Before Bea Arthur Played Dorothy Zbornak On ‘The Golden Girls,’ She Was A U.S. Marine

Published May 27, 2024
Updated May 28, 2024

Bea Arthur joined the Marine Corps when she was 20 years old and served for more than two years as a driver and dispatcher at a base in North Carolina.

Bea Arthur, comedian. Bea Arthur, singer. Bea Arthur… Marine?

Bea Arthur Marine

National ArchivesBea Arthur’s Marine service photo. When she enlisted, she went by Bernice Frankel.

The statuesque actress is best known for her roles in All in the Family, Maude, and The Golden Girls. But Arthur also had a career as a U.S. Marine during World War II. Though she stayed private about her service, Arthur served for over two years — and even showed a glimpse of her famous personality on the job.

This is the little-known story of Bea Arthur’s military career.

‘Be A Marine… Free A Marine To Fight’

US Marine Corps Recruitment Poster

U.S. National Archives and Records AdministrationThe U.S. Marines encouraged women to enlist in February 1943, and Bea Arthur soon answered their call.

On Feb. 13, 1943, the U.S. Marines Corps put out a call for American women to enlist in the new Women’s Reserve (MCWR). With the United States engaged in World War II, the Marines encouraged women to “Be a Marine… Free a Marine to Fight.”

One woman who answered the call was 20-year-old Bernice Frankel — who would later go by her stage name, Bea Arthur.

Arthur, the daughter of immigrants from Poland and Austria, had worked a number of odd jobs after attending Blackstone College for Girls in Virginia. But when she learned about the Women’s Reserve, she decided to enlist right away.

“I was supposed to start work yesterday, but I heard last week that enlistment for women in the Marines was open, so decided the only thing to do was to join,” Arthur wrote in her enlistment paperwork. She noted that she would prefer to be assigned to “ground aviation” but that she was “willing to get in now and do whatever is desired of me until such time as ground schools are organized.”

Enlistment Letter

U.S. National Archives and Records AdministrationA letter Bea Arthur — then Bernice Frankel — wrote expressing her interest in the U.S. Marines.

On Feb. 18, just five days after the initial call for women to join the MCWR, Bea Arthur enlisted.

Enlisting In The United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve

As Reserve & National Guard Magazine wrote in 2021, women enlistees had to be unmarried and without any children under the age of 18. They had to be at least 60 inches (five feet) tall and weigh at least 95 pounds. And if they were under the age of 21, they had to get parental consent, which Arthur did.

Service Photo

Department of DefenseA photo of Bea Arthur taken during her service with the U.S. Marines. The photograph is dated Feb. 20, 1943 — just two days after Arthur enlisted.

Next, Bea Arthur had to submit letters of recommendation and pass several personality tests.

One such test, conducted on Feb. 18, found that Arthur was “trim,” “alert,” and in possession of a “fluent, excellent vocabulary.” The test also noted, however, that Arthur was “argumentative,” “over aggressive,” and “frank and open” (attributes which her characters like Dorothy Zbornak later became known for).

“Officious,” noted Ensign V. K. Outwin, who conducted the test, “but probably a good worker if she has her own way!”

A second test also found that Arthur was well-poised and had good taste and that her behavior was ingratiating, frank, and open.

Personality Test

U.S. National Archives and Records AdministrationBea Arthur’s personality test found that she was “trim” and “alert” but also “argumentative” and “over aggressive.”

About a month later, on March 18, 1943, Bea Arthur was called to active duty.

Bea Arthur, Marine: Inside Her Military Service

After going through basic training at the U.S. Naval Training School at Hunter College in New York, Bea Arthur was assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps headquarters in Washington D.C.

There, she briefly worked as a typist before requesting a transfer to the Motor Transport School at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Arthur wrote that she could be “of more value to the Marine Corps in this duty because of past experience,” and she arrived at Camp Lejeune in July 1943.

Women Marines At Camp Lejeune

State Archives of North CarolinaThousands of Women Reservists — including Bea Arthur — served at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Six weeks later, she was transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina, where she worked as a driver and a dispatcher. Arthur was promoted to corporal in August 1943 and then to sergeant that December. By June 1945, she’d been promoted once more to staff sergeant.

Along the way, Arthur also met her husband, a fellow Marine named Robert Aurthur. She took his name — and later modified it during her acting career — which was reflected on her military documentation.

She was honorably discharged on Sept. 26, 1945, having committed just one infraction during her 30 months of service. According to War History Online, she contracted a venereal disease in 1944 which left her “incapacitated for duty” for five weeks. During that time, her pay was docked.

Marine Corps Service Record

U.S. National Archives and Records AdministrationBea Arthur’s Marine Corps service record.

This is, perhaps, why Bea Arthur never spoke publicly about her time in the Marines. In fact, she outright denied her service during a 2001 interview.

Bea Arthur In The Marines To Hollywood Stardom

Shortly after leaving the Marines, Bea Arthur attended drama school in New York and then began performing in off-Broadway shows. However, her big break didn’t come until 1964 when she was cast as Yente the Matchmaker in the Broadway premiere of Fiddler on the Roof. Arthur’s success on the stage led to success on the screen, and her guest spot on All in the Family in 1971 was such a hit that she got her own spinoff show, Maude, which ran from 1972 to 1978.

Bea Arthur As Maude

Public DomainBea Arthur’s guest appearance on All in the Family was so popular that she got her own spinoff.

From there, Arthur also starred in The Golden Girls, which ran for seven seasons beginning in 1985. She played the acerbic Dorothy Zbornak, who — like Bea Arthur in her military evaluations — was alert, aggressive, and frank.

But Bea Arthur never spoke about her time in the U.S. Marines.

In a 2001 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Arthur was asked how World War II had affected her. She responded: “Like everybody else… [it was] traumatic.” And when the interviewer noted that she’d heard that Arthur had joined the Marines, Arthur quickly replied: “Oh, no… no.”

The reason for Arthur’s denial is unknown. It’s possible she could have been ashamed about contracting a venereal disease during the war. The Reserve & National Guard Magazine also speculates that, as a woman, she didn’t see herself as a “veteran” or that her embrace of liberal causes like LGBTQ+ rights led her to distance herself from the military.

Bea Arthur Interview

YouTubeFor reasons unknown, Bea Arthur denied her military career in 2001. Her records did not become public knowledge until 2010, the year after her death.

Her son told the magazine that his mother rarely spoke of her service beyond saying that “she could drive any vehicle.”

In any case, the truth about Bea Arthur’s Marine service did not come out until 2010, a year after her death. Though many people know about her acting career, far fewer knew about her military career — or that Bernice Frankel, at the age of 20, became one of the first women to sign up for the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.

After reading about Bea Arthur as a Marine, discover the little-known story of actor Steve Buscemi’s firefighting career — and how he helped New York firefighters after 9/11. Or, go inside the murky truth of Christopher Lee’s military career.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "Before Bea Arthur Played Dorothy Zbornak On ‘The Golden Girls,’ She Was A U.S. Marine.", May 27, 2024, Accessed June 21, 2024.