So many actors work odd jobs before hitting it big. And one of the stars of the beloved series The Golden Girls had a surprising resume before landing on the sitcom. You see, she served in the Marines – and hid it for years from fans who watched her on the stage and screen.
The Golden Girl in question was Bea Arthur, and knowing her background, it makes sense. For Arthur didn’t seem to have plans to become an actress in her early life. In fact, she studied for a completely different career for a year. Plus, she had a lengthy history of political engagement, which bubbled over into her on-screen roles, too.
Now, in 2001 an interviewer asked Arthur about her time in the military, and she actually denied ever joining. But official documents have surfaced that prove she did, and the role she played was a surprising one. However, let’s first take a quick look at the actress’ career. Interestingly, she was already middle-aged when she got her break, certainly bucking the trend for most women in the industry.
Yes, Bea Arthur broke through on TV at the age of 50. You see, she guest-starred on an episode of All in the Family, playing the foil to the show’s lead character, Archie Bunker. While he had a close-minded approach to politics, her Maude Findlay countered him with her liberal feminist ideals.
As soon as CBS executives – and All in the Family viewers – met Arthur’s character, Maude, they wanted more. In fact, the actress told the Associated Press in 2008 that her late-in-life discovery came as a surprise to her, too. She said, “I was already 50 years old. I had done so much off-Broadway, on Broadway, but they said, ‘Who is that girl? Let’s give her her own series.’”
The spin-off series starring Arthur was simply called Maude after her All in the Family character. And the show pushed the envelope in terms of the political statements it made on-air. You see, then-taboo subjects such as the Vietnam war, menopause, alcoholism, gay rights and mental illness, made primetime TV on Maude.
One of Maude’s most famous moments was a two-part episode where the character had a tough decision to make. She found out that she had become pregnant late in life, so she grappled with – and ultimately made – the choice to have an abortion. And the 1972 episodes aired at a time when such a procedure was still illegal in most of the States.
As such, Maude sparked national controversy, and many channels pulled the abortion episodes when they were supposed to air – at least, the first time. But over the summer, when networks replayed the series, multiple stations aired the installments because the controversy had died down.
With that, approximately 65 million people eventually saw the Maude episode about abortion. It was especially poignant at the time, considering the Supreme Court had legalized the medical procedure with their 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. For this and other politically charged topics on Maude, Arthur became a cherished figure in the women’s liberation movement.
What’s more, Arthur’s tendency for groundbreaking TV continued when she became a cast member for the TV series The Golden Girls. You see, in the mid-1980s most shows catered to younger audiences. But the Maude star’s new show would be a huge success despite having four older women as its stars.
On The Golden Girls, Arthur played Dorothy Zbornak, who had striking similarities to Maude’s titular character. And she often expressed liberal views, although she never explicitly identified herself as a Democrat. In one episode, then-President George H.W. Bush came to visit Florida, and Dorothy planned to challenge him over his approach to education.
Of course, questions about the similarities between Maude and Dorothy did come up in interviews with Arthur. And in 2005 she addressed them in a question-and-answer session with the Television Academy’s TV Legends. She said, “That’s what makes Maude and Dorothy so believable; we have the same viewpoints on how our country should be handled.”
Indeed, both Maude and The Golden Girls proved successful with audiences nationwide. In an April 2009 interview with The Guardian, Arthur looked back on the surprise triumph of the latter series, which ran from 1985 to 1992. She said, “Four old broads still having sex lives; who’d have thought it would ever have been made, let alone a hit?”
Not only did viewers love The Golden Girls, but critics did, too. You see, Arthur took home an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series in 1988 for playing Dorothy. Eleven years earlier, she’d won the same award for Maude, and during the course of her career received nine nominations overall in the category. It’s a big accomplishment for someone who started out on a completely different trajectory.
Arthur was born Bernice Frankel in New York City in 1922, to an Austrian mother and Polish father. And the family eventually moved to Maryland, where she saw out the remainder of her schooling. Unlike her acting career, Arthur’s time in academia proved average, studying subjects including French and science.
Mind you, Arthur’s teachers described her in a way that sounded very familiar to the characters she’d play in the future. According to her Official Military Personnel File, which included school reports, they described the pupil as “officious – but probably a good worker if she has her own way.” The National World War II Museum’s website further described the young Arthur as “ingratiating, frank and open, though overly aggressive and argumentative.”
Anyway, once Arthur finished high school, she went on to pursue her then-dream of becoming a clinical lab technician. And her training lasted a year at Philadelphia’s Franklin School. After that, she returned to Maryland, where she embarked on a career as a food analyst. Also, the future TV star interned at a local hospital.
In her Marines enlistment letter, dated February 23, 1943, Arthur explained why she decided to leave her intended career path behind. She wrote, “I soon realized that I didn’t care for lab work at all.” So, Arthur packed her bags and moved to New York City. There, she started office work for a company based in the Big Apple.
And Arthur admitted that she found her office position to be an enjoyable one, but not financially stable. She wrote, “The work was pleasant, but I didn’t make enough to support myself so Monday, the fifteenth, I left and found another job at Sperry’s as an inspector.” But the future star wouldn’t make it in for her first day in the new position.
You see, Arthur instead heeded a call for women to help in the country’s World War II effort. The U.S. Marine Corps made a simple request of ladies across the country. “Be a Marine… Free a Man to Fight,” they said. Indeed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve so that female officers could take domestic positions at shore stations, allowing male officers to join the war effort overseas.
