The Hard Knock Life of a Pin-Up Queen: Betty Grable

With her back to the camera, Betty Garble turned her head over her shoulder and smiled for one of the most iconic photos in history. Millions of soldiers held on to the now-classic pin-up photo, which motivated them to come home safe. With her talent and good looks, it was like Betty Grable was born for Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe / Betty Grable / Betty Grable / Betty Grable
Source: Getty Images

With a pushy stage mom and natural abilities, Betty was destined for stardom, but it came at a heavy price. Sure, she had that girl-next-door image, but what went on behind the scenes was dark, scandalous, and dramatic. As the queen of the pin-up, Betty Grable was the “ideal” woman, but that didn’t mean she had an ideal life.

From lying to breaking into Hollywood to the secret about that iconic pin-up photo, this is the amazing life of Old Hollywood starlet, Betty Grable.

Her Claim to Fame

As soon as the United States entered WWII, Hollywood started to create content from the brave Americans serving abroad. One of the main ways to entertain servicemen was through “pin-up” photos of beautiful women, which were turned into posters and sent overseas.

Betty Grable is posing with the arms behind her head.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

It was a form of morale for the soldiers, giving them the motivation to fight for the gorgeous ladies waiting for them at home. These girls were supposed to represent the “ideal woman,” but that image has evolved over the years. The pin-up was popularized by Rita Hayworth, but its most famous model was Betty Grable.

She Should Get Those Insured

Betty Grable received the nickname “Million Dollar Legs,” and there was a very good reason. Hosiery specialists and retailers often cited her legs as having the perfect proportions for stockings. And let’s just say Betty was well-aware of what brings home the money. A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.

A soldier, a sailor, and a marine hold Betty Grable as her legs are recorded on fresh concrete.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Don’t get me wrong, she certainly had the talent and beauty that is required for modeling, but her flawless legs didn’t hurt, and she knew those legs were her money-makers. In fact, Grable once said, “I became a star for two reasons, and I’m standing on them.”

She Had a Crazy Stage Mom

As a child, Betty Grable was an adorable, rosy-cheeked, blonde little girl. But don’t let the cuteness fool you; her life wasn’t perfect. She grew up with a pushy stage momager, who forced Betty into dance classes and tons of child beauty pageants in search of fame. Granted, the beautiful Betty won many of the contests, but her mom didn’t stop there.

Betty Grable is wearing a plaid shirt, sitting behind a child’s drum kit.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

When she couldn’t find a new dance class or pageant to enroll her daughter in, she got her fame fix from her friends. Lillian liked to “present” Betty at casual parties or gatherings and demand that she perform for the adults on command. I can see where this is going…

Not a Glamorous Childhood

Although she was a talented child performer in her local area, all the stress and pressure took a toll on young Grable. From a disturbingly young age, she dealt with crazy sleepwalking fits and developed a fear of crowds, known as “demophobia.”

Betty Grable as an infant.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

With the Great Depression approaching, Lillian’s determination to make her little girl a big star took another chilling turn. In 1929, 12-year-old Betty packed up her things, and her mother moved her from St. Louis, Missouri, to Hollywood, with hopes of making it big. However, Betty’s age was a major issue.

Her Big Fat Lie

As it turned out, Betty was too young since the minimum working age was 15, but that didn’t stop Lillian. It takes more than a few rules to stop a real stage momager. Instead of stepping back and deciding that it might not be the best idea to force her child into labor, Lillian got even more determined and unhinged.

Betty Grable as a young girl performing on stage.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

Like any manipulative stage mom, Lillian lied about Betty’s age, telling producers she had just turned 15. Once they took a look at Betty’s face, they were happy to believe it. The beautiful girl could become a money-making sensation!

She Had a Thing for Bad Boys

One of Grable’s first adult relationships was not the fairy tale you’d expect from a Hollywood Golden Age starlet. In her younger years, she dated dashing men and got together with the handsome but married George Raft. Raft was a tough guy actor often associate with sinister individuals such as Bugsy Seigel.

