1 The Bloomer Girl
always said I’d popped out of a bottle of champagne,” Betty was fond of telling people. She would break into one of her contagious smiles, and with a glint of mischief in her eyes, she’d add, “I think I was an accident; the result of an unplanned party.”
Actually, Elizabeth Anne Bloomer came into the world at Lake View Hospital in Chicago on April 8, 1918, the third child born to Hortense Neahr Bloomer and William Stephenson Bloomer. Her two brothers, Bill and Bob, were seven and five, respectively, at the time of her birth, and it was that five-year spread, along with the fact that her mother was in her early thirties, that had her wondering whether she was a surprise addition to the family. Whatever the circumstances of her conception, the round-faced baby girl with sparkling blue eyes made the family complete.
Elizabeth was her given name, but perhaps it was just too formal for the bubbly personality that developed—or perhaps her mother always intended to shorten it to match the B names of her brothers—but as far back as she could remember, everyone called her “Betty” or “Bets.”
A few months after Betty was born, the Bloomers moved from Chicago to Denver, Colorado, where William
Bloomer had accepted a job as district sales manager for the Republic Rubber Corporation. After
more than twenty years in the rubber industry, William had earned a good reputation selling conveyor belts—previously for the B. F. Goodrich Company—and by this point, he was earning a comfortable living.
The Bloomers rented a large house in the prestigious Capitol Heights neighborhood and hired a live-in maid, a German woman, to help Hortense manage the household.
The house at 1410 Josephine Street was nestled in a row of similarly grand homes owned or rented by families of comparable status, all with sprawling front porches facing a tree-lined sidewalk.
While Hortense appeared to enjoy life in Denver, just before Betty turned two, William switched jobs again, this time
taking a position at the Quaker City Rubber Company, which was based in Chicago. This would be the fourth move in less than four years—they’d been in Seattle prior to the short stint in Chicago when Betty was born—and since William would be traveling all over the Midwest, a decision was made to settle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Hortense had a cousin. This would be the last move, and for Betty, Grand Rapids would be where her childhood memories began.
The city of Grand Rapids lies along the Grand River, some thirty miles east of Lake Michigan, and by the time the Bloomers arrived in the winter of 1920, the city was home to a booming furniture industry, with a variety of immigrants making up the population. Known as “Furniture City,” Grand Rapids was one of the country’s major manufacturing hubs: a bustling midsize city with a state-of-the-art electric trolley system. For a nickel, you could ride the electric streetcars throughout the downtown area or out to Ramona Park—an amusement park on Reeds Lake that was famous for its double-track wooden roller coaster and outdoor entertainment pavilion.
The Grand River flowed from north to south, dividing Grand Rapids in half, and in the 1920s, it segregated the city by income levels and, to some extent, ethnicity. The furniture factories stood along the river, and the men who worked in them tended to live in the small homes that had been built in residential neighborhoods on the west side, while the mill owners and businessmen lived on the east side in grand
neighborhoods with ornate mansions. The citizens of Grand Rapids held tight to traditional values, were largely churchgoers—in 1920 there were 134 churches in the city—and had overwhelmingly embraced prohibition of alcohol, banning all bars, saloons, and taverns nearly two years before it was required by the Eighteenth Amendment.
The Bloomers moved into a two-story wood-frame house at 717 Fountain Street in an affluent, predominantly Dutch east-side neighborhood where people took pride in their homes and yards. It wasn’t a large house—not nearly as big as the one in Denver—but it had enough bedrooms and a separate one-car garage in back that was accessible by an alleyway. Betty would remember the house as being “
filled with light” and that she was happy there.
Hortense’s cousin Charlotte Neahr Irwin and her husband, Earle, lived nearby with their two children: a son named Bill and a daughter named Charlotte, whom everyone called “Shine.” With William Bloomer traveling so much, it was nice for Hortense to have family close by and for her children to grow up around cousins.
Because the Grand Rapids winters were so long and cold, by the time spring came around, many well-to-do families flocked to the lakes, eager to make the most of the few months of warmth and sunshine. The Bloomers found a place called Hartt’s Resort on Whitefish Lake, in Pierson, Michigan, about thirty miles due north of Grand Rapids, where you could
rent a lakeside cottage for $10 a week. It was a tight-knit community in which the same families came back year after year, the kind of place where children made lifelong friends with shared memories of carefree days. The day after school let out, the Bloomers would pack up the family’s Cole Eight touring car, and Hortense and the children would stay for the entire summer, with William joining them when he could take time off.
