FLORENCE BATES: IT’S A GRAND FEELING! My Interview with Ann Hamilton, Florence Bates’ Granddaughter, and Rachel Hamilton, Florence Bates’ Great-Granddaughter…
Ever watch a film with Florence Bates in it? If you did, you probably had a difficult time taking your eyes off of her formidable image or tuning out her dialogue as she clipped and snapped orders around the room. I know I did.
The first time I saw Rebecca with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, I knew who they were, but I was also impressed with someone else.
Florence Bates portrayed Edythe Van Hopper! She ordered poor Joan Fontaine around like she was a piece of furniture, she demanded that her hired nurse do her bidding, and I seriously doubt Mrs. Van Hopper paid much attention to her doctor or his orders when she demanded a chocolate right after she took her medicine.
Such curiosity also led me to seek out more information about Florence Bates, and I discovered that she has her own entry in the Texas State Historical Association website. Born Florence Rabe (pronounced “Robbie”) on April 15, 1888 in San Antonio, Texas, her father was the owner of an antique store. As a child, Bates showed unusually advanced musical talent on the piano, but an injury to her hand kept Bates from pursuing a professional career in music, even though she continued to play and to enjoy her arpeggios the rest of her life.
Bates graduated from high school in 1903 and pursued a degree in mathematics at the University of Texas in Austin, graduating in 1906. She subsequently worked as a schoolteacher and social worker until she married a man named Joseph Ramer around 1909, and gave up her career to raise her daughter, Mimi. When her marriage didn’t succeed, Bates divorced, a scandalous step in the early 1900s, and no one ever found out what became of Mr. Ramer.
Encouraged by a judge in San Antonio who was a family friend, Bates used the judge’s personal law library to study for the bar, and passed the grueling exam six months later in 1914, becoming one of the first, if not the first woman to earn a law degree in the state of Texas, practicing law for four years.
When Bates’ parents died, she left the legal profession so that she and her sister could manage the family antique store, and traveled to Europe and Asia, using her foreign language skills and her ability to negotiate as a buyer for the retail establishment. It was also during this time that she became a bilingual radio commentator on a program designed to foster relations between the United States and Mexico. In 1929, Florence Bates’ sister died and after the stock market crash, she closed the antique business and married William F. Jacoby, a well-to-do Texas oilman.
She and her husband moved to Mexico and El Paso, but when Jacoby lost his financial holdings when Mexico nationalized its petroleum industry, they moved to Los Angeles and opened the P & J Bakery which operated successfully until 1940 when the Jacobys sold the company. (The “J” stands for Jacoby, but no one knows what the “P” symbolizes.)
According to Ann Hamilton, Florence Bates’ granddaughter, not long after arriving in California, Florence Jacoby went to the Pasadena Playhouse with a friend, Estelle Rosenfield, who had planned to audition for a role in Emma. Hamilton recalls that “Estelle was a mean, nasty woman. She really wanted the part, but since my grandmother had just come with her to the audition, the director, DeWitt Bodeen, told her to begin her reading. And my grandmother said, ‘No, no. I’m not here to do a reading.’ Bodeen told her,”well, you’re already here.” Hamilton stated that “My grandmother got the part, although Estelle really wanted it badly.”
Florence Jacoby’s experience with Emma was so successful that she kept the last name of her character, Mrs. Bates, and was billed professionally henceforth as ‘Florence Bates,’ and frequently flourished as a wealthy but aggressive matron, much like her character of Edith Van Hopper in Rebecca opposite Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.
But Hamilton claims that her grandmother was “larger than life, charismatic, and confident.” One episode came to light when she was contacted by a family friend, a man named Bernard, who still lives in Texas, and he related his experiences with Florence Bates when he met her on a visit to California in the 1940s. A mutual acquaintance of Bernard’s knew Bates, and helped him make a connection with her on his first visit to Los Angeles. “This friend, Sue, who is 85, stated my grandmother was a ‘true Bohemian’ ,” claimed Hamilton. “Bernard was 18 at that time, and my grandmother was in her 50s, and Bernard said that she picked him up at the station, and as he was in the army, he needed to go to San Diego for some reason, and she lent him her car. Bernard said she was incredibly warm, was the life of the party, and hosted several social events. He spoke lovingly of her nurturing, motherly self and said she was incredibly lively,” Hamilton said proudly as we spoke on the phone.
“It was wonderful to talk to someone after so many years who knew about my grandmother, and Bernard also said that Will and Florence had a beautiful love affair, he was her advisor and supportive of her, they made a great team. Will was her anchor, and their marriage was a happy one.”
Evidently Will was a meek, mild, quiet kind of guy, but he completely supported Bates in all her endeavors, according to Bernard.
