She was the number-one pin-up girl of World War II. With her back to the camera smiling playfully over her right shoulder, her 1943 bathing suit poster became the most requested photo for GIs stationed overseas. Later, the photo was included in the LIFE magazine project "100 Photographs that Changed the World."
The youngest of three children, Elizabeth Ruth Grable was born on Dec. 18, 1916, in St. Louis, Missouri. While her father, John Charles Grable, supported the family as a stockbroker, her mother, Lillian Rose (Hofmann) Grable, groomed their youngest child for stardom. Betty, as she was nicknamed, was entered in multiple beauty contests, winning many, but always getting plenty of attention.
Grable was only 3 when she was enrolled in Clark's Dancing School for ballet and tap-dancing lessons. She was still 12 when she and her mother headed for Hollywood after the 1929 stock market crash. In California, she studied at Hollywood Professional High School and Ernest Blecher Academy of Dance. With her mother telling movie producers and casting agents she was 15, Grable began her film career but was fired from a contract when her true age became known. Her uncredited film debut was as a chorus girl in "Happy Days." This led to other chorus girl jobs during 1930.
Using the pseudonym Frances Dean, 13-year-old Grable signed with producer Samuel Goldwyn and became one of the original 20 Goldwyn Girls. Then she got a contract with RKO in 1932 and was assigned to acting, singing and dancing classes at the studio's drama school. Her first credited screen role was in "Probation." Her next contract was with Paramount, where she began appearing in B-movies with mostly college kids.
In 1939, she appeared opposite Jackie Coogan (her husband at the time) in "Million Dollar Legs," which was a B-movie comedy from whose title Grable's famous nickname was taken. But the musical wasn't a hit, and she was released from her contract. She was ready to leave Hollywood for a simpler life when Buddy DeSylva offered her the starring role in the Broadway musical "Dubarry Was a Lady." It was her big break. She became the biggest film star of the 1940s.
The American Movie Exhibitors voted her the No. 1 box-office draw in 1943, outranking Bob Hope, Gary Cooper, Greer Garson, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. That same year she did a studio photo session with photographer Frank Powolny. Several photos were taken with her in a tight, one-piece bathing suit. It was one of these photos that made her the number-one pin-up girl of World War II. According to the US Treasury Department, Grable was the highest paid woman in the US in 1946 and 1947. Later, 20th Century-Fox insured her legs with Lloyds of London for a whopping million dollars. Another source says the million-dollar policy was just a publicity stunt. Her legs were only insured for $250,000. In 1950, she was the most popular female at the box office, ranking fourth overall behind John Wayne, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
She officially retired from motion-pictures in 1955 but continued working on Broadway and on stage in Las Vegas. During her career she married twice — Jackie Coogan in 1937 (divorced in 1939) and Harry James in 1943 (divorced in 1965). She and James were blessed with two daughters.
Elizabeth Ruth (Betty) Grable was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Feb. 8, 1960. She died 13 years later in Los Angeles, California, of lung cancer on July 2, 1973. She was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1990 and the Hall of Famous Missourians in 2009.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County and has written Historically Yours for the Boonville Daily News for more than 10 years. In celebration of Missouri's Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show-Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to [email protected]