Beautiful Old Betty

This entry originally appeared in Powell’s Books blog and is reprinted by permission.

My best friend in college was the movie actress Betty Hutton. She was too old to be in college and I was too young; this was all we really had in common, if you can call it that. Though she did like the fact that I was in a band.

“C’mon, Krissy,” she’d say, patting the seat next to her in the student lounge, “sit down! Let’s talk show biz!”

I had never heard of Betty Hutton, never seen any of her movies, and, frankly wondered if her Hollywood star persona wasn’t invented. She was awfully… eccentric, to say the least. A gigantic woman who made herself seem even bigger by wearing rhinestone-studded turquoise cowboy boots and combing her white hair straight up, she smoked menthol cigarettes.

“Minty,” I commented one afternoon.

“I don’t like minty cigarettes,” she said, “but I’m trying to quit chewing gum.”

Betty did live in a bona fide mansion, though. Right on the ocean and decorated entirely in white: white furniture, walls, carpet, dog, piano. She’d sit at the piano with her gay friends, singing show tunes. Really. I mean, I assumed they were show tunes. When the singing was over, she’d wipe tears away and hug whoever had been accompanying her.

Then, glistening, she’d call me over and say to her friend, “Krissy’s in a band. A band called ‘Throw-ing Mu-ses’. Krissy’s gonna be the new me.” So sad. That she couldn’t find anyone better than me to groom as her “show biz” replacement. All of that old school Hollywood wisdom to impart and no little tap dancing vessel in which to put it. Al Jolson once told Betty that when she left the stage, she should peek out of the wings and ask the audience with her eyes, “Do you want some more?”. Betty tried desperately to get me to do this.

“Look, Krissy,” (she always called me Krissy, she was the only person who ever did — I called her “Bob” for “Beautiful Old Betty”) “it’s not that hard. You have to play with them, flirt with them, string them along. Be the cat and the mouse, you know what I mean?”

“Sorta.”

“Well you aren’t actually doing it.” Then she’d smile sweetly. “I know you’re trying.”

“I’m not really trying.”

“No, you’re not,” and she’d laugh. Hard. I couldn’t fake her out because she actually came to Throwing Muses shows. She always brought her priest, though she never explained why, and she and this priest would stand in the back of the room and look encouraging while we played. Betty would make her eyes real big at me, I guess telling me to ask the mosh pit if they “wanted some more”. The thing was, my eyes were spirals while I played; I was so far from flirting with anyone. Lost in a swirl of sound, I never even knew where I was.

It was hard for me to explain this to Betty. “Why do we entertain?” she would ask — and then answer herself — “to make people happy!” She said this all the time. I didn’t think I made anyone very happy by playing and I told her that. “Well, you do scream a great deal don’t you? Which isn’t very nice. But that’s the style these days. And they jump around when you play. I think that means they’re happy. So you gotta show them that you love them back. You gotta earn their love.”

I couldn’t tell her that I wasn’t trying to earn love, that I was trying to own violence. I couldn’t tell her this because it would have sounded as pretentious then as it does now. So I said, “I play to make the math work”.

“Oh! Like tap dancing!” Betty was so beautiful.

Leaving a psychology class one afternoon, she squealed, “That Sigmund! What a comedian! It’s bad enough he wanted to fuck his own mother — he’s gotta write it in a book and get it published! A book people are still reading! That poor man…he’s probably up in heaven right now, with his face in his hands…”

She gave me quarters for the vending machine, still laughing. “I need an oral fix for my oral fixation!” I brought her some crackers and a soda. “What is this?” she asked, holding the crackers at arm’s length. “I can’t read the package.”

“It’s cheese and crackers.”

“But, honey, I’m not lactose tolerant.”

“I don’t think there’s any actual cheese in them.”

“Okay, look,” she said, tearing into the package. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. It’s this: don’t ever let them feed you pills.”

“What? Who?”

“Whoever tries to do it! They’ll want to wake you up and knock you out because they make more money when they can control you physically and emotionally. Judy Garland and I had a good, long talk about this once she forgave me.”

“Judy Garland-Judy Garland? From The Wizard of Oz? Was mad at you?”

“For stealing the role of a lifetime right out from under her. I don’t blame her. But now she’s dead.”

“Yeah, she is. I really don’t think they do the pill thing any more.”

“Stay clean, Krissy. And then you won’t end up like Judy Garland.”

Years later, in a London hotel room, I was to reflect on this conversation while staring into the palm of a tour manager who offered me a fistful of pills. The yellow ones were for waking me up, the blue ones for knocking me out.

Betty died earlier this year. I hadn’t seen her since I was a teenager. In 2002, we lived a few miles from each other in Palm Springs and never knew, so I didn’t ever see the beautiful very old Betty.

To mark her passing, I rented one of her movies, though. In it, astonishingly, she plays an un-wed mother. She is lovely and girlish and completely over the top, just like I remember her. I can see her working to earn love, asking stuff with her eyes. I don’t see the deep well of sadness that once moved her to perform, as her final thesis, a soft shoe of “Me and My Shadow” in a college classroom, tears running down her face. What I do see in that gorgeous face is the wide-eyed openness of a lady who could think that Sigmund Freud was a comedian and that I was an entertainer.

