Betsy Drake: The Last Lioness

Betsy Drake, Actress, Writer

Before we were This American House, we were blogging as Mr. and Mr. Blandings. In fact,
we’re still Mr. and Mr. Blandings on Twitter. Our nickname arose out of our love for the book and classic movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House as well as the radio series Mr. and Mrs. Blandings. The co-star and co-writer of that series, the extraordinary Betsy Drake, passed away in London on October 27th at age 92. The following is a personal reflection on this remarkable woman and her lasting achievements.

Betsy Drake was about to eat me alive. As I sat listening in on my dear friend, the painter Bernard Perlin, intrepidly holding his own in a tempestuous phone conversation with her one day in 2013, he suddenly motioned that he was going to soon put me on the line to say hello to her. I’d secretly been hoping for this moment for some time, well aware of Betsy Drake’s remarkable life story and close friendship with Bernard, yet also acutely aware of the highly volatile nature of the longtime relationship between these two very independent minds and spirits. After all, I’d become Bernard’s “ear in need,” enduring – or enjoying, depending on the tone of their conversation – many post-Betsy-call processing sessions with him. They loved each other; they loathed each other. Yet their friendship had endured some 50 years.

But here they were once again, two 90-plus-year-old fierce individualists going head-to-head – this time engaged in a lively debate over how to find (or pay for, which was Bernard’s suggestion) easy and regular sexual satisfaction – and my jaw was on the floor. Actually, so was the rest of me, for their conversation was equally uproarious and utterly terrifying in its intensity, particularly from Betsy’s end of the line. And then suddenly Bernard was beckoning me to pop directly into the line of fire to offer my well-rehearsed, cheery “hello, it’s so lovely to meet you!” A lamb to the slaughter, with a lioness (as I now imagined Betsy) licking her chops in anticipation of sinking her teeth into my “chops.” And so, I will admit it, I choked. Fled, in fact. I waved Bernard off, muttering something about my “meeting” Betsy another (better) time, and left the room – although kept well within in earshot to hear the thundering conclusion to their contentious discourse on sex, and to make myself ready for the inevitable post-show with Bernard.

I’d come into Bernard’s life just a few years earlier as a passionate and inquisitive fan of his art. The purchase of a beautiful Perlin drawing had given me impetus (excuse) to finally reach out to him: I’d figured accurately that I stood on better ground approaching him as a “collector” than as a “fan.” Sure enough, after a flurry of letters and phone calls, I’d been summoned out to his home in Connecticut for an in-person meeting with the then-92 year old artistic titan. After a glorious scotch-fueled evening of talk and conviviality that ended at 3 a.m. with me pulling Bernard out of a potted plant (and surprisingly not vice versa), our brotherhood was sealed. The next day, he told me about his most intimate circle: his so-called “chaps,” Martha Gellhorn, Felicia Bernstein, and Betsy Drake, whom he called “the three most important women in my life.” I think his telling me about them upfront was his way of giving me fair warning about what he (they) expected in a friendship: intellectual conversation, emotional openness, utter resilience. Friendship with Bernard (or indeed any of the “chaps”) was truly a no-holds-barred affair.

It was intriguing to instantly recognize the glue that bound those three women together in experience and friendship, yet held them distinctly separate: each had struggled with exerting her own unique, remarkable self-identity and talents under the monumental shadow of a superstar husband. Martha Gellhorn was a renowned journalist, travel writer, and novelist, yet was rightfully fearful that she would become just a footnote to the life story of her former husband, the literary giant Ernest Hemingway. Felicia Montealegre Bernstein was an actress, pianist, and painter of tremendous talent, yet was ever eclipsed by her wunderkind husband, Leonard Bernstein. Betsy Drake was a like-minded independent spirit whose life of exploration and achievement extended far beyond her public fame as the third Mrs. Cary Grant. Betsy was, in fact, a talented actress, screenwriter, novelist, poet, photographer, experimental filmmaker, artist, therapist, and, above all things, intellectual.

Betsy Drake

Betsy Drake in Every Girl Should Be Married (RKO Radio Pictures, 1948). Photo credit: Rod Tolmie

Felicia and Martha had passed away long before I came onto the scene, but Bernard and Betsy had carried on their lively dialogue. It was because of Betsy’s extensive study and work in psychodrama therapy – work for which she was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard – that Bernard felt that she and I might also hit it off. As a play therapist, I’ve worked for many years with children and young adults with autism, nudging their emotional development through creative exploration and expression. I was certainly very interested in learning more about Betsy’s neuropsychiatric work, especially with rehabilitating the former gang members and other troubled youths she encountered in South L.A. probation departments. “It soon became obvious that boys and girls joined gangs to gain some self-esteem and identity,” Betsy observed. “They lived in poverty, their parents desperate or abusive in every way, on drugs, were alcoholics. What else were kids to do?” She could extend to them her instant understanding and guidance due to her own turbulent childhood and resulting search for self-identity.

For Betsy, acting on stage had helped her surmount her insecurities, but her self-doubts were only amplified under the microscope of Hollywood. Her first experience there proved so distasteful that she gutsily broke her contract by having herself declared insane. She returned to New York, where Elia Kazan selected her as one of the founding members of the Actors Studio and cast her in the lead role in the London production of the play Deep Are the Roots. It was through Cary Grant’s intercession that she was lured back to Hollywood, where she gave sparkling performances opposite him in Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) and Room for One More (1952), as well as on radio in several movie adaptations and the delightful series Mr. and Mrs. Blandings (1950-51). Throughout the next decade, she moved easily between comedic and dramatic roles in such films as The Second Woman (1950), Pretty Baby (1950), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), and Intent to Kill (1958). Not content to simply act a part, she absorbed herself in her film and radio characters and made them her own, often rewriting her dialogue. Eventually, she wrote an entire original screenplay (for the film Houseboat) and began making her own experimental films.

