• 15 April 1888
  •  San Antonio, Texas, USA

Florence Bates


The American character actress, Florence Rabe, was the daughter of an antique store owner. She gained a degree in Mathematics from the University of Texas in 1906 and went on to a career in teaching and social work. She changed course after being persuaded by a friend to study law, and, passing her bar exam in 1914, practised for four years in San Antonio. When her parents died, she took over the business and travelled abroad extensively to acquire stock, all the while adding to her knowledge of foreign languages (she was, for instance, a fluent Spanish speaker). After the Wall Street crash of 1929, Florence sold the antique store and married Texan oilman William F. Jacoby. Jacoby eventually went bankrupt and the couple moved to California in the late 1930's, briefly becoming proprietors of a bakery. At this time, Florence, a heavy-set woman of matronly appearance and well into her middle age, developed an interest in acting and auditioned for the part of Miss Bates in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Jane Austen's 'Emma'. This proved to be a momentous career choice. Her popularity became such, that she went on to leading roles with the same company, changing her name to Florence Bates as a nod to her perceived good fortune. In 1939, she screen tested for Alfred Hitchcock, who was sufficiently impressed to cast her as the demanding, imperious dowager Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper in Rebecca (1940). Her excellent performance was the first in a gallery of memorable characters: wealthy socialites, irritable, henpecking wives, hotel managers (The Moon and Sixpence (1942)), theatre owners (Tonight and Every Night (1945)) and unctuous, gossipy landladies (Portrait of Jennie (1948)). She was equally adept at comedy, appearing to great effect in Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Lullaby of Broadway (1951), with frequent co-star S.Z. Sakall, aka 'Cuddles'. She was enjoyably larger-than-life as Danny Kaye's prospective mother-in-law in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and as Vera-Ellen's inebriated Russian dance teacher, Madame Dilyovska, in On the Town (1949). Bates even essayed a murderess in The Brasher Doubloon (1947). Destined never to win any awards, Florence Bates continued in films until her death in 1954. She was pre-deceased by her sister, her only daughter and her husband.