By: Kirsten Fermaglich
“Let’s face it,” actress Bea Arthur told an interviewer in 1985, “nobody ever asked me to play Juliet.” At five feet, nine and a half inches, with a deep voice and commanding presence, Arthur has instead made her career playing “strong women” who speak their own minds and control everyone around them. Although these women have included such formidable characters as Yente in Fiddler on the Roof and Vera Charles in Mame, Arthur will probably always be best known for portraying liberal Maude Findlay, the “women’s libber” who stuck it to Archie Bunker on television’s All in the Family and then dominated her own situation comedy, Maude, throughout the 1970s. Arthur’s imperious and controversial Maude left a lasting imprint on American television and feminism.
Born Bernice Frankel in New York City on May 13, 1926, Arthur was the middle child of Phillip and Rebecca Frankel’s three daughters. When Arthur was eleven, her father’s financial troubles led him to move the family to Cambridge, Maryland, to run a clothing store. As one of the only Jews in a segregated southern city, as well as the tallest girl in all her school classes, Arthur faced anti-Semitic rejection, considered herself a “misfit,” and grew up “painfully shy.” She spent much of her time reading movie magazines and dreaming of becoming “a little, short, blonde movie star.” To hide her insecurities, Arthur developed a mean Mae West impression and won the title of “wittiest girl” in her class at Cambridge High School. After two additional years at private Linden Hall High School, Arthur studied at Blackstone College, a junior college in Virginia, and then graduated from the Franklin Institute of Science and Arts.
After working for a year as a medical laboratory technician in Cambridge, Arthur left for New York “to become someone else.” She entered the New School’s famous Dramatic Workshop to study with Erwin Piscator, along with classmates Harry Belafonte, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, and Tony Curtis. Although Piscator admired her height and deep voice and cast her in the leading role in classic plays like Taming of the Shrew and Lysistrata, Arthur was unable to find professional work in classical theater and instead began her career singing in nightclubs and reading bit parts on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. Despite a number of years without professional success, Arthur was personally happy. She married a fellow Piscator student, actor, and director Gene Saks, on May 28, 1950, and the two entered domestic bliss making audition rounds together.
Bea Arthur’s career took off when she landed the role of Lucy Brown in the long-running off-Broadway hit The Threepenny Opera in 1954. Receiving excellent reviews, Arthur was soon in demand as a character actress. Critics praised her for her “skillfully devastating” satire and claimed that she “ooze[d] comic command” in her various roles on and off Broadway. In 1964, she created the role of Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, and in 1966, she won the Tony Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of the acid-tongued Vera Charles in Mame, directed by her husband.
Despite her successes on Broadway, however, Arthur won her genuine celebrity status when Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family and a longtime admirer of Arthur, persuaded her to do a guest spot on the show in 1971. Appearing as Maude, Edith’s limousine-liberal cousin, Arthur skewered Carroll O’Connor’s Archie and won the immediate attention of CBS executives. Lear worked with Arthur to create a spin-off series, Maude, which premiered in 1972 and quickly moved into the top ten in the Nielsen ratings, winning Arthur an Emmy in 1977. In its six seasons, the show explored a host of controversial topics, including alcoholism and psychoanalysis, but it was Maude’s decision to have an abortion that broke television taboos, sparked loud protest, and propelled the show’s popularity in the liberal political environment of the early 1970s. As Maude, Bea Arthur inspired many female viewers as she came to symbolize the growing women’s movement, portraying a woman who “looked real. . . [who] said what she felt and could tell her husband to go to hell.”
Maude’s outspoken liberalism and controlling nature marked her as a stereotypical Jewish mother in the minds of some critics. Arthur and Saks insisted in 1972, however, that the show’s creators had intentionally made Maude a WASP matron because, “if you made her Jewish. . . her courage in fighting bigotry would be personal instead of ideological.” Although this assertion reflects television writers’ (and perhaps Arthur’s) uneasiness with Jewish identity, it also yields a grain of truth. Had Maude been labeled “a Jewish mother,” her courage and fiery independence probably would have been caricatured as insignificant nagging. The decision to make Maude a WASP allowed her to be a “prototypical woman” and thus an icon of the women’s movement.
In real life, Bea Arthur’s attitude toward feminism was much more ambivalent than that of her alter ego. In the early 1970s, Arthur insisted that she did not understand the women’s movement: “I’ve never felt that being a wife and mother isn’t enough.” Interviews portrayed her as a gentle, unpretentious woman deeply tied to her husband and two adopted sons, and nothing like the threatening Maude. By 1978, however, the series had produced tensions that shattered Arthur’s longtime marriage to Gene Saks, and in later interviews, Arthur actually adopted the language of the women’s movement: “I don’t think I ever truly believed in marriage anyway,” she told an interviewer in 1985. “I guess marriage means that you’re a woman and not a . . . person.”
Befitting her new status as a single, older woman, Bea Arthur created a new television character in the 1980s: Dorothy Zbornak, the divorced schoolteacher of The Golden Girls. From 1985 to 1992, Arthur played Dorothy as the sharp-tongued leader of four older women who lived together in Florida, coping with aging while looking for love and enjoying female friendship. This realistic, funny portrayal of senior citizens won the series a loyal older audience and helped Arthur gamer a second Emmy in 1988.
Despite her continued identification with the theater in the 1990s, it is clearly television audiences that have most warmly embraced Bea Arthur’s “strong women,” and it is through television that Arthur has most influenced American culture. On Maude, Arthur helped break down television barriers and normalize topics like abortion and alcoholism as subjects for open discussion. Perhaps even more important, selves. The sharp-tongued heroine who does not conform to cultural standards of youthful beauty or wifely duty but who holds herself tall and speaks her mind has been a rarity in American popular culture. Bea Arthur embodied this rarity and created a role model for many American women.
Arthur died at her home in the Greater Los Angeles Area in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 25, 2009. She had been ill from cancer.
Breslauer, Jan. “Arthur, Arthur.” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 1995; Current Biography (December 1973); Flatley, Guy. “Gene, for Heaven’s Sake Help Me!!” TV Guide (November 18, 1972); Harmetz, Aljean. “Maude Didn’t Leave ‘Em All Laughing.” NYTimes, December 10, 1972, and “NBC’s Golden Girls Gambles on Grown-Ups.” NYTimes, September 22,1985; Hentoff, Nat.”New Candor in Old America.” Village Voice, September 28, 1972; Hodenfield, Jan. “Maude Meets Marne,” New York Post, March 9, 1974; Honeycutt, Kirk. “We Ran Out of Controversy.” NYTimes, April16, 1978; “Maude Fraud.” People (November 17, 1975): 35-38; Oppenheimer, Dabby. “Maude Minces No Words.” Lady’s Circle (November 1974): 22+; Renold, Evelyn. “Bea Arthur.” New York Daily News, October 13, 1985; Stone, Judy. “She Gave Archie His First Comeuppance.” NYTimes, November 19, 1972.
Source: Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore eds. Jewish Women in America. NY: Routledge, 1997. Reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Historical Society.
Photo: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Author: Alan Light.