Betty had a Dutch-boy bob haircut that was popular at the time and a happy personality that attracted people to her. The first summer at the lake, she realized she could wander around the picnic grounds, and if she stopped at each table, someone would invariably offer a cookie or piece of cake. It became such a habit that she was growing chubbier by the week, prompting Hortense to hang a sign on her back that said “
Please do not feed this child.”
The resort had a safe bathing beach with a long L-shaped dock down
the middle, and cool, clear water that was shallow enough so even the younger children could wade in up to their knees for a good distance before it got too deep. Boys and girls of varying ages romped around together, spending hours and hours in and out of the water, making up games and competitions—swimming, sailing, canoeing, and fishing from the dock with bamboo poles—their fair skin turning browner and browner as the summer days seemingly went on forever.
When Betty’s father joined the family at the lake, he would take out a rowboat and fish for hours. “
He was a great fisherman,” she recalled. “He spent his entire vacation fishing, and we were served fish and fish and fish until I hoped I would never see fish again.”
It was a simpler time, when children would leave the house in the morning and run around the neighborhood inventing games and finding ways to entertain themselves. Betty adored her two older brothers, and she trailed after them, constantly trying to be part of whatever activity they were doing. By her own admission, she was a “
terrible tomboy,” and it was thanks to her brothers that she learned how to properly throw a football and play ice hockey. When the two of them would get into fights—as brothers do—she’d get right down on the floor with them, trying to pull off the one who was on top. It didn’t make any difference which one was on top, she was always rooting for the guy on the bottom, and she had no qualms about getting right there in the thick of things.
As soon as she was old enough, Betty walked with her brothers to Fountain Street Elementary School. On one of her first days in kindergarten, someone noticed a blemish on her left hand and began teasing her about it. It was a birthmark that she’d never paid any attention to, but soon a whole group of kids were making fun of her. She was mortified to be made to feel such an outcast, and when she got home and saw her mother, she burst into tears.
Through the sobs, Betty explained how the other children had been so cruel and how embarrassed she was to have this mark on her hand.
Oh, dear Betty,” Hortense said, as she swept her daughter into her arms, “don’t you realize? You are the only little girl in the world with a birthmark like that. It makes you special, and most importantly, because of that mark, no matter where you go, I will never lose you.” The next day, Betty returned to school filled with pride and a newfound sense of confidence.
Even though Betty loved sports and could hold her own with her brothers, Hortense was determined to make a young lady out of her. From the time Betty could walk, her mother insisted she wear a hat and gloves whenever they went downtown, and she was a stickler for proper manners. She was particular about table manners: napkin in the lap, using the proper utensils, and chewing with your mouth closed. “
You sound just like a horse,” she’d say if Betty was chomping on an apple. “Go into the kitchen or go to your room. I don’t want to hear it.”
As a traveling salesman, William Bloomer would be gone weeks at a time, but Hortense kept him apprised of what was going on in the family through daily letters. Every evening, Betty would come downstairs after finishing her homework and see her mother sitting at the desk writing to her father. When he came home after a long trip, he’d always bring something for Betty, and over the years of her childhood, she amassed a cornucopia of stuffed animals. Her favorite was a teddy bear that she dragged everywhere as a little girl, but the gifts didn’t make up for her dad being gone so often, and she vowed to herself that she’d never marry a man who traveled.
With William gone so much of the time, Hortense basically raised Betty and her brothers as a single mother. She was warm and loving, but she taught her children to know right from wrong, tending to teach through humor rather than pressure.
Spankings in the household were rare, but the threat of a hairbrush on the bottom was always there.
When Betty was eight years old, her mother enrolled her in dance lessons.
