A New Sybil's "WHO'Z DAT?"... FLORENCE BATES (April 15, 1888 – January 31, 1954)

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Darlings! Mummy has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great "character" actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to periodically post a regular, special entry called "SYBIL'S WHO'Z DAT?"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place", well maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships". (I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think???). And here is one of my very favorite actresses of all time. Even in the smallest roles or briefest appearances on screen, she shines, NO!! BLAZES! And many of her fellow actors almost need to shield their eyes when she steals the scene! She started late as careers go, but wasted no time becoming one of Hollywood’s most memorable “grande dames”! She’s Florence Bates (April 15, 1888,- January 31, 1954)

Born Florence Rabe (pronounced “Robbie”) in San Antonio, Texas, the second child of Jewish immigrants, Bates showed musical talent as a child, but a hand injury inhibited her from continuing her piano studies as her mother had hoped. Very bright and getting excellent grades in school, she went on to college and in 1906, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in mathematics, after which she began her career in teaching and social work.

In 1909, she met and married her first husband and gave up her career to raise their daughter, Mimi. Always a voracious reader, she became interested in a friend’s library of law books, and read his entire collection. When her marriage eventually ended in divorce, she began, with the encouragement of her lawyer friend, to study law and, in 1914 at the age of 26, passed the bar examination. She holds the distinction of being the first female lawyer in her home state of Texas, where she practiced for four years in San Antonio.

After the death of her parents, Bates left the legal profession to help her sister operate their father's antique business. She traveled extensively around the country and especially to Europe to acquire more stock for the shop, where she became fairly fluent in other languages. Being bilingual completely (English-Spanish) she also became a radio commentator in San Antonio whose program was designed to foster good relations between the United States and Mexico. In 1929, following the stock market crash and the death of her sister, Florence closed the antique shop and married a wealthy oilman, William F. Jacoby. Unfortunately, as the Depression deepened, Jacoby eventually went bankrupt in the oil business, and the couple moved to California in the late 1930's, briefly becoming proprietors of a bakery, which was successful.

At this time, Florence, a heavy-set woman of matronly appearance and well into her middle age, developed an interest in acting and auditioned for the part of Miss Bates in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Jane Austen's “Emma”. This proved to be a momentous career choice. Her popularity became such, that she went on to leading roles with the same company, changing her name from Florence “Rabe” to Florence “Bates” as a nod to her perceived good fortune. In 1939, she was introduced to Alfred Hitchcock, and through a fluke, auditioned for him. Her screen test convinced him to cast her in her first major screen role, the vain dowager Mrs. Van Hopper, in REBECCA (1940). Her excellent performance was the first in a collection of memorable characters: wealthy socialites, henpecking wives, irritable hotel managers, pushy theatre owners, and gossipy landladies, and she would go on to act opposite the greatest and most established stars in Hollywood. Bates appeared in more than 60 films over the course of the next 13 years. Among her cinema credits are KITTY FOYLE, LOVE CRAZY, THE MOON AND SIXPENCE, MR. LUCKY, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, MISTER BIG, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, KISMET, SARATOGA TRUNK, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, WINTER MEETING, I REMEMBER MAMA, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, ON THE TOWN, and LES MISÉRABLES.

Because of her versatility, she appeared in dramas, comedies, and even musicals. And as Hollywood began to focus on the new medium of television in the 1950s, she made guest appearances on “I Love Lucy”, “My Little Margie”, “I Married Joan”, and “Our Miss Brooks”, and had a regular role on “The Hank McCune Show”. Through her career, Bates was known as witty , warm, a wonderful hostess, and for the fact that she never went to any set or studio without her knitting. She had only one daughter, Miriam Rose Rabe Ramer Oppenheimer (1911-1937), but was survived by her granddaughter and great granddaughter. Florence Bates is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, Los Angeles with a modest stone marking her grave. But for her many fans around the world, that voice, that face, her commanding carriage, and onscreen presence make her unforgettable, luminescent, iconic.... a Star!!! 

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