Grable, Betty (1916–1973)
Grable, Betty (1916–1973)
American film actress who was the first "pin-up girl" of note and the highest-paid woman in the country during the mid-1940s. Name variations: acted under the name of Frances Dean; made a recording under the name of Ruth Haag. Born Ruth Elizabeth Grable in South St. Louis, Missouri, on December 18, 1916; died in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 2, 1973; youngest of two daughters of Leon Grable (an accountant and stockbroker) and Lillian Rose (Hoffman) Grable; attended Mary's Institute, in Missouri, and the Hollywood Profession School; married Jackie Coogan (an actor), on December 20, 1937 (divorced 1940); married Harry James (a bandleader), on July 11, 1943 (divorced 1965); children: (second marriage) two daughters, Victoria James (b. 1944) and Jessica James (b. 1946).
Let's Go Places (1930); Whoopee (1930); Kiki (1931); Palmy Days (1931); The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932); The Kid from Spain (1932); Probation (19132); Hold 'Em Jail (1932); Child of Manhattan (1933); Cavalcade (1933); What Price Innocence? (1933); Student Tour (1934); The Gay Divorcée (1934); The Nitwits (1935); Old Man Rhythm (1935); Collegiate (1935); Follow the Fleet (1936); Pigskin Parade (1936); Don't Turn 'Em Loose (1936); This Way Please (1937); Thrill of a Lifetime (1937); College Swing (1938); Give Me a Sailor (1938); Campus Confessions (1938); Man About Town (1939); Million Dollar Legs (1939); The Day the Bookies Wept (1939); Down Argentine Way (1940); Tin Pan Alley (1940); Moon over Miami (1941); A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941); I Wake Up Screaming (1941); Footlight Serenade (1942); Song of the Islands (1942); Springtime in the Rockies (1942); Coney Island (1943); Sweet Rosie O'Grady (1943); Four Jills in a Jeep (1944); Pin-Up Girl (1944); Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe (1945); The Dolly Sisters (1945); All Star Bond Rally (1945); Do You Love Me? (1946); Hollywood Park (1946); The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947); Mother Wore Tights (1947); Hollywood Bound (1947); That Lady in Ermine (1948); When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948); The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949); Wabash Avenue (1950); My Blue Heaven (1950); Call Me Mister (1951); Meet Me After the Show (1951); The Farmer Takes a Wife (1953); How to Marry a Millionaire (1953); Three for the Show (1955); How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955).
Legendary Hollywood film actress Betty Grable—the highest-paid woman in the country during the mid-1940s—was hard working, down-to-earth, and quite unaffected by her star status. "As a dancer I couldn't outdance Ginger Rogers or Eleanor Powell ," she once admitted. "As a singer I'm no rival to Doris Day. As an actress I don't take myself seriously." Grable, who made 30 films before hitting it big, might not have been in the movies at all had it not been for her mother.
Born in South St. Louis, Missouri, Betty was the younger of two daughters born to Leon Grable, an accountant who later became a stockbroker, and Lillian Hoffman Grable , a frustrated actress who channeled her own desire for a show-business career into her younger daughter. (Grable's older sister successfully rejected her mother's attempt to make her a star.) Betty was dragged to dancing and singing lessons as a child and was a veteran of local talent shows by the age of seven. "Mother was determined not to miss a trick," she later recalled. "I got my start in a children's show playing the saxophone. I was dressed as if I were a piece of coral. Later I did a bit where I played and tapped at the same time. We cut that short but quick; it almost loosened my teeth."
After a visit to Hollywood in 1928, Lillian and Betty moved permanently to the film capital, where after appearing in the chorus line in a film musical called Let's Go Places, Grable signed a year's contract with 20th Century-Fox. For the next four years, she made the rounds of the studios, playing small roles and even appearing in some educational shorts. In 1931, she was signed by Sam Goldwyn who changed her name to Frances Dean and cast her in a series of bit parts, then dropped her because he did not feel she was star material. However, her appearance in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers classic The Gay Divorcée (1934), performing a zany number called "Let's Knock Knees" with Edward Everett Horton, won her a short-lived contract with RKO under her own name. She then embarked on her "Betty Co-ed" period with Paramount, playing in a string of "B" features with titles like College Swing (1938) and Campus Confessions (1938). In 1939, when Paramount let Grable go, her career had yet to take off. "Something had to be done," she said, "or I would be a promising youngster until I was a grandmother."