About five blocks away from the Bloomer house, an unmarried woman named Calla Travis had transformed her home at 220 Fulton Street into the Miss Calla Travis School of Dancing. It was a big Victorian house with high ceilings, beautiful wood floors, and large rooms that were empty except for dozens of wood-slat folding chairs backed up against the walls. Miss Travis held classes upstairs and downstairs for “
every phase of dance art”—ballroom, ballet, tap, Latin dancing, and even acrobatic—and while she taught many of the lessons herself, she also used previous graduates as instructors. Betty’s first class was social ballroom dancing, with the boys, in jackets and ties, sitting on one side
of the room, and the girls, in white socks, black patent leather Mary Janes, and white gloves, sitting on the other.
Ladies!” Calla Travis would call out as she clapped her hands, “You sit with your legs crossed!”
The boys would stride across the room to ask a girl to be their partner, and they’d dance the waltz and fox-trot in time to Calla’s clattering castanets. Betty loved it so much, she persuaded her mother to send her to Calla’s studio for more classes.
I signed up for everything,” Betty wrote in her memoir. “I adored it all. Dance was my happiness.”
It was on her very first day at Miss Calla’s that she met Lilian Fisher, another eight-year-old, who lived a few miles out of town. Their birthdays were just two months apart, and the girls became instant friends. It was a friendship that would last their entire lives.
She was pretty,” Lilian said. “Just pretty . . . and she wasn’t too tall, and she could kick. She could pirouette and do all these crazy things.”
Each spring, Miss Calla put on a show featuring all her students. It was an impressive production with elaborate sets, props, and costumes, held in the St. Cecilia’s Society building, which had a big stage and plenty of auditorium seating for the parents and families of the aspiring young dancers. In her debut performance, Betty was skipping around the stage with a group of girls, each of them holding tin buckets meant to look like flower baskets. Betty lost her grip, the bucket went rattling down toward the footlights, making a terrible racket, and the audience roared with laughter. For someone with less confidence, such an incident might have put them off performing for good, but not Betty. She loved being onstage. More important, she just loved to dance.
Every afternoon, right after school, Betty would head straight to the dance studio. Her report cards from middle school and high school show that she struggled to get average grades in the standard subjects, but when it came to dance, she was a perfectionist. She never tired of practicing and read voraciously about different methods and prominent dancers from around the world. She took every class Miss Travis offered, with the goal of becoming a dance instructor herself.
There was no kind of dance that didn’t fascinate me,” Betty wrote. “I’d hear about some boy who’d been out west among the Indians and
learned a rain dance, and I’d go to him and make him teach it to me. I was insatiable.”
Calla Travis had developed a rigorous and specific “Graded System of Dance Instruction,” and you had to be able to perform every move perfectly to progress to the next level. At first, it was ballet that Betty adored most of all, and she dreamt of going to New York City to become a ballerina. But the movements and positions were so precise, and she couldn’t seem to get her knees straight enough to appease Miss Travis. To pass the ballet course,
Betty cleverly realized that if she designed her own costume, she could wear a flowy skirt made with scarves hanging down to camouflage whether her knees were straight or bent.
A few years into Betty’s dance instruction, Miss Calla returned from a visit to the University of Wisconsin, where she had learned about something new called the Dalcroze method. This method taught concepts of rhythm, structure, and musical expression using movement, which came to be known as eurythmics. It was Betty’s first introduction to modern dance, and she loved the idea of experiencing music through the body as a means of self-expression. Gone were her dreams of being a prima ballerina—her new passion was modern dance.
Hortense encouraged Betty’s interest in dance, but she also strived to teach her daughter humility and charity. Mrs. Bloomer had become active in the Grand Rapids community, joining Junior League—the educational and charitable women’s group; and volunteering with the Mary Free Bed Guild—a women’s organization that raised money to provide facilities and care for handicapped and crippled children. From a young age, Betty accompanied her mother to the Mary Free Bed convalescent home, where she’d see children her own age who were confined to wheelchairs, or had legs in braces, their disabilities due to polio or malnutrition.
By the time Betty was a teenager, Hortense was guild president, and Betty realized that she could entertain the children by creating a dance party.
She would bring in a phonograph, and with the children all gathered together in a big room, she taught them how to move their bodies to the beats and rhythm of the music, using the methods she’d learned in modern dance. It delighted her to see wheelchair-bound children, with both legs in casts, clapping with their free hands and moving their upper
body, while those whose arms were crippled tapped their feet in time to the music. With Betty’s encouragement, the children escaped their confinement for a short while, laughing and feeling the joy of music and the pleasure of moving their bodies in whatever way they could. This sense of compassion and connection to children with disabilities or illnesses, or those who were victims of unfortunate circumstances, became ingrained in her.
