Bettye Avery

BettyeAvery

Stunningly beautiful New York model, Bettye Avery was pushed hard by producers and publicity men to become a star in Hollywood, but after a few flicks it was clear would never achieve any level of cinematic fame. Instead, she married a very wealthy man and lived the high life until complications arose.

EARLY LIFE

Elizabeth L. Murphy was born in Des Moines, Iowa (imdb claims her birth year is 1908 but I find that ridiculous – I would say more cca. 1920). The family moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I could not find any additional information bout her family, even her birth name is disputed.

Betty won the title of Miss Oklahoma in 1939, and had high hopes that this would be her gateway to Hollywood. Unfortunately, Hollywood was not forthcoming, so she went to the East Coast and instantly got work as a model in New York. Soon, she was so successful that Hollywood DID take notice, and off she went!

CAREER

Bettye appeared in only five movies during her career. She was credited only in her last movie.

Her first movie was That Night in Rio, a fun, flirty and lavish 20th Century Fox Technicolor musical. Yep, its not MGM but it’s not far behind either. Anybody who likes MGM musicals should also give a chance to this movie. Don Ameche and Betty Grable are both charming and good enough to take notice, but it is Carmen Miranda who steals the show with her fiery Latina (the role she always played, but hey, if it’s ain’t broken, why fix it?).

The Great American Broadcast came next. It’s a typical Alice Faye musical, funny, bubbly and colorful (in black and white of course, but you can imagine it was such during filming). The story is a moronic one with a hundred cliches, but hey, nobody watches musicals for the stories, no? A great supporting cast make this a good watching experience (Ink Spots, Nicolas Brothers, Wiere Brothers)…

BettyeAvery3The Cowboy and the Blonde is a delightful B movie romp, basically a western version of “Taming of the shrewd”… The true strength of the movie is Mary Beth Hughes, who I agree was a underrated actress (a dime a dozen in Hollywood… Very talented and charismatic, but hey, sometimes the likes of Sonja Henie caught all the fame and the glory! Well, that’s showbiz!). Her character, a diva in a true sense of the world, is yummy and delicious and a real treat to watch. George Montgomery, handsome but usually a wooden leading man, is sufficient enough (when you have Mary Beth, one can turn a blind eye on her leading man!).

The Pride of the Yankees is a classic old Hollywood drama, one of the best roles Gary Cooper ever gave to the world. The story of Lou Gehrig, a legendary baseball player, it told with class, tact and shows perfectly all the obstacles Lou had to endure in life, and how he did it with absolute grace and flair. Cooper himself was a bit too old to play a young, up and coming player, but it you neglect that and understand that Gehrig was a shy and unassuming man, even people uninterested in the sport can enjoy the movie.

They Got Me Covered is a Bob Hope (in solo mode) movie from the 1940s. This alone can more or less describe it. Hope’s character is a bumbling half twit, a few really good gags and one liners, usually a dismal story and strong supporting characters (listen to this: Otto Preminger, Lenore Aubert, Eduardo Ciannelli!). Dorothy Lamour, who worked well against Bob, is his love interest. The story here is also not even half bad. Worth watching for some laughs.

Bettye gave up movies for family and charitable causes.

PRIVATE LIFE

Bettye made more splashes with her private life than anything she did on the screen. When she hit the papers in April 1941, she was engaged to Orrin Lehmann, the nephew of New York governor Herbert Lehmann, and they were expected to make a June wedding, after he graduates from Princeton. NOT! Pretty soon, Bettye was dating wide across the chart, being escorted by such eminent men like Bruce Cabot and Pat di Cicco. Her relationship with di Cicco was a very passionate one, as the papers even claimed they were secretly married (not true). She broke up with Lehman by the end of April, and took up with di Cicco for “real”. Sadly, that one did not lead to the altar. They broke up by June 1941, but she kept the ring. She consoled herself with Bentley Ryan, the glamour boy lawyer, partner of the more glamorous Greg Bautzer.

TonyMArtinBettye2Bettye was soon signed by Sam Goldwyn and expected to make a stunning career. Again, NO, but at least she got some positive publicity. Then in September 1941, Bettye was reported dating the man who would become her future husband, Joe Drown. They went on strong, and by November it was pretty much obvious to anyone that the two were altar bound. Still, she found time to date Blake Garner and Rudy Vallee in that same month. The two wed in December 1941, but it was kept secret until February 1942.

Joe Drown, born as Francis Warford Joseph Drown on May 22, 1906, was the son of Leroy W. Drown and Nora Mann, the eldest of three children (his younger sister and brother were Virginia and John). The family lived in Chicago, then Colorado and settled in San Diego, California, where he and his siblings lived with their widowed aunt Mollie Lowder (I have no idea what happened to their parents). There he finished college. Joe lived and worked for a time in Dallas, Texas. He was a wunderkind businessman by the time he was 23 years old, working with Conrad Hilton and holding a post of vice president in his company. Something about Joe’s life work can be read on this site, and this is just an excerpt:

There was a bridle path down Sunset Boulevard all the way to Santa Monica, and the site that eventually would become the Hotel Bel-Air was a riding stable called The Sycamores, at the bottom of Stone Canyon, with a small tearoom and a few buildings for Bell’s offices. Nothing much happened until 1945, when Francis Warford Drown, a tall, handsome Texan known as Joe, acquired the property and made preparations to complete the hotel. His prosperous neighbors were horrified at the prospect of commercial enterprise in their sylvan midst and ardently protested what they saw as an imminent roadhouse that would pollute the neighborhood with wine, women, and song. Greer Garson and Jeannette MacDonald showed up at meetings of the city planning commission to demand rezoning that would restrict the area to one-family residences. But calmer heads prevailed, and Joe Drown was allowed to build what has been called a motel gone to heaven: rambling pink stucco, vaguely mission-style, with an oval pool where the paddock once stood.

More than 50 years later the place is, in style and substance, remarkably true to Drown’s original vision: a labyrinth of shaded colonnades and corridors, secluded courtyards and lush landscapes in which to stroll. On many weekends, the broad lawns provide a photo op for a bride and groom, posing amid the gaudy pink and red camellias, orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit, sweet-smelling gardenia and jasmine, and bodacious birds-of-paradise. A 75-foot silk floss tree is the largest in North America, and a working herb garden provides lavender for the dining room’s scented ice cream. The 11.5-acre property is tended by nine full-time gardeners, some with cell phones in their back pockets. The fireplace in the wood-paneled bar is stoked year-round, oblivious to immutable California sunshine, and the underground tunnel that once led horses out of the stables is now part of the wine cellar. An arched stone bridge leads to an unconventional reception area, so unobtrusive that first-timers must be directed there, and each of the 92 rooms (including 40 suites) has a private entrance, contributing to the hotel’s reputation for high-class hanky-panky—what longtime concierge Phil Landon candidly called “the biggest shack-up business in town.” (An actress once complained about her room, comparing it unfavorably to others she’d occupied there. “But this is the first time you’ve been a registered guest,” said Landon.)

Sadly, they separated after just four months of marriage in June 1942. Cryodom M. Wassell, then a Lieutenant Commander in the US army, was her escort right after the separation. Following him were Bill Girard and Alexis Thompson.

July was the month for Vic Orsatti, who escorted her around parties. That same month she changed her name to Cornelia and her friends already called her “Corny” (was this supposed to be good publicity? Meh!).

BettyeAvery4In August 1942, she and Drown were underway for a reconciliation, but that did not last long and she was seen with David May. She was also seen with super agent Bob Ritchie. In September, the Drowns tried for another reconciliation, and it seems this one was of longer duration. They were firmly reconciled for their first wedding anniversary in December 1942. By January 1943, they were seemingly going steady. Their daughter Francesca Elizabeth Drown was born on August 31, 1944.

Despite their reconciliation and a baby daughter, the Drowns separated for good in 1945. In February 1945, Drown was having dates with Joan Blondell. In September 1946 he dated Iris Bynum, the Texas siren I already profiled on this blog. He also went on to date Martha Kemp (the onetime wife of Victor Mature), Lisa Kincaid and Jacqueline Dayla.

Anyway, in 1946 Bettye was seen with Jim Stack, brother of Bob, and producer Ben Bogeaus who married and divorced another starlet, Dolores Moran. Bettye then started dating Tony Martin, famous crooner. Now that was a serious relationship lasting several months. They were together from March 1947, and Tony was on hand to give Bettye a bracelet when she left for a months log sojourn in Paris. She also went on a few dates with Cary Grant (both were socially active, but never dated to the amazement of the gossip columnists). Conveniently, her on-the-side-date, David Niven, was also in Paris at the same time. George Sanders was also never far away (at least the papers hinted it, huh huh). When she returned, Martin was eagerly awaiting her, and he often popped to the East coast to be with her. However, she was hardly her only one, as she dated Kenneth Schmidt and the papers even tipped that they were looking towards Las Vegas to get hitched. Yet, by November 1947 she was already dating Barry Bannen and no further mentions of Schmidt. By early 1948, Martin was again the number one man in her life, along with Conrad Hilton Jr., the son of the partner of her former husband. Skip forward to 1949, and Bettye was dating Bill Dozier, the former husband of Joan Fontaine.

Elizabeth married oilman Howard Keck in 1949 or 1950. Howard Keck was born on September 20, 1913, in Trinidad, California, the second of the six children of Alice Keck and William Myron Keck, the founder of the Superior Oil Company of California and Keck Foundation (that funded the construction of the Keck telescopes).

The Kecks had three children together: Howard Brighton Keck Jr., born on October 3, 1950, Kerry Cornelia Keck, born on August 21, 1952, and Erin Anne Keck, born on September 20, 1954. Howard also adopted her daughter Francesca.

The Kecks became the focal point of high society in Bel Air, building a huge estate, La Lanterne, dabbling horse races and being very active as philanthropists. As an article (you can read it here) said about Libby:

She owns Ferdinand, the thoroughbred that won the Kentucky Derby in 1986.

Libby Keck is best known as a world-class collector who has assembled a museum-quality treasure of French tapestries, paintings and exquisite furnishings once owned by the likes of Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon.

In happier days, La Lanterne, a walled estate on Bellagio Road, was a regular stop for curators from Europe’s finest museums, many of whom had competed with Libby Keck for those precious objects.

It was a nice, lofty life with loads of money. However, like many times in real life, something sinister was lurking behind the facade. Namely, Howard was at terrible odds with his two siblings, sister Wilametta and brother William. It escalated int he early 1980s (taken from this article):

He retired in 1981 after spending his entire career with the company, although his involvement with Superior remained strong. In 1983, he and his sister, Willametta Keck Day, became involved in a highly publicized battle over whether the company should be sold. Mr. Keck’s sister, favoring such a sale, took out newspaper advertisements advising shareholders to vote on a resolution that would permit it.

Mrs. Day and her supporters won a shareholder proxy fight. In late 1983, Mr. Keck resigned from the oil company’s board, signaling to many that he was ready to sell his sizable stake in Superior. In 1984, the Mobil Corporation bought Superior Oil for $5.7 billion.

TonyMartinBettyeAfter going strong for 30+ years, the The Kecks marriage broke down in the late 1980s and by the early 1990, they lived on the same property in Bel Air but never saw each other (as the property was sooo huge). They finally divorced in 1992, with Elizabeth gaining 11 million dollars in the divorce settlement, plus monthly payments.

As noted California divorce lawyer, Scott Robinson, said in an interview about the divorce (OC is the interviewer, and SR is the lawyer):

OC: And you came to Liner in 2011. To shift gears here a little bit, you keep your clients and your clients’ matters very confidential. I’m assuming that’s mostly during the course of the case or the matter as it unfolds. But when you look back what are one or two cases that come to mind as being very intriguing or rewarding. Are there a couple of cases that you can talk about?

SR: Well, at the outset of my career [in the family law practice area], the case that really piqued my interest in the practice involved representing a woman by the name of Elizabeth Keck. Libby was married to a guy named Howard Keck, who is one of the heirs of the Standard Oil fortune. There’s the Keck Foundation and the Keck School of Medicine at USC, and the Keck telescopes in Hawaii. That was a very interesting case because it exposed me to a broad range of financial interests that individuals could own. Mrs. Keck owned the racehorse Secretariat. They had a private plane, and that was back before there were Boeing business Jets. They had to make it their personal plane. They built a two-bedroom home in Bel Air, and spent more than $40 million—and that was back when $40 million was really a lot of money. It’s a lot of money now, but back then the two bedroom home in Bel Air $40 million was really an eye-opener. That was the case that really got me interested in family law. This wasn’t just about how to divide your income. It was about dividing vast sums of wealth, and helping people who had been married for a long time exit their divorce with dignity and respect. That really stood out to me.

OC: Was it a messy divorce?

SR: It was not particularly messy. Any case that involves lots of complicated assets has some complexity to it. But I wouldn’t call it messy.

Than something even worse happened… This is a tragi-comedy story for sure! I’ll let you read the article about it, taken from this page, by Canadian writer Max Haines, taken from this site (this is a loong article so be ready for it, but it’s so interesting I decided to leave it intact):

William Keck made his first big dollars in oil leases. In time, he amalgamated his holdings into Superior Oil with assets in the billions. In 1964, William died, leaving his fortune to his three children, William, Jr., Howard and Willametta. In 1983, William died. Willametta passed away a year later.

On the surface, it would appear that Howard stood to inherit the whole kit and kaboodle, but there was a catch. William had set up a trust back in 1964, stating that his entire fortune was to pass along to his grandchildren upon the death of his last surviving offspring, who turned out to be Howard.

At this juncture, I would be remiss if I failed to elaborate on the Keck family’s wealth. Superior was sold to Mobil Oil for $5.7 billion. Howard and his wife, Libby, lived in an 11,000-square-foot home in Bel Air’s Stone Canyon. The house was custom built for Libby, who modelled it after a pavilion in Versailles, France. The estate cost $42 million and was called La Lanterne.

At 65 years of age, Libby, an attractive woman, was director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Huntington Museum and the Los Angeles Music Center. For fun, Libby dabbled in horse racing. The jewel in the crown of her stable was Ferdinand. With Willie Shoemaker in the irons, Ferdinand won the 1986 Kentucky Derby. Howard and Libby once endowed the California Institute of Technology with $70 million. You get the idea. The Keck family was one of the wealthiest clans in the entire United States.

BettyeAvery2 (1)Howard and Libby had three children of their own, as well as a daughter from Libby’s previous marriage. Evidently, Howard Jr. became nervous in the service. He launched a lawsuit to clarify his rights to the Keck family fortune in the event of his father’s demise.

Father didn’t like this move one little bit. He put forward the proposition that Howard Jr. wasn’t really his son at all, but had been sired by another. He also threatened to adopt children, thereby diluting Howard Jr.’s inheritance.

No doubt about it, the Kecks were a troubled family. Around this time, Libby and Howard decided to divorce, although both continued to live in separate quarters in La Lanterne while their case ground through the courts. The very rich do things like that.

The Kecks’ domestic difficulties had a spillover effect on other people. Their butler and all around man, Roy Donell, had been with the Kecks for 11 years. He was a conscientious employee, who acted more as a manager than a butler. Roy purchased all the food brought into La Lanterne, which amounted to more than $5,000 per month. Roy, 61, and his wife, Christina, who was employed as a cook at La Lanterne, could see their secure well-paying jobs evaporating as the Kecks’ marriage deteriorated.

Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret. He desperately needed every cent he earned because he was leading a double life. Yes, Roy had a sweet morsel, Ester Ariza, stashed away in an apartment on Santa Monica Boulevard. While Christina was a frail 67, Ester, a warmblooded Colombian, had seen only 45 summers come and go.

There were complications. Ester, who had expensive tastes, had been led to believe that Roy had divorced his wife, but felt honour bound to support her. As if that weren’t enough, in a moment of weakness, he had promised to pay her 20-year-old son Andy’s way through college.

The Kecks had priceless antiques and works of art sprinkled throughout their home. Some were so well-known, such as a Gainsborough, that they were impossible to sell. But there were other paintings. In fact, the Kecks had so many that they kept several in storage in their original crates.

In Sept. 1986, Roy took one of the crated paintings entitled Fete Gallante, a miniature by French artist Le Clerk des Gobelins, out of La Lanterne and kept it in his apartment until it was time for him to take his vacation.

