by Shel Dorf
As a boy growing up in Chicago, Michael Levitt became fascinated with one of the most successful, and beloved actresses in history, Betty Grable. For years, Michael went to the Chicago Theatre on State Street to see the films she made for Twentieth Century-Fox. Like many of Betty's fans, he sometimes would sit in the theater for hours, watching her films over and over. But unlike most of her fans, the day came when he actually got to meet his dream girl. Incredibly, at the age of fifteen, he was singled out for a personal visit with the superstar, who during her prime was one of the highest paid women in the world. And as destiny would have it, he eventually became Betty's close personal friend, house guest, and traveling companion. The story of this relationship needs to be shared since it gives unique insight into the life and personality of one of the most popular stars of the Golden Age. I had the opportunity to interview Michael recently when he made a brief trip to San Diego, California. The following is a transcript of our discussion of a very special friendship.
SHEL DORF: Can you tell me what age you were and how you first met Betty?
MICHAEL LEVITT: I must have been about 15 or 16 years old. This was around 1950 or so, and I called [Chicago radio host] Irv Kupcinet's secretary one day and asked, “Who's coming in?” She was very, very nice to us and she said, “Betty Grable.” Well, that's all I had to hear. Needless to say, I took the day off school, and there was a little group of us who always would gather at the Dearborn Street railroad station, but Betty did not get off the train there. She had a complete car and didn't have to get off. In those days, the car could be transferred from one station to the next. She was with her two daughters and her mother, Lillian. Well, we went to the LaSalle Street station where their car was switched. Fortunately, one of the men at the station, the gate man, let me go onto the track because I had this huge scrapbook and he told me where the car would be transferred to and what track. And we went down there and of course, there was a porter standing at the foot of the stairs next to her car, and I asked him if he would just take this scrapbook in and have her sign it for me. And I wrote a little note on the page, “Betty, please sign to ‘Mikey'.” Well, he came down a few minutes later and said, “Which one of you is Mikey?” And I said, “I am.” And he said, “Go on up. She wants to meet you.”
And it was just me that went up, and there she sat, wearing a man's white shirt and a pair of slacks, and she greeted me and couldn't have been nicer, couldn't have been sweeter, and signed the book to me. She even went into one of the other rooms in the car and woke up both of the girls, Vickie and Jess. She brought the girls out to meet me!
SD: That's a wonderful story. Her mother was a big motivating force in her life, and they were very close. What was her mother like?
ML: By this time, Lillian was frail looking, but in earlier years she was a strong person. Years earlier, Betty came home one day and said that she had won second prize, dancing on her toes and playing a saxophone. And her mother smacked her and said, “Next time, you'll win first prize.” She was a strict mom, and wanted a big career for her daughter.
SD: Betty was strict with her daughters, Vickie and Jess, too, wasn't she?
ML: To a degree, but she was home every night at six o'clock for dinner. And of course, Lillian wanted Marjorie, Betty's older sister, eight years older, to play the piano and give her lessons and everything, and Marjorie was not at all interested. So then Lillian focused on Betty, and lied about Betty's age to get her into the business.
SD: And the next time you saw Betty after the first meeting on the train car was about three years later?
ML: A few years had gone by. You reach an age where you say, “Oh, this is silly. Movie stars and everything, chasing them and all that.” But I mean I still would send her a Christmas card and always would get a Christmas card from her, always.
SD: Did she give you her address?
ML: Oh, yeah.
SD: I remember the studio address: 20th Century Fox, Box 900, Beverly Hills.
ML: It was 1800 Coldwater Canyon.
SD: Oh, you had her home address!
ML: Oh, yes, and then later it was 600 Doheny Drive. That house on Doheny is the one she later gave to her mother.
SD: Did she ever ask you what you thought of certain films?
