May 13, 1922– Beatrice Arthur:
“I think we made television a little more adult; I really do.”
Until she left this world in spring 2009, Bea Arthur was the oldest living Gay Icon. She was born a few weeks before Judy Garland. She wasn’t a Diva and she wasn’t a boozing, pill-popping mess; Arthur was just the absolute essence of liberal strength and forward thinking, always willing to take on the Archie Bunkers of the world. One can only imagine what she, or any of her characters would have to say about a certain grifter from Queens who’s currently living in The White House.
LGBTQ folks just love The Golden Girls (1985 to 1992), for two reasons. First, the girls were single in their 50s, 60s and beyond. A young gay man’s biggest fear is getting really old alone, and the Golden Girls remind them to STFU because it’s not that bad. Second, in the sexually-awkward 1980s, the sweet old ladies in The Golden Girls were a sneaky cover to get vulgar sexual conversations on daytime TV. Gay people, like all human beings who aren’t repressed, love vulgar sexual content.
She was born Bernice Frankel in NYC, but she grew-up in small town Maryland. During WW II, she worked as a truck driver and typist in the US Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. When the war was over she moved to NYC to study acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School For Social Research. Among her classmates were Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau and the actor/director Gene Saks, whom she married in 1950. They divorced in 1978.
She went by Bea, but Arthur was billed in her acting credits as Beatrice, a name she made up:
“I changed the Bernice almost as soon as I heard it.”
She chose Beatrice because, she said, she imagined it would look lovely on a theater marquee. The name Arthur is a modified version of the name of her first husband, screenwriter/producer Robert Alan Aurthur.
Arthur began her career working on stage beginning in the late 1940s. Audiences and critics took note when as a company member of Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre, she played Lucy Brown in the long-running Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera in 1954. Also in the cast were Lotte Lenya and young actors Jerry Orbach, Jerry Stiller and Charlotte Rae.
And in 1955, in a well-received musical Shoestring Revue, she was spotted by the man who would become her lifelong friend and professional promotor, Norman Lear.
She sang in nightclubs and worked occasionally on television, appearing regularly on Kraft Television Theater (1947-58) and other shows featuring live drama.
In 1964, she appeared in her first Broadway Musical, Fiddler On The Roof, playing Yente The Matchmaker. In 1966, Arthur won a Tony Award for playing Vera Charles opposite Angela Lansbury’s Mame, directed by her husband Saks, reprising her stage performance in the unfortunate film version of Mame (1974), again directed by Saks, this time alongside poor Lucille Ball. She came through that one unscathed. Barely. She made her film debut in the smart comedy Lovers And Other Strangers (1970).
But, everything changed for Arthur’s career when she did a guest-spot on Lear’s pop culture phenomenon All In The Family (1971-79) as Edith Bunker’s cousin, Maude Findlay, a brash, liberal feminist. The role made her a household name. She was almost 50-years-old, but Arthur’s tart turn on All In The Family proved so popular that CBS gave Arthur and her character their own series, simply titled Maude (1972-78). This brought Arthur seven Emmy Award nominations and five Golden Globe nominations, with an Emmy win in 1977. The groundbreaking series took on serious issues of the era, many considered just too much for a television sitcom: the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s presidency, divorce, menopause, drugs, alcoholism, mental illness, Women’s Lib, Gay Rights, abortion, and domestic abuse.
The two-part Maude’s Dilemma episode airing in November 1972 has Maude’s discovering a late-life pregnancy and grappling with having an abortion. It aired just two months before Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal nationwide. By the episode’s conclusion, Maude, who lived in New York’s Westchester County where abortion was already legal, chooses to end her pregnancy. Many CBS affiliates refused to broadcast the program, and Arthur received tons of hate mail. Arthur:
“The reaction really knocked me for a loop. I really hadn’t thought about the abortion issue one way or the other. The only thing we concerned ourselves with was: Was the show good? We thought we did it brilliantly; we were so very proud of not copping out with it.”
Maude was the political flipside of All In The Family, with an out-spoken Democrat instead of a loud-mouthed Republican. All In The Family’s Archie Bunker was portrayed as a lovable lunkhead with a weak grasp of the issues; Maude Findlay satirized what Lear called “horse’s ass liberals”, who try so hard to prove their point that they end up exposing their own prejudices. Lear and Arthur made Feminism funny. Arthur:
“We tackled everything except hemorrhoids”
After Maude, Arthur was able to use her distinctive husky alto voice, commanding height and crack comic timing to create a second landmark female television character, Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls (1985-1992). My friends, World Of Wonder writer Trey Speegle wrote a thoughtful piece earlier this week about why The Golden Girls resonates so strongly for LGBTQ people.
The Golden Girls was an incredible popular show. It still is, you can see it daily in reruns. It was revolutionary too, but in a different way than Maude. It was created by Susan Harris who wrote Maude’s abortion episode. You know all about it. But its focus on four previously married women sharing a house in Miami, with its emphasis on the loves of older characters, it ran counter to the network executive’s idea that youthful sex appeal was the key to ratings success.
But, The Golden Girls was plenty sexy. It was like Maude in that it used comedy to deal with serious issues like aging, gun control, Gay Rights and domestic violence. And, like Maude, it pushed limits, and let’s face it, the show was rather risqué. As Dorothy, Arthur was coiffed and clothed in a softer, more feminine way than Maude, but she was just as sharp-tongued. Arthur, Rue McClanahan (who had a regular role on Maude), Betty White and Estelle Getty, who was younger than Arthur, but played Dorothy’s mother, portrayed older women who still dated and, to different degrees, were openly horny.
After The Golden Girls, she toured for years in a one-woman show, An Evening With Bea Arthur, singing songs and relating anecdotes about her life I showbiz.
Arthur was an Animal Rights activist and a big supporter of People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals (PETA), joining after a Golden Girls anti-fur episode. At PETA headquarters in Virginia, there is a dog park named the Bea Arthur Dog Park in her honor.
She was also longtime champion of Equal Rights for women and an active advocate of the LGBTQ, Elderly, and Jewish communities. She chose television roles that selected her personal values. She was a true progressive Democrat:
“I’ve been a Democrat my whole life. That’s what makes Maude and Dorothy so believable, we have the same viewpoints on how our country should be handled.”
Arthur was fully aware that she was deeply loved by the LGBTQ community. In a 1974 episode of Maude, Maude’s New Friend, Maude befriends a gay novelist, Barry (played by Soap’s Robert Mandan), who she is crazy about, but her husband Walter finds insufferable. The show delves into the complications of bigotry, asking whether Walter can’t admit his homophobia, or if Maude only likes Barry because his gayness makes her feel hip.
In 2005, Arthur first learned about the Ali Forney Center, which provides services to NYC’s homeless LGBTQ youth, when her friend, set designer Ray Klausen, told her the organization was in financial trouble. Arthur offered to mount a benefit performance of her one-woman show to raise money. It meant leaving her home in LA; it was mid-December and Arthur hated the cold. She had to borrow a winter coat from Angela Lansbury. She helped raise enough money to help the shelter get through that winter.
Arthur’s took her final bow at her home in Brentwood on April 25, 2009, taken by cancer. She left a large endowment to the Ali Forney Center. An 18-bed shelter on the Lower East Side is named in her honor.
When The Beatrice Arthur Residence was dedicated, her son, Michael Saks said:
“Having it named for her is something she wouldn’t have wanted. She led a deeply private and humble life. But too bad. She deserves it.”
Arthur continued to work until the end:
“Actors don’t retire; people who are in jobs they don’t like retire.”