Gay History: Nancy Kulp: Life In The Celluloid Closet (Miss Jane Hathaway In “The Beverly Hillbillies)

In the 1960s, it was almost unheard-of to find an out Queer person on television. Those that held a Queer identity were often forced into a ‘celluloid closet’ and made to keep their identities silent and hidden from public consumption. This was the case of Nancy Kulp, a closeted lesbian who is most remembered for her appearance as Miss Jane Hathaway in almost all of the 274 episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, a television series airing on CBS from 1962 to 1971. Kulp would eventually come out, using her own terms, in a 1989 interview.

Nancy Jane Kulp was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on August 28th, 1921 to Marjorie and Robert Kulp; the family would later move to Dade County, Florida. The only daughter of a lawyer and schoolteacher, Nancy was a bookish child from an early age and dreamed of becoming a journalist. Nancy would take the first step toward her goal when she graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1943. During her years at FSU, Kulp worked as a feature writer for the Miami Beach Tropics, working on celebrity profiles.

Though she planned on continuing her education and obtaining her master’s degree, Nancy joined WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) in 1943 to aid the US Navy during World War Two. While it was her patriotism and desire to work in an “all-female” atmosphere that led to her enlistment, Nancy determined that it was not her destiny to hold a career in the armed forces and left in 1945 after reaching the rank of junior-grade lieutenant. After leaving WAVES, Kulp took a position in Miami as a publicity director for a local radio station in 1946.

At the age of thirty, Nancy Kulp exchanged vows in an April Fool’s Day wedding celebration to Charles Dacus on April 1, 1951. While the marriage was short-lived, both parties parted on good terms and the relationship had a long-lasting impact on Nancy Kulp’s life. Nancy said that it was Charles Dacus who encouraged Kulp to leave her career as a publicist to achieve a career in acting (though she also later said that this inspiration came from director George Cukor). Following this encouragement, Nancy made her way to Hollywood where she took a position as a film publicist while she waited for her big break.

This break would come only three weeks later when she was discovered by A-list, gay, director George Cukor. Later that year, Nancy Kulp would make her big screen debut in Cukor’s 1951 film, The Model and the Marriage Broker. This role was larger than most others she would hold in movies though it was mostly silent and demeaning as she took on the role of a young woman desperately seeking matrimony from a marriage broker. This role was Kulp’s first foray into the sort of character she would often be type-cast to play- the spinster.

In 1954, Nancy would be cast in another Cukor film, the Judy Garland- led A Star is Born, though the scene in which she appeared would later be cut without the director’s knowledge or consent. Kulp would make several smaller appearances in many successful films such as Sabrina (the 1954 film starring Audrey Hepburn), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Strange Bedfellows (1965), and The Parent Trap (1961), where Kulp played the butch troop leader.

While Nancy appeared in movies, most of her acting work was done for the small screen. She made several appearances, largely comedic, on various television shows. Her first recurring television role was as a bird-watcher named Pamela Livingstone on The Bob Cummings Show (1955-1959). The writer for The Bob Cummings Show, Paul Henning, would go on to write for The Beverly Hillbillies, and created a role specifically for Kulp. Nancy would become known across the country as Miss Jane Hathaway, a smart and confident secretary that worked for a bank. Miss Jane, as most of the characters called her, was also a character that played into Kulp’s type-casted role as a spinster. Kulp received an Emmy Award nomination in 1967 for her performance on the show.

After the final episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Kulp was given a regular role on the Brian Keith Show (1973-1974) and made appearances on Sanford and Son (1972-1977), The Love Boat (1977-1987), and Fantasy Island (1978-1984). Kulp also appeared on stage at summer stock and dinner theaters before eventually landing a role in Paul Osborn’s 1982 production of Mornings at Seven.

In 1984, the patriotic Nancy Kulp, who had long been interested in politics, decided to run for Congress in her district in central Pennsylvania, having settled in Port Royal. She ran as a Democrat against the Ninth District’s incumbent Republican representative, Bud Shuster. While she received an endorsement from friend and fellow showbiz personality Ed Asner, her Hillbillies costar Buddy Ebsen recorded a radio advertisement claiming that Kulp was “too liberal for Pennsylvania.” Kulp was enraged by Ebsen, a California resident, getting involved in her campaign, stating that she “was speechless at such a betrayal, and something so needless and cruel.”