A portrait of George Raft.
George Raft, Marlene Dietrich/ Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Let’s just say this tough guy persona was no act, and it didn’t take him long to show Grable his bad boy side. He beat Grable, and she fled from the relationship. This was almost a century before the #MeToo movement, and women were terrified to leave abusive relationships. Betty Grable was extremely brave. If only it didn’t come back to bite her later…

She Was a Goldwyn Girl

Most aspiring actors spend years trying to make it in the cut-throat entertainment industry, but Betty Grable wasn’t your ordinary girl. In 1929, she made her movie debut, and by 1930, she was working as a chorus girl before the legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn signed her. This made Betty one of the original Goldwyn Girls, along with the stunning Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard.

Betty Grable is laying back on a pillow in a daydream.
Photo by Getty Images

Eventually, Lillian and Betty’s lies caught up to them in the worst possible way. Despite the fact that Fox Studios originally signed her, they quickly found out she was much younger than she was pretending to be. And much younger than the law permitted. Their response was immediate and brutal; they fired her on the spot.

Big Break Gone Bad

Almost since her first role, Betty Grable was irresistible for film studios. An unusual agreement took place when she starred in 1936’s Pigskin Parade. She was approached by 20th Century Fox who offered her the part and borrowed her from her new studio, Paramount. The successful movie showcased Grable to audiences, but not in the way you might think.

Judy Garland sings leading an orchestra in a scene from ‘’Pigskin Parade.’’
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Pigskin Parade was intended to be Betty Grable’s big break, but it ended up earning the starlet her very first Hollywood rival. It was also the first feature film of a young girl named Judy Garland. The talented Garland won over America with her performance; so, instead of making Betty Grable the new big actress, it introduced Judy Garland to the world.

Her Marriage Was Doomed

As we’ll soon see, Betty didn’t really have the best intuition when it came to her love life – and if she did, she didn’t listen to it. In 1937, she walked down the aisle with classic comedian and former child actor Jackie Coogan. He appeared in silent films, but his role in Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid made him one of the first child stars in Hollywood history.

Betty Grable and Jackie Coogan celebrate as they attend an event in Los Angeles.
Jackie Coogan, Betty Grable. Photo by William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Their relationship was, umm, a hot mess! First, Coogan was in the middle of a lawsuit he filed against his parents. The stress caused a huge strain on the relationship, and their marriage was over by 1939.

The Ditzy Blonde Girl

With her girl-next-door charm and amazingly good looks, Betty lived one scrappy existence as a struggling actress. After Pigskin Parade, Betty found herself typecast as a naïve college student, in a series of boring roles and even duller movies. This wasn’t what she thought Hollywood was going to be like.

A portrait of Betty Grable.
Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis/Getty Images

She didn’t like her films or any of the characters she played, but she didn’t have much of a choice. Paramount wasn’t pleased with their starlet’s unsuccessful films, so they fired her again. But this time, before she left, she got some sweet revenge.

Million Dollar Legs

The last film Grable made with Paramount was the B comedy Million Dollar Legs, alongside her husband-at-the-time Jackie Coogan. Other than mixing business with pleasure, this was the film that gave Betty Grable (and her flawless legs) her long-lasting nickname, Million Dollar Legs. These were the early days of her seductive image that would quickly turn into a worldwide success.

A studio portrait of Betty Grable is lifting her legs.
Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis/Getty Images

By 1939, 23-year-old Betty felt washed up and was ready to retire from movies altogether. The exhausted actress took her talents to the stage and joined the cast of the Broadway musical DuBarry Was a Lady. That’s when everything changed.

Her Hollywood Comeback

The play was an immediate hit, and for the first time in the starlet’s life, she got back at the studios that hadn’t appreciated her talent and hard work. While Berry was busy making it on Broadway, she caught the attention of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck.

