as the husband of a dancer. I expect we both thought our home would be filled with music and terpsichore. The truth is that in the whole nine years of our marriage he has never tooted a note in the house—and I have never danced a step! There isn’t even a trumpet in the house, except one which has been turned into a lamp-base. And I can assure you no cherished ballet slippers, reminiscent of some great triumphant performance; hang on my boudoir wall. Ours was the marriage of two people, and stayed that way; it never yet has become a marriage of a musician and a dancer.
It may seem odd but in a way I am grateful. There is no temperament to worry about, no attitudes that might be expressed as, “I am a special person—I’m a dancer!” or “You have to make allowances for me—I’m a musician!” If either of us ever tried that on the other we’d both have to burst out laughing.
We had other things to learn about ourselves; the sort of life we like to lead, for instance. Soon after our Marriage we bought the big house we are in now. It’s immense, a marvelous place to entertain. But, in time we realized that we never entertained. With Harry away on tours so much and me busy for long stretches at the studio those periods when we were both home came too seldom to be dissipated in the clamor and fuss of parties. We wanted to enjoy our home, quietly, as husband and wife, father and mother, much more than we cared about enjoying it festively, as host and hostess.
All this we had to learn, and for what we learned I have a word—honesty. I think all people, even the misguided, instinctively know that the solid happiness, the peace-of-mind happiness, has to be built on a foundation of honesty, with one’s self and in one’s relationships.
I have friends who tell me the reason I have gone so far with my career is not just luck. “You must have been thinking right,” they say, giving the word a Spiritual significance. Well, it would be very easy to believe them. But who would I be kidding? How would this solve the big mystery I’ve known about for so long—the mystery of why such good fortune doesn’t come to others who for right thinking have me beat a mile? No, it was luck or fate, call it what you will. . . . I haven’t found out yet. My job is not to forget this, to know that there is a Someone to Whom I should be thankful and should pay devotion. I am and I do.
—BY BETTY GRABLE
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE JULY 1953