There were few shadows over Betty’s childhood, but when the stock market crashed in October 1929, it affected everyone. In Grand Rapids, the furniture business collapsed. Fathers lost their jobs.
Some committed suicide. Betty was just eleven years old, and suddenly things changed. It’s unclear whether William Bloomer lost his job, but Betty knew he lost a lot of money, and as a traveling salesman whose livelihood depended on a strong economy, his wages undoubtedly took a dramatic decline. There
would be no more household help, no more summers at Whitefish Lake, and no more store-bought dresses. For the next several years, almost all of Betty’s clothing was sewn by her mother.
As America fell into the Great Depression, the Bloomers were still more fortunate than most, as there was always food on the table, and Betty was even able to continue dance lessons.
Along with dance, she still loved sports, especially playing football, and when she was in seventh and eighth grade, she was part of an all-girl football team that played the boys in neighborhood sandlot games. Having grown up alongside two older brothers, Betty played to win. It never occurred to her that the girls couldn’t beat the boys—and often they did.
The year she turned fourteen, Betty began teaching ballroom dance classes to younger children for fifty cents each, to help contribute to her upkeep. It was half the price Calla Travis charged—she was only fourteen, after all—but the money she made allowed her to continue her own lessons with Miss Travis. The Bloomer house at 717 Fountain Street didn’t have a space big enough, so Betty rented the basement in her friend Mary Adelaide Jones’s house for $1. Her buddy Wally Hook would come and play the piano—she paid him $1 too—and sometimes Mary Adelaide’s brother, Walt, would join in with his saxophone or
drums, providing the background music as Betty taught her young students how to fox-trot, waltz, and tango. Word got around, and the Betty Bloomer Dance School flourished.
That same year, she got a part-time job at Herpolsheimer’s Department Store as a clothing model. “Herp’s,” as everyone called it, was a fixture in downtown Grand Rapids at the corner of Monroe and Ottawa Streets, with ten floors of home furnishings, housewares, jewelry, and clothing. As a teen fashion model, Betty’s job was to stroll through the tearoom on Saturdays at lunchtime, wearing one of the latest ensembles. With her dancer’s training, Betty was a natural model. She’d stop at each table, allowing the ladies to feel the fabric and observe the stitching.
Twenty-five ninety-five. Third-floor sportswear,” she’d say, spinning around.
Talk about personality; she had it,” recalled one of her first supervisors at Herpolsheimer’s. “Everyone liked her. She was one hell of a gal.”
Betty earned $3 a week and developed a real sense for fashion. Her friends admired her knack for turning something simple into something fabulous. One friend recalled how “
she could come down the stairs in a basic blue dress that she had dressed up with a bit of green grosgrain and look like a million dollars.”
When she entered the ninth grade, Betty attended Central High School, which was just a few blocks from her home. She participated in all sorts of extracurricular activities, such as the Sock and Buskin theater group, the vaudeville ensemble, the high school yearbook, and Gamma Delta Tau sorority—a social club whose members were known as the “Good Cheers.” Given the choice between studying and socializing, though, Betty preferred the latter.
She had a large circle of friends—
the girls liked her, the boys liked her—and she was just plain fun to be around. “
She was very popular with the boys,” Lilian Fisher recalled. “There’d be several of us who would sort of wait and see who was asking her for the Friday and Saturday night dates, and then see who was going to be left over for us.”
Betty loved the attention, but she wasn’t one to settle down in a long relationship with any one boy. She admitted that, for her, it was all about the pursuit.
I would set my cap for somebody and work at it until I got his fraternity pin,” she wrote. “As soon as I’d got it, I was satisfied, and I moved on to the next victim. I was scrupulous about giving the last fellow’s pin back, that’s the only good thing I can say for myself.”
She also expected boys to be courteous and respectful, and wouldn’t put up with boorish behavior. One night she went to a dance with a boy named Bill Warren. He was three years older, good-looking, with curly blond hair and a fun personality. At one point during the evening, though, he left her to go out in the parking lot and have a beer with some other boys. When he returned, Betty was fuming. As he held out his hand for her to dance, she slapped him in the face.
