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Susan Marks

Susan Marks

Much more than a half-baked idea

U alumnus Susan Marks reveals the real Betty Crocker

By HoJo Willenzik

December 13, 2005

Born in 1921 to a Minneapolis ad executive, Betty Crocker has lived an extraordinary life in full view of the American public. Yet some would argue her true story was kept hidden.

Her quick rise as a culinary icon crossed over into pop culture long before Martha Stewart. During the 1930s, she hung out with movie stars Clark Gable, Betty Davis, and Bing Crosby. Millions of listeners tuned into her radio show, "The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air." In 1945, Fortune named her the second most popular woman in America, trumped only by Eleanor Roosevelt. And in 1951, her Big Red cookbook sold more copies than any other book except the Bible.

Today, at the age of 84, she has yet to spend one red cent of the millions she generated for General Mills. Thanks to numerous makeovers, she doesn't look a day over 35. She's still going strong, working every day, and totally unburdened by the aging process the rest of us have to endure, because Betty Crocker is a figment of the imagination designed primarily to generate interest and sales for General Mills products.

Okay, so maybe you already knew Betty Crocker wasn't a real person. Most Minnesotans are keenly aware of this. But the ranks of true believers are substantial, and they can be rather fervent on the subject. In fact, the General Mills home economists who gave tours of the Betty Crocker Kitchens actually kept Kleenex on hand for visitors who wept after learning their heroine was not of flesh and blood.

The story of how Betty Crocker came to be, and her impact on the way we view cooking and homemaking in America, has been revealed in a new book, Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food, by College of Continuing Education alumnus Susan Marks. A playful biography and fascinating cultural history, the book actually evolved from Marks' master's thesis on the same subject.

"Even my grandma wrote a letter to Betty Crocker," said Marks. "The first time in my life I've been speechless was when my grandma presented this letter to me that she had gotten back from Betty Crocker more than 50 years ago." In 1998, Marks enrolled in the College of Continuing Education's Master of Liberal Studies (MLS). At the same time, she was a tour guide for the Minnesota Historical Society. "One of the sites I worked was the milling district of Minneapolis," recalled Marks. "I think I bored people to tears with my rendition of the flour milling process, but when I brought up Betty Crocker, people became much more interested and began to share their stories about her with me.

"At first, it was really lost on me. I thought, 'Don't they know this is just an advertisement.' I didn't understand why people would get so nostalgic and emotional about Betty Crocker. But then I realized that I was the one that wasn't getting it. There's this whole story behind Betty Crocker that transcends commercialism and advertising." Since she had just enrolled in graduate school, Marks needed to pick a subject for her master's thesis that revolved around her three areas of concentration: history, American studies, and film studies. When she presented her idea for Betty Crocker, some of her advisers were enthusiastic, others were skeptical at first. Not realizing there was such a rich history with Betty Crocker, they wondered whether this was a truly academic story. In the end, Marks got the green light.

The research proved to be a massive undertaking. All in all, Marks scoured the General Mills archives for six years (three for her thesis, three more for the book), poring through recipes, cookbooks, notes, and memos from the home economists, product images, old ads, internal General Mills memos, radio scripts, and more. She also interviewed former Betty Crocker staff and purchased old recipe booklets off eBay.

She struck gold with the letters. At the height of her popularity, Betty Crocker received 4,000-5,000 letters per day, or nearly 1.5 million per year, with a full-time staff of 10 people just to answer the letters. Unfortunately, General Mills didn't warehouse the letters, but they did save nearly 200 excerpts.

"People looked to her for answers to questions above and beyond cooking and baking," said Marks. "They looked to her for help with finances, depression, marriage problems, and time management. Even my grandma wrote a letter to Betty Crocker. The first time in my life I've been speechless was when my grandma presented this letter to me that she had gotten back from Betty Crocker more than 50 years ago."

Betty Crocker's "father," by the way, was Sam Gale, an advertising director for Washburn Crosby, which became General Mills in 1928. His company received many letters seeking advice on cooking and homemaking, which were answered by home economists but signed by Gale. He felt that the women who wrote to him could relate better to a woman, so he invented Betty Crocker.

America bought the Betty Crocker fantasy in much the same way that children buy into Santa Claus. There was always plenty of evidence to indicate Betty hailed from never-never land, but beliefs can be stubborn in the face of hard facts. For instance, different actresses portrayed her on radio and TV. And in print, her portrait has undergone several major facelifts since the 1930s.

"People seemed to believe what they wanted to believe about her," explained Marks. "General Mills was mostly open about it, but somehow it got past a lot of people. I constantly meet people who believe Betty is a real person."

Marks also examined the message that Betty Crocker sent to women. In the early years, Betty conveyed the sense that women should feel empowered as homemakers. "Betty's staff of home economists, lovingly called Crockettes, did a lot of justice to homemaking. They believed that it resided on the edges of consciousness in American culture and that people didn't recognize it as very difficult work. And people certainly didn't give credit to women who worked both inside and outside the home, and acknowledge how difficult that was. So the Crockettes did a lot to promote women. Not that it was purely altruistic. They always had the bottom line intact, but I think they did much more good than bad."

The success of the book, which has received considerable national attention since its publication in April, has inspired Marks to write another book while continuing to focus on her career as a documentary filmmaker. She writes, directs, and produces videos for the arts, nonprofit, and corporate projects. Among her credits, as you might guess, is a historical documentary film about Betty Crocker called The Betty Mystique.

Marks shares part of the credit for the book and her filmmaking career with the MLS program. She recalled, "I received constant encouragement and support from the staff and faculty, both when I was in school and today. They were completely devoted to the students and that was very different from every academic experience I had previously."

And what of Marks' culinary aspirations? "If I want an easy, fail-safe recipe, I bake Betty's Snickerdoodle cookie recipe. Or I whip up one of her Devils' Food SuperMoist cake mixes. Everyone asks me if it's a Betty Crocker cake and I pause and say, 'Is there any other kind?'"

Edited from CCE Current, fall 2005, a publication for alumni and friends of the College of Continuing Education.