Betty Grable – The Hollywood star with Co. Derry roots, who was so beloved by the U.S. troops
By Con McGrath
Helen of Troy, the mythic Greek demigod who sparked the Trojan War and “launch’d a thousand ships,” is said to have had nothing on Hollywood star Betty Grable.
During the 1940s, her comedies and musicals helped lighten the national mood during the tense times of World War II; and her famous pinup picture was beloved by countless American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who set forth to save civilization from the Axis powers.
And unlike Helen of Troy, Betty represented the flesh-and-blood ‘girl back home’, with the ‘sunny smile’ patiently keeping the home fires burning.
She was born Elizabeth Ruth Grable on December 18, 1916, in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of three children. Her father, John Conn Grable (1883–1954), a stockbroker; was a grandson of John Nichols Conn, Sr., who was born on November 18, 1819 in Gortgarn, near Dungiven, in Co. Derry.
In 1833, at 14 years old, John Nichols Conn, already an apprenticed haberdasher, was sent to leave his home in Derry by his father William Conn, and set sail for America, via Liverpool. In America, John Conn became a ‘famous’ hatter in his day, setting up a hat shop in Manhattan, New York, and later in St. Louis, Missouri, along the Mississippi River.
At the age of three, Elizabeth Grable, who later became Betty, was enrolled in Clark’s Dancing School, going on to study ballet and tap dancing. She was introduced to acting in 1929 when her mother moved with her to Hollywood. Soon she became involved in multiple movies, rising to official stardom in 1939. She eventually became the No. 1 female box office attraction in 1942, 1943, 1944 and remained in the Top 10 for the next decade.
Her dancing talents were such that Twentieth Century Fox insured her legs for $1 million with Lloyd’s of London. The proportions of her legs were: thigh 18.5 inch (47 cm); calf (12 inch (30 cm); and ankle 7.5 inch (19 cm).