August 28, 1921– Nancy Kulp:
“If one is past 50 or 60, coming out is almost like saying that most of your life you’ve been too embarrassed to admit it or to speak up.“
I came out of the closet in 1971 at 17 years old, but I had been on the hunt for clues to the famous people who might be queer since I was able to read. Little did I know that a familiar face on the television was hiding that secret.
Kulp is much loved by baby boomers for her role on that silly, yet very successful television series, The Beverly Hillbillies (1962 -1971), playing the role of the prim, efficient Miss Jane Hathaway, secretary to banker Milburn Drysdale (Raymon Bailey). She and Drysdale were managing the fortune of the Clampetts, a hillbilly family who had relocated to Beverly Hills after striking oil on their property in Tennessee. The sitcom concentrated on the contrast between the rubes that made moonshine, kept critters, and called their swimming pool the “cement pond” and the upscale residents of Beverly Hills who surrounded them. Hathaway was always called “Miss Jane” by the Clampett clan. She was unaccountably attracted to the sweet, simple-minded Jethro Bodine (Max Baer, Jr.), nephew of patriarch Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen).
Above: clockwise: Baer, Kulp, Bailey, Donna Douglas, Ebsen, and Irene Ryan in The Beverly Hillbillies, CBS via YouTube
Critics dismissed the series, calling it strained and unfunny, but viewers found it hilarious and it went on to have an even longer life once it went into syndication. During its first two seasons, it was the Number One program in the USA. In its second season, it earned the highest ratings ever for a half-hour sitcom. The delightfully daffy Season Two episode The Giant Jackrabbit remains the most-watched half-hour of television from the 1960s.
The Beverly Hillbillies may have been hated by the critics, but amazingly, it still went on to receive seven Emmy Award nominations. From 1962 to 1964 the program averaged nearly 57 million viewers. These numbers are even more incredible when you put them in perspective: in the 1960s America only had around 190 million people, so, nearly a third of the USA was tuning into the show each week.
It must have been some very smart gay director that saw the comic potential in the young lesbian who worked in the studio’s publicity department, and thought to ask her to be in his next film. It was George Cukor who cast Kulp, then just 30 years old , as (what else?), a comic spinster in The Model And The Marriage Broker (1951). It was a role that she played with some variation for the rest of her 38-year career. She could squeeze every last drop of funny from the sad cliché of the sexless, manless old maid parts. Critics could be cruel in their critiques of Kulp, describing her as prime-time’s homeliest girl. One critic wrote:
“Kulp has the face of a shriveled balloon, the figure of a string of spaghetti, and the voice of a bullfrog in mating season.“
She played her thin roles with panache, first doing bit parts in Shane (1953), Sabrina (1954), and A Star Is Born (1954) before her success on television. Producer/Writer Paul Henning used her for three seasons on his The Bob Cummings Show, (1955-59) and then thought of Kulp for his next big project, The Beverly Hillbillies. Miss Jane remains one of the truly immortal early queer characters. Audiences laughed at her highly unlikely yearning for Jethro, a total hottie, when Baer wasn’t in drag as Jethro’s sister Jethrine. Kulp gave her own character all the dignity befitting a scholarly, single secretary who was happiest with her women-only bird-watching club. Miss Hathaway was devoted to her boss, but if he went too far with a zany scheme, she would call him out by exclaiming: “Chief!”
With Rock Hudson in the aptly titled Strange Bedfellows (1965)
Above: Sharon Tate, Judi Sherven, Joanna Barnes, Kulp, The Beverly Hillbillies Season 2, Episode 4, Elly Starts To School 1963, via YouTube
Kulp was rewarded with an Emmy nomination in 1967. When The Beverly Hillbillies went off the air in 1971, Kulp found work on The Brian Keith Show (1972-75), Sanford And Son (1972-77), and The Love Boat (1987-1997). She even worked on Broadway, appearing in Morning’s At Seven in 1981.
Kulp studied journalism in college and served in the US Navy during World War II. She received several awards while she was in the Navy including the American Campaign Medal.
After the war she worked as a reporter for television stations in Florida. She interviewed Clark Gable and the Duke and Duchess Of Windsor. She relocated to Hollywood in the early 1950s looking to work in the publicity department at a movie studio, and that was how she caught the eye of Cukor.
In 1989, she was the first guest on The Arsenio Hall Show and she sat with the house band where she referred to Hall as “Antonio”. She was also a favorite on several game shows including Password, Hollywood Squares, and The Match Game.
She also had a passion for politics, dating back to Adlai Stevenson‘s presidential campaign in 1952. In 1984, Kulp returned to her native Pennsylvania to run for Congress. She ran as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district against a popular incumbent. She got support from showbiz pal Ed Asner, but her The Beverly Hillbillies co-star Buddy Ebsen did a commercial where he called her “too liberal” and endorsed her opponent. It caused a rift between them that lasted for years, although they eventually reconciled. She lost the election.
She taught acting class and appeared on stage in regional theatre. After that, Kulp retired to Palm Springs, while still serving on the board of the Screen Actors Guild.
In 1989, Kulp came out of the closet, sort of. She was interviewed by writer Boze Hadleigh, for his book Hollywood Lesbians, when she said:
“Do you think that opposites attract? Well, I would be that other sort… I find that birds of a feather flock together. That answers your question.“
Miss Jane would have appreciated the avian reference, I think.
Kulp expressed her admiration for openly gay Congressman Barney Frank. Hadleigh asked her if she would have come out in Congress, if she had been elected. Kulp:
“Not voluntarily. If I were outed, then I would not deny it.“
Hadleigh waited to publish his book until 1994, when all the subjects had gone to their graves. So, Kulp never formally came out of the closet, but her gayness was no secret in the biz.
In a crazy twist, one of the best Miss Jane moments was when the Clampetts, feeling that money has corrupted them, gives their fortune away to a college student. While Mr. Drysdale moans the loss of the money, Miss Jane tells him to stop thinking about the Clampetts and start concentrating on getting the college student’s account. Eventually, everyone discovered the student’s selfish motives, and she is sent away, with the Clampetts getting their money back. That student is played by Sheila Kuehl, also a lesbian in real life, and also a loyal Democrat. In 1994, Kuehl became the first openly gay California legislator. She served on the Los Angeles County Board Of Supervisors, the first gay person to do so.
“I think I’ve been successful in making the distinction between actress and politician. But there’s always someone who screams, ‘Where’s Jethro?’“
In his final years, Bailey lived as a recluse on his houseboat in Laguna Niguel. He always kept in touch with Kulp, whom he called “Slim”.
Kulp’s final credits rolled in 1991, taken by that damn cancer at her home in Palm Springs. She was 69 years old when she left us. She appeared in 250 episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies.