Furness, Betty, 1916-1994

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Elizabeth Mary Furness (January 3, 1916 – April 2, 1994) was an American actress, consumer advocate, and current affairs commentator.

Elizabeth Mary "Betty" Furness was born in Manhattan, the daughter of wealthy business executive George Choate Furness and his wife Florence. She attended the Brearley School and Bennett Junior College.

Furness made her stage debut in the school holidays in the title role of Alice in Wonderland. She also posed for commercial advertising. She began her professional career as a model before being noticed by a talent scout and being signed to a film contract in 1932 by RKO Studios. Her first film role was as the "Thirteenth Woman" in the film Thirteen Women (1932) but her scenes were deleted before the film's release.

In 1948, Furness was performing in the television series Studio One, which was broadcast live. She filled in for an actor to promote Westinghouse products during the advertisement break, and impressed the company with her easy and professional manner. They offered her a contract to promote their products and she thus became closely associated with them.

Furness proved a successful spokeswoman because of her good looks and attractive, but neat and modest clothing, which she changed three times a day. She also proved strongly independent-minded about her appearance and image, refusing to adopt a stage name or wear an apron after Westinghouse offered these suggestions. She did however agree to wear a wedding ring on camera to appear more like a housewife. Furness also purchased all of her clothing herself, not wanting Westinghouse to decide her appearance for her. During the political party conventions in the 1952 presidential election, which was heavily sponsored by Westinghouse, Furness wore 28 different outfits, enough to become the subject of a Life Magazine story.

Furness's contract with Westinghouse eventually resulted in her receiving an annual salary of $100,000 and her advertisements caused sales of the company's appliances to soar, with the one notable exception of the dishwasher, which proved a hard sell after market research found that American women were reluctant to buy a device that would in effect completely automate their kitchen and give them nothing to do.

In 1953, she appeared in her own daytime television series Meet Betty Furness, which was sponsored by Westinghouse. In 1959, a new Westinghouse president decided to drop Furness, possibly because he wished to impart his own ideas on the company, and suggested getting a new, slightly younger spokeswoman. Despite some resistance from the company marketing department, he won out and Furness was released from her contract at the end of 1960. Her final spots for Westinghouse were seen within the CBS News coverage of the July 1960 Los Angeles Democratic Convention, the August 1960 Chicago Republican Convention and the evening of November 8 election returns. She then attempted to move into a less commercialized role in television, but found herself too closely associated with advertising to be taken seriously. During this time, she worked on radio and also on behalf of the Democratic Party.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson, aware of her work for the Democratic Party, contacted Furness and offered her the position of Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs. She accepted the assignment and continued in this role until the end of the Johnson administration in 1969. During her tenure she silenced her critics by applying herself studiously to her role and learning the issues relating to consumer rights. From 1969 until 1993 she served as a board member for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. She was appointed by then-Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller in August 1970 to serve as the first chairman and executive director of the New York State Consumer Protection Board, and served in the position until July 1971 before returning to television. In 1971, Furness was elected to the Common Cause National Governing Board. In 1973 she also headed the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.

Signed by WNBC in New York, Furness reported on consumer issues, and specifically targeted examples of consumer fraud. In 1976 she began an association with The Today Show filling in as anchor following the departure of Barbara Walters and providing regular reports. In 1977 her program Buyline: Betty Furness won the Peabody Award.

Furness married four times. Her first marriage was to composer-conductor Johnny Green in 1937, with whom she had one child. After her divorce from Green in 1943, she married radio announcer Hugh "Bud" Ernst Jr. twice - first in 1945, and again in 1946. Her second marriage to him lasted until his death in 1950 when, depressed over the breakup of their marriage, he shot himself after phoning a New York newspaper and declaring, "If you want a good story, come and get it". She married again in 1967 to Leslie Midgley, who survived her. Her granddaughter is Liza Snyder, from the CBS Television series Yes, Dear and Man with a Plan.

In 1990, Furness was treated for stomach cancer, and cut down her schedule on The Today Show to four days. NBC used this as an excuse to fire her two years later, along with a network decision to change their consumer reporting to a more tabloid-style format. Furness was not happy with her termination and cited it as an example of age discrimination. She expressed her desire to continue working, but a recurrence of stomach cancer prevented her from doing so. Her health continued to deteriorate until her death from stomach cancer on April 2, 1994, at age 78 in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Friedan, Betty, 1921-2006. Papers, 1933-1985 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn John Eldon Thayer collection of motion picture memorabilia, 1916-1979. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
creatorOf Howard, Cy. Westinghouse presents-- "Music U.S.A." / written by Cy Howard. Bowling Green State University, BGSU Libraries
referencedIn Rogers, Fred. [Letter, 1977 Aug. 30 : to Arthur Ulene, M.D.]. Saint Vincent College, Saint Vincent Library
referencedIn American screen and theater : photographs and lobby cards, 1914-1965, (bulk: 1930-1949) Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Papers, 1884-1998 (inclusive), 1929-1988 (bulk) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Katie Louchheim Papers, 1906-1991, (bulk 1942-1968) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Arthur Unger collection of recorded interviews [sound recording] The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
referencedIn Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970. Papers, 1833-1975 (bulk: 1884-1972) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Rogers, Fred. [Letter, 1976 Oct. 12 : to Duane R. Carlson]. Saint Vincent College, Saint Vincent Library
referencedIn Rome, Harold, 1908-1993. The Harold Rome papers, 1873-1988 (inclusive). Yale University, Music Library
referencedIn Gore Vidal papers, 1850-2020 (inclusive), 1936-2008 (bulk) Houghton Library
referencedIn Consumers' Research, Inc. Consumerism general files--governments and the consumer, 1927-1981. Rutgers University
referencedIn Vera Zorina papers, 1910-2001 (inclusive), 1933-2001 (bulk). Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Inventory of the Science Fiction Archive of Otto Binder: SCI FI MSS 00147 ., 1927-1971. Cushing Memorial Library,
creatorOf Elliott, Sumner Locke. Studio one-- Babe in the woods / written especially for Studio one by Sumner Locke Elliott. Bowling Green State University, BGSU Libraries
referencedIn The Harold Rome Papers, 1873-1988 (inclusive) Irving S. Gilmore Music Library
referencedIn Rome, Harold, 1908-1993. The Harold Rome papers, 1873-1988 (inclusive). Yale University, Music Library
referencedIn Additional papers, 1921-1992 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970. Papers: Series I-II, 1833-1975 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Furness, Betty : [miscellaneous ephemeral material]. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
referencedIn Gypsy Rose Lee papers, 1910-1970 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Women's Economic Round Table. Records, 1976-2005 (bulk: 1978-2004) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Rodgers, Dorothy F., 1909-. Papers, 1922-1987 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Louchheim, Katie, 1903-. Katie Louchheim papers, 1906-1991 (bulk 1942-1968). Library of Congress
referencedIn Additional papers, 1921-1992 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Johnny Green papers, 1920-1991. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Papers, 1922-1987 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Peterson, Esther, 1906-1997. Papers, 1884-1998 (inclusive), 1929-1998 (bulk). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Axelrod, George. Studio one-- "Confessions of a nervous man" : a comedy documentary / written especially for Studio one by George Axelrod. Bowling Green State University, BGSU Libraries
referencedIn Johnny Green additional papers, 1923-1989. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
correspondedWith Binder, Otto person
associatedWith Consumers' Research, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Friedan, Betty, 1921-2006 person
associatedWith Green, Johnny, 1908-1989 person
associatedWith Lee, Gypsy Rose, 1914-1970 person
associatedWith Louchheim, Katie, 1903- person
associatedWith Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970 person
associatedWith Peterson, Esther Eggertsen, 1906-1997 person
associatedWith Rodgers, Dorothy, 1909-1992 person
associatedWith Rogers, Fred. person
associatedWith Rome, Harold, 1908-1993 person
associatedWith Thayer, John Eldon, 1899-1980 person
associatedWith Unger, Arthur person
correspondedWith Vidal, Gore, 1925- person
associatedWith Women's Economic Round Table corporateBody
correspondedWith Zorina, Vera. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Manhattan NY US
New York City NY US
Subject
Advertising
Actresses
Consumer Advocacy
Consumer Advocacy--history
Occupation
Consumer Activist
Actress
Consumer Educator
Activity

Person

Birth 1916-01-03

Death 1994-04-02

Female

Americans

English

Information

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