ML: No, but anyway, years had gone by after that first encounter. One year, she sent me a cashmere sweater as a Christmas gift. I still have the sweater. Needless to say, it doesn't fit me any more. (chuckles). All right, years had gone by and suddenly, Betty was coming to the Chicago Theater in Chicago with her husband Harry James. And I went down to see her, and I had been corresponding with her, and everything, so at this point, she still knew who I was. I had an open invitation to go backstage any time I wanted, and to go up into the dressing room, and watch from the wings. In fact, one time, the man at the door wasn't about to let me in. There was a new doorman and so she said to him, “Any time Mikey wants to come back here, he's more than welcome.”
At the time, Scrabble was very popular, and Betty loved games. In fact, years later, we played Yahtzee all the time. She was a sore loser, too. (laughs) If you won, you were in trouble. But she loved games and puzzles and things like that. She did a crossword puzzle every morning of her life. And actually, the time that I spent with her, you really didn't talk to Betty until she finished her crossword puzzle. That was her opening morning exercise. Betty would do crossword puzzles and smoke. I'm sorry about that, so sorry. Three packs a day. She died of lung cancer. But like I said, she did love games and puzzles. So she sent me out, looking for the Scrabble game. Naturally, I couldn't find a Scrabble game anyplace because they were so very popular; but I did find the Scrabble books, how to play and so forth, which I brought to her on her way to Detroit, as she was doing a week at the Michigan Theater. I think on this tour [circa 1953] she just performed in two cities, Chicago and Detroit.
After that, I just sort of eased off writing her and everything like that because I was at that age where you'll say, “I'm growing up.” But I still adored her and her movies and everything about her.
Now we come to Hello, Dolly and she was doing it in Vegas, and I read that she was coming to Chicago to do Dolly. This was about 1970. But I went backstage the opening night of Dolly and waited for her to come out. And I said, “Years have gone by and you certainly won't remember.” And she said, “You're Mikey, aren't you?” And that really started the relationship that I had with Betty because after that, I'd see the show constantly while she was in town. We'd go out for dinner, and I met Bob Remick, her friend who really was so good to her, so good, and treasured her. And from then it would become like, she'd say, “I'm going to Sullivan, Illinois. We're doing Born Yesterday. Do you want to meet me?” And there would be a ticket for me. “I'm going to Columbus, Ohio, doing Born Yesterday. Do you want to meet me?”
We had this friendship now, but I still was a fan in a way. She had this beautiful picture of her with the ermine stole and it was just a gorgeous picture that she used for publicity. And one night, we were sitting around and I said, “Betty, I'd love one of those pictures,” And she said, “For what?” And I said, “I'd just like it.” She said, “Oh, that's ridiculous,” and left it at that, but the next morning, when she came out of her bedroom - we'd always have a two-bedroom suite - she came out and she threw it at me. She said, “Here's that picture,” - which I still have up on the wall. It's the only thing, probably, that I have now. It says, “To my dear Mikey, ‘cause I loves ya, Betty.” I have no idea why she cared about me so much.
We were in Atlanta and Playboy had given her a party, “Welcome, Betty Grable”, and we were there. It was quite intimate, I mean just us and everything, but “Welcome, Betty Grable” was up on the marquee. And we're sitting at a table and Betty said to me - Bob Remick had left the table to go to the washroom or something - and Betty said, “Why me? Why not Lana or Hedy or Rita or someone?” And I said, “I could turn around and ask you the same question. I certainly know that I wasn't the only fan that you ever had, you know? And I just wonder why.” And frankly, neither of us could answer, but there was just that connection.
When she was in Chicago one time, I took her to dinner after the show to Mon Petite. Norman Ross was the pianist there, and Norman started playing all of Betty's songs from all of her movies and everything, which she was very grateful for, and she thanked him. She always thanked people for the little things they did for her and was very, very grateful for everything that was done. She was just that kind of a person.
