Bea Arthur was a Marine.

  • Bea Arthur on screen
Bea Arthur on screen
Collection Christophel/ Alamy Stock Photo

Long before she portrayed such iconic TV characters as the outspoken feminist Maude Findlay on Maude and the sarcastic-yet-compassionate Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur acted in a very different role, as a member of the U.S. Marines. On February 18, 1943, a 20-year-old Arthur — then named Bernice Frankel — enlisted in the Marine Corps to support the American war effort in World War II. Her decision came just five days after the organization began recruiting women as part of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Arthur was called to active duty on March 18, 1943, and reported to U.S. Naval Training School in the Bronx, New York. 

After being promoted to private first class on May 1, 1943, Arthur asked for a transfer to Motor Transport School in North Carolina, after which she worked in noncombat roles as a driver and dispatcher. In 1944, she married fellow Marine Robert Alan Aurthur. When they divorced three years later, she kept his surname, but changed the spelling to “Arthur.” In January 1945, Arthur was promoted to staff sergeant, the final position she held prior to being formally discharged on September 26, 1945. For reasons unknown, Arthur later denied her involvement with the Marines, though paperwork confirms she played a pivotal role alongside 20,000 female Marine reservists of the time. 

Arthur began studying drama in 1947, and got her breakthrough acting role in a 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. She later starred in the sitcom Maude from 1972 to 1978, and appeared as Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls from 1985 to 1992. Interestingly, a few of her Golden Girls co-stars also had military ties: Betty White helped out in the American Women’s Voluntary Services in 1941, and Rue McClanahan was mistakenly drafted into military service after high school.

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