Betty Grable and Don Ameche in a publicity still from the film ‘Down Argentine Way.’
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

As soon as he saw her perform, he didn’t even think she was destined to be a star; his first thought was that she was already a star. He didn’t waste any time offering her a contract and signing her to a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox. Betty Grable’s next film, Down Argentine Way, was a massive hit, but fame always comes with a little drama.

Will You Marry Me?

The 1942 classic Springtime in the Rockies was an incredible success for everyone involved, but Betty Grable got more out of the deal than just some box-office dollars; she also got some passionate romance. She seems to have mixed business with pleasure on more than occasion.

Harry James and Betty Grable are cutting their wedding cake in Las Vegas.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

She met the charming bandleader Harry James when he starred alongside Betty in the film. The two hit it off quite quickly and tied the knot one year later. Unfortunately, when things start fast, they tend to end fast. Sadly, this marriage was doomed to end in heartbreak.

She Was a Homewrecker

As we know from one of her previous relationships, Betty Grable had a thing for men who were off the market. When she first met James, he was married, and their flirtation was extremely illicit for the era.

Betty Grable attends a cocktail party.
Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Eventually, James divorced his wife and was ready to make an honest woman out of Betty Grable, but this wasn’t something that came from the goodness of his heart. He had a much more selfish reason for walking down the aisle. Considering he was a cheater, selfish motives aren’t very shocking…

The Studio Planned a Quickie Wedding

One day, after sneaking and sleeping around, James and Betty found out that the starlet was pregnant. This moral quandary was even worse than the cheating fiasco. As soon as the studio executives found out the news, they took full control of the situation.

Betty Grable holds her 10-weeks-old daughter.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Instead of congratulating their young movie stars, they pressured and pretty much forced them into a quicky wedding. This scandal would not do well for their studio business. Given the fact that they literally got married to please their studio, we can see where this is going…

She Sure Knew How to Pick Them

Although she was a rich, famous, beautiful, and talented starlet, Betty Grable had awful taste in men. The actress and Harry James became a Hollywood superstar couple. Everyone wanted what they had, and their relationship was “CoupleGoals” in today’s terms.

Betty Grable, Harry James, and their thoroughbred,
Photo by Bettman/Getty Images

But things weren’t rainbows and butterflies behind closed doors. James was a serial womanizer who just could not keep it in his pants, whether or not he was married. In fact, he had a reputation for endurance and “indiscriminate taste.” Someone should have warned Betty that if he cheats with you, he’ll cheat on you. But that wasn’t the only damper in their relationship.

Her Stalker Ex

Betty Grable and Harry James decided to name their first-born daughter Victoria Elizabeth, after Betty’s character in Springtime in the Rockies. Umm… I guess it’s as good as an inspiration as any. Right after Betty and James got together, she got an unwanted visit from the Ghost of Boyfriends Past.

A portrait of George Raft in the shadows.
Photo by United Artists/De Carvalho Collection/Getty Images

As it turned out, gangster actor George Raft had never really gotten over her. Once he found out that she got together with the bandleader, Raft had one of his buddies follow the couple as they went home together. The results were nothing short of scandalous.

She Was Caught Doing the Deed

Betty and James, being the naughty couple that they were, immediately went into the bedroom when they entered their home. They were in the middle of getting it on when they suddenly heard a THUMP followed by some groans coming from outside their window.

Betty Grable is about to be kissed.
Photo by LMPC/Getty Images

The confused couple looked outside just in time to figure out what was going on. They saw Rafty’s crony cursing and limping away from his failed detective mission. He wasn’t a very good spy as he fell out of the tree he had posted up in. He got what he deserved if you ask me.

She Was Extremely Insecure

Sometimes it’s hard to view celebrities as ordinary people like you and me. Given her incredible talent and great fame, it may be hard to believe that Betty Grable was insecure about her skills. Unfortunately, that mindset and lack of confidence led to a pretty bad habit.

