Pic of the day: Bea Arthur's Marines mug shot
Fri Dec 10 2010
Never mind that whole WikiLeaks business: The shockument that really has people talking today is the late Bea Arthur's Marine Corps enlistment file, which went live yesterday on the Smoking Gun. That Arthur served in the military for 30 months in the 1940s, rising to the rank of staff sergeant, was not a secret; the Daily News, for example, included her in its 2008 roundup of Semper Fi celebs. But although many considered her a feminist icon for her roles on The Golden Girls and Maude, the tough-talking star—whom we eulogized here last year and sang a tribute to here—denied her Marine background in interviews. So there's an unquestionable frisson in seeing the actual documents related to her enrollment (including an evaluation that describes her as "officious—but probably a good worker—if she has her own way!") and the two wonderful mug shots that accompany them, which depict a confident and attractive young woman of about 5'9". (Her signature mound of gray hair would later make her loom still larger.)
Why did Arthur try to cover up this history? We can't know. But Arthur's real personality was different in important ways from her professional persona. Strident though many of her signature characters may have been, the actor behind them was guarded about her personal life. Her 2002 one-woman Broadway show was notable for its lack of confessional material, especially in comparison with fellow minence grise Elaine Stritch's At Liberty, which opened the same week. In this interesting 2002 Hot Seat interview with TONY's Gia Kourlas, Arthur defended the show's nightclub-act approach: "I didn't want it to be autobiographical. I find that boring." Asked if she had discussed the character of Maude with its inspiration, activist Frances Lear, she replied: "Not really. She was just such a militant feminist," adding that she found much of feminism "a fucking bore, if you'll excuse me." As a tall contralto whose voice and physique often made her the object of fun ("I wouldn't fuck you with Bea Arthur's dick," Jeffrey Ross famously joked to Sandra Bernhard at a Friar's Club roast), perhaps Arthur balked at having her personal identity as a woman conflated with her mannish public image—an image that jibed all too neatly with her buried history as what the Smoking Gun headlines as "a truck-driving Marine." Arthur volunteered for military service at a time when female Marines were scarce; there is courage and nobility in that. But there is also some poignancy to her denial. Perhaps the confirmation of her secret service is so compelling because of the double nature of its lesson: that regular people can be heroic, and that heroes can turn out to be people.