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5 Things You Didn't Know About Betty Grable

Getty / Frank Powolny

5 Things You Didn't Know About Betty Grable

Her movie career is a distant memory now, but there was a time when Betty Grable was the hottest thing going in Hollywood. Born 100 years ago Dec. 18, 1916, Grable was a massive star of the 1940s, one whose airy comedies and musicals helped lighten the national mood during the tense times of World War II. And her famous pinup picture was beloved by countless soldiers and sailors while they served, her sunny smile reminding them of home.

Whether you're a fan from way back or just discovering her recently, here are five facts you might not know about Betty Grable.

1. She was the highest-paid woman in America. When we say Grable's career was hot, we mean it was sizzling. Throughout the 1940s, she was the top-earning female star in Hollywood, and in 1943, she was named by theater owners as the top box office draw of them all, beating out major competition including Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, and Humphrey Bogart. Her unbeatable star power was thanks in large part to cheerful, fun films including "Springtime in the Rockies," "Coney Island," and "Pin Up Girl." In them, she sang, danced, and flirted her way into the hearts of Americans – and while doing so, she raked in the dough. In 1946 and 1947, she was certified by the U.S. Treasury Department as the highest-paid woman in the entire country, earning $300,000 a year.

2. She had the ideal legs. You may have heard that Grable's legs were insured for $1 million by Lloyd's of London – her studio, Twentieth Century Fox, took out the ostentatious policy as a publicity stunt after promoting a dubious beauty contest and naming their top star the winner of the "best legs" competition. But her legs really were the best, according to hosiery specialists. The proportions of her legs – 18.5-inch thigh, 12-inch calf, and 7.5-inch ankle – were considered the ideal of the time. Grable frequently showed off her most famous assets in movies and in her iconic pinup photo, and she even pressed one into the wet cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theater when she added her signature to its gallery of handprints and footprints.

3. That famous pinup inspired an empire. Grable's was the most popular pinup photo of the World War II era, surpassing other beloved and beautiful stars like Rita Hayworth and Veronica Lake. The 1943 image is unforgettable – her back to the camera, Grable turns her head and shoulders back to grin at the camera. Her blond hair is piled high on her head, but it's her legs that we notice first, revealed by her bathing suit and enhanced by high-heeled pumps. It sold millions of copies – one out of five U.S. servicemen in World War II owned a copy. One of the many soldiers who stared at it from their overseas bunks was a young Hugh Hefner, who served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. He later reported that Grable's unforgettable pinup gave him the early germ of the idea for the magazine that would become a media empire, Playboy.

4. She was good friends with Marilyn Monroe. You're excused if you thought the opposite because Hollywood gossip portrayed the two blond stars as bitter rivals. Grable, 10 years older, was nearing the end of her career as Monroe's star began to rise, and she was supposed to have been jealous of the young and beautiful woman who was being touted as "the next Betty Grable." But when they starred together in 1953's "How To Marry a Millionaire," they didn't clash – in fact, they formed a close friendship. Monroe greatly admired Grable, looking to her as an inspiration for her career. And for her part, Grable found in Monroe a source of friendly support. Asked about her friend after Monroe's death, Grable said, "It may sound peculiar to say so because she is no longer with us, but we were very close. Once when we were doing that picture 'How To Marry a Millionaire' together, I got a call on the set: My younger daughter had had a fall. I ran home and the one person to call was Marilyn. She did an awful lot to boost things up for movies when everything was at a low state; there'll never be anyone like her for looks, for attitude, for all of it."

5. She was the namesake of an atomic bomb. On May 25, 1953, at the height of the era of nuclear testing in the Nevada desert, the U.S. detonated a weapon as part of the Upshot-Knothole series of tests. The weapon was named "Grable" – one of many tested nuclear weapons named after people, this one was dubbed in direct homage to the big-screen star. Talk about a bombshell.