Betty Grable lifts her Robe to look at her legs in the mirror.
Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images

She was so insecure that the starlet continuously turned down “important” movie roles that would have broadened her acting skills and showcase her ability to play all different types of characters. She was specifically worried about starring alongside famous male actors.

Her Fears Kept Her From an Iconic Role

Grable’s insecurities didn’t just go away. The fact that she didn’t believe in herself and her acting talent came back to haunt her in 1947. During the Academy Awards that year, actress Anne Baxter won the Oscar for her amazing performance in The Razor’s Edge.

A portrait of Anne Baxter as Sophie MacDonald from the movie ‘The Razor’s Edge.’
Photo by Mondadori/Getty Images

When Betty Grable saw that win, it stung her a little. Originally, producers had offered her the role, but she turned it down. She was stubborn and scared to face new challenges. But she quickly realized all the opportunities she was missing out on because of fear.

I Think I Deserve a Raise

When the 1950s rolled around, Betty Grable was one of the most popular actresses at the box office. I mean, the phrase “as American as apple pie and Betty Grable” didn’t come out of nowhere. Encouraged by all her success, Betty Grable tried to do something she’d never done before.

Betty Grable in a gold dress.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The starlet finally realized it was time to challenge herself and take on a more difficult role and push herself as an actress, and a well-respected one at that. Because of her extreme popularity, she decided to ask the studio for a raise. Unfortunately, it didn’t go exactly as planned.

Two Can Play at This Game!

It would make sense for the studio to give the hard-working actress a bigger paycheck. After all, audiences adored her! However, the money-hungry men in charge of Fox denied Betty Grable’s request, which really enraged her. She expected a yes.

The press takes a shot of Darryl Zanuck during a party.
Photo by Jacques Haillot/Apis/Sygma/Getty Images

Infuriated with the rude Fox executives, Betty took out her contract, marched right into studio head Darryl Zanuck’s office, and ripped it up into pieces in front of him. In her defense, the starlet was simply trying to stand strong and not let these powerful men take advantage of her. Unfortunately, it backfired terribly.

Or Maybe Only One Can…

Since she had the nerve to walk into his office and tear up her contract, Zanuck fired Betty from the next movie she had lined up, and in doing so, he changed cinematic history. That next project was the starring role in the classic comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Maril Marilyn Monroe on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

In other words, the movie that launched Miss Marilyn Monroe to stardom. Yikes! Taking the part away from Betty Grable was certainly a heartbreaking punishment. With all that immense fame, the girl just couldn’t catch a break. But the silver lining is that Monroe was introduced to the spotlight.

Pinning Women Against Women

Grable had a kind, tender heart and didn’t want to be on bad terms with anyone. She eventually reconciled with Zanuck, but he repaid her with yet another mean trick. The studio decided to put their fading star in How to Marry a Millionaire alongside the stunning Monroe and the new and shiny Lauren Bacall.

Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe pose for a portrait on the film ‘How to Marry a Millionaire.’
Photo by Earl Theisen/Getty Images

Betty Grable definitely didn’t feel good being pinned up against other beautiful women. It didn’t take long for rumors about alleged rivalries to fly, and the public had their own opinions on the relationship between the actresses. But it turned out the truth was very eye-opening.

She Inspired Marilyn Monroe

While working on How to Marry a Millionaire, Betty Grable was well aware that her star was fading. She was under no illusions and understood that it was only a matter of time before Monroe and her ample bosom were going to replace her and her million-dollar legs in the public eye.

Marilyn Monroe wears a golden dress as she poses for the film ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.’
Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But it looked like the starlet accepted it. The actress continued to be extremely kind and polite throughout the entire filming process. She was a professional, and it showed. She even gave Monroe her blessing, telling her in front of everyone, “Honey, I’ve had it. Go get yours. It’s your turn now.”

