Model, actress and McKeesport graduate puts on a cape to fight the bulls in Mexico



As a young girl growing up in McKeesport, Bette Dingeldein Ford dreamed of someday becoming famous.

That dream carried her through her childhood years during which she and her brother were raised by relatives after being abandoned, first by their mother and then later, by their father.

And it was that dream that prompted her in 1945, shortly after high school graduation, to set off for New York City, where she hoped to become an actress and model.

The dream became reality soon after her arrival in the Big Apple, when she became a model whose face and figure were known as the "Jantzen Bathing Suit Girl," "the Camay Bride" and "the Parliament Girl."

But her most famous moments were yet to come.

In the mid-1950s, she became a world-renowned female bullfighter, killing 200 bulls in a career that spanned several years. She fought in Mexico, Panama and the Philippines.

On Saturday, Ms. Ford will be inducted into the McKeesport Area High School Hall of Fame.

She's returning to McKeesport for that honor and to attend the high school's homecoming football game tomorrow and a reception in her honor Sunday at the McKeesport Heritage Center, where she will donate memorabilia depicting her career.

"The whole graduating class -- or what's left of it -- is invited to the induction. I can't wait to see everyone, but they need to wear their [senior] pictures so I know who they are," she said during a recent telephone interview from California, where she lives with her third husband.

A cheerleader in high school, Ms. Ford said she's considering joining the squad at the homecoming game.

"I could, maybe I would. I am still capable and able, still doing Pilates and swimming. And I remember the cheers," she said as she started to sing "Come cheer for our red and blue. ..."

Ms. Ford said she never shares her age with anyone -- not even her physician. She tells those who ask to "do the math."

Ms. Ford said she returned to McKeesport annually to visit her brother, George Dingeldein, until about two years ago, when he died, but she didn't stay in touch with classmates or attend any class reunions.

In addition to modeling and acting in New York, Ms. Ford has had a long television career playing parts on a number of major network shows including the role of "Lusty Rusty" on "L.A. Law" and the role of Coach's girlfriend on "Cheers," both of which garnered Emmy nominations.

She decided she wanted a glamorous life when she was a young girl, paging through her cousin's Vogue magazines. She was especially impressed with photos of Ava Gardner as a model for a makeup company.

"I thought all I need to do is get myself a little compact of Max Factor and I will be on my way," she said.

Her prediction wasn't too far off. After graduating from high school, she saved enough for a one-way ticket to New York.

Shortly after moving there, she married another actor, David Ford. Though the marriage lasted just nine months, she has kept his name despite two other marriages.

She was quick to get modeling contracts and parts in Broadway plays; she was a regular on the "Jackie Gleason Show" and the "Jimmy Durante Show."

It was on a modeling assignment in Bogota, Columbia, in 1953 that she was invited by matador Luis Miguel Dominguin to watch him fight. She fell in love with bullfighting and decided to take it up.

"I always wanted to be important," she said. "I figured if I could do that, I can prove that women can be beautiful and do a man's job and that was really my whole bent about bullfighting."

She returned to her modeling and acting in New York and saved enough to live for a year in Mexico, where she trained as a bullfighter.

Her training was captured in a documentary called "Beauty and the Bull."

She made her debut the following year and eventually became one of the most famous female bullfighters in the world.

Newspaper accounts from the time describe her as a petite, 5-foot, 4-inch, 110-pound matador matching up against bulls that weighed 700-800 pounds. She would draw crowds of 55,000 people.

"I filled the Plaza Mexico, which was the largest ring in the world," Ms. Ford said.

A Sept. 10, 1954, article in the Abilene Reporter-News in Texas described how Ms. Ford swatted a too-calm bull on the nose in order to get him to charge at a bullfight at Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. The article said the slight female bullfighter was "loaded with plenty of gumption and determination."

At the time, she was the newest of about five American women bullfighters. "I never sent a bull out alive. I was known as one of the best killers in the world," she said.

Along the way she suffered some serious injuries. "I was battered and bruised many a time," she said. "I broke my lower back and dislocated my shoulder."

During Ms. Ford's years as a bullfighter, author Ernest Hemingway became one of her admirers. She said she met him once and thanked him for his support.

A newspaper article quoted Hemingway as saying: "She's the most intelligent woman I've ever met and I've met a hell of a lot of them."

After some 200 bullfights, she retired when she fell in love with and married John Meston, a writer who was supposed to pen her life's story. She said she left the ring because she didn't think it was fair to force her new husband to watch her put herself in danger. So she returned to acting.

The couple was married for about 13 years, but he never wrote her story. "He said he was still doing the research," she said.

That marriage broke up because Ms. Ford wanted to spend the bulk of her time in New York studying acting and dancing, while Mr. Meston wanted to stay in California, where he was a writer for television, including the series, "Gunsmoke."

During the years that followed, she appeared in roles in dozens of television series, including the shows "ER," "Providence," "The Division," "Melrose Place," "The Wonder Years" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

She said she is still working and is now married to Scott Wolkoff, who works in real estate. Her husband and other family members will accompany her to the ceremony.

The McKeesport Heritage Center display of memorabilia includes a yellow and pink bullfighting cape, a peach-colored matador's suit and brown leather boots. She also included copies of newspaper articles and posters advertising her bullfights.

The Harrisburg State Capitol Museum is also setting up an archival display of Ms. Ford's bullfighting years, recognizing her as a great American athlete.

Visit Bette Ford's Web site, betteford.net, to watch a Quicktime movie, a slide show of her career and for more information.


Mary Niederberger can be reached at mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512. First Published September 27, 2007 10:15 AM


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