Actress Bea Arthur, 86, grew up a painfully shy outcast

Actress Bea Arthur, who died April 25 in her Los Angeles home, grew up a “misfit” and feeling “painfully shy” as one of the only Jews in Cambridge, Maryland, where her family moved when she was 11.

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Bea Arthur

Arthur was born Bernice Frankel in New York City in 1926, the middle child of Phillip and Rebecca Frankel’s three daughters. Her father’s financial troubles led him to move the family to the segregated Southern city of Cambridge, where he ran a clothing store, and where Arthur faced anti-Semitic rejection in school. She also was the tallest girl in all of her classes, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

Arthur received Emmy Awards for her role in “The Golden Girls,” in which she played a divorced substitute teacher living in Miami with three women, including her mother, and for the title role in “Maude.” Some saw Maude’s outspokenness, liberalism and controlling nature as stereotypical of a Jewish mother. Arthur and director Gene Saks maintained, however, that the show’s creators had intentionally not made Maude Jewish, because then “her courage in fighting bigotry would be personal instead of ideological.”

Arthur, who was 86, played Yenta the matchmaker in the original Broadway version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” She won a Tony Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Vera Charles in “Mame.”

Arthur was married briefly to playwright Robert Alan Arthur. She married Saks in 1950 and divorced him more than 20 years later.