Gritty Woman

updated 04/18/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/18/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As actress turned activist, Furness showed finesse

POPULIK NOVELS TEEM WITH VIVACIOUS young heroines who find glamor and romance in Hollywood, then struggle to find greater fulfillment. Few of these tales turn out as well as the story of Betty Furness.

That story began in New York City in 1930, when the 14-year-old daughter of a Union Carbide executive became a fashion model. Two years later she took a Hollywood screen test and was soon appearing with Robert Taylor (Magnificent Obsession) and Fred Astaire (Siving Time).

But that was just the opening chapter. In the '50s the former starlet became one of TV's first, and most believable, pitchwomen—the face that launched a thousand refrigerators with the promise "You can be sure if it's Westinghouse." Two decades later she again broke ground as one of the medium's first—and toughest—consumer reporters.

But Furness's odyssey was anything but smooth. When she died earlier this month at 78 after a battle with stomach cancer, she had spent much of her career fighting discrimination that she perceived as being based first on her sex. then on her age. After churning out 35 mostly frothy B movies in seven years, Furness quit Hollywood because, she later said, "I wasn't using my brain." As a pitchwoman, she was without peer. Yet in 1964, when she sought work as a news-interview host, Furness was rebuffed. "The networks," she said, "don't want women."

But Lyndon Johnson did want her as his special assistant for consumer affairs. Furness proved a quick study. As Peter Benchley, then a While House speechwriter, recalled: "They thought they were getting this little lady who opened refrigerator doors. They didn't know they were getting Attila the Hun." She went on to head the consumer-affairs agencies of New York State and New York City, and in 1976 she became consumer reporter for Today. "She was my role model," says veteran anchor Jane Pauley. "There isn't anybody in television that I admired more." Yet in 1992 Furness's years on the consumer beat came to an end. "She was fighting cancer," says her ex-boss Bill Bolster. "She just physically couldn't do it." Furness, however, told friends she'd been "eased out."

Near the end, Furness, an avid needlepointer, lived quietly in Hartsdale, N.Y., with her husband of 26 years, Leslie Midgley, a former executive producer with CBS News. (Her first marriage, in 1937, to composer Johnny Green, produced a child, Barbara, and ended in divorce; her second, in 1945, was to radio announcer Hugh Ernst and ended with his death in 1950.) "I once asked Betty what she would like people to think about her," recalls her longtime friend and producer Rita Satz, "and she replied, 'That I'm a pro.' She really was."

SUE CARSWELL in New York City

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