Betty Grable was one of the most successful singing actresses during the 1940s. She was the epitome of the all-American girl, apple pie, girl-next-door and she was loved by millions around the world, men and women alike. During World War II her legendary “one over the shoulder” pin up photo graced foot lockers and barracks to over 1,500,000 GI’s who were inspired by Betty’s million dollar legs.
Ruth Elizabeth Grable was born in St. Louis on 18th December, 1916 to John Conn (always known as Conn) and Lillian. Betty was the third child to Conn and Lillian. Her sister Marjorie was born in 1909 and her bother John Karl was born in 1914, but died before he was 2 years old. For reasons never fully explained, Lillian was determined to see a daughter in show-business. After trying and failing with her first daughter Marjorie, Lillian set her sights on Betty to fulfill her mother’s ambitions. Fortunately, Betty was enthusiastic and had the talent, so her early years were devoted to dancing lessons, learning to play the saxophone and singing.
Go West Young Girl
After a family vacation in 1929 to California, Lillian and Betty decided to stay behind. Their motive was an attempt to get Betty into movies, and eventually to the studios. Betty attended the Hollywood Professional School, took dancing lessons at the Ernest Blecher Academy and was coached at the Albertina Rosch School. Soon after her thirteenth birthday she answered a call and was accepted from Fox films to appear in the chorus of Let’s Go Places. This number was a black face number, although it was finally a start in the movies. The legal minimum age for chorus work at the time was 15, but Betty had false papers stating her age was 15. Lillian convinced that her daughter was definitely worth more, hounded the execs at Fox and wheedled a chorus contract. Betty was then scheduled to appear in the chorus once again of the Fox Movietone Follies of 1930 but at this time (and without the black face camouflage) the studios became aware of her true age, and she was released from her contract. Undaunted by this setback, Lillian presented Betty at the casting offices of Samuel Goldwyn where she was signed to appear in the all – Technicolor movie Whoopee! starring Eddie Cantor. In addition to appearing in dance routines directed by Busby Berkeley, making his Hollywood debut, Betty was also the featured soloist in a few lines of the film’s opening song Cowboy Number. The film was shot in early 1930 and released in the autumn of that year.
It was two years before Betty’s name appeared on screen when she received 7th billing in the film Child of Manhattan. Previous to this, she was doing bit parts appearing with Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard as Goldwyn Girls in the Eddie cantor films Palmy Days and The Kid From Spain. She also made an appearance in a crowd scene in Kiki and as a model in The Greeks Had A Word For It. It was during the time she was filming Palmy Days when she briefly dated the handsome and twenty years her senior George Raft. On each date Betty’s mother and older sister chaperoned her. It was not too long into their romance when George decided to “give her back ’til she grows up” as he put it. There were two more roles in 1932 when Betty appeared in dramatic roles Hold ‘Em Jail and Probation from Chesterfield Films. She also made an appearance in Cavalcade that was very brief, so brief, if you blinked you would miss it.
Late in 1932 Betty joined the Frank Fay musical Tattle Tales, however due to Fay’s inability to stay sober, it closed after only a few performances. It was also in this period of time that Betty spent time as a vocalist for the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra. This lasted through the summer of 1933, unfortunately they did not find her voice “suitable” for recording so she was never included in any of the band’s radio appearances. Working with Ted Fio Rito she was able to sneak her way into another film with the band in the film The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. During this time she also worked on some shorts with producers under the name of Frances Dean. These films did not add to her reputation, but can be found in the filmography also included on this site. In 1933 she also completed a brief appearance in Melody Cruise and two straight roles in What Price Innocence and By Your Leave. With no other film commitments she moved to San Francisco and joined the Jay Whidden Orchestra at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel.