She did a lot of really kind things. We were in Columbus, Ohio and she was doing Dolly there and we're just lying around the pool and everything, and someone came up and asked Betty for her autograph. And she was on her tummy and had unhooked her bathing suit strap, but she signed the autograph. She never, never said no. I never saw her say no to anybody when it came to an autograph, never. That's just what kind of a person she was.
And you could tell what kind of person she had been when you saw everybody at her funeral [in 1973]. There were so many people from the lot. I'm not talking about the stars, but people that she worked with that had so much respect for her and always said that she was one of the nicest people that there was in Hollywood. She was a nice, nice lady, but she did have her moments. (chuckles) Betty got mad at me once.
SD: Well, there's such a thing as artistic temperament.
ML: Well, we were there at the Academy Awards and I think she was not feeling well at this time. There was a restaurant that she loved so much and she wanted to go, so we went to Sneaky Pete's. And Betty liked her cocktail or two before dinner, which was fine. And I would generally order - I'm not a drinker - I would order a second, so Betty would have a third. They had brought bread to the table, a loaf of bread, and the waitress said, “It's warm, enjoy it.” So I went to reach for a piece of bread and Betty picked up the remainder of the loaf and threw it at me. Now you must remember, this was just before the Academy Awards and she was nervous, and she was not well. And she said, “Don't I feed you enough? Are you that hungry that you can't wait?” Well, needless to say, if I had a place to go, I would have gotten up and left the restaurant, but I had no place to go because we were staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Of course, the next morning, she didn't even know that she did it. But we were at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Betty wanted us to have a cottage and that was the year that Charlie Chaplin was given an honorary award. And he had taken so many of the cottages because of all his entourage, and Betty was very upset that we had to have a two-bedroom suite, rather than a cottage. And suddenly, we heard an ambulance passing by and Betty said, “Call downstairs. Maybe something happened to Charlie and we can have a cottage after all.” This was her sense of humor.
SD: And a lot of it was self-deprecating.
ML: Oh, absolutely. She was a down to earth person. We were in Betty's home town, St. Louis, and Betty did a variety show there called This Was Show Business with Chita Rivera, Dorothy Lamour, Don Ameche, Rudy Vallee and Dennis Day. Dorothy and Betty did a number, (sings) “I want to be happy, but I can't be happy, ‘til I make you happy.” Dorothy and Betty came out of different sides of the stage. This was at the Muni Opera, the outdoor theater which seats hundreds of people. It was a fun two weeks. We went to the zoo and just did fun things that Betty loved doing.
SD: Was she recognized when she was at the zoo, or did she disguise herself?
ML: No, she just had a little scarf around her head, because Betty's hair was very, very fine. She wore a lot of hairpieces and things like that. But no, she just wanted to have a good time. That's in effect, the whole thing with her and she never pushed, as far as being recognized.
We were in New York when Betty was in Paramus, New Jersey. She was doing Born Yesterday and it was Sunday, and she had Monday off, so she decided we'd go into New York. This is Bob, Betty and I. So we went in to New York just for the day. We went to see a movie where they were all in the park, and all the kids were at one of those big rock concert things.
ML: Woodstock, we went to see Woodstock. And of course, we had to sit in the balcony because if we sat in the balcony, Betty could smoke. After the show, we went to a little coffee shop because Betty decided she just wanted an iced tea, or something, before we'd have dinner. She also decided that we were going to see Ethel Merman in Dolly that night, provided we could get tickets. Betty did not want them to give the comp tickets to her. She wanted to pay for the tickets at the box office - “And don't tell Ethel or anybody that I'm here. I just want to see the show.” Well, needless to say, they told Ethel, and of course, they comped the tickets and gave us incredible seats.
Now, before the show, we went into a coffee shop just to have coffee, and we were going to have dinner later and see the show. Anyway, we went and sat in a booth. Betty said she was going to have an iced coffee, and Bob would have an iced coffee, and I'd have an iced tea. But the waiter told us that if that was all we were having, we'd have to sit at the counter. This was fine with Betty! We go sit at the counter. That was it. No fuss, no tantrums. She never would push, and the waiter didn't know who the hell she was, and so we sat, at the counter.
