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Hollywood star Betty Hutton discovered “Christ is my heart”

Betty Hutton conversion story

Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain | 4kclips | Shutterstock | Collage by Aleteia

Mary Claire Kendall - published on 05/31/24

Beautiful and multitalented, Betty Hutton rocketed to stardom. But she also had a precipitous fall and discovered that she needed Jesus.

Betty Hutton, best known as the star of Annie Get Your Gun (1950), took Hollywood by storm when she arrived in the film capital of the world in 1941. Paramount Studios legend A.C. Lyles told me Betty’s moving story just three months after her death.

As a newly-minted junior press agent, it fell to Lyles, who was only 22, to introduce Betty around the studio lot. Organizers of a show at the Shrine Auditorium soon came calling, looking for talent. “It doesn’t have to be a star name, just someone to open the show that has a lot of energy and can get people awake.” 

“Naturally that was Betty,” said A.C. “And, when they arrived “the lady said, ‘It’s nice of you to do this because we know that you’re not known here but we hope they will give you a good reception.’  And, Betty said, ‘I might not be known, but they will [know me] after I’m finished.’ She just brought the house down,” said A.C.

Her rapid rise to stardom

After word got back to the studio, she was quickly cast in The Fleet’s In (1942), co-starring William Holden and Dorothy Lamour. And, A.C. said, Betty “just exploded on the screen” with her trademark exuberant performance of “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.” 

“A vitamin pill with legs,” quipped Bob Hope a little later on.

A star was born.  But along with her “tremendous, tremendous talents” came tremendous “torments,” said A.C. “And they all showed up on the screen.”

Performing in pain

I recently watched Betty Hutton in a luminous original 35mm nitrate print of Annie Get Your Gun during the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles. Knowing what Betty had been through, her performance brought tears to my eyes. I previously wrote about her in my book Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends.

Betty’s father had abandoned the family in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1923, when she was two. It set in motion her life-long quest for paternal affirmation and love, finding in audiences a substitute. But when the curtain came down, and the love was gone, she felt a terrible void. The fact that she was had bipolar disorder, like so many outsized talents, only intensified Betty’s pain.

Her mother was hard-living, running a speakeasy in Lansing, Michigan. Sometimes little Betty would run to the nearby Catholic School, she told Mike Douglas in February 1977:

“… I didn’t know about God. My mother was an atheist. And the nuns were right across the street from us. Sometimes I had to run from the brutal stuff going on. And they would hide me in their skirts. I wasn’t a Catholic and (non-Catholics) weren’t allowed to go to Catholic school. But they would take me, and they taught me Catechism … and I learned about God.”

“I never went on the stage without praying,” she continued. “When I got to Hollywood, it started to slowly go out of my system, and I got into trouble.”

Betty Hutton entertaining US soldiers in 1945
Betty Hutton entertaining US soldiers in 1945

A series of disastrous decisions

Betty also made some bad professional decisions, perhaps none so fatal as when she tore up her Paramount contract in the summer of 1952. The studio’s doors slammed shut and she never recovered, said A.C. 

She had just made The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), wowing Cecil B. DeMille with her ability to master the aerial arts. But in the process, she sustained shoulder injuries, suffering great pain, and started getting hooked on pain pills. Betty moved on to Vegas playing several shows a day. But “(t)he old snap wasn’t there, the shows were too hard,” she told AP in 1980. “My mother gave me a little tiny Dexamyl (a stimulant)… It was innocent as that, and I said ‘That’s it! I’m not tired!’… It led to a vicious cycle, pills to get ‘up,’ pills to calm down.”

She would become a full-blown addict, hitting rock bottom by 1972. A year later, outside Boston for a revival of Anything Goes, Betty collapsed onstage and was checked into a rehab.

A life-saving priest

Then something miraculous happened. While Betty was being admitted to the hospital, a priest by the name of Fr. Peter Maguire also arrived there to check in his intoxicated cook. (Fr. McGuire had a special gift and calling in helping souls overcome their addictions.) Observing this saintly priest from Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Betty was struck by his calm despite the woman’s agitated state. She said to herself, “He’s going to save my life.” And so he did.

Still, it was a period of struggle, A.C. told me. As Betty healed, she initially cleaned and cooked at the rectory. When the press got wind of it, her delicate recovery was derailed. But eventually Betty did find healing and, when she was ready, she completed her high school education under Fr. Maguire’s tutelage. Betty Hutton then went on to earn an advanced degree.

Fr. Maguire had helped Betty Hutton realize that she was “just a hurt child,” as she told TCM Host Robert Osbourne in a “Private Screenings” interview on April 27, 2000.

Gates of Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island
Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, where Betty earned a master’s degree and was awarded an honorary doctorate

“Christ is in my heart”

Betty also became a Catholic. She told Osbourne that as she walked down the aisle after receiving Holy Communion she discovered that “Christ is my heart.”

In time, she also drew close to the Virgin Mary. On the day she graduated from Salve Regina in Newport, Rhode Island, Betty was clasping the green ceramic rosary beads Fr. Maguire had given her. “I don’t move anywhere without my rosary, because I know I’m scared inside,” she told Osbourne. “I’m always scared. I’m never secure. And that’s the way you have to be, (Al) Jolson said: ‘You can’t give them your heart if it’s not there, Betty.’” It was there indeed — a huge heart in need of healing.

Fr. Maguire died in July 1997, after which Betty moved back to the coast to be closer to her children, breathing her last on March 11, 2007.  Her life is an amazing testament to the strength faith gives us when we are at our weakest, showing that it is through that very weakness that we find God.

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