Furness, Elizabeth Mary (“Betty”)
Furness, Elizabeth Mary (“Betty”)
Furness was the only child of a New York City business family. Her father, George Choate Furness, worked as a Union Carbon and Carbide Corporation executive. Her mother, Florence Sturtevant, was a homemaker. Being a no-nonsense man, her father urged young Betty at age fourteen to do “something useful,” so she got a modeling job with the John Robert Powers Modeling Agency. When she was just sixteen, Furness landed a screen test. She would stay in Hollywood for the next several years, performing in thirty-five movies, many of them in the “B” category. “They were appalling,” she would later admit, “except for two—Swing Time  with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the first Magnificent Obsession  with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne.”
On 27 November 1937, Furness married bandleader John (“Johnny”) Waldo Green. Betty was named in the Society for the Protection of Bandleaders with Hollywood Wives, along with Bette Davis, who was married to Harmon Nelson, and Harriet Nelson, wife of Ozzie Nelson. “The rules were simple,” recalled actress Dorothy Lamour in her Hollywood memoir. “The wives had to make at least one weekly phone call to their ’one-nighting’ husbands—with reverse charging privileges—and the husbands had to dedicate one or more songs annually to their wives.” Those rules, plus the birth of a daughter, Barbara, weren’t enough to save Betty Furness’s first marriage, and in 1943 she and Green divorced after five years of marriage.
During a slow period in movie work, Furness appeared in a play, Golden Boy. She found that she loved the stage so much that she left Hollywood and returned to New York City, where she focused her talent in live theater for a few years. As one of the first women to appear on television, as early as 1945, she earned $50 a week, commentating in a show called “Fashions, Coming and Becoming.” Some of her salary was eaten up by the combs she had to replace after they melted under the intense heat of the lamps.
On 1 June 1945, after a one-month courtship, she married Hugh Ernst, Jr. The ceremony, performed in Las Vegas, Nevada, was for “keeps.” Their five-year marriage ended in Ernst’s death in April 1950.
Living in New York in 1949, Furness took a job with Westinghouse Electric, where she would act as on-air spokesperson for the consumer appliance company. In this role, she would become an instant consumer icon, touting all the new and sparkling labor-saving devices developed to cater to America’s postwar homemakers. From time to time between 1949 and 1958, Furness also acted in the Studio One television show. Tiring of her limited role with Westinghouse, she left in 1960 and turned to the more serious world of news broadcasting and politics. During this time Furness also hosted a number of television shows. On 15 August 1967, Furness, at age fifty-one, wed Leslie Midgley, to whom she would remain married until her death. Midgley, fifty-two at the time of the marriage, was an executive with the CBS Television Network, a widower, and the father of three children.
During the mid 1960s, Furness became a frontline fighter in the war on poverty. She traveled throughout the United States, recruiting volunteers on VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Her enthusiasm caught the eye of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in March 1967 appointed her as special assistant to the president for consumer affairs. Furness immediately took to this new challenge and went on what would seem to be an endless speaking tour where she would dispense consumer advice to homemakers and chastise diverse consumer industries, from food retailers to furriers. Furness was written about for her style as much as for her consumer advocacy, and she became the darling of the luncheon speech circuit. By September 1967, she was even mentioned by Johnson’s advisers as a potential running mate to replace Vice President Hubert Humphrey for an anticipated re-election bid by Johnson in 1968. However, her ardent crusading was looked upon with disfavor in U.S. boardrooms, and several business leaders lobbied President Johnson to jettison her. Furness resigned her position in 1969, after helping secure the passage of a new federal law governing meat inspection.
On 10 August 1970, New York’s governor, Nelson Rockefeller, appointed Furness to a newly created post as executive director of the New York State Consumer Protection Board. The appointment lasted less than a year because the state legislature failed to fund the office adequately. An embittered Furness resigned the position on 12 July 1971, stating that it was created by the politicians simply to “throw the ladies a bone. We’ve got to do a little something for the ladies so we’ll put a lady to work here.”
As evidence of her ability to do a similar job, in 1973 Furness was appointed New York City’s consumer affairs commissioner to replace the retiring Bess Meyerson. Joining New York City’s WNBC-TV in 1974, she became a regular on the Today Show.
Although Furness’s goals were noble, her methods sometimes got her in trouble. In 1977 she became embroiled in a controversy after testing an alcoholic beverage that, she contended, was targeted to appeal to the tastes of underage drinkers. The controversy arose after she tested the beverage on fifteen teenage students of Hartsdale High School. The students’ parents complained, and the town’s school board considered legal action against her.
After sixteen years with Furness on the Today Show, NBC News decided in 1990 not to renew the contract for its consumer reporter, who was then seventy-six years of age. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader then commented that she had “pioneered consumer TV news reporting and she pursued it with intelligence, inquisitiveness and irrepressibility.”
Diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1990, Furness died four years later at Manhattan’s Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital, where she had been undergoing treatment. She was seventy-eight. She is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Although her career as a screen actress brought her moderate fame and spanned more than three decades, Furness’s most important and notable contribution was her television work, which led to her pioneering in consumer advocacy. Furness’s fearlessness, knowledge, and effectiveness in these posts are a lasting legacy, which has spawned a number of government and private initiatives in consumer protection and environmental protection.
American Weekly magazine (22 July 1951) draws a portrait of Furness’s career. See also Dorothy Lamour, My Side of the Road (1980), and Who’s Who of American Women (1982). Videocassettes of Furness’s work with Studio One are located in Bowling Green State University Popular Culture Library in Bowling Green, Ohio. Obituaries are in the Buffalo News (3 Apr. 1994), New York Times (4 Apr. 1994), Time, and People Weekly (both 11 Apr. 1994).
Robert J. Smith