There Is Nothing Like A Dame—Betty Grable
A man named Harry James, famous for the sweetest trumpet this side of heaven and for being married to Betty Grable, was wakened from his slumbers at the unearthly hour of eleven A.M., one Saturday not long ago. Groggily, since any hour before noon is before sunrise to a band man, Harry staggered to the window and looked out upon the lawn of his five-acre Beverly Hills estate. Then he weaved his way back to bed, nudged the pillow on which the beautiful face of his wife Betty reposed.
“Wake up, doll,” he muttered. “They’re at it again.” Then he fell back upon his bed.
So Betty Grable rose, dressed in pure white slacks, slapped on a touch of lipstick, ran a brush through her hair and went down to the side lawn. As she approached a group of four people enjoying a picnic lunch on the cool green grass, Betty said, “Hi!”
The little grey-haired, round-faced man who was picnicking with his plump and pretty wife-and his two plump and pretty daughters, responded graciously. “Sit down,” he said, “and help yourself to the deviled eggs, Kansas style.”
Betty sat down, helped herself and talked to the people from Kansas. Sally, the older of the two girls, about fifteen, grinned. “If I were reading about this in a movie magazine,” she declared, “it would say that I told you that you looked exactly like Betty Grable. But this is for real. We know that you are Betty Grable and that this is your place. That’s why we’re having a picnic here. We were sure you wouldn’t mind.”
Betty assured them that she didn’t mind and said she’d have another shot of that delicious lemonade. After a while the picnickers. packed up, thanked Betty for her hospitality and prepared to move on. Betty started back to the house and to Harry, but she reckoned without the sense of humor to be expected from a Kansas tourist.
“Wait a minute, Betty,” he ordered. “When we have a picnic, we always leave the place clean.”
Obediently, Betty stopped, picked up her paper plate and napkin.
“Thanks for stopping in,” she said, “thanks a lot.”
Harry James was having his two P.M. breakfast in the kitchen. “You know, Harry,” Betty said, “I think it’s time we stopped living like a couple of movie stars. It’s not that I mind meeting the public, but I’m afraid it disturbs your sleep. Besides, only ten miles away is Griffith Park, than which there is none larger, and they are much better equipped to handle the tourist trade.”
This may seem to be entirely unbelievable. But there are other stories that could be told—and Betty wouldn’t tell them—which are far less charming. Mr. and Mrs. James gradually found themselves fed up. Unlike most Hollywood homes, their graceful and spectacular Doheny Road mansion, a stone’s throw from the Sunset strip, was not surrounded by a high wall. It was as public as U. S. Highway 66. Having cost upwards of $150,000 to rebuild, it could best be afforded by a retired steel magnate.
“You might say that I’ve had it,” Betty told Harry.
There is more to the sudden purchase of a new home by Betty and harry than meets the eye. Shortly after they gave out the news that their Beverly Hills establishment was going up for sale, an eastern columnist printed an item to the effect that the Jameses had just enjoyed one terrific battle and suggested that this one meant the beginning of the end. This set off a chain reaction, with other reporters repeating the story.
One columnist finally got Betty on the phone around midnight. “What’s this about you and Harry breaking up?”
“Glad you asked,” Betty replied. “No truth to it.”
“But you did have a fight?”
Betty laughed. “You mean this morning or this afternoon?”
“Gosh, is it that bad?”
“Of course not,” Betty said. “I can’t help being a little facetious. I’m just leveling with you. As I’ve told you before, we have our arguments. Thank heaven we do. If we didn’t we’d be a mighty abnormal couple. The way I feel is that any member of the press has a right to ask any one who lives in the limelight a question like this. I know there’s no offensive personal curiosity involved. It’s just your job.”
Now, about that argument: this is what it turned out to be, just for the record. Seems that the James family has two canine members. Punky the poodle is crowding fifteen years of age. Bugle the beagle is a little more than one year ole each other. To make it worse, Bugle has a natural affinity for Harry and thinks that so long as Mr. James is boss of the establishment, he is the top man in the dog department. Even the fact that the James home is about the size of the Yankee Stadium, making it possible for the dogs to have separate quarters, doesn’t settle the matter. It turned out that if Punky the poodle joined Betty and Harry in the livingroom, Bugle the beagle’s nose got out of joint for days.
