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Beautiful Old Betty

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.

÷ ÷ ÷

Kristin Hersh is the lead singer and guitarist for Throwing Muses and 50FootWave. A longtime favorite here at Powell's, she blogs for us periodically — and her blogs are always a welcome surprise. You can hear her words and music on our most recent Bookcast.

÷ ÷ ÷

Kristin Hersh is the lead singer and guitarist for Throwing Muses and 50FootWave. A longtime favorite here at Powell's, she blogs for us periodically — and her blogs are always a welcome surprise. You can hear her words and music on our most recent Bookcast.





18 Responses to "Beautiful Old Betty"

  1.  
    Bern June 22nd, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    this may look like a shameless plug, but it's true.
    I will never get enough of your wonder and splendor.
    bless your sweet soul Krissy.
    love, B.

  2.  
    Darrell Branch June 22nd, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Nice! I see a book tour in your future.

    Love ya,

    darrell branch

  3.  
    Kate C. June 23rd, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    Your stories are like a massive slab of chocolate cake. Dense and beautiful and invigorating and impossible to put down. And I always want more. Please fill my bookshelves the way you've filled my ears/head/heart with music.

    p.s. What Bern said.

  4.  
    Alistair June 25th, 2007 at 5:23 am

    You are truly a fantastic story teller.

  5.  
    Michael June 25th, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Effortless warmth. I have (had I guess) no idea who Betty Hutton was but you describe her in a way that is immediate and accessible and it is an absolute joy to read.

  6.  
    Miss Gretchen June 25th, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    Kristin, I'm embarrassed to say I know Betty Hutton's work better than I know your own, but I do know that my friend LD did a wonderful version of your great song "Dizzy." I was going to ask you "is this story about Betty true?" but now I'd rather just buy one of your albums and hope that in the future you write a novel or collection of short stories -- I loathe Sedaris/Leroy type confabulation but this blog entry is so insane that veracity is not really the point. Brava.

  7.  
    Andrea June 25th, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    I never met Betty Hutton, but she certainly leaps off the page in glorious, three-dimensional color here —not as someone larger than life (as in those movie posters that dot the page), but on a more real, human scale. Thank you for sharing your memories with us.

  8.  
    Kristin July 9th, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Thank you all for your lovely comments. I'm grateful.

    Gretchen, I'm sorry/happy to say it's all true. I couldn't invent what Betty really was. (But don't let that stop you from buying a record!)

    Love,
    Kristin

  9.  
    Virginia Arnold July 10th, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Hi Kristen,

    Betty Hutton was one of my absolute favorites; and I just love how you described her character as you came to know her in college! I envy you your friendship with her. Thanks so much for sharing that part of your life with us.

    God bless you, and good luck in your musical career!

  10.  
    Sarah July 11th, 2007 at 7:11 am

    Thanks for the wonderful stories about Betty Hutton. After seeing her interview on TCM I believe every word of it. Your description rings true to the beautiful, kooky, utterly sincere person in that interview. I wonder which movie part Judy Garland felt Betty had stolen from her.

  11.  
    Catherine Foster July 11th, 2007 at 9:31 am

    Hello Kristin,
    Betty Hutton is one of the first actresses I ever saw on film -- which certainly dates me! As a small child I tried to imitate her singing in "Annie Get Your Gun" and cried over the movie "The Greatest Show on Earth." Thanks for sharing your experiences of her. (Now I'll check out YOUR music.)
    Catherine

  12.  
    rick jones July 11th, 2007 at 9:53 am

    Kristin...I saw you perform last February at the Borders bookstore in Chicago...loved your new cd...I can tell everyone how courteous and friendly you were to all your fans who were present...and I loved reading about Betty Hutton, a movie star whose films I have seen when I was younger on TV but I can't recall a lot of them...you definitely should write a book of memories, of esssays, about your life, your friendships, and of your times performing solo and with Throwing Muses...you must have some great stories to tell. Life is fascinating.

  13.  
    charlotte July 12th, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Hello Kristin,
    My memory of Betty Hutton are similar to Catherines - Annie Get Your Gun was the first film I saw of hers and loved it. The Greatest Show on Earth was also a favorite. I had not thought of Betty as being a large woman-or any kind of woman other than a movie star. You make her a real person-thanks for sharing your experience with her.

  14.  
    Chrissey Dormer July 12th, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    From one Chrissey to another Krissy, I enjoyed your story about "Bob"- your words made the dialogue come alive - I could almost hear the conversation between the two of you. I want to read more- please continue!

  15.  
    brendan July 14th, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Its no mystery what movie betty stole from judy. It was "Annie Get Your Gun". But in reality it was Judy's state of mind and pill use that lost her the role.

  16.  
    tom July 16th, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks for the Betty Hutton memories. I last saw her with Robert Osborne...It was terrific, but she did not mention her very sucessful sister Marion Hutton who was lead female singer with the Glen Miller Orch.

    Also, she said some very nice things regarding Judy Garland. Someone her wrote it was "Judy's state of mind and pill use which caused her to be replaced by Hutton In Annie Get Your Gun. These poor pathetic pill stories etc, continue after all these years. Judy had been overworked working on one picutre after the other and was very ill. She took time off the schedule to enter the hospital, MGM demanded her to return and work on a film she "Judy" did not really want to do. Hutton did a wonderful job in the film, but one can only imagine just how great the film version would have been with her and Howard Keel. All of the music score has been recorded and is available on CD. Check it out.
    Again, thank you for your posting.

  17.  
    thomas bond August 10th, 2007 at 11:02 am

    Hi As a lifetime fan of Betty Hutton I will always remember her performances. I think by now I saw all her movies. She was so underated by cruel Hollywood. I think that Drew Barrymoore should play her in a movie about her life, someone should bring Betty back for a few hours. If done right it would be right up there with Johnny Cash, or any other autobiographical movies made over the years. Thanks Tom

  18.  
    Marty Robinson August 17th, 2007 at 9:48 am

    To Tom - Betty did in fact talk about Marion Hutton in her TCM interview, but it was edited out. The total interview lasts 2 hours and 4 minutes, but TCM cut it down to 45 min. Go to ebay and look for the uncut version offered by her estate and get it ... it's fabulous. Betty also talks in much more detail about Judy Garland and tells a very interesting/disturbing story about her relationship with June Allyson, one of my MGM favs. Also, I don't think Judy would have been a good Annie Oakley at all, and I am a HUGE Judy fan. Betty put it best in the (uncut) TCM interview when she explained that Judy was sophisticated and Annie was not a sophisticated role ... that says it all.

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