Television

Bea Arthur’s Subversive Sexuality

I would always rank Bea near the top of my desired celebrity conquests, alongside more conventional choices like Natalie Portman and Jenny Lewis.

It was a mundane Saturday in late April. I got a long-awaited haircut from a flirtatious and/or tip-groveling stylist, and I purchased some toiletries at Target. By four p.m., I was ready to call it an unproductive day and curl up on the couch with the new Kelly Clarkson album, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a steady stream of Diet Coke. But my lazy spring Saturday was about to take a tragic turn.

When I got home, I went online to check the news, but nothing noteworthy caught my eye. I was about to shut out the world when my mother asked me, “Did you hear who died?” Celebrity death had not exactly been fertile in 2009 so far -- I would know, as that field has been a longtime passion of mine. So any number of ailing possibilities immediately sprung to mind. Farrah Fawcett? Ed McMahon? Ted Kennedy?

“No. Who?” I inquired, jarred by this omission from my cursory headline check.

“Bea Arthur,” she said. My heart sank faster than GM’s stock. My muscles turned to porridge. My eyes welled up with a salty liquid I usually reserved for Pixar movies and Leonard Cohen albums. Bea Arthur was gone, the news relayed to me by seemingly the only person unaware of my overwhelming, somewhat prurient fondness for the Maude and Golden Girls goddess. I bolted back to the computer, and there it was, in plain, finalized AP style: “‘Golden Girls’ Star Bea Arthur Dies at 86”

Where were my friends, who had been privy to so many workday and drunk-night monologues on Bea Arthur’s hotness? I checked my phone for the first time in hours, and the texts were there:

“Did you hear Bea Arthur died?”

The rest of the night is a grief-stricken blur. I’m pretty sure I substituted the Diet Coke with water, I doubt I was in the mood for Douglas Adams, I think I put the Kelly Clarkson album on repeat, and I’m positive I wept myself to sleep.

Cancer? I didn’t even know she was ill ... and I follow that sort of thing ... vigilantly.

Not since Jim Henson’s sudden passing had a celebrity’s death hit me with such brutal, gut-churning force. I was seven then, and promptly turned my bedroom dresser into a shrine of Muppet memorabilia. Not long after, I developed an unquenchable fascination with celebrity death that many called morbid, some called perverse, and the most merciful critics called scholarly. I now check obituaries and celebrity death websites daily, and I make a celebrity deathlist (a ranked listing of notable names I predict to die in the coming year) annually. My obsessive death-watching had acquainted me with figures, from Bella Abzug to Ring Lardner, Jr., that would never have registered otherwise. When two celebrities die on the same day (like the recent Farrah Fawcett-Michael Jackson twofer, which occurred on my birthday, no less), the thrill is so invigorating that I automatically wish for a third to make that final transition, and join the orgiastic feast of archival footage, extemporaneous remembrances, and publicist-generated memorial statements. No matter how many celebrities die in one day, one week, one year, I’m constantly gunning for more. The randomness, the brazen unpredictability, the finality -- it’s all quite alluring, and if you follow it with enough gusto, desensitizing. In my teenage years, I escaped the viewpoint of celebrity death being sad and shocking -- it instead morphed into a stimulating, almost sporting obsession. And so I laughed when Michael Hutchence died. I dubbed John Paul II a “cocktease” for his many close calls. I even rejoiced when Estelle Getty finally succumbed to Lewy body dementia, simply because she was on my deathlist.

But Bea Arthur. This was different. Very, very different.

It was not merely the sexual attraction. I had witnessed the ends of many retired fantasy objects -- Dana Plato, Aaliyah, Anne Bancroft, Suzanne Pleshette -- and they barely made a dent. Bea Arthur was not just a crush -- she was an ideal. At the risk of mockery from buddies and even girlfriends, I would always rank Bea near the top of my desired celebrity conquests, alongside more conventional choices like Natalie Portman and Jenny Lewis. I began to vocalize my dream of flying to California and eloping with Bea, seducing her with fancy candlelight dinners and free-flowing wine, as she seduced me with jocular anecdotes of her vivacious, zestful life. “You better get moving on that” and “You’re kinda running out of time there” were the typical responses from my skeptical peers, but I shrugged them off and kept hope alive. For a woman in her mid-80s, she not only looked amazing, but appeared to be in fine health, even as late as Getty’s death in July 2008. Moreover, Bea Arthur seemed immortal; it never seemed realistic to me that she would die, like all the other celebrities eventually do.

In the week following her death, I was a wreck, as though grieving a family member or a soul mate. I was not only grieving Bea; I was grieving my dream, however quixotic, of being with Bea. I would never meet her, let alone sleep with her, and the optimistic, romantic side of me had always taken for granted that I would do both. How did I cope? I convinced a younger coworker to write the final paper for his community college Women’s Studies class on Bea Arthur. I then devised a nefarious plan for said coworker and I to fly to California and dig up her body, so he could do some firsthand research (he is studying to be a funeral director, I rationalized), and I could, however briefly, hold her in my arms. When we realized that neither of us had the money to fly roundtrip from Baltimore to Los Angeles, I contacted an ex-girlfriend, to whom I had not spoken in months, to see if her wealthy father would fund this impromptu “research project”. She thought I was kidding.

However implausible my “meet and seduce Bea Arthur” plan may have been, its dissolution nevertheless left me reeling. Through both her characters (specifically Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak, her two most enduring performances) and her public persona, Bea Arthur radiated intelligence, erudition, wisdom, and strength. And that rare, especially for television, combination, coupled with her unmistakable physicality, made her remarkably sexy, much sexier than the vacant pinups, from Tina Louise to Pamela Anderson, who more commonly exemplify sexiness in the medium. Yet Bea Arthur is routinely omitted from lists of TV’s Sexiest Women. In fact, before her death and even after, the common consensus is that Bea Arthur was not physically arousing, even ugly.

An issue of MAD Magazine dated January 1990 featured a Jeopardy! parody with the following clue: “TV’s Talking Horse”. Turn the page for the question: “Who is Bea Arthur?” Even as a six-year-old, I saw this as an unfair blow, and as I grew older, I grew increasingly sensitive and defensive toward attacks, both public and private, regarding Bea Arthur’s attractiveness. Why is this woman with such an enthralling presence -- a finely sculpted face, a seductive voice, a towering runway-ready figure, gracefully agile movements, an elegant but sensible wardrobe -- dismissed as a sort of sexual nadir?

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