So they worked out a compromise. After one big brawl Bugle was sent out to the Double EE ranch in the valley to learn some manners. This was fine for Bugle, because (honest to Pete) there is a swimming pool for dogs who like that sort of exercise, and during the holidays they even have a Christmas tree on which hangs presents for each of the pups. Every now and then Betty, Harry and the kids take a run out to see Bugle, and they take Punky along to see if they’ll make up. They never do.
Betty isn’t quite sure, but during the couple of days recently during which Mr. and Mrs. James weren’t speaking much to each other, the irritation began because Harry decided after dinner one night that he ought to take a run out to the Double EE and take Bugle out for a short ride. He wanted Betty to go along, and they’d stop by a drive-in restaurant in order to buy Bugle a meatball sandwich which he dearly loves.
Betty wouldn’t go, indicating how completely unreasonable a wife can be. Her attitude was you can go too far pampering a dog. “Are you kidding?” Harry wanted to know. “How about the way you are always pumpering Panky?” Betty thought that was pretty funny, so she laughed when she shouldn’t have.
Anyway, that’s our story.
Betty and Harry James will have their little arguments. Every now and then they will be reported. But, they’ll stay married for the sake of their children, Victoria, age ten, and Jessica, age three; also for the sake of their mutual custody of a string of horses known as Laughing Louie, Big Noise, James Session, Count Cool (named after a trumpet player), Piperess, Fly Quest and four weanlings, still to be named. There is another solid reason Betty and Harry will never head for the divorce courts, and it’s not that their personal and livestock family is too big ever to work out the custody problem. It’s that they love each other very much.
Harry James is still as gone on Betty Grable as the day he married her over eleven years ago. Pressed for the reason why, he could refuse to answer on the grounds that any man married to Betty would obviously be in love with her. Then he’d probably relate a story credited to him some time back about the time a man first took a look at what is known as a female. He examined her with dubious eye and said, “It’s beautiful, but it will never work.” Well, Betty has worked for twenty-one years. And for eleven years, she has worked not only at show business but at her marriage. She has done a standout job, and so has Harry. He could have packed the trumpet away in moth balls, Betty could have handed in her make-up kit and they both could have retired with the fortune they had melted together along with their hearts.
They kept on working because they both love show business. Harry likes to be a big wheel band man and Betty loves being a movie star.
“It’s a wonderful life,” she says. And therein lies the difference between Betty Grable and nine tenths of her glamorous sister stars. Most of them, once they attain riches and stardom, profess to be bored by the whole thing. They can no longer recall the names of those who helped boost them along when they started. Betty can. So she has a personal following of loyal friends no other star can match.
Someone was talking to Betty about how simply awful it is that young girls have to do such silly things to become famous in pictures. And how girls with practically no talent become famous over night. “For instance, that Marilyn Monroe calendar, and all those pin-up pictures of you that are floating around. I’ll bet you’re sorry you ever climbed into a bathing suit.”
“Stop right there,” Betty retorted. “I don’t work for 20th Century-Fox any more, but no one can trap me into saying I don’t like Marilyn Monroe or that I was ever jealous of her, because it simply isn’t true. I know Marilyn too well not to like her. She’s a great girl, a real down to earth type. Now she’s settling down as a fine actress and I’m happy for her.
“As for pin-up pictures, don’t ever talk to me about ‘cheap publicity.’ How I hate that phrase, and actresses who complain about it are just plain phony. Why, almost none of us would have what we have today if it weren’t for an army of hard-working publicity men and camera men who dream up those ideas. I certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near my happy station in life if it weren’t for pin-up art.
“I’ll never forget the old days when I’d go into the still gallery at eight am. and not be out until seven. Nothing but ‘leg art.’ Easter, I popped out of the newspapers from fancy shells, or with my bottom perched on a big colored egg. Thanksgiving, I waved an ax at prop turkeys—in a bathing suit, naturally. Doesn’t everybody? Christmas, I was stuffed into long silk stockings and the top half of a Santa Claus outfit. Silly it was, maybe, but that started me on the way up the ladder. I could never take exception to it!”