Later we go see Ethel, we see the show, and naturally, Ethel knows that Betty's in the audience. Years before, Ethel starred on Broadway in Du Berry was a Lady and Betty had a featured role.
SD: In fact, it was that play that brought Betty to Darryl Zanuck's attention, and he brought her back to Hollywood to become a star.
ML: Sherman Billingsley and Ethel, were having a romance at the time, and he used to send Ethel perfume. It would come in and Ethel would say, “Give it to the Kid.” And of course, “the Kid” was Betty.
So Ethel knew Betty and of course remembered her after all those years, so Ethel comes on stage doing her Hello, Dolly number, and we're sitting in the audience and Ethel comes up and breaks her performance and says, “Hi ya, Betty. How are you?” Really, just like that, during the performance she did that. After the show we went backstage and Ethel said, “Yeah, I'm in the dressing room. Ginger Rogers had this dressing room before I did. And when she did it, she painted it titty pink.”
SD: After a show, would she usually just want to go home and rest?
ML: Yes, except once, when we were in New York. She was doing a commercial for Geritol. Well, the night before, we went out and Betty had a couple too many cocktails. And we ended up in a bar where the pianist again started playing all her numbers. And I said, “Betty, I think we'd better go home. You've got to get up at four and do it for eight o'clock.” She got angry with me, and said, “It really bothers you to know I'm having a good time, doesn't it?” She'd had too many cocktails. She gave me a kiss and she bit my lip. She really took hold of my lip and just pulled on it and bit it. But we got her home and she decided that her hair wasn't the right color and sent Bob out for a rinse. And then we got to the studio, finally, I don't know, seven o'clock in the morning, whatever time it was. She did the thing in one take, but it wasn't synchronized. You know, the sound and the movement of the mouth wasn't in sync and she couldn't get it again for hours. It went on and on and on.
SD: I understand she had a reputation of being a one-take lady.
ML: She did finally get it, but it was not the best commercial. The second one she did for Geritol with the grandchildren and with her birthday cake and everything, that was a good one.
SD: How old was she when she started performing?
ML: About fourteen, fifteen. At the height of her career she would do two movies a year, and take two weeks vacation at Del Mar Racetrack.
SD: She put so much into that short life. Now tell us about her move to Las Vegas. After she moved to Vegas, you would visit her there, I understand.
ML: Every time I went to Vegas, there was a ticket for me at the airport. She had a ticket waiting for me, even when she was in the hospital at the end. She gave me a little envelope. It was Easter time and it said, “Happy Easter” on it. And in the envelope was $300 for my airfare. And I said, “Absolutely not. I wouldn't want to take this.” Later, people would say to me, “Did you ask her for this?” and I would say I never asked her anything, not even information. She volunteered all the information. Whatever she told me came from her, not from me asking about it. She told me a lot of stories that I'd never repeat (chuckles), but she was a very good friend. She really was.
SD: When she moved to Vegas, did this make a change in her lifestyle?
ML: Unfortunately, yes, because she started gambling like crazy.
SD: By then, her daughters were grown and out?
ML: No, I think at first, they were still there when she moved to Las Vegas, but then her daughter Vickie got married. But, as I said, she would go to the casinos a lot. Bob and I decided to protect her from losing too much by stealing money from her. (chuckles) While she was winning, we would take the money and keep it. And the pit bosses would protect Betty, too, and say, “Okay, Betty, you've lost enough. That's enough for tonight.” And so this one time Bob gave her this money we had stolen from her and she said, “You mean I could have gone on and played some more?” She took the money, which I think was from $600 to $800, ripped it to pieces and threw it in the toilet! Furious with both of us!
SD: Besides a gambling problem, she had a drinking problem.
