Another Reason to Love Bea Arthur

The Golden Girl's early career as a truck-driving marine

Bea Arthur rests quite comfortably in the pantheon of gay idols, alongside the likes of Judy Garland and Liberace. This is thanks, in part, to her colorful career in theatre and notable roles as Maude Findlay, the smart-mouthed liberal, on All in the Family and its spinoff Maude, and Dorothy Zbornak, the smart-mouthed English teacher on television’s long-running The Golden Girls. But recently, a new spotlight has been cast on Arthur’s seven-decade-long career – as if the gays and lesbians need another reason to admire the dead, tough-talking actress.

According to The Smoking Gun, the late Emmy award-winning actress served 30 months in the Marine Corps during World War II, driving a truck and working as a typist. And while Arthur had denied serving throughout her life, the website discovered a personnel file that suggests otherwise. It outlines a young Bernice Frankel’s (her maiden name) basic training in 1943 and her swift rise from private to staff sergeant until her honorable discharge in 1945.

On a Marine qualification card, the budding performer is described as having a “talent for furnishing public entertainment.” She’s also listed as having training in both piano and organ, as well as “contralto-orchestra.” And her “active hobbies,” according the website’s documents, including hunting with a .22 caliber rifle and bow and arrow. Take that, Sarah Palin.

The dark spot on her record – and perhaps the reason Arthur long denied rumors of her military service – comes in late 1944, says The Smoking Gun, in a misconduct report. It had to do with the young Arthur (nee Frankel) contacting a venereal disease which required her to take leave of duty for five weeks, during which time her salary was reduced.

During an interview (excerpted below), the longtime gay and lesbian idol denied her enlistment in the rough and tough Marines, saying, instead, that she enrolled in drama school in New York City. The video – recorded several years before her death in 2009 – comes from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences archives project.