Betty Makes a Mark
During the 1934 – 1939 period, Betty appeared in 16 movies, seven of which used campus locations in which she did her “Betty Co-Ed” routine. The first of these films was Student Tour in which she was given 8th billing. Of the sixteen films were two very prestigious Astaire-Rogers films The Gay Divorcee in which Betty performs a dance number with the unlikely Edward Everett Horton in a number called Let’s K-nock K-nees. The second Astaire-Rogers film called Follow the Fleet. this film was a bit of a comedown as she was one of a trio harmonizing along with Ginger Rogers version of Let Yourself Go and in a brief appearance later on in the film. This was typical to Betty’s erratic career in the . Very good billing in some pictures, while in others it was almost as if the studios couldn’t figure out what to do with her, so they relegated her to minor parts. However RKO was impressed by her performance in The Gay Divorcee so they signed her to a contract and gave her a part in the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy murder mystery film The Nitwits. This film gave her third billing. This was followed by the film Old Man Rhythm that starred Charles “Buddy” Rogers in a campus caper. Betty’s longtime friend Lucille Ball was also in this film, but she was lost in the crowd.
In the summer of 1935 Betty met and fell in love with former child star Jackie Coogan. The publicity of this union made Betty’s name a household word. Her and Coogan were given a contract with Fanchon and & Marco booking agency for a cross-country touring show called Hollywood Secrets. In this show, one of the sketches the couple appeared as movie stars on an authentic Hollywood set and would show the audience how it was all done. It was very well received. Had RKO had the foresight, they would have given Betty a better part in Follow The Fleet, which she finished filming right before the tour. But they were still slow to capitalize on Betty and they gave her a dramatic role in Don’t Turn ‘Em Loose and then loaned to 20th Century-Fox for yet another campus movie Pigskin Parade. Betty was yet again, just a set decoration. Paramount then signed Grable for a two year contract with option.
Her first assignment under the new contract was female lead to Charles “Buddy” Rogers in This Way Please, an unmemorable film. She then was in the drama Thrill Of A Lifetime. She appeared in this film with Dorothy Lamour, who became a lifelong friend of Betty’s. In November of 1937 Betty Grable and Jackie Coogan married. 1938 brought three more films, College Swing, Give Me A Sailor and Campus Confessions. In the latter she was given top billing, however the film was mildly entertaining and none of the supporting cast had enough stature to be billed over her.
Early in 1939, while filming Man About Town, Betty collapsed on the set and was rushed to the hospital with acute appendicitis. After a month’s delay, production was resumed with Dorothy Lamour playing Betty’s part. However, Betty was well enough before the picture was completed to feature in a specialty number.
It was at this time that other problems began to complicate Betty’s life, specifically her marriage to Jackie Coogan. Coogan was involved in litigation to claim his share of earnings from his childhood career, and meanwhile squandering the money that Betty was earning in her career. Arguments became more frequent, and the marriage was on definitely shaky ground. Jackie and Betty began filming Million Dollar Legs (the movie name had nothing to do with our lovely Miss Grable’s legs, but that of a racehorse), and although Betty’s star was in ascendancy, Paramount chose not to pick up her option when she completed the film. Once again, it appeared as if Betty’s career was going nowhere. When Jack Benny’s radio show came off the air for summer vacation Betty joined Phil Harris and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson on tour. At the same time, Jackie Coogan having finally settled his claim to his earlier earnings by accepting a considerably reduced amount, put his money into a car customizing venture. It failed, and Betty, unwilling to carry on any longer filed for divorce. Back in Hollywood, she made one more film for RKO, a comedy called The Day The Bookies Wept. Betty then joined Jack Healy for a two week variety act at The Golden Gate Exposition. It proved to be a turning point in Betty’s career.
Looking For New Talent
Daryl F. Zanuck was looking for new talent for 20th Century-Fox Studios. He saw some of Betty’s pictures, which she made for Paramount, and he offered her a contract. Although Zanuck did not have a specific project in mind for Betty, he wanted to keep her within reach, so before working on any films for 20th Century-Fox Betty was released by Zanuck to work on a musical called Dubarry Was A Lady on Broadway. She was in the company of Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr and Benny Baker in this production. Betty was an overnight sensation, especially notable was her duet with Charles Walters in a song that would later be associated with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, Well Did You Evah. The show ran for a full year throughout 1940, however Betty had to leave the show in June of 1940 for a project Zanuck had in mind for her. It was a film in which Alice Faye was to star, who became ill prior to shooting. Zanuck summoned Betty back to Hollywood to take part in the musical Down Argentine Way. This film was to be her journey to movie stardom.