ML: You know, I don't think Betty ever had a drink until she met Harry James. Because with George Raft, it used to be just ginger ale because he wasn't a drinker, either. And she would have married George Raft, but he wouldn't get a divorce.
SD: Tell me about your scrapbooks that you've kept on Betty Grable.
ML: Oh, my. Well, the first one, of course, she signed after that very first meeting, and they just went on and on and on, until suddenly, you're no longer a fan and you become a friend and the enthusiasm about collecting has gone because you've become a friend.
I used to work in a little book shop, a little gift shop and the movie magazines used to come in at the first of the month. I'd always see who was on the cover. And every time Betty was on the cover, which was often in those days, it was a treat. It really, really was. My collection grew and grew and grew and we used to go to 13th and Wabash in Chicago, which was where 20th Century Fox had an office in those days, and get the press books. They used to give them to you free. And if you'd asked for the film or the star, they'd bring out these folders full of them. And for 15 cents, you'd get to pick. They were very, very kind and generous in those days. Now, that's all gone.
SD: And how many scrapbooks do you have, all told?
ML: Nine when I stopped collecting. And then, of course, all the glossy photos were in a different book. When Betty called me, the first time she ever called me, and wanted me to come meet them, she was in Sullivan, Illinois, doing Born Yesterday. As a fan you were always waiting for the stars, but here she was at the airport, waiting for me! We were going to the grocery store and - get this - at that time, I was very fond of Twinkies. When I brought the box of Twinkies back and offered Betty a Twinkie, she said, “Do you play with it or eat it?” And every time I'd go to Vegas after that, there'd be a box of Twinkies for me there. And by that time, I had outgrown Twinkies, but they'd still be there.
SD: You couldn't ask for a better friend.
ML: She did the things that you liked.
SD: It's a tribute to how down-to-earth she was, that she was able to separate the famous lady and the world-famous star from the ordinary person, which she preferred to be, having grown up working at such an early age. Most of her life was work.
ML: It was, and that's why when she was still married to Harry and would go to Del Mar for two weeks, she loved it because she separated her life and her career totally. One time, she said to me, and I really thought it was sad - I mean I loved hearing it, but she said, “You're the best friend I have.” And for someone like that to say, “You're the best friend that I have” I mean to me, I mean I was so very, very flattered. But at the same time, I felt, somehow, sad.
SD: But at times, she could be difficult.
ML: Well, yes.
SD: Tell us about Betty's house in Las Vegas.
ML: It was a very, very simple house. And the only thing in the family room was a picture of her daughter, Jessie, a large picture of Jess, and a picture of Betty with Louis Armstrong when he came on stage and did “Hello, Dolly” when she was doing it. Otherwise, there was nothing, nothing in that house that said, “Betty Grable lives here” or “A movie star lives here”. Nothing like that. It was a very, very simple house and I slept in Vickie's room all the time. That was my room. But no, very, very simple and all the awards that she had gotten, all the things that had been given to her, were kept out of sight. All the awards were under the sink.
SD: Under the sink?
ML: Under the sink, where the pots and pans were kept. Nothing was out.
SD: That's typical of the lady. She separated her fame and her image from her daily life, from who she was as a person.
ML: Yeah, that was it, nothing was out.
SD: I saw her once on The Tonight Show with Dan Dailey and they were talking about their golf games. She took pride in her golf game.
ML: Oh, yeah. And she played gin rummy with the girls at The Desert Inn on Wednesdays or Thursdays. But no one in the business, just friends of hers that she had acquired in Vegas.
SD: Friends who liked her for the person she was.
ML: Absolutely, absolutely. She just enjoyed being one of the girls. And of course, her best friend, Betty Baez, who was married to Harry Ritz of The Ritz Brothers, came and spent one Thanksgiving with us.
SD: What did Betty like to talk about?
ML: Just everyday conversation like you're talking to somebody you've known for a long time.