Despite having worked in the U.S. for years, Roy never gave up his Swedish citizenship. He travelled to Sweden with the painting, paid a few hundred dollars to customs to get it into the country, and called on Beijars Auktioner, one of the country’s largest art dealers. An expert examined the painting and declared it to be genuine. Beijars were delighted to auction off the painting for their new client, Roy Donell. Within a week, it was sold and Roy collected the proceeds, some $5,000 after the auctioneer’s commission was deducted. Roy had passed Art Theft 101 with flying colours.

At the end of his vacation, the cunning butler and his wife returned to their duties at La Lanterne $5,000 richer. Roy knew that he couldn’t retire on selling such paintings, nor could he peddle Gainsboroughs. He looked around the estate for something in between. To his way of thinking, the most saleable work of art in the collection was an 1888 work by Sweden’s Anders Leonhard Zorn, which Libby had purchased in 1982 for $88,000. The painting, entitled I Fria Luften (In Free Air), depicted a nude dressing her son near a pond.

Roy stayed on at the Kecks’ turbulent household for a few months before giving his notice. He explained that he and Christina had decided to retire to Sweden. Roy took a photo of the Zorn, had a slide made and took it personally to Rossi Photographic Custom Lab to have an enlargement made the exact size of the original. When the enlargement was produced, Roy was not happy with the quality of the reproduction. He was told by the manager of the lab that they couldn’t do any better from a slide. They required the original. A few days later, Roy appeared with the painting and stayed with it while a large negative was produced. A week later, he picked up an exact replica of I Fria Luften.

Roy put the photograph into the original frame. No one looked very much at the valuable paintings anyway. After all, there was a proliferation of well-known works around the house.

The butler left for Sweden, not with his wife, but with his mistress Ester. He dropped off the valuable painting at Beijars and collected a down payment of $85,000 while he toured Europe. The painting brought $550,000 at auction. After the auctioneer’s commission, Roy pocketed an additional

$355,000, for a total of $440,000 on the deal. Mission completed, the couple returned to Los Angeles.

Roy had pulled off a successful caper, right up until the day four months later when Libby stared at I Fria Luften. Son of a gun, it was smooth as silk! The authentic painting, an oil, had a rough surface. Libby’s first reaction was to scream. Her second was to call the police.

Detectives confirmed that to make such a photograph the original had to be removed from the frame. As there had been no breach of the extensive security system, which protected the estate, it was felt that the theft was an inside job. Only two employees had recently left the Keck household, namely Roy and Christina Donell.

It didn’t take long to trace Roy to an apartment in Los Angeles. He was taken into custody without incident. A search of his apartment uncovered a brochure from Beijars Auktioner, as well as transfer receipts from Beijars to the Security Pacific Bank in L.A. In all, $85,000 had been transferred to the bank. Police also found a price list from Rossi Photographic Custom Lab.

Roy was lodged in jail while the airtight case against him was developed by police. Ester and Christina, the two women in Roy’s life, claimed they had no knowledge of Roy’s thieving ways. They were never charged with any crime.

Roy went to trial facing two counts of grand theft. From the witness stand he admitted that he had stolen both paintings.

But hold on a minute.

Roy claimed that he had done it all under instructions from Libby Keck. What’s more, he had given her all the money. According to Roy, he had helped Libby because she had wanted to accumulate cash in her own name due to her impending divorce.

To counteract this rather startling evidence, Libby took the stand and stated she didn’t need to raise what she called a pittance. She gave some figures, which revealed her lifestyle. Pending her divorce, she was receiving a $5,000 a month grocery allowance, $25,000 for clothing, $1,200 for lunches, $3,300 for dinners and $10,000 for dinner parties. She also had $11 million in accounts she controlled. Would she enter a scheme with her butler to steal $440,000? As Libby said from the witness stand, “I could have written a cheque for the whole amount.”

The jury was faced with the problem of who to believe. Strangely enough, they chose to believe Roy Donell and returned a verdict of not guilty.

Howard Keck died on December 14, 1996.

I have no idea what happened to Elizabeth Keck after her divorce. I hope she is alive and kicking and happy somewhere.

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One response

  1. Have you obtained anymore info as to what happened to Elizabeth Keck(Bettye Avery)? Is she still alive? I do appreciate what info you have provided as I had for yrs tried to find out info on her since her acting career ending.

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