Betty was cast leading lady opposite of one of Zanuck’s favorite actors, Don Ameche. Supporting the cast were J. Carroll Naish, Charlotte Greenwood (the Rubber Leg Lady) and Leonid Kinsky. Also, making her Hollywood debut was the charming and vivacious Carmen Miranda. The whole production was to be filmed in Technicolor, which had been considerably improved, and enhanced Miss Grable’s peaches and cream complexion. Then before Down Argentine Way was even released, she began working on her next assignment, playing Alice Faye’s sister in Tin Pan Alley. Originally written for Faye, Tyrone Power and Don Ameche to follow up 20th Century-Fox’s very successful Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), The male leads were given to Jack Oakie and John Payne. Betty’s part was written in when Zanuck realized he had signed someone very special. As the day approached for filming to begin, anxieties ran high as the cast and crew nervously anticipated a flare-up between the two lovely ladies, as sometimes happened. It never came as Betty and Alice hit it off right away, and became lifelong friends. Betty never showed any temperament on the set, preferring to get on with the job and do her very best, while helping others in whatever way she could. Surprisingly, in view of the importance of their new star, the film was shot in black and white.
Betty is a Success
Down Argentine Way opened in New York in October, Tin Pan Alley in December, both to excellent reviews. After film was done on Tin Pan Alley, Betty took a break and went to Chicago for a week’s stint with Ken Murray at the Chicago Theater. Traveling with her was Victor Mature, whom she had been dating. Together they went to the College Inn to hear Dick Haymes who introduced her to Harry James, a very famous band leader, and unknown to Betty at the time, her future husband. Back in Hollywood after a much needed break, Betty began filming her next film Moon Over Miami. Also at this time, her divorce to Coogan became final.
The huge success of Down Argentine Way prompted Zanuck to pledge color for all of Betty’s films, a promise which he did not live up to. Moon Over Miami was a box office smash, but her next three films were received with only lukewarm reviews including; A Yank in The R.A.F., I Wake Up Screaming and Footlight Serenade. All three of which were filmed in black and white. Wisely, a decision was made by Fox to only use Technicolor for Betty’s films, and although it was 1/3 of the films production cost, the returns would make up for the extra cost. A film executive from Fox quipped, “when Betty waves her hips in a color film she does it a favor.” Song of the Islands was a huge success with Victor Mature and Jack Oakie and Hilo Hattie. Following Song of the Islands was the very popular Springtime in the Rockies in which Betty worked with Cesar Romero, Charlotte Greenwood and Carmen Miranda, and Harry James, with whom Betty got much better acquainted. In the few scenes that she and Harry were in together there was a definite chemistry. With America now at war, she joined a host of Hollywood stars for a Bond Rally tour thorough the western states before starting work on Coney Island. When the Hollywood Canteen opened its doors in October of 1942 she was in there helping to entertain the servicemen. By the end of the year, she was ranked 8th among Hollywood’s most popular star and topped the list for photo requests.
Early in 1943, Betty began work on one of her favorite films Sweet Rosie O’Grady. Her footprints were preserved in concrete in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and later in the year, her legs were insured with Lloyd’s of London for one million dollars. She was in New York when Coney Island opened to good reviews in June, and from there, she traveled the following month to Las Vegas, for a very special date. She met up with Harry James and they married in the early hours of July 5th in a quiet ceremony at the Little Church of the West. There was no time for a honeymoon however, as she had to report to Fox the very next day for filming Pin Up Girl. There were no other assignments that year, except for a cameo in Four Jills in A Jeep. Then Betty was absent from the studios as she was preparing for motherhood. Meanwhile, Sweet Rosie O’Grady was released in the autumn, and was a huge success with fans queuing for blocks to get into the theater.