Nancy Kulp would go on to be defeated by Shuster and would spend the next year at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, teaching film and drama. She would later return to California to serve on the board of the Screen Actors Guild and take an active role in non-profits including the Humane Society of the Desert, United Cerebral Palsy, and the Desert Theater League.

In a 1989 interview with author Boze Hadleigh for the book Hollywood Lesbians: From Garbo to Foster, Kulp responded to Hadleigh’s “Big Question” (the question of her sexuality which she renamed the “Fatal Question”) Nancy remarked in her own words:

“As long as you reproduce my reply word for word, and the question, you may use it,” she told Hadleigh. “I’d appreciate it if you’d let me phrase the question. There is more than one way. Here’s how I would ask it: ‘Do you think that opposites attract?’ My own reply would be that I’m the other sort–I find that birds of a feather flock together. That answers your question.”

Never in the course of the interview did she refer to herself as a lesbian.

Nancy Kulp would die of cancer only two years later, on February 3, 1991, at her home in Palm desert, California. While she never actively owned a lesbian label, Nancy Kulp was hailed as being a lesbian ground-breaker in the field of acting for having portrayed her identity (though a secret) in her work.

Former “Beverly Hillbilly” Says She Didn’t Play The Political “Game″

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Nancy Kulp of ″The Beverly Hillbillies″ fame doesn’t blame fellow Hillbilly Buddy Ebsen for her election defeat last fall – but says he should have stayed out of the congressional race.

Ebsen, who starred with Ms. Kulp on the long-running television program in the 1960s and early 1970s, recorded a radio commercial for her opponent, Republican Rep. Bud Shuster. In the spot, aired several weeks before the election, Ebsen said, ″Nancy, I love you dearly but you’re too liberal for me.″

Ms. Kulp still bristles when she thinks about the ad. ″How dare he 3/8 It wasn’t his business,″ she said.

But she said there were other reasons for her defeat, notably her lack of political savvy, a shortage of campaign dollars and the popularity of President Reagan in Shuster’s sprawling rural Pennsylvania district.

“I didn’t play the game, I guess,″ Ms. Kulp, 63, said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. She left her restored, three-story farmhouse in Port Royal, Pa., after the election and drove to California to visit friends.

While she raised $73,143 during 1984, Shuster, who was seeking his seventh House term, reported contributions of $269,597, according to campaign finance reports. Ms. Kulp reported gifts of $29,471 from political action committees, Shuster $138,817.

After years of involvement in local party politics and with the Screen Actors Guild, Ms. Kulp said seeking office was satisfying because ″you finally get to put your convictions on the line. It was one of the highlights of my life.″

But the experience left her with a helpless feeling that there was an image barrier between her and the voters that she could not surmount.

“You’re turned off by the distortions,″ she said. ″My feeling is a candidate is elected because they are perceived to be something. Ronald Reagan never talked issues; he waved the flag and the people loved it.

“I was perceived to be an ultra-liberal. If that is their perception – even if they like me – then I can’t win.″

The experience, she said, has left her ″ambivalent″ about the elective process and doubtful that she will seek public office again.

A central Pennsylvania native born in Harrisburg, Ms. Kulp began her acting career in 1952. She appeared in such films as ″Three Faces of Eve″ and ″The Parent Trap,″ and was featured on ″The Bob Cummings Show″ on television before the ″Beverly Hillbillies″ premiered in 1961.

On the ″Beverly Hillbillies,″ she played the secretary of a banker managing the account of a millionaire hillbilly, played by Ebsen. She and Ebsen used to talk politics on the set; they rarely agreed about issues, she said.

Ms. Kulp said she now is thinking about returning to the East Coast, possibly to teach. Juniata, a small liberal arts college 120 miles east of Pittsburgh, has expressed interest in her, perhaps for an ″artist-in-re sidence″ program, said college spokesman Robert Howden.

Who the F Is … Actress and Politician Nancy Kulp?

Who she was: A well-regarded character actress who eventually ran for public office and came out — rather obliquely.

What she accomplished: Nancy Kulp (1921-1991) endeared herself to baby boomers with her role on a silly but successful TV sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies. From 1962 to 1971, she played the prim, efficient Miss Jane Hathaway, secretary to banker Milburn Drysdale. She and Drysdale were managing the millions of the Clampett family, a backwoods clan who had relocated from Tennessee to Beverly Hills after striking oil. The comedy arose from the contrast between the beyond-unsophisticated Clampetts — who made moonshine, kept “critters,” and called their swimming pool “the cement pond” — and the upscale Southern Californians who surrounded them. Hathaway, always called “Miss Jane” by the Clampetts and their kin, was unaccountably attracted to the dim-witted Jethro Bodine, nephew of patriarch Jed Clampett. Critics had no love for the show, but viewers found it hilarious, and it had an extended life in syndication.