No Mean Girls Over Here

Inspiring Monroe and giving her her blessing wasn’t the only thing Betty did for the up-and-coming bombshell. She was a true friend to Monroe and helped show her the ropes. Her sincerity became clear during a publicity photo shoot for the movie.

Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable attend a premiere event.
Photo by M. Garrett/Murray Garrett/Getty Images

Betty happened to have noticed that Monroe’s toenails needed to be painted. She could have easily mean-girled the blossoming starlet. Instead of sabotaging her competition and allowing Monroe to be photographed with chipped nails, Betty took out her own polish and gave Monroe a pedicure! See, celebrities aren’t always feuding.

Goodbye, Hollywood

Betty Grable wasn’t one of those celebrities pushing herself into the public eye to try to stay relevant. When she realized her time was done in 1955, she decided to step away from the limelight and Hollywood altogether. That’s when she headed straight to her demise.

Betty Grable embraces her husband during an event.
Betty Grable, Harry James. Photo by M. Garrett/Murray Garrett/Getty Images

Instead of fame, she shifted her focus and attention on her completely normal marriage with Harry James, and the love birds moved to Las Vegas. Wait, did I forget to mention this guy was, and I quote, a “rabid gambler?” This entire ordeal went even more terribly than you might have thought.

She Felt Objectified

As we know, Betty Grable rode those million-dollar legs of hers to stardom, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come at a grotesque price. As soon as the high of her It Girl status wore off, the self-aware actress was mindful of her objectification. There is no denying that.

A portrait of Betty Grable posing in a white satin gown.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Betty once even admitted that “People talk about my legs as if I were a centipede.” She wished that fans would focus more on her talent than her looks. But in Hollywood, physical assets are important. Pretty people are just more successful on screen; why do you think so many people have their body parts insured these days?

Marilyn Monroe Had Her Back

Marilyn Monroe never forgot how kind Betty Grable was to her. After all, Monroe swooped in to basically take her place, but Betty remained sweet and compassionate toward the new girl. One day, Marilyn Monroe got the chance to pay her back during a heartfelt tribute.

Marilyn Monroe in a quiet moment in a restaurant.
Photo by Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When Betty Grable left Fox Studio, Monroe was given her old dressing room, which still said Betty Grable’s name on the door. They asked Monroe to get a photo of herself to put over Betty’s name, marking a transition of stars, but the blonde bombshell absolutely refused. She didn’t want people to forget about Betty Grable.

She Left Him… Eventually

The 1960s wasn’t Betty Grable’s best decade. The once dazzling starlet found herself out of money and out of the entertainment industry. The former actress resorted to drastic measures to pay the bills. She used her famous pin-up pose and did a series of commercials for Playtex Shorties just to make back some of the money her husband gambled away. Then she lost her husband.

Betty Grable at a press reception.
Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Betty was married to Harry James for 22 miserable years. Each new year came with a new low of betting, drinking, and sleeping around. In 1965, Betty finally worked up the courage to stand up to her husband. She divorced him on accurate grounds of “extreme cruelty.”

She Was the Inspiration for Playboy

In case Betty Grable’s influence on American culture isn’t clear enough, get a load of this. Before he was a magazine mogul, a man by the name of Hugh Hefner served in WWII. Like the rest of the soldiers on the battlefield, he fell in love with Betty Grable’s pin-up photo.

Betty Grable is wearing an army hat in a pin-up poster.
Source: Tumblr

It didn’t take long for Hefner to realize how much these “ideal” girls appealed to ordinary men. With Betty Grable stuck in his head, Hefner returned from war and started working on the infamous Playboy, which she inspired! Now, how’s that for a legacy?

A Man Died for Her

Betty’s pin-up photo was so incredibly popular during WWII that an estimated five million men serving overseas had it. Although looking at a beautiful woman can help raise the soldier’s morale, it also led to one utterly tragic story. One U.S. fighter perished with Betty’s pin-up photo clutched in his hand, as if America’s sweetheart could save him or something.