Victoria Elizabeth was born at home on March 3, 1944. Betty did not have to be back to work until August to start the filming of Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. Pin Up Girl was released late that spring, and while it had mixed reviews, it did very well at the box office. This was certainly Betty’s least favorite film. Diamond Horseshoe proved to be another smash in the line of Grable hits, and ensuring her hold on number one at the box office. This film featured Dick Haymes and Phil Silvers, and featured the hit songs The More I See You, and I Wish I Knew and featured some of the best costumes ever done in for Miss Grable. After the filming of Diamond Horseshoe Daryl Zanuck wanted to pair Betty with Alice Faye in The Dolly Sisters. Alice could not be coaxed out of retirement however, so the part was given to June Haver. Betty always got on well with whomever she was working with, but Haver was an exception. Betty just did not like her. In spite of this, they worked well together and the movie was a hit. One of the songs from this film, I Can’t Begin To Tell You, became the only commercial recording Betty ever released. Fox discouraged their stars to work for recording companies, but Betty got away with it using the pseudo name Ruth Haag as a vocalist on a Harry James record. (Ruth, her middle name and Haag, Harry’s mother’s maiden name.) With Grable riding high in popularity, Zanuck now considered his star should be seen in meatier roles and offered her the principal part in The Razor’s Edge. Betty turned it down saying, “I’m a song and dance girl. I can act enough to get by. But that’s the limit of my talents.” Zanuck was so infuriated that she refused this part, he suspended her from the studio.
Post War Films
She returned to the studio in late 1946 to film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim with Dick Haymes. Set in the Victorian era, the public was not happy with a film that did not display Grable’s legs (there were thousands of letters of protest), however the star’s drawing power ensured the success of the film, which grossed 2.25 million dollars! Then it was back to tried and true formula with Betty appearing in Mother Wore Tights with Fox’s newest lead Dan Dailey. The match proved to be very successful, the two had the right screen chemistry, leading this film to gross 4 million dollars. Betty and Dan became close friends and remained so for many years. Betty then took another break away from Fox to give birth to her second daughter, Jessica who was born on May 20th, 1947.
That Lady in Ermine was filmed later that year, and was not success at all. Betty was not enthusiastic for the part, nor was she impressed with her leading man Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Her next film she was paired with Dan Dailey again in When My Baby Smiles At Me. Pairing her and Dan Dailey were always a successful match as the two worked extremely well together. Her next film was The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, another film Betty did not want to make. She did not feel at ease in this raucous film, and her reluctance was well founded as it was a flop in the box office. Then in the seesaw manner of her career, she was once again at the top in the re working of her previous film Coney Island, now titled Wabash Avenue, with Victor Mature and Phil Harris. It was the only time a star appeared in a remake of one of their own films, and for the same studio. In that same year, Dailey and Betty were paired yet again for My Blue Heaven, but Zanuck who was afraid that Grable’s crown may soon slip, brought in a new signing, Mitzi Gaynor, making her film debut. The head of the studio was now scheming his way to ease Grable out of the studio. Then for the fourth and final time she and Dan were once again paired for Call Me Mister. Her next film shot in 1951 was Meet Me After The Show, (and is my personal favorite) but was difficult for Betty as there were some very strenuous dance numbers. When filming ended on this film Zanuck insisted she begin work on another film, which had similar dance sequences in it. She needed a rest, but Zanuck wouldn’t let up. When she refused to do so, he put her on suspension for the second time.
