Betty Grable and Me
Betty Grable was a celebrated actress, dancer and singer, as well as the most well known pin-up girl of World War II. Her studio famously insured “the darling of the forties” legs for $1,000,000 dollars. The photo, which “changed the world” as Life magazine referred to it, is one in which Betty stands facing away from the camera in a classically beautiful one-piece swim suit, modest heels, and a fancy up-do. She has her head turned over her shoulder, a mega-watt smile on her lips, her hands placed thoughtfully on her hips. This photo does not scream sexy; it’s not meant to be erotic. Although, it seems as if everything has magnified since the 1940s- sex appeal included. Her stance in the photo is sweet and entertaining. When viewing it, it’s hard not to smile. What I find most appealing about the photo is that her joy radiates through the picture. She wasn’t an underfed, depressed and money-hungry model who felt all she had to offer were her looks. She wanted to do what she could to help the war effort, whether that was posing for pictures, starring in movies, or singing lovely ballads, all which without a doubt raised the morale of the soldiers fighting for our country. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri and began acting at age 12. From then on, her career thrived as she starred in smash-hit movies such as, Mother Wore Tights, and Down Argentine Way.
During Betty Grable’s heyday, the United States was in quite the predicament. A global war was in session that lasted from 1939 to 1945. More than 100 million people served in military units. There was a lot to be angry, anxious and disheartened about. That is, until Betty Grable came along. She lit up every barrack, home-sick heart and home-front soul, all with an endearing, genuine smile and easy-going attitude.
This is why, when my final project for AP US History rolled around at the end of the year, I chose Betty Grable as one of the most influential people in United States history. It’s quite a statement when you compare her to people like Teddy Roosevelt and Bill Gates who undoubtedly changed the world, whether that’s for the better or worse we don’t yet know. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s the people who bring light and joy to a seemingly dark and horribly oppressive time that really had an impact. When looking back at a difficult event in your life, do you remember the person who slowly helped end a problem, or the person who brought small snippets of joy to you at those moments in which you felt there was no possibility of a successful conclusion?
The assignment asked us, the students, to choose whom we thought was one of the most influential people in United States history. We then had to dress up as them, interact with others as they would have interacted, and give a speech as to why they made such an impact.
I was by no means the brightest, most historically inclined student in my AP US History class. In fact, I was barely scraping along trying to keep up with assignments and prepare for difficult exams. I really do have a passion for history, however. I especially love the little moments; the smaller, less prevalent people who I believe made the largest impressions, like our old pal Betty. Throughout the year, I did have a dreadful feeling that the bulk of my class looked down on my ability to understand the topics, form an intelligent opinion and succeed in arguing that opinion. This final project choice of the “bimbo” Betty Grable did not help.
Ms. Grable and I have a lot in common, it seems. While many wrote her off as a poster-girl, nothing beneath her pretty façade, my fellow classmates seemed to have written me off as soon as I announced her as my choice for the final project. Betty Grable died towards the end of her prime at the young age of 56. She was a smart, determined and happy woman who could have lived and transformed the world in another fashion. While my memory might not be as reliable as some of the other students in the class, and my instant understanding of every event in history is slightly delayed, my adoration for history gave me a certain advantage over some of those other students. As an aspiring writer, I enjoyed taking a step back from whatever event we were learning about, and see how I could come up with a possible movie plot, or journalism piece. What spin off hit TV show could I create from the infamous Kennedy and Monroe scandal? What new information could I dig up about the Lost Colony of Roanoke? When I looked at these events in different lights, I better understood their impacts on the rest of the world and why we are the way we are today more insightfully. That is why my choice of Betty Grable was very risky. A lot was at stake for this final project. If I didn’t show enough reasoning as to why she was a good pick, my grade would suffer. As AP United States history is a vital course, maybe colleges wouldn’t be as impressed if my final grade was low. My reputation as a hard working, insightful person was on the line. My ability to convince, argue and persuade was at stake. My confidence would be tested.
When the big day came, I opted for a dress rather than the famous swimsuit, put on my biggest smile and came prepared with photos to autograph. The first disapproving looks I received were actually from other women in the class, who were dressed more refined, as Abigail Adams or Marie Curie. I instantly felt diminished, and unsure of my choice. But I stuck by it. I didn’t let my attitude dwindle, just like Betty Grable never let her antagonists get her spirit down. I skipped around the room, dazzling people with compliments, asking intuitive questions and lifting the spirits of people like Martin Luther King with “You can do it! Keep fighting for your rights!” At this point, the majority of the class seemed as though they were feeling capable to deliver great speeches to earn that final A for the class. The environment was more like a historical melting pot party than a final assessment of our skills in the course. As much as I improved the moods of those in the room, there were still quite a few skeptics concerning my choice of Betty Grable. I don’t see why my classmates were consumed with my grade, or my success in the class. Looking back, I have to chalk this up to people being jealous that I chose a fun personality to play, rather than someone I wouldn’t connect with as well.
As I went up to make my speech, I began with all of Betty Grable’s accomplishments, her ability to raise the morale of the brave soldiers of our country and her effect on United States history as a whole, all the while smiling at each and everyone of the students in the room. If they weren’t convinced yet, my final point hopefully did them in. As I was one of the last speakers to go, I asked how they felt coming in this morning. Nervous? Excited? Unsure of yourself? Then I asked how they felt after interacting with Betty. Lighter? More at ease? Confident? As they looked around at each other, some still condescendingly smirking and shaking their heads, but most nodding, pleased, agreeing. Although I didn’t win for most influential person in US History, I think Abe Lincoln did, although I don’t really remember, I have a strong impression that most people will remember how I made them feel that day, how Betty instilled a peace of mind on a day where a lot was at stake; our grades, our reputations and our abilities as speakers. I’m proud of selecting Betty Grable as one of the United States most influential people, because even though I’m certain her bubbly personality and carefree attitude had a large impact on the war effort in the 1940’s, I know I had an impact on my small class in Guilderland High School in 2011. That day, I raised my self-confidence. Even though I walked out of the room with lingering images of people looking down on me, I completed what I set out to do; I explained why Ms. Grable was imperative in our history, and I had fun dressing up as a national treasure. I may have been channeling Betty, but I know it was me who really shined through.