You’re no gentleman,” she scoffed. “Don’t ever bother to call me again.”
Every so often, Betty and some friends would drive two and a half hours east to Ann Arbor to attend a University of Michigan football game, where one of the star players was a young man named Gerald Ford Jr. from Grand Rapids. Jerry Ford, five years older than Betty, had grown up on the west side of town in more of a working-class area than where Betty lived, and while she had never met him, she knew of him. Everybody in Grand Rapids knew the name Jerry Ford.
In 1930, when Betty was still in junior high school, he was a senior at South High School, and captain of the football team. That year, Jerry made the all-city and all-state teams, and his name appeared often in the sports pages of the Grand Rapids Herald.
Ford went on to play center for the University of Michigan, with number 48 on his blue-and-maize jersey. In 1932 and 1933, the Michigan Wolverines went undefeated with back-to-back national titles, and the following year, senior Jerry Ford was named the team’s Most Valuable Player.
In 1934 Betty was sixteen years old, and one afternoon, she and some of her girlfriends went to a gypsy tea-leaf reader, just for fun. The fortune teller went around and looked into each girl’s cup, supposedly able to see how their lives were going to turn out. “
You’ll meet a tall, dark stranger,” she said to one. “Many children are in your future,” she proclaimed for another. When it came Betty’s turn, the gypsy peered into Betty’s teacup and then made a statement that was so different from all the others, and so striking, it took Betty by surprise.
You will be meeting kings and queens and people of great prominence,” the fortune teller said with conviction. Then she looked into Betty’s eyes and added, “You will have an extraordinary life.”
With dreams of becoming a professional dancer, Betty took the gypsy’s words to heart, and envisioned herself performing in London and Vienna, Austria. She could never have imagined in her sixteen-year-old mind that yes, she would meet kings and queens, and people of great prominence, but it would be on the world stage, and the partner by her side would not be a dancer but a tall, blond, former football player from, of all places, the west side of Grand Rapids. While that would be decades later, something the tea leaves did not predict—a sudden tragedy—was just around the corner.
It was a hot, hot day in July 1934—one of those hazy summer days when the humidity made everything feel heavy. Betty and her girlfriend Ev Thompson had been out driving around town in Ev’s convertible with the top down. As they came
wheeling up to Betty’s house, Ev was honking the horn, and they were both “
waving and yelling and showing off the way sixteen-year-olds do,” she wrote.
As the car pulled to a stop, the front door of the house swung open, and Betty’s twenty-year-old cousin Shine came running outside.
“Shh!” Shine said, waving her hands. “
Just calm down.”
Betty could tell by the look on her face that something was wrong. “
What’s happened?” she asked.
Shine hesitated and then said, “
They had to take your father to the hospital.”
As the details came pouring out, Betty could hardly believe what she was hearing. A couple of her parents’ friends from Detroit had stopped by the house a few hours earlier to visit her mother and dad. Hortense invited them in and went to find William. He had gone out back to the garage to work on the car. And that’s where she found him.
In the stifling heat, one can only imagine the horror Hortense felt when she found her husband’s lifeless body and saw the key in the ignition, the car emptied of gas.
A police ambulance took William to nearby Butterworth Hospital, but “
efforts to revive him were of no avail.” The official cause of death
was carbon monoxide poisoning, and it was ruled accidental. The next day, on what would have been William S. Bloomer’s fifty-eighth birthday, a front-page article in the Grand Rapids Press noted that
he had been unemployed for several months after losing his job at the Corduroy Tire Company plant.
through the Depression and lost everything,” Betty’s brother Bill recalled. “I can remember vividly the pain that he showed from not being able to do everything.”
Still, Betty’s brothers would never admit what others speculated—pointing to the fact that the insurance claim was paid and no inquest was made by the coroner—and it wouldn’t be until many years later, after the pain had dulled, that Betty herself would acknowledge it was likely her father took his own life.
