by Spero Pastos

Although she was the female superstar of her day, Betty Grable will always be remembered not for her singing, dancing or acting, but for one pose. In the 1941 publicity still from 20th Century-Fox, she was dressed in a white bathing suit and baby-doll heels with her back to the camera. Tossing her head seductively over her right shoulder, Grable flashed a smile that radiated promise. The picture became a cherished pin-up for American Gls, and Betty Grable their innocent wartime fantasy girl. But according to this book she had a complex, often grim real life—another saga of disillusionment out of the Mommie Dearest school of celebrity biography. A contract actress at 13 and a Broadway head-liner at 22, Grable became tops at the movie box office in 1943, edging out Bob Hope. Marilyn Monroe would later cultivate her as a friend, studying her body movements and extracting what tips she could about becoming a sex goddess. Grable's magic, however, didn't extend to the other side of the camera. The creation of her stagestruck mother, Billie, she was an emotional cripple who chose masochistic romantic relationships. On July 5, 1943 she married trumpet player Harry James. An alcoholic and a gambler, he all but ruined his family. Grable became a drinker and a gambler herself, and together they squandered more than $5 million. The most devastating portrait, though, is of the home life they created for their two_daughters. James was an irresponsible, absentee father who undermined his wife's self-respect with flamboyant sexual flings and burdened her with his gambling debts. Grable, with no real emotional support, became a sadistic tyrant who once punished her small daughter by putting out a cigarette on her arm. Grable died in 1973, her career and personal life having largely disintegrated around her. Pastos does a journeyman's job telling Grable's tragic story, mixing in a bit too much nickle-and-dime psychoanalysis. What makes his book such a good read is both the wealth of information he has gathered about this Hollywood phenomenon and the empathy and compassion he has for her and for her family. The most touching quotes are from Grable's younger daughter, Jessica, now 37 and a divorced mother of twins. Although she's obviously still struggling to understand why two people who had so much ended up being so cruel, she is generally kind to her mother's memory. Says Jessica: "She hated me because I reminded her of herself [as a young woman]. But I'm sure she loved me—I think there was a lot of love there." (G.R Putnam's Sons, $16.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Campbell Geeslin,
  • Mary Vespa,
  • Eric Levin.