As for her personal attire while at home, Hamilton reveals that “Florence always wore a full-length dressing gown, or a floor length hostess gown, and carried her eyeglasses on a handle, a lorgnette. She dressed outlandishly, and had very long fingernails.” (Evident in her performance as Edith Van Hopper in Rebecca.) Hamilton also related that “she told me she was almost a concert pianist, and she told me she was good. Her fingernails were so long that they would click on the keys as she played the piano, and when they began to make more noise than the piano, she would trim them.”
Hamilton remembers that she spent a few summers at Big Bear Lake summer camp, and also went to several movie sets with her grandmother. “I helped Joseph Cotten with his lines in Portrait of Jennie. When Bates appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse in Arsenic and Old Lace, her granddaughter went with her and saw ten shows a week. “Richard Carlson had the Cary Grant lead in that particular run of the play.”
Ann’s daughter, Rachel Hamilton is an improvisational comedian, writer, and instructor living in San Francisco, and has appeared in 30 Rock, Chaos Theory, and spent several years as a cast member at Second City, Chicago, so the acting and performing genes definitely run in the family.
Rachel has gone to The Paley Center For Media during the time she was living and performing improvisational comedy in New York City, and seen footage of her great-grandmother performing on a game show in the 1950s with stars and celebrities of the day as they played charades in two different teams. “In that clip, she is not in character, yet she is in a full-beaded gown, with pince nez,” and she believes that Bates “walked the world in character.” Mother Ann chimed in and stated warmly that “she was warm and fuzzy and kindhearted and sympathetic as can be,” wherein daughter Rachel claimed her own mother was a “chip off the old block.” Both women speak fondly of their famous “character” relation, and their enthusiasm for Florence Bates’ acting abilities never ceases. “I loved her appearance in I Love Lucy (“Pioneer Women”episode, 1952) because she always seemed sharp, hilariously sharp” in all of her appearances.
Florence Bates has appeared in more than 70 films and television programs and some of her more memorable appearances are as the pushy Mrs. Manly in A Letter to Three Wives, and the vindictive Mrs. Van Hopper in Rebecca, but a few of her more kindly characters like the motherly Mollie Veech in Whistle Stop (Ava Gardner’s first major scree role) have also fascinated me because it was such an unusual departure from some of her aggressive, nasty ladies she usually portrayed to keep the action on screen moving forward.
Her turn as social arbiter Sophie Bellop in Saratoga Trunk starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman is my favorite Bates’ role because she is aggressive when she needs to be, but very sweet and endearing when she’s working her charms and trying to convince Ingrid Bergman as Cleo Dulaine to allow her to be Dulaine’s chaperon:
“I know my way around this world. I know what it is to be very rich, and I know what it is to be very poor…I live by my wits. It’s a grand feeling. They can’t take those away from me!”
Such a heartfelt comment was written in the script for the character of Sophie Bellop, but what made it ring so true on film was that it described the exciting, event-filled existence Florence Bates personally experienced.
Follow the link to view a clip of Florence Bates in Saratoga Trunk: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=e8Fuur3ViDU
Filmed in 1943, but not released until 1945, Saratoga Trunk had been screened for two years to Armed Forces’ audiences in service club theaters all over the world. When it finally opened to the general public, it was a sensation, and by the fourth week of its release, the film, based on an Edna Ferber novel, had been seen by an audience one fourth the size of all of Los Angeles, and Look magazine ran a special issue hailing Saratoga Trunk as an exemplary film, and I must add that Sophie Bellop in Saratoga Trunk is one of Florence Bates’ most outstanding performances.
In her film career, Bates worked with Sam Wood, Joe Mankiewicz, George Stevens, Albert Lewin, David Butler and Alfred Hitchcock, who at first believed her to be from the British stage. Her characters have been women who moved the conflicts of film plots forward, and her own personal life as a “true Bohemian” has revealed what a character she really was. It was a “grand feeling” watching her in any of her appearances on film and on television, and it must have been “grand” seeing her on the stage of the Pasadena Playhouse.
Florence Bates in A Letter To Three Wives: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mQBfZocvgzA
Title photo is of Florence Bates and Grady Sutton in My Dear Secretary(1949)
Personal Note: After completing all my research and speaking with Ann and Rachel Hamilton, I found that I actually had quite a bit in common with Florence Bates. I am bilingual, and a professional pianist! Many thanks to Ann and Rachel Hamilton!
UPDATED!–Texas State Historical Association, A Handbook of Texas: http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjact
International Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0060904/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1
The Pasadena Playhouse: http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org/
Personal Interviews with Ann Hamilton and Rachel Hamilton: October 2013