SD: What were some of her favorite movies or stars?
ML: Ingrid Bergman was one of her favorites. She liked Jennifer Jones and, of course, she adored Alice Faye. She used to talk to Alice when she was in the hospital. She talked to Alice all the time.
SD: It was mutual. Alice adored her too.
ML: And Dorothy Lamour would have liked to have been a very, very good friend of Betty's. When they were in St. Louis together, Dorothy was very, very kind and wanted to socialize, and things like that. In fact, they had given Betty this huge dressing room with a waiting room and a dressing room, but Dorothy had this small, little thing across the way. And Betty said, “Oh, no, Dorothy. This is OUR dressing room. This is for us.” She was embarrassed that she had so much and Dorothy had so little. That's how she was. And like Chita Rivera said, she would have loved to have been a friend of Betty's, but Betty just did not have show business friends. She didn't. I mean it's not that she ignored them, but she just separated herself from them.
SD: But she did like the gypsies, the dancers.
ML: Oh, she loved the dancers. That's who she wanted to hang around with. Like Chita Rivera, she adores the gypsies.
SD: But she didn't talk current events or anything?
ML: No, no, just general conversation. And the things that she would relate to me about Hollywood, I never asked her, I never questioned her. She would talk about how fond she was of Tyrone Power, and that many people, like even Celeste Holm, said that Marilyn Monroe used to watch Betty all the time and used to check her out, and see what she was doing, and how she was walking and how she was, you know . . . because Betty, she was a big, big star. She truly, truly was.
SD: Did you have any conversations with her mother or her sister?
ML: With her sister, two times, and with Lillian, I would get cards from Lillian. I would send her a Christmas card, and she would send me a Christmas card, but I never had any real conversations.
SD: And her husband, Harry James, did you ever meet him?
ML: No. I have met Harry, sure. And after the divorce [in 1965], we would go to the lounges in Vegas and watch Harry. Betty was just the biggest fan, just to sit and watch him in awe while he played. And he would acknowledge her being in the audience, but just an acknowledgement, that was all.
She was a big fan of Alice Faye, too. You know what Betty loved doing? She loved imitating Alice, singing “You'll Never Know”. She sang with a very deep voice, you know: “You'll never know just how much . . . ” And with a quivering lip. She would always do the quivering lip.
SD: The movie stars in our time, growing up, there wasn't the same level of scandal about them as you see today. Having a scandalous life seems to make stars today even more famous.
ML: That's why Betty isn't as known today.
SD: There's not enough dirt to make writers want to write about her.
ML: Married two times, two children, smoked a cigarette, had a cocktail and that was it. And she worked her butt off.
SD: Did you ever watch Betty rehearse?
ML: Well, when we'd go in to a town like Columbus or Atlanta, she would always have a quick rehearsal, only because of the size of the stage and the difference in the equipment and everything. It was just a run through, but very professional. She knew what she was doing.
SD: Did she travel with her own musicians?
ML: No, no, no. The musicians were local. Where ever they were, they would always have - and that's why she had to do a number with them or something, to see what the range was, the pitch was, and if she was miked. She had a terrible time with “Before the Parade Passes By”.
SD: Really? Why?
ML: Well, because it was sung so low. And of course, towards the end of Dolly, her voice was totally gone, totally gone. And of course, half of it attributed to smoking. But the last week in Chicago, she was out of the show, unbeknownst to the audience who had come to see Betty, you know. Say the understudy was going on and they knew they would lose everything. I'm sure many of them left when she wasn't in the show. But she did Dolly in Vegas. David Merrick had her up before Equity because she had missed, I think, nine performances, doing two shows a night.
SD: Oh, for God's sake.
ML: Of course, it was a TAB show. A condensed version of Dolly. But still Dolly was on stage all the time, naturally. Now, when Ginger and Dorothy Lamour did it in Vegas, Ginger would do the early show and Dorothy would do the late show. But then Ginger found out that the late show had a bigger audience than the early show and she suggested to Dorothy that she'd do the early show, “and I'll do the later show”.
