Betty Grable’s sly smile turned toward the camera is one of the most iconic images in history. As the pin-up queen of the world, Grable lived a scandalous life that's the stuff of Hollywood movies. While her girl-next-door image has endured through the 21st century, the reality of her dark, dramatic life was anything but ideal.
When the United States entered WWII, Hollywood began producing content for the Americans serving abroad. One way to cheer up the servicemen was through "pin-up" photographs of famous actresses, which they made into posters and shipped overseas. Rita Hayworth popularized the pin-up, but it was Betty Grable who became its most famous model.
Betty Grable earned the nickname "Million Dollar Legs," and she didn't get it for nothing. Hosiery specialists and retailers often cited her gams as having the perfect proportions for stockings, and Grable was under no illusions about what brought in the big bucks. As the starlet once quipped, "I became a star for two reasons, and I'm standing on them."
Betty Grable was an adorable, rosy-cheeked, blonde little girl. But that didn't mean her life was perfect...or even well-adjusted. Her mother Lillian was a pushy stage momager who forced her daughter into dance lessons and countless child beauty contests in search of fame. Granted, beautiful Betty won most of the pageants, but Lillian didn't stop there.
When Lillian couldn't find any new dance class or pageant to enrol Betty in, she turned to her own friends to get her fame fix. On slow days, Lillian would "present" Betty at casual gatherings and demand that the girl perform for the adults on command. Is it any wonder that growing up too fast had grave consequences?
Grable might have been a successful child performer around her local area, but eventually all this stress caused multiple issues for the little girl. From a disturbingly young age, she suffered from intense fits of sleepwalking as well as a fear of crowds, known as "demophobia." Huh, wonder where she got that from. Just kidding, I don't wonder at all.
With the Great Depression looming, Lillian's frenzy to make her daughter into a star took an even more chilling turn. In 1929, when Betty was just 12 years old, they packed up from St. Louis, Missouri and moved to Hollywood to try and hit it big. There was just one problem. Betty was too young; the minimum working age was 15. Did this stop Lillian? Uh...
Instead of taking a step back and saying "Hmm, maybe I shouldn't force my daughter into child labor," Lillian just grew more unhinged and determined. Like many manipulative stage mothers, she lied about Betty's age to producers, saying the tween had just turned 15. Once they saw Betty's face, producers were all too happy to believe it.
One of Grable's first adult relationships really couldn't have gone worse. When she was young, she got together with a handsome married man named George Raft, a tough guy actor associated with sinister figures like Bugsy Seigel. Well, Raft quickly proved just how tough he was: He beat Grable, who fled from the relationship. If only this didn't come back to bite her...
Most actors struggle to make it in Hollywood for years, but most actors aren't Betty Grable. In 1929, she premiered in her first film. By 1930, she had worked as a chorus girl before signing with legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn. This made her one of the original Goldwyn Girls, along with the inimitable Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard.
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Lillian and Betty's lies eventually caught up to them in the worst way possible. Although Fox Studios originally signed on Grable, it didn't take them long to find out that she was much younger than she was pretending to be, and much younger than the law allowed. Their response was swift and brutal. They fired her unceremoniously.
Grable was irresistible to studios from almost her first role, and when she starred in 1936's Pigskin Parade, it was under an unusual agreement. 20th Century Fox had reached out to her specifically for the part, loaning her out from her new studio, Paramount. The film was a hit and showcased Grable to the public...just not for the reasons you may think.
Pigskin Parade was supposed to be Betty Grable's big break, but what it really did was earn the starlet her first rival. See, it was also the first feature film of a young girl named Judy Garland. Yep, that Judy Garland. Garland won over America with her role, so instead of making Betty Grable a bona fide star, the film introduced Judy Garland to the world. Ouch.
As we'll see, Grable didn't have the best judgment when it came to her love life—and when she married the classic comedian and child actor Jackie Coogan in 1937, their relationship was a full-on mess. Coogan was still in the middle of a lawsuit against his parents (child stars, amirite?) and the stresses split the couple up by 1939.
For all her good-girl looks and apple pie charms, Grable lived one scrappy existence as a struggling starlet. After Pigskin Parade, she suddenly found herself typecast as a naive college student, starring in a series of humdrum roles and even duller films. Unhappy with their starlet, Paramount fired her again. But just before she left, she got the best revenge.
Grable's last film with Paramount was the B comedy Million Dollar Legs with her then-husband Jackie Coogan. Aside from mixing business with pleasure, the film's title also gave Grable—and her famous gams—her lasting nickname. This was the beginning of the seductive image she would soon turn into worldwide success.