Having delivered herself of this pertinent interview on the set of her Columbia picture, Three For The Show,Betty turned her back on the offending questioner. Back in her dressingroom, she got to thinking about the one picture that had made her Hollywood’s all time Pin-Up Champion.
Anyway, Betty picked up the telephone and called the publicity department.
“I have an idea,” she began.
So when the picture was finished, Betty showed up early one morning in the still gallery for a conference with veteran photographer Charlie Rhodes. He had a copy of the famous Grable pin-up. He put it up beside his camera, Betty went into her dressingroom and stepped out in a sleek yellow bathing suit. Charlie whistled. Then he went to work with the notable result on page 34.
Afterward, someone looked at the proofs and said to Charlie, “I don’t believe it! Why, Betty is thirty-eight years old!”
“You’re kidding,” Charlie replied. “Why, this dame has the figure of a well-stacked teen-ager. Look! Not one of these pictures has been retouched. But don’t give me any credit—I just borrowed the original pose and shot what was in front of the camera.”
“I wish some day a magazine would promise to print a complete list of all the people I know who have helped me,” Betty said, remembering the day she posed for the famous photo. “The trouble is it would take about ten pages in small type. I do hope, though, to get one in right now. That’s Frank Powolny, the head portrait cameraman at 20th Century-Fox. He’ll tell you it was nothing. That I just happened to stand in front of the camera. But it wasn’t easy, even if it was an accident.
“We were making a picture called Sweet Rosie O’Grady at the time, and in one scene an artist was to draw me for a cover on Police Gazette. He wanted the measurements and the figure just right, so I climbed into the tight bathing suit and posed for a bunch of pictures. Frank, as usual, wasn’t quite satisfied. Then he got the idea for the pose with me looking back over my shoulder. It never was really intended for publication, but when the boys in the publicity department saw it they had a few thousand prints made. Thanks to the service men overseas it turned out to be a pin-up sensation and it did a lot for me. But back of the picture was Mr. Powolny and his camera genius.”
That was more than twelve years ago. Sadly, Betty has no secret to divulge to girls everywhere on how to keep a figure perfect for more than a decade. She says, “I watch what I eat sometimes, mostly a couple of weeks before I start a picture. I don’t have any set exercises. I’m just real lucky, because the minute I start to work the extra pounds come off. I swim a lot, but not with the figure problem in mind. It’s just that I love swimming.”
That’s another thing. One of these days the two little James girls are going to be bathing suit wows in their own rights. Victoria and Jessica go to Westlake School for Girls, along with Shirley Temple’s daughter. Susan takes swimming lessons with them and sometimes is dropped by to swim with the James sisters. “I’m looking forward someday to being Grandma Grable,” Betty says. “In the meantime, they’ve built a pool for us at our new house. I took a friend by to look at the place the other day and she looked into the empty pool which is twelve feet deep at one end and not very shallow anywhere. ‘Goodness!’ she yelped, ‘You’re not going to allow your kids to swim in that!’
“Sure I am. The youngsters aren’t a pair of Esther Williamses, but they’re good.”
The new home of the James family is quite a contrast to the one in which they’ve been living for the last five years. It’s Hawaiian modern, a style Betty loves. It’s an eight-room house that could be duplicated in most communities for around $35,000, and it’s perched on a hill, looking down toward Beverly Hills. Unfortunately for the visiting tourists, there’ll be no more picnics on the front lawn. Not that Betty and Harry want to be inhospitable. They just want a little more privacy, which is now provided by an electric gate which only opens on signal.
The pin-up Queen of Hollywood hasn’t abdicated. “People keep asking me about my next picture. I think Three For The Show is a good one. I don’t have another one right now, but don’t think I haven’t had offers, because I have. Some from television. Like the one from Colgate—oh my! But my feeling right now is, why should I? I know when the time is ripe whether it’s with Harry or alone there’ll be a lot of people who’ll help make it good. Right now I don’t want to rush into that. What a magnificent egg you could lay on TV!
“I know I’m a bit of a disappointment when it comes to living up to the gossip stories that circulate every now and then, but honest—I’m happy, and so are Harry and the children. I’m just a dame who never had it so good!”
Yes, there’s nothing like a dame—and nothing approaching the dame named Betty Grable!
—BY RICHARD MOORE
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE SEPTEMBER 1954