An air-craft with a printed image of Betty Grable.
Source: Flickr

Before she even took that infamous pin-up photo, Betty Grable was entertaining the troops in a different way. When WWII began, Hollywood opened up the Hollywood Canteen for enlisted men on the verge of serving. Betty was there and helped the cause by dancing with the dashing young men.

She Was a Star and So Were Her Legs

At the height of her fame, Betty’s studio went and had her legs insured for a million dollars. Sure, this is a pretty common occurrence nowadays to protect your money-making features, but back then, it was a publicity stunt. That’s right, Mariah Carey, Betty Grable did it first.

The camera gets closer to Betty Grable sitting on a couch.
Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

1943 was a big year for Betty Grable. She was the most valuable star in Hollywood and ended the year as the number one moneymaker at the box office. If that wasn’t impressive enough, she was up against classic heavy hitters like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Yep, that’s how big she was.

Another Hollywood Rival

Studio head Darryl Zanuck wasn’t planning on having Betty Grable appear on Down to Argentine Way. In fact, the only reason why he eventually signed her on was that his original lead, actress Alice Faye, needed to drop out of the movie at the last minute.

Alice Faye’s Hollywood portrait.
Alice Faye. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

So, when the movie ultimately became a box office sensation, critics praised Betty Grable’s brilliant performance and anointed Faye as her successor. Ouch! After that, it looked like Betty Grable had another rival in the industry. But don’t worry, the plot only thickens from there.

Besties Not Frenemies

In another attempt to take advantage of gossip, Fox decided to cast both Betty and Faye in Tin Pan Alley. This was before the dust even settled about this apparent feud. Unsurprisingly, it added fuel to the fire, and rumors circulated about a toxic work environment with people claiming that the sparring starlets hated each other.

Alice Faye and Betty Grable in a publicity still for the film Tin Pan Alley.
Alice Faye, Betty Grable. Photo by LMPC/Getty Images

But in reality, Betty Grable and Alice Faye didn’t even meet until they were on the set on Tin Pan Alley. And once the starlets were introduced, they got along famously well. Not only did they put the rivalry rumors to rest, but they remained friends for the rest of their lives.

What Did Betty Grable Die Of?

Unfortunately, Betty Grable was one of those starlets who left this world far too soon. In the 1970s, just a few years after her career deteriorated, Betty Grable was diagnosed with lung cancer. Unfortunately, her bad habits caught up to her.

Betty Grable greets the public.
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Betty Grable was a heavy smoker for most of her life, and once she was diagnosed with cancer, it advanced rapidly. The American screen legend was at the tender age of 56 when she passed away on July 2, 1973. She was forever gone with no chance for a comeback.

Her Big Pin-Up Secret

By now, pretty much everyone has seen Betty Grable’s pin-up photo at some point. As the most popular pin-up photo, it has become an iconic symbol of the servicemen’s morale at war. But there’s a twist you may not know about that photo.

A portrait of Bett Grable as she wears a one-piece bathing suit and looks over her shoulder.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In her now-classic pin-up pose, Betty Grable looks over one shoulder, back to the camera, in a revealing white swimsuit. (Well, it was considered revealing at the time.) But there was a reason for this particular set-up. Betty Grable was actually seven months pregnant when she showed up to the photo shoot. In order to hide the baby bump, she turned her back to the camera, and the legendary pose was created.

Gambling It All Away

Other than his womanizing ways, Betty’s second husband, Harry James, had other appalling qualities to really solidify his nomination for Worst Husband Ever. He was a rabid gambler, heavy drinker, and as time went on, he used Betty Grable’s hard-earned money after he wasted all of his. As a kind-hearted, generous wife, she somehow let him.

Betty Grable discusses with Harry James.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

After moving to Nevada with her husband, Betty Grable tried her hardest to make it work. She took the opportunity to star in two of her own productions, and later, with her husband, Harry James! Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Between the two of them, he lost over $24 million, gambling his wife’s money away.