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15 Responses to Beautiful Old Betty

  1. Steven says:

    Reminds me of that line from ‘Celebrity Skin’: “Now she’s fading/somewhere in Hollywood”

    Her wikipedia address is here BTW:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Hutton

    A couple of decades from now you’re going to have to choose your own “new me” to keep the tradition going. May your protege find your pearls of wisdom equally bizarre and ultimately instructive.

  2. Chris says:

    That blog entry made me grin from ear to ear. I love that two seemingly disparate people as you and Betty Hutton could have a friendship in such a random place as college and at such opposite ends of the “entertainment” spectrum.

  3. RC Cola! says:

    I’m going to cuddle up to this post tonight and dream of finding my own Betty someday, it sounds so delicious. Of course, I’d have to move to California first.

  4. Elie says:

    hello Kristin
    I am sorry for loss and losses. Somewhere you are perfectly right, sometimes our rosebud blushes.

    See, I have my fiancee, she is the weaker link in many ways, yet there is a girl around at her working place that keeps on indulging her in softcore, and my weaker link, yeah, I cracked the teeth of the sisters who wanted to indulge her hardcore.

    It is hard when you own violence; what to preserve, what to deliver. Your eulogy of Betty Hutton, the weaker link flower of the field, when the pasture itself had long disappeared. I hate the wild, ah but give me proper wilderness, the song of sadness but leave me, ah yeah leave me from the chorus of vipers, in french we call them ‘soeurs angoisses’, and I am not french, but there is a sickness divine and there is the grip of disease. I love you as the mother cow and I bless your bells.

    Reading Steven and Chris and Rc Cola, especially and oddly Rc Cola’s, my heart in me steps down to the brevity of a swifter simpler. If only the simple; ah yeah, think Moses, think 40 years in the wilderness, think violence sleeping the flower heights of Sinai resting finally, when the swifter simpler are skipping Immaculate Immanuels Incoruptible never again corrupted.

    If I had medals, I would pin them all over you, but with a bit of sour taste, all I have is a tooth out guilty of wanting to press on your lip. My sister, my spouse, happy you are married, with kingdom, with kids. it is soon the end, dried figs and nothing, they keep us safe from them.

  5. uptightseattleite says:

    That was the best thing I’ve read all year. Thanks.

  6. BoneFolder says:

    I just watched a TV special on 1940′s America in which Betty Hutton performed a strange, frantic little tune. (Bob Hope commented afterward that she was “a vitamin pill on legs.”) This was my first exposure to her.

    I sat up suddenly, and exclaimed to my wife (with whom I’ve attended many a TM and KH show, as recently as last December) “Hey — that was Kristin Hersh’s best friend in college!” This got me the blankest stare from her that I’ve ever seen. “No, seriously… she went to college late in life. I read a great blog posting from Kristin about it!”

    I read her the post and it gradually dawned on her that I had been serious. After I was done she said “That’s bizarre. A great post, too.” Which was, of course, why it had stuck with me.

  7. VP81955 says:

    Fantastic memories of Betty Hutton…and I’m glad the film you rented to remember her by was probably her best, the wonderful “The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek” (1944), written and directed by Preston Sturges. How he got this splendidly subversive film beyond the censors of the time (the Hays Code had been implemented and enforced a decade earlier) still amazes me.

  8. a man and a mouse says:

    At first I thought this was made up. Kristin Hersh and Betty Hutton? Like a story about me and Paris Hilton. I love Betty and, although I’m not that familiar with your music, I now love Kristin.

  9. claire says:

    I’m a big Hutton fan and a big Hersh fan and I love this story. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Graceann says:

    This blog post is one of the best things I have ever read. You got the essence of Miss Hutton, both positive and negative, in sublime fashion. Bless you for taking time to share it with the rest of us.

  11. Mercurie says:

    Thank you so much for that reminiscence. I enjoyed reading it so much. Betty sounds a lot like I always pictured her being!

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  13. Sean Croghan says:

    Thanks Kristin for sharing your memories. What a lovely insight into one of my favorite actresses,singer,comedians. She was a gem.

  14. ernie raskauskas says:

    I’m 86 and was a Hutton fan. Poor Betty, her daughters who did not forgive and attend her funeral. If I get back to Palm Springs, I’m going to lay a rose on her headstone. What a fabulous line about smoking menthol which she didn’t like to get off of gum.

  15. Sophia B says:

    What a wonderful eulogy and reminder of Rat Girl, the best book in the whole universe! You capture the essence of Betty here. When I was 8 and 9, we watched old movies a lot at home, my mom being a film noir expert (at least, she puts on that expression), and even though Betty is not in the “film noir” kind of genre, we DID watch Annie Get Your Gun. I didn’t know until now that that was Betty in that movie, and I was randomly searching “Betty Hutton Kristin Hersh” and I found this great send off to a great gal.

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