After 1939, the 23-year-old Grable felt so washed up, she tried to retire from films altogether. The exhausted starlet took up on Broadway instead in the musical DuBarry Was a Lady. That's when it all changed. The play was an instant success for the first time in Grable's life, and she used it to get back at the studios that had wronged her.
While Grable was on Broadway, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck saw her perform and knew that not only was she destined to be a star; she already was a star. He signed her to a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox, and Grable's next film, Down Argentine Way, was a smash hit. Only, fame didn't come without drama.
The 1942 classic Springtime in the Rockies was a hit for everyone involved, but Grable got a lot more than box-office moolah out of the deal—she also got steamy romance. While on set, she met debonair bandleader Harry James, who also starred in the film. The two hit it off, marrying a year later. But this union was doomed to heartache.
For one thing, when Grable and James first met, James was married, and their dalliance was mega illicit for the strict morals of the time. Though James eventually divorced his first wife to make an honest woman out of Grable, don't go thinking this came from the goodness of his heart. He had a much more selfish reason to tie the knot...
One day, James and Grable found out that she was pregnant. Now this was an even worse moral quandary for the time, and the minute studio executives found out about the stork's package, they started pressuring the actors to marry in a hurry. Oh yeah, this sounds like it's going to turn out great.
Rich, famous, beautiful, and talented, Betty Grable and Harry James were a Hollywood superstar couple. But behind closed doors, they hid dark secrets. James was a serial philanderer who simply could not keep it in his pants, married or not. In fact, grossly enough, he was known for his endurance and his "indiscriminate taste." And that wasn't all...
There's no accounting for taste, and there's definitely no accounting for Betty Grable and Harry James's taste in baby names. When the couple had their first-born daughter, they named her Victoria Elizabeth, after Grable's character in the film Springtime in the Rockies. Huh, I guess it's as good as an inspiration as any.
Soon after James and Grable started seeing each other, she had an unpleasant visit from the Ghost of Boyfriends Past. Gangster actor George Raft never quite let her go, and when he found out she had taken up with the bandleader, he had one of his cronies tail the pair when they went home together. The results were scandalous.
Grable and James, naughty couple that they were, were in the middle of a big bedroom romp when all of a sudden, they heard a load THUMP and a series of groans from outside their window. They looked out just in time to see Raft's lackey cursing and limping away from his failed surveillance mission, having just fallen from the tree he had posted up in.
It may be hard to believe considering the stature of Grable's talent and fame, but she was incredibly insecure about her abilities. This led to a heartbreaking habit. She was so insecure, she consistently turned down "important" movies that would stretch her acting skills, and was particularly wary about starring in movies opposite the most famous male actors.
Grable's lack of belief in her acting abilities came back to haunt her in 1947. At that year's Academy Awards, actress Anne Baxter won the Oscar for her performance in The Razor's Edge. When Grable saw the win, she might have been stung. Producers had originally offered her the part, but she had turned it down, stubbornly sticking to her "no challenges" rule.
In the 1950s, Grable was still one of the most popular actresses at the box office—after all, there's a reason the phrase is "As American as apple pie and Betty Grable." Emboldened by her success, Grable did the one thing she hadn't been able to do yet: She challenged herself. She told the studio she wanted a raise. This...did not go how she planned.
Fox, being a bunch of money-grubbing men, staunchly denied Grable's request. But in response, Grable really hit her stride. She got so incensed at their refusal, she eventually got her contract out, walked into studio head Darryl Zanuck's office, and tore the papers up into shreds right in his face. It was a triumphant show of strength, but it backfired horribly.
In retaliation, Zanuck fired Grable from the next film she had lined up—and in so doing, he changed cinema history. That film was the lead role in the classic comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, AKA the part that shot Marylin Monroe to stardom. Yikes. For all her immense fame, this girl just couldn't seem to catch a casting break.
Grable was kind and loving at heart, and she eventually reconciled with Zanuck. He repaid her with another cruel trick. The studio put their waning star in How to Marry a Millionaire alongside none other than Monroe and the equally new and shiny Lauren Bacall. On set rumors swirled about rivalries, but the truth is actually eye-opening.
While working on How to Marry a Millionaire, Grable was under no illusions that her star was fading, or that Monroe and her ample bosom were about to replace her and her legs in the public consciousness. Yet Grable was utterly kind throughout filming, even telling Monroe in front of the crew, "Honey, I've had it. Go get yours. It's your turn now."
That wasn't all Grable did for Monroe. During a publicity photoshoot for their movie, Grable happened to notice Monroe's toenails were in need of a paint. Did she mean-girl the bombshell and let her get photographed with chipped nails? Heck no. Grable grabbed her own personal polish and gave Monroe a pedicure herself.
