The Beaver’s Mom, Barbara Billingsley, Dies at 94
Where she got those pearls and those clothes, and why.
The Airplane cameo.
Billingsley explains her role in Airplane.
A housewife in pearls? That was the Fifties for you, a time when Americans seemingly didn’t deal in realities. I know my mom didn’t look like that unless she was going to church or going to a reception or a club. Black women in the Fifties who dressed in pearls like June Cleaver were either rich society women, entertainers, or schoolteachers. My beloved first teacher in San Francisco, Mrs. White, enchanted me when she wore a chain anklet and costume jewelry that screamed real to me–or at least I. Magnin. Black women dressed down at home or garden–or in the white lady’s kitchen.
But Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver looked like that; every week on Leave It to Beaver she looked like that; and she made some pre-feminist women turn to therapy or burn themselves out in imitation, because they couldn’t look or be like her. Even Lucy Ricardo didn’t look like her. It was only Hollywood. Decades later, even the First Lady of the land is expected to act like her.
Now, the that brought –the Beaver’s mother–alive is gone.
Barbara Billingsley, who wore a classy pearl necklace and dispensed pearls of wisdom as America‘s quintessential mom on “Leave it to Beaver,” has died at age 94, a family spokeswoman said Saturday.
The actress passed away at 2 a.m. (5 a.m. ET) Saturday at her home in Santa Monica, California, after a long illness, spokeswoman Judy Twersky said. A private memorial is being planned.
“America’s favorite mother is now gone. I feel very fortunate to have been her ‘son,'” actor Tony Dow, who played Wally Cleaver, said. “We were wonderful friends and I will miss her very much. My deepest sympathies to her sons, Glenn and Drew, and her entire family.”
To look on the bright side, June Cleaver hardly ever raised her voice to her kids. She was kind; she was understanding; she kept the cookies coming, but she wasn’t always fooled by the likes of Eddie Haskell or by her sons’ occasional missteps. And even when she cooked dinner, there were no water splashes or grease stains on her dresses, even when she wore no or a small apron round her waist.
Of course, we never saw Ward or June break out the bourbon when Beaver or Wally misbehaved. That proved that something was going right at their house, although, to be frank, it was a different time. I think Ward Cleaver would have had a coronary over sexting. There was such a thing as embarrassment or shame as deep persuaders. There were some things that you just did not do, or your community–black or white–definitely saw you going on the highway to hell. However, their TV community was so squeaky clean, you couldn’t find a counterpart in the black or the white community. Much of what Wally and Beaver did was so minor, as compared to now, that it wasn’t worth the 30 minutes to sweat over.
Wally and Beaver’s friends always felt that their parents were going to yell at them for any infraction, but yelling never really solved anything. Lumpy’s supercilious dad Fred Rutherford usually condescended to give Ward and June advice which was usually and gently rebuffed. At the Cleavers, the imparting of values, it appeared, was key. The punishment usually fit the crime. The Cleavers did not lay hands on their sons in anger.
I loved it, however, that Billingsley came out of nowhere to spoof herself in Airplane, in which she was the only one on the plane who knew how to speak jive.
I’ll add some links to stories about her below as they develop. This news has just arrived on the wire. This is her Wikipedia entry.
Leave It to Beaver still runs on many stations, although it is now fifty-three years old. A lot of water under that bridge.
BTW, Billingsley was once related by marriage to Sherman Billingsley, the notorious bootlegger and the founder and owner of The Stork Club in New York City.