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.

Posted in: words on September 27, 2007