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My Brush With Betty

June 2024
2min read

My most vivid brush with history was so slight that although the incident produced one of the most popular photographs of World War II, my presence in the shot is always cropped out.

There were many canteens in America offering servicemen entertainment, but the one held on Saturday afternoons in the ballroom of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., was unique. For one thing, it offered free beer. Also, in addition to visiting movie stars, many important politicians came to entertain. The movie actors were well received, but I suspect the troops rather preferred the beer to the politicians.

I was one of several sons of reporters pressed into service as volunteers. My war work, which consisted of bringing beer and hot dogs to servicemen and then clearing away the glasses, may not have ranked with rolling bandages at the Red Cross, but it was enormously enjoyable. I once helped the great swing-band drummer Louis Bellson, then in the Army, bring his gear onstage. Bellson gave me a quarter. Ordinarily I would not have taken a tip from a soldier, but I was crazy about Bellson’s music and accepted his coin as a prized souvenir.

Schedules were not published, and we never knew who would appear on any given afternoon. The beefcake movie star Victor Mature, whom I had always thought of as something of an overstuffed turkey, put in an appearance and proved to be so self-effacing in a parody skit making fun of his great lover image that I became one of his most ardent fans.

Vice President Harry Truman showed up on one Saturday afternoon in the winter of 1945, causing something of a stir. Truman had gotten into trouble a few weeks earlier for going to the funeral of the Missouri political boss and his one-time mentor Thomas Pendergast. The old man had been sent to jail for tax evasion, and there was some editorial carping over the propriety of the Vice President of the United States appearing at the funeral of a convicted felon. At the age of thirteen, however, I was full of solemn, obvious judgments and decreed that it took an O.K. guy to stand up for a pal just out of the pen, and I was glad to get a look at him. The Vice President did a small turn for the audience, and when he found there were sailors in the room from the cruiser Marblehead , he said the name of their ship reminded him of some of the senators he had to deal with. It was a pretty feeble gag, but the audience was indulgent, and he got a reasonable laugh before sitting down at an upright piano to play a few tunes.

I was hustling a tray of beer glasses when the spectacularly sexy Hollywood star Lauren Bacall arrived by a side door. I was so startled by her sudden appearance I lost control of the tray and sent several glasses crashing to the floor, splattering Miss BacalPs ankles with beer in the process. Horrified at my clumsiness, I swiftly tried to dry her legs, but Miss Bacall said she thought she could handle that herself.

Miss Bacall swept into the room to great cheers, and in an inspired gesture—inspired, I found out years later, by her press agent—she clambered on top of the piano and lay with her glorious legs crossed as a bemused Vice President Truman continued to play.

The picture got a huge play in newspapers all over the country. Although I was standing near the piano, I am not seen. A wire-service photographer told me he thought I was at least partially visible in his original shot but was apparently lost in the trimming.

I may have missed out on being famous. But at least I’m not a trivia question: “Who is the dopey-looking kid wearing an apron in that picture with Lauren Bacall on top of Harry Truman’s piano?”

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