Realizing her time was done, Grable stepped away from the limelight in 1955...and went straight to her demise. Instead of stardom, she focused on her totally normal marriage with Harry James, and the couple moved to Las Vegas. Wait, didn't I say this guy was a, and I quote, "rabid gambler"? This went even more horrifically than you might think.
Although Grable rode her legs to stardom, she paid a grotesque price for her fame. After the highs of It Girl-dom wore off, Grable was all too aware of her objectification. She once admitted, “People talk about my legs as if I were a centipede," ardently wishing that the public would focus more on her acting than her physical assets.
Marilyn Monroe never forgot Grable's kindness—and one day, she got the chance to repay her in a touching tribute. After Grable left Fox, the studio moved Monroe into her old dressing room, which still had her name on the door. When they asked to get a photo of Monroe in front of Grable's name, signaling a transition of stars, Monroe absolutely refused.
In the 1960s, Grable found herself broke and out of the Hollywood studio system that had once rocketed her to fame. She had to resort to drastic measures. Using her famous pin-up pose, she did a series of commercials for Playtex Shorties just to make back some of the money her husband had lost. And then she lost her husband.
All and all, Grable and Harry James stayed married for 22 miserable years, with each coming New Year marking out a new low of betting, squandering, drinking, and philandering. In 1965, Grable finally worked up the courage to stand up for herself again, and divorced James on the grounds of "extreme cruelty." Yep, sounds about right.
In case it isn't clear just how much Betty Grable influenced American culture, get a load of this. Before he was a magazine mogul, Hugh Hefner served in WWII and, like practically all of his comrades, fell in love with Grable's pin-up photo. Grable stuck in his head so much that when Hefner returned home, he set to work on Playboy with her in mind. How's that for a legacy.
Grable’s pin-up photo was so popular during WWII that approximately 5 million men serving overseas had it. But this led to one utterly harrowing story. Reportedly, one US fighter perished with Grable's famous photograph clutched right in his hand, as if America's Sweetheart could somehow save him.
As a publicity stunt, Grable's studio went and actually insured her stems for a literal million dollars at the height of her fame. That's right all you supermodels, Grable did it first.
Studio head Darryl Zanuck had only signed Grable onto Down Argentine Way because his original lead, starlet Alice Faye, had to drop out at the last minute. So when the film became a box office titan, with critics lauding Grable's performance and anointing her as Faye's successor, it looked like Grable had won herself another rival. The plot only thickened from there.
In another classic act of studios taking advantage of gossip, Fox cast both Faye and Grable in Tin Pan Alley before the dust had even settled on the nascent feud. Yet again, rumors swirled about the set environment during the shoot, with many whispering that the two sparring starlets detested each other. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
In actuality, though Betty Grable and Alice Faye had never even met each other before shooting began on Tin Pan Alley, the actresses got along famously almost immediately after encountering each other on set. Not only did they always deny the rumors of a rivalry, they became lifelong friends. Another win for shine theory.
1943 was a massive year for Betty Grable: She was the most valuable Hollywood star, ending the year as the top earner at the box office. This gets even more impressive when you think about the competition she was up against, including classic heavy hitters like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. Yeah, she was that big.
Before taking her famed pin-up photo, Betty Grable was working on cheering up the servicemen in another manner. At the start of WWII, Hollywood opened up the Hollywood Canteen for enlisted men who were on the verge of service. Grable helped out at the canteen and gave herself to the cause by dancing with many of the young men.
Sadly, Betty Grable passed young. In the 1970s, only a handful of years after her career really went on the decline, doctors diagnosed Grable with lung cancer. She was a heavy smoker for most of her life, and the disease had advanced frighteningly. On July 2, 1973, the American screen legend passed at the tender age of 56, without any chance for a comeback.
By now, you, your parents, your grandparents, and most of the world for that matter have seen Betty Grable's pin-up photo, even if you don't remember it. From the moment it came out it was iconic, and immediately became the most popular pin-up poster. But there is a twist that many people don't know about the photo.
Grable's pose in her iconic pin-up photo is now a classic, and she looks over one shoulder, back to camera, in a revealing white bathing suit. But there was good reason for this particular set-up. When Grable showed up to the shoot, she was actually seven months pregnant. To hide her baby hump, she turned her back to the camera, and a legend was born.
Besides the insatiable womanizing, Grable's second husband Harry James had other horrific qualities to round out his nomination for Worst Husband Ever. He was also a rabid gambler and drinker, and as time wore on, he began to use Grable's hard-earned success as his meal ticket. Grable, being generally kind-hearted and very in love, somehow let him.
Betty Grable really tried her best to make it work after moving to Nevada. While in Las Vegas, she took the opportunity to begin starring in her own productions, and later productions with her husband Harry James. It just simply wasn't enough. Between the two of them, they lost over $24 million gambling in Las Vegas, squandering Grable's fortune.
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