Friends and family members came by to pay their respects, and when the funeral was held a couple of days later in the Bloomers’ living room, Betty overheard hushed voices discussing something she had never known or even suspected:
her father had been an alcoholic. Her mother had kept it a secret from her, and Betty never witnessed it, for he drank only when he was traveling. But now, all those job changes, and moving the family from city to city made more sense. It’s likely that William Bloomer had trouble holding down a job, and that’s the reason Hortense insisted on settling in Grand Rapids, near family.
In 1934 alcoholism was far less understood, and the word alcoholic conjured up images of a destitute man, lying filthy in the street, drinking straight from a bottle in a brown paper bag. To learn that her father had been an alcoholic would have added a feeling of shame on top of the devastation of his sudden death. There was no counseling; no one dared broach such subjects. It was a lot for a sixteen-year-old girl to handle.
It was rougher for everybody after that,” Betty wrote. “Because he was gone, and we’d loved him.”
Financially, there was insurance money to help the family get by, and her brothers, who were already in their twenties, had jobs, but eventually Hortense, too, needed to go to work. She got a real estate license, and just went out and did it. Betty would recall what an impression that made on her—an example of “
how independent a woman can be if she needs to be.”
After William’s death, the bond between Betty and her mother grew
even stronger—they depended on each other and had a very open dialogue about everything, including sex. Hortense explained to Betty that sex was “
beautiful,” but instilled in her that it was something to be experienced only after marriage. Whenever Betty went out to a party or a dance, her mother used to wait up for her to come home, and Betty would tell her all about the evening—who she danced with and what the girls were wearing. In an interview later in life, though, Betty admitted that she didn’t always tell her mother everything. “
I told her what I wanted to,” she said with a grin.
In high school, she didn’t smoke or drink like some of the girls—although she would ask her dates to light a cigarette so she could just hold it and look as though she were smoking like Bette Davis—and if anyone handed her a cocktail at a fraternity party, she’d simply pour it into the nearest potted plant.
Hortense continually pushed Betty to do her best and was quick to point out when she knew she hadn’t. One night, after a performance in the high school follies, in which Betty admitted she “
did sort of a sloppy job,” her mother sat her down and said, “If you don’t do it well, don’t do it at all.” That consistent message, expressed with love and encouragement, inspired Betty to strive for perfection in everything she did. Now with her father gone, it was especially important for Betty to make her mother proud.
In the spring of 1935, the year before her senior year in high school, Betty graduated from the Miss Calla Travis School of Dancing, with top marks across the board for attendance, technical terms, original waltz, examination, and senior dance composition, and now she was qualified to be an instructor herself.
That year, a curly haired little actress named Shirley Temple became a sensation as she sang and tap-danced her way into the hearts of moviegoers, appearing in uplifting films such as Curly Top and Bright Eyes. She was a breath of fresh air to a people beaten down by economic woes, and every little girl under the age of ten suddenly wanted to be just like her. With Shirley Temple dolls, Shirley Temple dresses, and Shirley Temple look-alike contests across the country, there was an influx of girls signing up for dance lessons at Calla Travis’s school. Betty became the main instructor and the girls idolized her.
Lilian Fisher’s younger sister Edith, whom everyone called Toto, was
one of Betty’s students at that time. “
We had black patent tap shoes with grosgrain ribbons to tie them, and velvet dresses,” Toto remembered. Betty would get out and demonstrate what it was like to dance with a boy, and “she was so beautiful, so graceful, and so nice. That lovely smile, that soft manner. You wanted to be just like her.”
Betty loved teaching the youngsters, but her dreams went beyond being a dance instructor in Grand Rapids. She was desperate to pursue a professional career in New York and begged her mother to let her go as soon as she graduated high school. Hortense wasn’t about to allow her only daughter to move to New York City at such a tender age, but eventually she promised that Betty could go once she turned twenty. It wasn’t what the teenager wanted to hear, but she respected her mother’s decision and continued teaching dance and working at Herpolsheimer’s through her final year of high school.
That year, Miss Travis invited an official from a program at Bennington College to visit the studio and evaluate the senior dancers. A short while later, she informed Betty that out of everyone at the school, Betty and her friend Mary Snapp had been chosen to attend the elite Bennington School of the Dance in Vermont that summer. It was the chance of a lifetime, and Betty was thrilled when her mother agreed that she could go. At eighteen, it would be her first trip far from home, and an opportunity she believed could change the course of her life.