Last week, TheSmokingGun.com posted newly-found photos of Bernice Frankel, a truck driving World War II Marine. There are two things that made this a newsworthy story.
- She was one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve.
- She eventually became a MAJOR star and household name.
You may know her as Maude Findlay, Dorothy Zbornak…or, more accurately, Bea Arthur!
While she strangely denied serving in the armed forces, military records show that the actress Bea Arthur spent 30 months in the Marine Corps, where she was one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve and spent time as a typist and a truck driver.
The “Maude” and “The Golden Girls” star, who died last year at age 86, enlisted in early-1943 when she was 21 (and known as Bernice Frankel). In a February 1943 letter included in her Marine personnel file, Arthur gave military officials a brief account of her prior employment as a food analyst at a Maryland packing plant, a hospital lab technician, and an office worker at a New York loan company.
Arthur was due to start a new job, but she “heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so decided the only thing to do was to join.” While she hoped for an assignment in ground aviation, Arthur noted that she was “willing to get in now and do whatever is desired of me until such time as ground schools are organized.” She added, “As far as hobbies are concerned, I’ve dabbled in music and dramatics.”
As part of the enlistment process, Arthur underwent interviews that resulted in the production of “personality appraisal” sheets. One such analysis described her conversation as “Argumentative” and her attitude and manner as “Over aggressive.” In a handwritten note, the Marine interviewer remarked, “Officious–but probably a good worker–if she has her own way!”
Arthur is pictured here in an official Marine photo taken shortly after her enlistment. A second undated portrait can be seen above.
Arthur, who was fingerprinted during enlistment, started basic training in March 1943 and was initially assigned as a typist at Marine headquarters in Washington, D.C.. Over the following two years, Arthur was stationed at Marine Corps and Navy air stations in Virginia and North Carolina. During her military career, Arthur’s rank went from private to corporal to sergeant to staff sergeant, the title she held upon her honorable discharge in September 1945, according to one document.
On a Marine qualification card that included a section titled “Talent for furnishing public entertainment,” Arthur is credited for “piano & organ 13 years” and “contralto-orchestra.” Her “active hobbies” included hunting with a .22 caliber rifle and “bow and arrow.”
A year after her enlistment, Arthur married a fellow Marine, Private Robert Aurthur, in a ceremony presided over by a city judge in Ithaca, New York. She then formally had her named changed in military records to Bernice Aurthur. It would change again, to Bea Arthur, as she started her post-military career as an actress.
The military records, released in response to a Freedom of Informaton Act request, include a single “misconduct report” filed against Arthur while she was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina. That misconduct determination stemmed from Arthur’s contracting of a venereal disease, which left her “incapacitated for duty” for five weeks in late-1944. As a result, her pay was reduced for that period.
For some reason, Arthur did not speak about her time with the Marines. In fact, in a videotaped interview (excerpted below) conducted as part of an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences archives project, Arthur flatly denied serving in the military. When an interviewer said that she had read somewhere that Arthur had once joined the Marines, the actress answered, “Oh, no. No.” She then continued a chronological review of her life by noting that, in 1947, she enrolled in dramatic school in New York.