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Betty Grable, A Nation's Sweetheart

Updated on August 22, 2016

More than just a pair of legs

Betty Grable was the most popular pinup girl of World War II and was particularly noted for her beautifully proportioned legs. She typified the girl-next-door, and honest, home-grown beauty and she became one of the most successful movie actresses of the 1940s becoming, at one time, the highest paid woman in the United States.

The rigid implementation of the puritanical Hays Code in 1934 had introduced the "Goddess" type of female to the screen, typified by Greta Garbo. World War II brought a need for a freer, more homely kind of glamour, but the Hays Code still regulated how much blatant eroticism was permitted. The solution was the 'sweater girl'; fresh-scrubbed girls-next-door whose sportiness incidentally meant that they were often seen in tight sweaters and shorts. Betty Grable's wholesome appeal personified this new archetype more wholly and entirely than any other star.

In a clever publicity move her legs were insured with Lloyds of London for $1,000,000 and during the war her iconic "over the shoulder" bathing suit photo graced GI lockers the world over. Life magazine included it in their feature "100 Photos that Changed the World". Ironically, it was posed in such a way out of necessity rather than sauciness, because she was several months' pregnant when the picture was taken.

THAT Picture

Early Days

Betty Grable was born Elizabeth Ruth Grable in December, 1916 in St. Louis, Missouri. She had an older brother who died before she was born and an older sister, Marjorie. Her mother, Lillian, was the prime mover in encouraging Betty into show business and when she was very young she attended dancing and singing lessons and went to the Hollywood Professional School in California.

Her first professional role was as a chorus girl for Fox Films in 'Happy Days' in 1929 when she was only 13 years old but when the studio became aware of her true age, she was released from her contract.

Already performing, aged four

Aged nine, seasoned dancer

With Jackie Coogan
With Jackie Coogan

The Young Movie Actress

In the following year she became a 'Goldwyn Girl' starting in Whoopee!', starring Eddie Cantor and continuing in other Cantor movies, 'Palmy Days' and 'The Kid From Spain' with fellow Goldwyn Girls Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard amongst others.

She then worked during the rest of the 1930s in minor roles at different studios, mainly as set decoration, with a highlight being 'The Gay Divorcee' in 1934, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, where she featured in a number with Edward Everett Horton, "Let's K-nock Knees" (right). She also fronted several bands during this time but without success.

With husband Jackie Coogan

In 1935 Betty met former child star John Leslie "Jackie" Coogan and when the couple married in 1937 she became a household name. They appeared together in 1939 in 'Million Dollar Legs' but his financial problems put a strain on the marriage and they divorced later that same year.

Betty ended the 1930s as an experienced performer after appearing in over 50 Hollywood movies, and her star was rising. She could sing and dance and - a major asset in the atmosphere of wartime gloom - she could project optimism. She gained the approbation of the critics for her performance on stage in the Cole Porter Broadway hit 'Du Barry Was a Lady' in 1939, and the following year she was given a contract with 20th Century Fox.

Down Argentine Way, 1940 with Don Ameche

Betty was Fox's top star throughout the 1940s, filmed in the new technology of Technicolor in movies such as 'Down Argentine Way' in 1940, 'Moon Over Miami' in 1941' (both with Don Ameche), 'Sweet Rosie O'Grady' in 1943 with Robert Young, 'Pin Up Girl' in 1944, and 'Mother Wore Tights' with Dan Dailey in 1947.

Hollywood Stardom

and second marriage

For seven years between 1942 to 1951 Betty was the number one female box-office earner and in 1943 she was the number one movie star, male or female, and was reported to be the highest paid woman in the United States, earning $300,000 a year.

Marriage to Harry

Betty married for the second time in 1943 to trumpeter and bandleader Harry James and the couple had two daughters, Victoria and Jessica. The marriage cannot be described as idyllic. It was marred by alchoholic rows and infidelities on both sides and after twenty tempestuous years they divorced in 1965.

Her importance and appeal declined after the war but Twentieth Century Fox kept her busy to the point of working her to exhaustion. Her movies included 'That Lady in Ermine' in 1948 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., 'When My Baby Smiles at Me' in 1948 again with Dailey, 'My Blue Heaven' in 1950, and 'Meet Me After the Show' in 1951. In her last major role, she was every bit as good as her co-stars, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe, in her last hit movie, 'How to Marry a Millionaire' in 1953. After this she made the disappointing 'Three for the Show' with Jack Lemon and 'How to Be Very, Very Popular with Sheree North, both in 1955.

After her marriage to Harry James Betty fell in love with a dancer, Bob Remick, several years her junior. Though they did not marry, their romance lasted until the end of her life.

Betty dancing in cabaret

With her movie career abruptly over, Betty made the transition to television and nightclub performer.

She appeared in many TV shows during the late 1950s including 'The Jack Benny Show' and 'The Lucy and Desi Comedy Hour'. She appeared in New York's Latin Quarter and in a variety of shows in Las Vegas including a production of 'Guys and Dolls' in 1962 and in 1967 she took over the lead in 'Hello, Dolly!' on tour.

Betty's last role was in 'Born Yesterday' at the Alhambra Theater in Jacksonville, Florida in 1973.

Death

A heavy smoker all her life, Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1972. She had no health insurance and had to continue to work to pay her hospital bills. She was hospitalized numerous times in Santa Monica and she died there on July 2, 1973. Her body was cremated and the ashes interred at Inglewood Memorial Park.

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