Whether you were lucky enough to watch “The Golden Girls” during its regular television run from 1985-1992 or you’re lucky enough to watch it now on Hulu, one thing is for certain: you know the theme song by heart. Our favorite Golden Girls have seen a resurgence in pop culture lately, which led me to wonder, “Just who were our beloved Golden Girls?”
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Of course, Betty White is still cranking out hits, but if I’m being honest, I most admired Bea Arthur’s dry comedic delivery. Blanche Devereaux, Rose Nylund, and Sophia Petrillo never stood a chance against one of Dorothy Zbornak’s zings.
I stumbled across a fascinating piece of history while I was indulging my love of all things Bea Arthur, born Bernice Frankel. Not only was she an exceptional actress with an engaging stage presence, but our very own Dorothy Zbornak was one of the first female Marines. A truck-driving Marine.
Bernice Frankel’s Beginnings
Bernice Frankel was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and relocated to Cambridge, Maryland with her family when she was 11. Frankel enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in 1943 at the age of 21 when the U.S. was already two years into World War II. The National World War II Museum covered her military experience extensively, tracing back her enlistment to a historic event on February 13, 1943.
“Be a Marine… Free a Man to Fight” was the rallying call of the US Marine Corps for their new Women’s Reservists. It was the last service branch to allow women, per the National World War II Museum. Our very own Bea Arthur (still Bernice Frankel) enlisted on February 20, 1943, shortly after the call went out at age of 20.
Her letter, dated February 23, 1943, reads,
After graduating high school, I took a course in clinical lab technique at Franklin School in Philadelphia. Upon graduation I received a position as a food analyst at the Phillips Packing Co. in Cambridge, Maryland, and, at the same time, interned at the Cambridge Hospital.
I soon realized that I didn’t care for lab work at all, so I came to New York and got a job doing office work for a [unknown] company. 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. 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.
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 far as hobbies [unknown], I’ve dabbled in music and dramatics.
She served first as a typist at Marine headquarters in Washington, D.C., but found mobility in other positions. She was stationed at Navy air stations in Virginia and North Carolina during the war. She was last listed at the US Marine Corps Air Station (USMCAS) in Cherry Point, North Carolina from 1944 to 1945 where she worked as a truck driver and dispatcher.
Discharged in September 1945, Arthur reached the rank of Staff Sergeant. If you’re unfamiliar with the ranking system here are the ranks she received: private, corporal, sergeant, and finally, staff sergeant. Her honorable discharge paperwork, per the NWW2M, states that she wanted to attend dramatics school. No big surprise there, right? Her life took a few interesting turns during her time in the Women’s Reserve, though.
From Bernice Frankel to Bea Arthur
Bernice Frankel, soon-to-be Bea Arthur, was a firecracker, much like her characters on “Maude” and “The Golden Girls”. Her Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) from the National Archives holds her Personality Appraisal, which hilariously reads like the beloved Dorothy Zbornak. As the National World War II Museum wrote,
She was praised for her “poised and trim appearance (and exhibiting ‘meticulous good taste’), [but] Arthur was considered to be ingratiating, frank, and open, though overly aggressive and argumentative. A special note on one assessment read: ‘Officious–but probably a good worker if she has her own way!'”
Officious basically means that she was, in the words of the Merriam-Webster, “volunteering ones’ services where they are neither asked nor needed,” which is the most Dorothy quality ever.
Bernice Frankel married a fellow Marine, Private Robert Aurthur in a private ceremony in Ithaca, New York just one year after her enlistment. She kept the surname after switching it from Aurthur to Arthur, and that, my friends, is how Bernice Frankel became the resplendent Bea Arthur. They would later divorce in 1950.
Bea Arthur’s Fate
Arthur went on to rule the Hollywood screen following her career in the armed forces, starring in six films, more than 40 plays, and making hundreds of television appearances. She won the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Award in 1966 as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Mame on Broadway. She received the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series twice, once for sitcoms, “Maude” as Maude Findlay and once for “The Golden Girls” as Dorothy Zbornak.
She passed away on April 25, 2009 of cancer in her Los Angeles-area home. She was just shy of her 87th birthday, and was survived by two sons and two granddaughters. Her TV shows serve a constant reminder of her wit and grace; she will always be a role model.
After unearthing the documents of her military career in 2010, The Smoking Gun went on to discover that Arthur’s active hobbies included hunting with a .22 caliber rifle and a bow and arrow. She remained true to her acting career dream, though, and moved back to New York City to attend the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in 1947. She denied her military service during her career, as seen in the above interview, and news of her service only broke in 2010, a year after her death. The next time you consider true American heroes and heroines, I hope Bea Arthur, who joined the USMC Women’s Reserves during WWII, makes your list.
This post was originally published on December 28, 2018.