SD: Tell me about your friendship with Bob Remick. Was there any competition between the two of you?
ML: No, I don't think so at all. Not at all.
SD: Tell me about Bob.
ML: Bob was a very, very gentle, nice guy. He really was. Betty met him when the “Dolly” Mary Martin company came back from Viet Nam, Betty was number three. Carol Channing was number one, Mary Martin was two, and Betty was three, and she did it in Vegas before she took it on the road. You know, I met Bob and off the record, she said, “I picked the best one of a bad lot”.
ML: “I picked the best one of a bad lot”. In other words she picked the best guy out of the dancers. You know, a companion, but Bob was very, very good to Betty and no competition as far as I was concerned.
SD: Was there any other women in his life at that time?
ML: I don't think so.
SD: Was he exclusively with Betty?
ML: I think so. Yeah, at that time, he was. I mean Bob was young. He was 27 years old.
SD: And she was in her fifties.
ML: Yeah, her very early fifties because they were together seven years, or something like that. But he was very fond to her, he really, really was.
SD: That's another case where she recognized a quality person.
ML: He never asked anything from her. He was great to her. Of course, she gave him a lot of opportunity, too, to meet people, to see people. And, of course, Bob grew a mustache and a beard to make him look older. Harry used to call him “Jesus” because he had this little beard and he was blonde and very fair and everything. Betty adored his mother and was very, very kind to his mother, too. His mother lived in New York, and Bob moved her and his aunt to Vegas. And Betty was very, very fond of them, and of course, they were very fond of her, as well.
Bob married after Betty passed away. I just got a letter from him recently, saying that after twenty years of marriage, his wife asked him for a divorce, a total surprise to him. And he moved back to Vegas. Bob became a dealer. After Betty died, he used some of the connections that he made through her to get him a job as a dealer. And he ended up being a pit boss, which is a very good job.
SD: Good. I'm glad he landed on his feet because he gave so much. Now let's talk about Marilyn Monroe. Some see Marilyn as a replacement for Betty, a newer, younger Betty.
ML: Betty adored Marilyn, she really did. She would say Marilyn used to come over all the time after Joe DiMaggio would abuse her.
ML: And she would come over to Betty's house and Betty would console her. They would go to premieres together and Betty always used to tell Marilyn that she'd pick her up at eight, even though she knew she was going to pick her up at nine, so she'd be maybe forty minutes late instead of an hour and a half late or something.
SD: Mike, can you tell us a bit about yourself? I don't want you to be overshadowed here. I know there is a Mike Levitt, a person beyond Mike Levitt the fan. So tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your occupation?
ML: I do hair, and like Betty, I have chosen friends, and not that many of them, because I like who I like and it's not necessary to have a group around you.
SD: Born and bred in Chicago?
ML: Yeah, on the south side. My father was a shoe repairer. We lived in back of the store in two rooms - all slept in one room. I had one brother who was ten years older. And grew up in Chicago and worked in Marshall Fields department store for nine years. And then I had a friend - I have several friends who are hairdressers - who told me I should try it. I went to hairdressing school, became a hairdresser, worked for Helena Rubinstein for a little while, then John Garrison, and now with Lee Jones. I cut back after my dad passed away. I started taking Tuesdays off because hairdresser salons are always closed on Monday and you need a day for yourself, and my mother needed a day for me too. So I started working Wednesday through Saturday, which I've done for twenty years now give or take a year, and am still doing the same. Would I retire? You know, everyone asks me, “Would you retire?” And I said, “To do what? To go to movies? To go to book stores”?
SD: Well, you have an art form. That's an art form.
ML: Yeah, and I have a very easy life. I live two blocks from where I work, and now if my first customer's at ten, that's what time I go in. If my last one's at two, I leave at three. So actually, my life is my life.
