Vintage icon from Pennsylvania
Jan 27, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
The last few weeks have been filled with soon-to-be iconic moments. While I wonder how the history books will capture the present, I choose to greet the day’s headlines with cautious optimism. With the unfolding of each story, I’m reminded of history’s cyclical nature. As any vintage enthusiast will tell you, the past is only as far away as we make it. I’m currently reading a book on Charles Booth and I’m struck by how modern his research methodologies were for the Victorian era. The past is a catalog filled with mistakes, discoveries, missteps, and shining moments of benevolence. Being connected with all those messy episodes helps us chart a better course for the future. Even though the rear-view mirror takes up considerably less real estate than the windshield, the power of looking back should never be overlooked. So in that vein and in light of the recent inauguration, join us as we celebrate the home state of our new President with a remembrance of a special vintage icon from Pennsylvania.
Allow me to introduce the amazing Bette Ford. For those not familiar with the name – read on, you’re in for a treat! Born during the Depression in the city of McKeesport, Bette was a dreamer from the very beginning. (A characteristic that would serve her well during a difficult childhood.) Her high-school years were spent with the classic American experiences: cheerleading, football games, and time with friends. But upon graduating in 1945 she did something unexpected – Bette bought a one-way ticket to New York City. She was determined to become one of the starlets that she admired so much from the magazines of her youth. For Bette there was no going back. Her tenacity paid off when she landed big contracts with Jantzen swimwear and guest roles on primetime staples like The Jackie Gleason Show. A few years into her life as a New Yorker, Bette left her lucrative modeling career to pursue Broadway, where she cut her teeth as an understudy.
Bette’s life up to this moment was filled with extraordinary accomplishments. I can’t imagine it was easy to pack up a suitcase and leave everything you know for a big-city dream. I can’t imagine how hard you’d have to work to then make the transition from being a model to becoming an actress. She was never afraid to start fresh or work her way up from the bottom. Any one of these moments showcased her grit. But Bette wasn’t done yet!
During a trip she met the famous matador (and socialite) Luis Miguel Dominguín. She attended one of his bull fights and the experience was transformative. Luis had been fighting bulls for about fifteen years when they met – as spectators often noted, he was magnificent in the ring and seemed to improve with age. For Bette, a model also trained in movement and body awareness, watching him perform was mesmerizing. This singular experience unlocked the next chapter of Bette’s life – she left the big apple behind and began to train as a bullfighter in Mexico. Regardless of my own view on bullfighting, I admire Bette’s fierce determination. She saved up money for a year so she could make the move down South. It takes guts to embark on a new adventure in an unfamiliar setting, but it takes even more guts to put in the work before the adventure gets started.
In 1954 her worlds collided with a short documentary feature called Beauty and the Bull. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, proving that Bette’s star power shone just as brightly whether on a stage or in a ring. I’d also like to take a moment to point out a few key facts: at this moment in time Bette hasn’t yet turned 30 and she’s on her fourth successful career. Incredible! I know people speak about having a “fire in your belly,” but Bette is in a class of her own. An interview with The Village Voice in 1955 gives us a peek behind the curtain. I love how the reporter, Gus O’Shaun, describes her: “She exhibits coquetry, femininity, and good spirits, but her voice is rich, a touch rough, and powerful for her size.” Bette’s response to the question “why do you fight bulls” is bold in its honesty and I endeavor to channel her no-nonsense frame of mind: “Because the experience gives me more than anything else I’ve ever known.” Dear reader, are you pursuing fulfilling experiences? I know I’m going to ponder this simple question as I go through the new year!
When Bette retired, she left as one of the top bullfighters, with about 200 fights under her belt (or cape as it were). She returned to America and continued to act. She simply kept on living, which I think is the most beautiful legacy of all. Bette left the comfort of Pennsylvania for parts unknown and just kept putting in the work each day to pursue the dreams that spoke to her heart. It’s easy to get enthralled by the big milestones of someone’s life story (especially if that someone is Bette Ford), but I think it’s when you look beyond those and enter the every-day living when the story gets interesting. Bette’s every-day living is inspiring. She’s always working toward a goal (with the key word being “working”). Watching Luis fight a bull impacted her greatly and to think of her spending twelve more months laser-focused on something decidedly “nontraditional” is uplifting. I imagine during that year someone had to take her aside and ask her to think it over. After all, this was the 1950s when the media showcased a reserved femininity. Dominating a bull in a ring definitely clashed with this “ideal.” Would she ever work in the glitzy world of Hollywood again if this bullfighting fantasy didn’t materialize? So many doubts had to be buzzing around in the atmosphere, but Bette remained determined. Talk about boss lady mode!
We’ve featured several game changers over the years (my mind immediately goes to the incomparable Sandwina) and I’m so happy to add Bette to our list. I hope you’re as encouraged by Bette’s story as I am. Let’s make 2021 a year marked by great listening, learning, and the pursuit of some bold dreams! Tell me dear reader, how do you plan to channel Bette in the new year?