Betty Crocker Confidential

The making -- and remaking -- of America's sweet tart

In 1921, the boys working on a promotion in the marketing department of General Mills put their heads together. Their mission: to create the perfect woman, an icon for housewives everywhere to trust and emulate.

They labored intensively to make sure each detail was flawless. They stepped back to behold their creation, strapped to the lab table and quivering like Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein. From their minds had sprung Betty Crocker -- a woman destined to become one of the most beloved figures in American history.

Crocker was the family name of an early director of the company, and they christened her Betty, feeling the name was warm and approachable. Some of the names that did not make the final cut were Pinky, Trixie and Yasmeen.

Rose Johnson

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History and the media machine have painted BC as a wholesome housewife content with a life in the kitchen. But the real Betty may be a far cry from America's sweetheart. Saint or sinner? June Cleaver or Joan Crawford? Behind every fact lies volumes of speculation and rumor.

Betty made her way to the airwaves in 1924 on a Minneapolis radio program called "Betty Crocker Cooking School on the Air." The response was phenomenal, as housewives everywhere tuned in faithfully for household tips.

This was Betty's first taste of celebrity, and some say when fame hit, it hit hard. There was an underground song of the time, "Someone's in the Kitchen With Betty," which alluded to an insatiable appetite for a good time.

When the Great Depression hit, Betty rolled up her sleeves and helped American families keep their chins up. Publishing a meal-planning booklet in the early 1930s, she made food rationing fun with upbeat tips and recipes. She was voted "First Lady of Food" and was one of the best-known women in America, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt. But behind the triumphs in the kitchen, the real story may not have been so pretty.

The fame and the accolades were not enough. Not content to be merely a source of reliable information, in 1947 Betty gave her career a boost with the introduction of prepackaged cake mix. Again the public went wild. It was during this period that insiders began to notice BC stumbling in at dawn with men of questionable character, her bra strap hanging on her arm or one shoe missing. Her press people scrambled to maintain the wholesome image.

Clearly mad for power, by the 1950s Betty had clawed her way onto the television airwaves, hosting her own network programs and appearing on many others. There is speculation that she actually slept her way onto the air, having rumored liaisons with the Jolly Green Giant ("He made me feel like a real woman for the first time,") and the often hinted-at affair with Mr. Peanut, who left Mrs. Peanut at home with three small children while he and Betty jet-setted across the globe. These affairs were mere rungs on the ladder to success. Speculation about hot times with the Pillsbury Doughboy has proved inconclusive.

At this time she also took the publishing world by storm, cranking out more than 200 cookbooks and small-format magazines available at grocery stores. During this prolific period, Betty Crocker's New Cookbook was born. Currently in its eighth edition, it has sold more than 27 million copies and is one of the world's best-selling cookbooks.

Now a recognizable public figure, Betty got a new look from a team of beauticians and stylists, and portraits from this era show a warm motherly figure, not an insatiable minx on the prowl for kicks and a free drink.

It was also during the 1950s that Betty's logo, the familiar red spoon, first made its appearance. Today it is one of the world's most recognized brand logos, and has become a symbol of quality, reliability and convenience. But again, behind the bright colors and the cardboard smiles, a different picture emerges.

"It's well known in the baking industry what a bitch Betty Crocker is," wrote Little Debbie in her shocking tell-all autobiography, More Than Snack Cakes, and the rivalry between Crocker and the pintsize powerhouse is legendary. "They used to have to hide the vanilla extract from her, because when she had a snoot-full she would drink petrol if it was all she could find." (Scant credence is given to Debbie, whose own background is sketchy. She's an avowed Scientologist, and interestingly one of her best-selling products is the sinister-sounding "Devil Squares.")

In the 1960s, Betty burned her bra at a rally in Washington, D.C., and was allegedly arrested for protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The portrait of her released during this period shows a woman who resembles a young Elizabeth Dole. She also looks a good 10 years younger than she did in 1955, and it is believed that her addiction to plastic surgery began around this time.

Indeed, like Susan Lucci or a female Dorian Gray, she just keeps getting younger as the decades go by.

For a brief period in the early '70s, Betty bleached and feathered her hair and was reportedly seen shakin' her groove thang at Studio 54 with Liza and Halston. In 1972 she was the victim of an unfortunate Toni products hair mishap involving the chemicals used for home perms. She was unable to appear in public for months and went into seclusion. But it was during this time that she did some of her most creative work, including the release of the brilliant Hamburger Helper line, and its crown jewel, Cheeseburger Macaroni. The official portrait released during the time resembles a pert Mary Tyler Moore.

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