Meantime, on her birthday, December 18, 1937, Grable had married long-time steady Jackie Coogan and was soon in the news when she backed him during his famous court battle. Formerly a child star, Coogan was suing his mother and stepfather to obtain his screen earnings. The couple divorced in 1940, the same year that Grable's parents divorced. After well-publicized romances with Artie Shaw (which ended when he eloped with Lana Turner ), and George Raft (who was married at the time to Grayce Mulrooney , who would not grant him a divorce), Grable would marry bandleader Harry James in 1943. The couple would have two daughters before divorcing in 1965.
In 1939, with her career in a slump, Grable appeared in vaudeville and then accepted the second female lead in the Broadway show Du Barry Was a Lady, with Ethel Merman . Her show-stopping dance number, "Well, Did You Evah," led to a Life magazine cover and another contract with 20th Century-Fox. Grable went to work in the lavish Technicolor film Down Argentine Way, replacing Alice Faye who had been stricken with appendicitis. Starring with Faye in another rousing musical, Tin Pan Alley (1940), in which she performed a risqué harem number, Grable went on to make a series of splashy musicals during the next decade, among them Song of the Islands (1942), Footlight Serenade (1942), Springtime in the Rockies (1942), and Four Jills in a Jeep (1944). Now an unqualified box-office star, Grable's popularity peaked during World War II, when GIs selected her as their number one "pin-up girl." At least three million copies of photographer Frank Powolny's famous pose of the star in a white bathing suit were distributed to servicemen, and Grable's famous legs were insured with Lloyds of London for $1 million.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Grable made a series of pictures with Dan Dailey, the first of which, Mother Wore Tights (1947), was one of her all-time hits, and also catapulted Dailey to stardom. Delightful complements to each other, the pair charmed audiences again in My Blue Heaven (1950) and Call Me Mister (1951). During the 1940s, Grable also made appearances on the radio, in shows as "Lux Radio Theater" and "Suspense." Although known as a singer, she made no records, as Darryl F. Zanuck barred his stars from the recording studio. However, she did manage one commercial recording for Columbia Records in 1945, billed as Ruth Haag. The song, "I Can't Begin to Tell You" also featured her husband Harry James.
One of Grable's best known films of the 1950s was not a musical at all, but the comedyHow To Marry a Millionaire (1953), with Lauren Bacall and the new Fox star Marilyn Monroe , who received top billing. Grable's portrayal of an over-the-hill showgirl looking for her last big break was one of the best of her career. Although Monroe was stealing her thunder (and would eventually inherit her dressing room), Grable remained good-natured, helping Marilyn when she asked for advice and reportedly telling her at one point, "Honey, I've had it. Go get yours. It's your turn now."
Grable's last film was How To Be Very, Very Popular (1955), after which she retired from the movies, claiming that she would only return if the "right" property came along. She performed in a nightclub act with Harry James at the El Rancho in Las Vegas and, in 1958, put together a revue called Memories, a pastiche of all her old movie numbers. The show played at Hollywood's Moulin Rouge and also had a successful run at the Latin Quarter in New York. Grable then moved to Las Vegas permanently, concentrating on her beloved horses and her golf game. Growing restless again, however, she and former co-star Dan Dailey put together a condensed version of Guys and Dolls (with Grable as Adelaide), which opened in Las Vegas just before Christmas of 1962 and played for 18 weeks to standing-room-only crowds. They repeated that success the following year with a revival of High Button Shoes.
In 1965, Grable lost her mother, who for years had served as her secretary. That same year, she was also divorced from James, a staggering blow, although it was said to have been an amicable split with the couple remaining friends. She threw herself into rehearsals for the part of Dolly Levi in a Vegas version of Hello, Dolly!, which opened just before New Year's 1966 and enjoyed great success. She later joined the national tour of the show and then, in 1967, replaced Martha Raye on Broadway. After the run of the show, she retired again to Las Vegas, living with Bob Remick, a young dancer she had met while on tour with Dolly. In 1969, claiming she could not sit still for long, she embarked for London, to star as a saloon owner in an ill-fated musical called Belle Starr . Although audiences loved her, the critics were cruel, and the play closed after 21 performances. She returned home to a summer tour in Plaza Suite and, in 1971, shot a television ad for Geritol with her married daughters and their four children.
Later that year, just before a trip to Australia to star in No, No, Nanette, Grable was diagnosed with lung cancer, which she fought
valiantly for several years, even recovering sufficiently to tour briefly in Born Yesterday. Her health continued to decline, however, and she died on July 2, 1973, at age 56.
Agan, Patrick. The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddesses. Los Angeles, CA: Pinnacle, 1979.
Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts. Hollywood Songsters. NY: Garland, 1991.
Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts
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