Conn and Lillian Grable had a pact – no more children. It was 1916 – Marjorie was 6 and their little son John had just died. But when Lillian found herself pregnant again she was not going to give up her baby- no matter what Conn said.
Lillian’s dream was to be a dancer. She had no talent but was determined to produce a star. Marjorie had taken to throwing fits when Lillian tried to get her to dance so the new baby was all the hope she had left. Lillian had a rough pregnancy- ten weeks in she broke her hip but refused treatment so she could continue her pregnancy – the injury left her with a lifelong limp. Betty Grable was born on December 18, 1916 in St. Louis at 3858 Lafayette Avenue.
Betty took naturally to her mother’s dance instructions – practicing on demand and for hours to perfect her technique. Lillian bribed her with visits to the horse stables to convince Betty to practice because Betty loved horses. She went to Clark’s Dance School in St. Louis and attended the Mary Institute, located where the St. Louis airport is today. When she was seven, Lillian entered Betty in an amateur talent show – directly going against Conn’s wishes. He didn’t want his daughter paraded around on the stage, but his opinion didn’t count with Lillian. She wanted a star and she was determined to get one.
Betty won the first heat of the competition but came in third in the final competition and was dealt a serious blow – literally. Lillian slapped her across the face as soon as she walked off the stage. She pointed to her hip saying, “I suffered agonies bringing you into this world. Don’t you ever dare to let me down again!” This was the first time Betty really felt the wrath of her mother’s desire for stardom. She learned then she had to be a star.
After Conn came into some money in the early 20’s, the family moved to the Forest Park Hotel on West Pine in St. Louis. Betty and her mother left the rest of the family and moved to California so Betty could audition in films. By the time she was 13, Betty was a chorus girl in a Hollywood film – a direct violation of child labor laws. Lillian had lied about her age and dyed her hair platinum blonde so she would look older. Betty would later be fired for this infraction.
It wasn’t long, though before Betty would be starring in plenty of movies. She was a chorus girl through the 1930s, typecast in several movies as a dancing co-ed. By the late ’30s she had made enough money to support herself, her husband and her family. She was ready to give it all up and finally find the occupation that would make her happy, but was offered another contract with 20th Century Fox. She made the decision to stay in the business. A few years later, in 1943, she posed for a publicity picture looking over her right shoulder. The picture went viral and Betty was catapulted into stardom. She was the top box-office draw that year, and by the end of the 1940’s was making over $300,000 a year, the highest paid entertainer of 1947.
Betty’s draw were her legs – they were such a commodity that 20th Century Fox insured them for a million dollars. Although she had skill, she never denied the fact that she was overpaid and undertalented. She was known for saying, “there are two reasons why I’m in show business, and I’m standing on both of them.”
Between her overbearing mother and her sex appeal, the real Betty Grable can be hard to discern. It’s interesting to speculate about what she would have chosen for her life without having the influence of an abusive mother who demanded Betty fulfill her dreams for stardom and a family who relied on her financial support. The remarkable thing about her, however, was her pragmatism. Through it all she emerged a person very down to earth with genuine connections to people. She died in 1973 and is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.
Hall of Famous Missourians, State Capitol, Jefferson City
The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs by Tom McGee