There were two more pictures for Fox, The Farmer Takes A Wife and How To Marry A Millionaire (with Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall) before Betty was suspended for a third and final time for refusing Zanuck to loan her out to Columbia for The Pleasure Is All Mine. Betty was finally fed up with Fox and Zanuck and in July of 1953 she walked into Zanuck’s office, tore her contract up into little pieces and quietly said, “I’m leaving.” Ironically, when the reviews for How To Marry a Millionaire came out in November of 1953, Betty was the one who received the best notices. She didn’t care however, her relationship with Fox was over, well, not quite…she was approached directly by Columbia to appear with Jack Lemmon in the film she had earlier turned down, now re-titled Three for The Show. Then, much to her surprise, a call from Zanuck, would she be interested in doing How To Be Very Very Popular (a part which Monroe had turned down). Her answer was “Yes, for a price.” She received top billing over Sheree North, the new budding starlet Fox was trying to promote over their unwilling “other blonde” Marilyn Monroe, but Betty really didn’t like the film, and neither did critics. It did not do well when it was released in July 1955. Betty was not concerned, her love affair with Hollywood was over.
Betty Leaves Hollywood
From the movies to television, Betty appeared on many TV shows during the latter Fifties. There was the Shower of Stars, the Jack Benny show and the Lucy Desi Comedy Hour.
She made many nightclub appearances, opening up in New York’s Latin Quarter and many, many shows in Vegas. Her and Dan Dailey opened at the Dunes Hotel in December of 1962 in a production of Guys and Dolls. They played to packed houses and the show ran until the following summer the next year.
Betty’s marriage to Harry was on a rocky decline and in October of 1965 she sued Harry James for divorce. This ended a marriage of a little more than twenty years.
In November of that same year she began touring for Hello Dolly, which opened in Chattanooga, followed by performances in numerous cities before arriving in Las Vegas. It played at the Rivera Hotel opening on December 23. With two shows a night, it ran until autumn of 1966, and then it played in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre for two months. Finally the show closed on June 12, 1967. Betty then replaced Martha Raye on Broadway in Hello Dolly and stayed with the cast until November.
In August of 1968 she played in the production of Born Yesterday. This production only played in Chicago for two weeks and in Houston for two. Then in 1969 Betty had a new vehicle for which she was really excited. Belle Starr. Unfortunately, it was a dismal failure and 16 performances after it opened in Scotland, it closed. After returning to the U.S. she toured once again for Born Yesterday. This production opened in Illinois late in 1969, and it ran for a year and a half. After her dismal failure with Belle Starr, Betty had once again come out on top.
Betty’s Final Days
In 1972, she accepted an invitation to present at the Academy Awards along with her old friend Dick Haymes. They opened the envelope for Best Musical Score. It was during the presentation that she became aware of a strange feeling in her chest. On her way to the airport after leaving the awards, she experienced trouble breathing. She was rushed off to St. John’s Hospital in Los Angeles. She was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had extensive treatments, and after she decided to go back to work.
She opened up Born Yesterday on January 24, 1973 at the Alhambra Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida. What should have been a short term run proved to be longer. The show ran until mid-March. She accepted a booking in Tampa, but had reoccurring pains and was re-hospitalized. The cancer had moved. Following her surgery, she was able to spend some time in her Las Vegas home, but she deteriorated rapidly and was re-admitted to St. John’s. At 5:15pm on July 3, 1973 Betty Grable passed away without celebrating the Fourth of July as she had hoped for.
Her funeral was held the following day in Beverly Hills. The chapel was filled with red carnations, Betty’s favorite flower. During the service, many noted the organist played I Had The Craziest Dream.
As relayed in the book by Doug Warren, several weeks after Betty’s death her daughter Jessie visited her mother’s safety deposit box. At the very bottom lay an envelope containing a note in Betty’s handwriting that read “Sorry, there’s nothing more.”
Aside from her well-known legs, Betty Grable was a star who would not only become one of the major cultural icons of the 1940s, but would also remain fondly remembered by fans and co-stars alike.
Original biography written by Dawn Marie, Bombshells.Com © 1997, 2001. This original biography would not have been possible without these wonderful sources including “Betty Grable: The Reluctant Movie Queen” written by Doug Warren, IMDB, and Pin Up: The tragedy of Betty Grable” by Speros Pastos.