SD: And that's great.
ML: And as far as traveling, like I said earlier, I just came back from Florida and now I'm here in California. And maybe in September, I'll go to New York and see a few shows or something like that. That's my life and I've been a very, very lucky person. When I think of the little boy who grew up in back of the store on 39th and Cottage Grove, to go on where I've gone and been with who I've been, I'm a very, very lucky person, really.
SD: Now I suppose we need to say something about Betty's last days. How old was she when she died?
SD: That's a short life.
ML: She never went to a doctor. She never took aspirins and that kind of thing.
SD: You mentioned to me earlier that in the end, when you packed for what would be your final visit with Betty, you put in your blue suit. Something told you to put in your blue suit.
ML: Yeah, I don't know why. I didn't know how close to death she was at that time. I knew she was sick, but I was just going out for the Fourth of July weekend. You know, it's just a premonition. I called United Airlines and said, “Is there a flight to Los Angles?” And I got a ticket and I went out because Bob and I sort of left it at “Hmmm, let's see what happens”, you know, that kind of thing. But I did throw in the blue suit, and not expecting what happened. Sometimes, you just have a premonition, and I knew that things were not good if he was taking her back to the hospital at that time.
SD: And being a lifelong smoker, it finally got to her. You were with her earlier when the symptoms first showed.
ML: Yes. This was after we had come back from the Academy Awards. Her adrenaline was so up.
SD: She got a tremendous ovation there.
ML: Yeah, yeah.
SD: And yet, she wasn't a Hollywood person, was she? I mean she didn't hang out with the Hollywood crowd at all.
SD: But she was so loved.
ML: But I mean it was really nostalgia with Betty and Dick Haymes coming out together there.
Afterwards, we got off the plane and she sat down in the airport on the luggage conveyor and said, “Something's wrong. I just don't feel good. Something's wrong.” But she wouldn't go to the doctor until I left Vegas, which was like two days, three days later, and then went to the doctor. And then Bob called me and told me, and that's what it was. But the doctor in Vegas suggested she go back to Los Angeles and see her doctor there. And that's when she discovered what was going on. She said to him, “Shall I stop smoking?” And he said, “Betty, that's like closing the barn door after the horses have run out.” So that was that. Unbelievable. Too short a life.
SD: And then you were with her again at the end.
ML: It was very strange because, like I said, I was supposed to go for the Fourth of July and I called Bob to tell when I was coming, and he said, “I'm taking Betty back to the hospital.” Not on the plane. He drove her there in a van, where she could be in the back.
SD: From Las Vegas to L.A. and not have to go through the airports and all that.
ML: Yeah. And no one in Chicago knew I was even going. I decided on a Monday morning that I was just going to go to Los Angleles, and nobody knew I was going, so after it was all over I had to call back and say, “I'm in L.A. and Betty just died.”
But when I got there to L.A., I called Bob at St. John's Hospital. Then when I went over there and up to her room, Bob came out and said, “You're not going to - I just want you to know that she doesn't look quite like she did last time you saw her.” He was considerate like that. And when I went into her room, I saw this little person lying there and it was not Betty any more. But I went over to her bed. Her daughters, Vickie and Jessie, were there, and her sister, Marjorie, and Bob. As I bent over the bed, she just brightened up. Marjorie said, “Look who's here. Mikey's here.” And Betty just put her hand out and said, “Mikey.” And within ten minutes or so, it was all over.
Something that really bothers me now is that younger people don't even remember her. I went into a book store once and asked this lady - she was about 30 - to look up on the computer there and see if they had anything on Betty Grable. She asked me who Betty Grable was, and I just said, “Don't bother,” and walked away. They don't know. And the stars today - who cares? I don't go to see them much. I'm just glad that I was there when Hollywood and the movies were great. It was a special time, very special, and there will never be anyone like Betty Grable again.