Yet, she remained ambivalent about Hollywood, a place she found not particularly interested in introspection. “The work itself I loved,” Betsy told The Associated Press in 1964, “but everything that surrounded the business of acting seemed to me sheer idiocy.” Her private ambition to craft a home life with Grant away from Hollywood was only temporarily shared by her husband, who would soon be swept up in a career renaissance and an infatuation with a co- star that would compel him to leave the marriage. “Cary swallowed my life,” she said in 2004. “I lost myself in trying to please him.” Now on her own, she set about pleasing herself by leaving Hollywood and putting her talents to work helping young people realize their own minds. She passionately immersed herself in her studies and therapeutic work in neuropsychiatry, eventually becoming the director of psychodrama therapy at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and a therapist at Mount Sinai Hospital and Central City Community Mental Health Center in Los Angeles. She also taught psychodrama at UCLA Extension and at Pepperdine College.

Privately, she surrounded herself with fellow writers, artists, and thinkers. She found an important friend and role model in Martha Gellhorn, and, through Martha, came to know Felicia Bernstein and Bernard Perlin. Bernard’s three “most important women” welcomed him into their exclusive company due, I strongly suspect, to Bernard’s equally inherent individualism and relentless lifelong pursuit of creative, intellectual, and sensual experience. He was a fearlessly openly gay man during a fearfully closed period in our history, and bravely lived his life without apology. Bernard was also an artist who intrepidly explored the world while also committing to canvas his inward examination of his emotional memories and observations on humanity. Betsy consulted with him on her own drawings – raw, energetic explosions of color and emotion that even Bernard, a tough critic, found “remarkable.” His own lasting image of Betsy was of her “intrepidly sailing around London on her bicycle,” but ultimately he found he couldn’t paint this scene or even draw a portrait of her, deeming Betsy truly “uncapturable.”

Ironically, it was in trying to capture a fuller sense of herself and heal from the onslaught of the nearly-crippling traumas she had suffered in her life (her tumultuous childhood and Hollywood experiences; the shattering of her marriage and her harrowing escape from a sinking ocean liner) that Betsy had boldly embraced LSD therapy long before even Timothy Leary did. LSD gave her the courage to face her fears and at last speak her mind. “After an LSD session, one morning in bed while we were both having breakfast,” Betsy said, “Cary asked me a question and I said, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ He jumped out of bed, buttoning the top of his pajamas, his bare bottom showing, and slammed the bathroom door. That was the true beginning of the end.” But it was the beginning of the beginning for Betsy Drake, her true awakening into herself.

Expanding and expressing her mind would remain paramount to Betsy for the next six decades of her life. She voraciously read, journaled, wrote poetry, fired off letters to the editors of the New York Times, and sent countless emails to friends (she got her first Mac computer well into her eighties and fully embraced using it). She and Martha and Bernard could spend hours on the phone together talking politics, cooking, relationships, sex, art, books, ideas. They also kept up a voluminous correspondence with each other about which Martha reflected, “I am not always talking to myself any more.” Theirs was an open, highly charged creative forum that sometimes sparked into fiery debate and hurt feelings, but yet carried on with great passion and intimacy for 50 years. They had all become highly skilled at giving an impression of themselves through their artistic expressions –Martha as a journalist, Bernard as a painter, Betsy as an actress and writer – but they could truly be themselves with each other, with all of their strengths and insecurities laid bare. Fellow lionesses forever on a shared hunt for fuller self-knowing, even if it sometimes erupted in them growling at each other.

While I had learned to hold my own in conversation with Bernard, I was frankly intimidated by Betsy, yet thoroughly admiring – if from afar. After Bernard’s passing at age 95 last year, I finally reached out to her, and did so again very recently. But unfortunately for me, it was too late, for Betsy was already in the process of also transitioning from this world. Together with her devoted goddaughter Tracy Granger and lovely cousin Perry Howze, I have spent these past weeks since her death trying to assess the full impact of Betsy Drake’s life.

There always have been and always will be explorers like Betsy Drake, but her passing is particularly worthy of notice. The many obituaries that have now appeared worldwide have mostly focused, predictably, on her famous marriage, examining her accomplishments only in the reflected light of Cary Grant’s still-blazing glory. But perhaps this should come as no surprise, for Betsy never sought public recognition for her true life’s work as a counselor to countless young people, nor did she actively seek to publish her writings on her therapeutic work and other explorations into the mind. I do hope her journals and writings will someday be made available for other curious, exploring minds to read, for I suspect they will teach us much about our shared humanity.

But with all due respect to the wonderful Mr. Grant, he was but a footnote to the remarkable life story of this extraordinary woman, and not the other way around. This is Betsy Drake’s moment to take one more well-deserved bow, and in her very own spotlight.

3 thoughts on “Betsy Drake: The Last Lioness

  1. abktranslate2012

    I’m just speechless – what a beautiful piece. Thank you Michael – I knew about Martha and Felicia, but not about Betsy. Amazing.


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