Furness, Betty (1916–1994)

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Furness, Betty (1916–1994)

American actress, broadcast journalist, and consumer advocate. Born Elizabeth Mary Choate on January 3, 1916, in New York City; died on April 2, 1994, in New York City; daughter of George Choate (a business executive) and Florence (Sturtevant Furness) Choate; attended the Brearley School, New York City, and Bennett Junior College, in Millbrook, New York; married John Waldo Green (a composer and conductor), on November 26, 1937 (divorced 1943); married radio announcer Hugh B. Ernst (d. 1950); married Leslie Midgeley (a television producer), on August 15, 1967; children: (first marriage) one daughter, Barbara Green.

The daughter of an executive for the Union Carbide Corporation, Betty Furness worked as a model before a screentest took her to Hollywood, where she appeared in around 35 films, mostly low-budget Bs. "They were appalling," she later said, "except for two—Swing Time, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers , and the first Magnificent Obsession, with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne ." Furness moved on to stage roles, appearing in summer stock and in the road shows of Doughgirls and My Sister Eileen, the latter based on The New Yorker stories of Ruth McKenney .

Discouraged with her theatrical career, Furness decided to try her luck in the pioneering television industry. In 1949, after spotting her in a CBS "Studio One" episode, Westinghouse hired her as an on-air spokesperson for their products; for the next 11 years, she demonstrated refrigerators and vacuum cleaners on live television commercials. In 1952, when Westinghouse signed on as one of the sponsors of the televised national political conventions, Furness was the pitchwoman. "I'd been opening refrigerator doors for three years," she later recalled, "but when I did it during the conventions I was famous overnight." She would continue selling refrigerators to Republicans and Democrats alike during the nominating conventions of 1956 and 1960. The caucuses made her the most recognized woman in America; they also sparked her interest in politics and public affairs.

After working for Lyndon Johnson's successful presidential campaign in 1964, Furness was hired as a recruiter for the Head Start and VISTA programs. In 1967, she became Johnson's special assistant for consumer affairs, an appointment that engendered a storm of protest from professional consumer-protection groups, who cited her lack of experience. Six months later, the very groups that had questioned her appointment were pleased with her development and praised her serious efforts to educate herself on the job. After Johnson left office, she was appointed executive director of the New York State Consumer Protection Board and then commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. In the 1970s, Furness joined NBC as a consumer specialist on the network's "Today" show, answering consumer complaints and later conducting her own investigations. Furness worked longer than most women on television, appearing on camera until she was 76. "She pioneered consumer TV news reporting," remarked fellow advocate Ralph Nader, "and she pursued it with intelligence, inquisitiveness and irrepressibility." Betty Furness was married three times and had a daughter, Barbara Green , with her first husband. Furness was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1990 and died on April 2, 1994, while undergoing treatment.

sources:

Martin Jean, ed. Who's Who of Women in the Twentieth Century. Avenel, NJ: Crescent Books, 1995.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1968. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1968.

"Obituaries," in The Day (New London, CT). April 3, 1994.