Now, women applying to join the Marine Corps Reserve had to meet a stringent set of requirements. For starters, they had to be U.S. citizens who were either single or married to someone other than a Marine. They couldn’t join if they had any children under the age of 18, either.
Beyond that, the female applicants had to be at least 5 foot tall, more than 95 pounds and somewhere between the ages of 20 to 49. Age was also dependent on whether they wanted to enlist normally or become an officer. Regardless of their intended position, women couldn’t join unless they had good eyesight and teeth.
Surprisingly, it didn’t take much to entice women to sign up for the Women’s Reserve. Yes, the slogan alone, “Free a Marine to Fight,” drew in ample women ready to help their country. And in many cases the ladies who enlisted did so in the face of their family’s protestations. But Arthur needed her family’s support, as she was too young to sign up without their consent.
As she wrote in her letter, Arthur had plans to start working at Sperry’s prior to the call for female Marines. She explained, “I was supposed to start work yesterday, but heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so decided the only thing to do was to join.”
What’s more, Arthur concluded her letter by outlining the areas in which she’d most like to work. She wrote, “I’ve joined in hopes of being assigned to ground aviation, but am willing to get in now and do whatever is desired of me until such time as ground schools are organized.” As it turned out, she ended up filling a much different role in the Reserve.
That’s right, Arthur became a bona fide enlistee of the Marine Corps on February 20, 1943. After that, she took on a relatively tame responsibility as part of the wartime effort. Yes, the future Emmy winner first worked as a typist, plucking away at the Marines’ Washington, D.C. headquarters. But she wouldn’t stay there for long.
After her stint in the nation’s capital, Arthur shifted to Navy air stations in both Virginia and North Carolina. Her military paperwork indicates her final post was in Cherry Point, North Carolina, at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station. There, the Hollywood actress had the much-less-glamorous role of truck driver and dispatcher.
Indeed, that was the whole point of the Women’s Reserves. When the government decided to let ladies join the war effort, the public pushed for a feminine name of their military branch. And they tossed around such monikers as the “Femarines” and “Glamarines,” according to the National World War II Museum’s website.
However, General Thomas Holcomb pushed back against such a cutesy title – women Marines wouldn’t be helming easy tasks. And in 1944 he told Lifemagazine, “They are Marines. They don’t have a nickname and they don’t need one… They inherit the traditions of Marines. They are Marines.”
In the end, Arthur was one of the more than 20,000 women who joined the Reserve, and they played a pivotal role in America’s WWII effort. And the actress’ file indicates more about her life during her enlistment than just basic service details. In fact, it all gets a bit personal, too.
For instance, Arthur’s file contained a record of her marriage to Robert Alan Aurthur, a fellow Marine. You see, the Reserve had eventually lifted its restriction on male and female Corps members marrying. And the documents contained the future actress’ request to change her last name to her husband’s. This, in turn, would become the basis for her stage surname, Arthur.
In reality, Arthur’s marriage to Aurthur took place in 1947, just after her discharge from the Marines. Paperwork shows that she left the service in September 1945 after 30 months in the Women’s Reserve. Over that stretch, she rose up the ranks from private to corporal to sergeant to staff sergeant.
When Arthur did leave the Marines, her paperwork detailed the factors of her discharge. Indeed, she left the Reserve honorably, and she had big plans for life afterward. Namely, she said she wanted to go to drama school. And she did just that in 1947, relocating to New York City and enlisting – this time, in The New School’s Dramatic Workshop.
From there, Arthur became a stage actor – eventually winning a Tony Award in 1966 to boot – before becoming the TV star she’s known as today. And, through it all, she kept her past profession a secret, even denying that she’d been a Marine when asked point-blank in a 2001 interview with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
The segment begins with Arthur explaining her range on the stage and screen. She says that she “was so tall and had a deep voice that [she] could play men’s roles.” When the interviewer wonders how the Emmy winner felt about such casting, she retorts, “Oh, I loved acting. I just loved acting.”
That warm-up question sets the interviewer up for her next line of inquiry. She asks, “How did WWII affect you and your family?” The actress hesitates a bit, then offers up a run-of-the-mill response. She says, “You know, like everybody else. Traumatic.” But the interviewer has one final question to put to Arthur.
Yes, the interviewer asks, “I had read somewhere that you joined the Marines. Is that true?” This time, Arthur doesn’t skip a beat before responding. She replies, “Oh no.” Then, she switches the topic of conversation, saying, “Shortly after [WWII], I think it was 1947, I went to New York and attended dramatic school, which was quite a wonderful experience.”
But the official paperwork from the Marines doesn’t lie – Bernice Frankel, who became Bea Arthur, did actually serve among their ranks. And the timeline from her story lined up with the information provided upon her discharge from the Corps. You see, the Golden Girl had said she planned to go to dramatic school, and confirmed just that in the interview.
Of course, it’s unclear why the late Arthur denied having served in the Marines. But she did remain a staunch supporter of the causes she believed in until her 2009 death. In fact, she spent decades supporting People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also known as PETA, after joining their ranks in 1987.
What’s more, Arthur championed women’s rights and equality, and she served as a voice for the elderly. She also donated the profits from one of her final live performances to support charities working to help homeless LGBT youth. But it all started with her time supporting the nation in a time of crisis – one of the many ways the actress served the greater good in her 86 years of life.