from the film Mama Steps Out (1937)
|2nd Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs|
May 1, 1967 – January 20, 1969
|President||Lyndon B. Johnson|
|Preceded by||Esther Peterson|
|Succeeded by||Virginia Knauer|
|Born||Elizabeth Mary Furness
January 3, 1916
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||April 2, 1994
New York City, U.S.
Hugh "Bud" Ernst
|Children||Andrea Midgley Connors
Leslie Midgley (named after husband)
Peter J. Midgley
Elizabeth Mary "Betty" Furness was born in New York City, the daughter of wealthy business executive George Choate Furness and his wife Florence. She attended the Brearley School and Bennett Junior College.
Furness made her stage debut in the school holidays in the title role of Alice in Wonderland. She also posed for commercial advertising. She began her professional career as a model before being noticed by a talent scout and being signed to a film contract in 1932 by RKO Studios. Her first film role was as the "Thirteenth Woman" in the film Thirteen Women (1932) but her scenes were deleted before the film's release.
Over the next few years she appeared in several RKO films, and became a popular actress. Among her film successes were Magnificent Obsession (1935) and the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Swing Time (1936). By the end of the decade she had appeared in over forty films, but during the 1940s found it difficult to secure acting roles.
In 1948 Furness was performing in the television series Studio One, which was broadcast live. She filled in for an actor to promote Westinghouse products during the advertisement break, and impressed the company with her easy and professional manner. They offered her a contract to promote their products and she subsequently became closely associated with them. One of television's most recognizable series of commercials had Furness opening wide a refrigerator door, intoning, "You can be sure ... if it's Westinghouse." (The spots were so well known they were often parodied: one Mad magazine gag imagined the words on a neon sign, with a few key letters burned out: YOU CAN ..SU.E IF IT'S WESTINGHOUSE!")
Ironically, Furness may be best known today for a Westinghouse commercial in which she did not appear: during a live spot, a refrigerator door failed to open, creating one of the most infamous bloopers in TV history. This actually did not happen to Furness, as has often been claimed, but to another actress (June Graham), who was substituting for her.
Furness hosted ABC's Penthouse Party which ran for 39 episodes from September 1950 to June 1951. Furness was a regular panelist on the CBS panel show What's My Line? in 1951. She appeared in a series of live mysteries on ABC, under the weighty title Your Kaiser Dealer Presents Kaiser-Frazer "Adventures In Mystery" Starring Betty Furness In "Byline" which ran in November and December 1951, and again on ABC in syndication in the fall of 1957. The series was produced by the DuMont Television Network and ran on DuMont under the title News Gal.
In 1953 she appeared in her own daytime television series Meet Betty Furness, which was sponsored by Westinghouse; she remained a spokesperson for the company until 1960. Her final spots for Westinghouse were seen within the CBS News coverage of the July 1960 Los Angeles Democratic Convention, the August 1960 Chicago Republican Convention and the evening of November 8th election returns. She then attempted to move into a less commercialized role in television, but found herself too closely associated with advertising to be taken seriously. During this time, she worked on radio and also on behalf of the Democratic Party.
Furness has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for her contribution to motion pictures and to television.
In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson, aware of her work for the Democrats, contacted Furness and offered her the position of Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs. She accepted the assignment and continued in this role until the end of the Johnson administration in 1969. During her tenure she silenced her critics by applying herself studiously to her role and learning the issues relating to consumer rights. From 1969 until 1993 she served as a board member for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. She was appointed by then-Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller in August 1970 to serve as the first chairman and executive director of the New York State Consumer Protection Board, and served in the position until July 1971 before returning to television. In 1973 she also headed the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.
Signed by WNBC in New York, Furness reported on consumer issues, and specifically targeted examples of consumer fraud. In 1976 she began an association with The Today Show filling in as anchor following the departure of Barbara Walters and providing regular reports. In 1977 her program Buyline: Betty Furness won the Peabody Award.
Furness married four times. Her first marriage was to composer-conductor Johnny Green in 1937 with whom she had one child. After her divorce from Green in 1943, she married radio announcer Hugh "Bud" Ernst Jr. twice; first in 1945, and again in 1946. Her second marriage to him lasted until his death in 1950. She married again in 1967 to Leslie Midgley, who survived her. Her granddaughter is Liza Snyder, from the CBS Television series Yes, Dear.
In 1990 Furness was diagnosed with cancer. She continued working for The Today Show until she was released from her contract in 1992. Her dismissal was widely publicized and controversial and was viewed by many of Furness' supporters as ageism.
Furness expressed her philosophy of never declining a job, and she believed it was the reason that she progressed through such an unconventional series of professions. During her illness, she stated that she wanted nothing more than to be able to work, and (consumer reporter to the end) once mentioned in an interview that, as far as her cancer went, "the treatment is worse than the disease," but her health continued to deteriorate until her death in New York from stomach cancer in 1994.
- Renegades of the West (1932)
- Lucky Devils (1933)
- The Great Jasper (1933)
- Scarlet River (1933)
- Emergency Call (1933)
- Headline Shooter (1933)
- Midshipman Jack (1933)
- Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men (1933)
- Ace of Aces (1933) (uncredited)
- Flying Down to Rio (1933) (uncredited)
- Beggars in Ermine (1934)
- Dangerous Corner (1934)
- A Wicked Woman (1934)
- The Band Plays On (1934)
- Here Comes Cookie (1935)
- Shadow of Doubt (1935)
- McFadden's Flats (1935)
- Calm Yourself (1935)
- The Keeper of the Bees (1935)
- Magnificent Obsession (1935)
- The Three Wise Guys (1936)
- The President's Mystery (1936)
- All American Chump (1936)
- Mr. Cinderella (1936)
- Swing Time (1936)
- They Wanted to Marry (1937)
- Mama Steps Out (1937)
- The Good Old Soak (1937)
- It Can't Last Forever (1937)
- North of Shanghai (1939)
- A Face in the Crowd (1957) (uncredited cameo as herself)
- Severo, Richard (4 April 1994). "Betty Furness, 78, TV Reporter And Consumer Advocate, Dies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
- Oliver, Myrna (4 April 1994). "Betty Furness; Ad Star, Consumer Advocate". articles.latimes.com. LA Times. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
- Mad magazine, January 1960, p. 45
- Video on YouTube
- "Betty Furness Is Sworn In As Top Consumer Advocate". The Lewiston Daily Sun. May 1, 1967. Retrieved February 17, 2012.
- William E. Farrell (11 August 1970). "Betty Furness Heads State's Consumer Board". The New York Times. p. 29. Archived from the original on 6 Jan 2015. Retrieved 2008-11-02.
- Staff writers (9 July 1972). "State Will Name Consumer Chief". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-02.
- "Buyline: Betty Furness". www.peabodyawards.com. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
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