Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Bea Arthur

Episode Summary

Bea Arthur (1922-2009) was a comedian who used her height and unusually deep voice to reimagine what an American leading lady could look and sound like. Her characters on hit shows, Maude and The Golden Girls, became icons during the women’s movement of the 1970s and 80s and offered refreshing portrayals of strong women who didn’t conform to gender norms.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today we’re talking about a comedian who used her height and unusually deep voice to reimagine what an American leading lady could look and sound like. Her characters on hit shows, Maude and The Golden Girls, became icons during the women’s movement of the 1970s and 80s and offered refreshing portrayals of strong women who didn’t conform to gender norms. 

Let’s talk about Bea Arthur. 

Bernice Frankel was born on May 13, 1922 in New York City. She was the second of Phillip and Rebecca Frankel’s three daughters. When Bea was eleven, her father moved the family to Cambridge, Maryland to run a clothing store. Bea was the tallest girl in her class, resulting in typical middle school awkwardness. In addition to the run of the mill challenges of adolescence, Bea’s family was also one of the only Jewish families in their town, and they were subject to antisemitism.  To overcome her insecurities, Bea developed a cutting sense of humor, even winning the title of “wittiest girl” in her class at Cambridge High. 

At the age of 20, Bea became one of the first women to enroll in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Paperwork from the interview process notes that she came off as argumentative and overly aggressive. One reviewer went so far as to write, “Officious -- but probably a good worker if she has her own way!” After basic training, Bea worked first as a typist in the Marine headquarters in Washington D.C. before transferring to the Motor Transport School where she served as a truck driver and dispatcher in Cherry Point, North Carolina. She was honorably discharged in 1945 at the rank of staff sergeant. In 1947, Bea married fellow Marine, Robert Alan Aurthur. 

After leaving the Marines, Bea attended the Franklin Institute of Science and Arts, and worked as a lab technician for a year before moving to New York City to pursue show business. She joined the New School’s Dramatic Workshop to study under Erwin Piscator with classmates including Harry Belafonte, Rod Steiger and Walter Matthau. While Piscastor took to Bea’s height and naturally deep voice -- casting her as leads in classic plays such as Taming of the Shrew and Clytemnestra -- Bea found that the rest of the professional theater world was less open-minded to such an unconventional leading lady. 

Finding little success in classical theater, Bea began a career singing in nightclubs. During this time, she and Robert Aurthur divorced and Bea remarried a fellow Picastor student, the actor and director Gene Saks. Together, they adopted two sons, Matthew and Daniel. 

Bea landed her first big break in 1954 when she was cast in the long-running off-Broadway hit, The Threepenny Opera. Following rave reviews of her comedic timing and satire, Bea became an in-demand character actor on and off Broadway. 

Bea originated the role of Yente the Matchmaker in the Broadway’s production of The Fiddler on the Roof and she received a Tony Award in 1966 for best supporting actress of her portrayal of Vera Charles is Mame. She would later reprise the role in the 1974 film adaptation.

Her Broadway success translated to the silver screen when All in the Family’s creator, Norman Lear, persuaded Bea to make a guest appearance on the show in 1971. Bea played Maude, Edith’s liberal cousin who delights in skewering conservative-minded Archie. Bea’s performance won the attention of CBS executives and Lear worked with Bea to create a spinoff series, Maude, which premiered in 1972. 

In its six seasons, Maude explored a variety of controversial topics, from alcoholism to psychoanalysis and the Vietnam War. It was Maude’s decision to have an abortion that truly broke television taboos. The episode brought both protests and popularity as Maude became an icon of the growing women’s movement in the early 1970s. Bea won an Emmy Award for her performance on the show in 1977. 

The success of Maude and Bea’s ensuing celebrity caused tension within the gender dynamics of Bea’s own marriage. Bea and Gene divorced in 1978. A few years later, in 1985 Bea said, “I don’t think I ever truly believed in marriage anyway. I guess marriage means that you’re a woman and not a...person.” 

Bea continued to break convention in her on-screen portrayal of Dorothy Zbornak, a divorced schoolteacher in the hit show -- The Golden Girls. From 1985 to 1992, Bea starred opposite Betty White, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan in a bold and comedic portrayal of four senior women navigating female friendship, romance and aging in Florida. Bea won a second Emmy award for the role in 1988. In 2002, she returned to Broadway with a one woman show, Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends. 

Outside of acting, Bea was a strong supporter and activist for animal rights, AIDS-related causes and LBGTQ youth. 

Bea passed away on April 25, 2009. She was 86 years old. 

In 2016, thanks to her financial generosity and activism, an 18-bed home for homeless LGBTQ youth was opened in New York City and named in her honor: The Bea Arthur Residence. 

Bea’s distinctive portrayals of both Maude and Dorothy broadened the American conception of what womanhood could look and sound like. Both women were sharp-tongued and did not conform to traditional standards of beauty or wifely duty. Instead, they held themselves tall and spoke their minds -- a portrayal of women that is still, in many ways, a rarity in pop culture today. 

All month we’re talking about leading ladies. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!