Born in Harrisburg, Pa., Kulp studied journalism in college, then served in the WAVES during World War II. After the war she worked as a publicist for radio and TV stations in Florida, then came to Hollywood in the 1950s with an eye to continuing in publicity. Someone encouraged her to try acting — some accounts say it was her then-husband, Charles Dacus, whom she refused to discuss in later years; others say it was esteemed director George Cukor. At any rate, she quickly won a small role in a Cukor film, The Model and the Marriage Broker, starring Jeanne Crain, Scott Brady, and Thelma Ritter. It was one of the great filmmaker’s lesser efforts, but it launched her career. She played supporting parts, often uncredited, in some noteworthy movies — Shane, Sabrina, the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born, also directed by Cukor — and some now-forgotten ones. She also worked in TV anthology series and in guest-starring roles. Before Hillbillies, she was a regular on The Bob Cummings Show, playing a spinsterly bird-watcher named Pamela Livingstone. (Bird-watching was also one of Miss Jane’s hobbies.)

After The Beverly Hillbillies ended, she continued to guest-star on various TV series; she had a recurring role on Sanford and Son for a time, and like many aging actors she appeared on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. She also performed on Broadway in Morning’s at Seven in the early 1980s. But she had a passion for politics, dating back to Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign in 1952, and in 1984 she returned to central Pennsylvania to run for Congress. She was an underdog as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district represented by a popular incumbent. She got support from showbiz friend Ed Asner, but her Hillbillies costar Buddy Ebsen, who had played Jed, did a commercial in which he called her “too liberal” and endorsed her opponent. It caused a rift between them that lasted for years, although they reportedly eventually made up. She lost the election to the incumbent, Bud Shuster. Later, she taught acting at a Pennsylvania college and made some stage appearances, including one as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at the 1987 Georgia Shakespeare Festival in Atlanta, then retired to the California desert, where she kept busy with volunteer work. Among other things, she served on the board of the Screen Actors Guild.

In 1989 she addressed her sexual orientation — to a degree — in an interview with Boze Hadleigh, published in his book Hollywood Lesbians. “As long as you reproduce my reply word for word, and the question, you may use it,” she said. “I’d appreciate it if you’d let me phrase the question. There is more than one way. Here’s how I would ask it: ‘Do you think that opposites attract?’ My own reply would be that I’m the other sort — I find that birds of a feather flock together. That answers your question.” Miss Jane would have appreciated the imagery. She also expressed admiration for gay congressman Barney Frank, and when Hadleigh asked if she would have come out in Congress, she said, “Not voluntarily. If I were outed, then I would not deny it.” Hadleigh waited to publish the book until 1994, when all his subjects were dead. Kulp died of cancer in 1991 at her home in Palm Desert, Calif.

Choice quotes: “If one is past 50 or 60, it’s almost like saying that most of your life you’ve been too embarrassed to admit it or to speak up.” — to Boze Hadleigh, on the possibility of coming out

“I think I’ve been successful in making the distinction between actress and politician. But there’s always someone who screams, ‘Where’s Jethro?’” — to People magazine, during her congressional campaign

10 times Miss Jane Hathaway let loose and ditched her pressed suit on The Beverly Hillbillies

Take a tour of Nancy Kulp’s silliest costumes.

At its heart, The Beverly Hillbillies was about breaking out of your comfort zone, and it wasn’t just the Clampetts experiencing the growing pains. Fans know that Miss Jane Hathaway, the snooty bank secretary who keeps an eye on the Clampetts, had as much to learn from the hillbillies about having fun as they did from her about fitting in with fine society.

We first meet Jane Hathaway in the bank, dilligently taking notes for Mr. Drysdale, her boss, the insanely wealthy bank manager. She’s wearing her signature pressed suit, a drab number we’d see her sport throughout most of the initial seasons. But it wouldn’t take the writers, costumers and hillbillies long to wrestle Miss Jane out of those stuffy suits and neckerchiefs just to stuff her into funnier outfits that drew extra laughs precisely because she’d been set up as such a straight character. It was one of many ways the show had fun with its audience.

Below, we’ve gone back through our favorite episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies to offer up this tour of Miss Jane Hathaway’s most dazzling and outrageous outfits over nine seasons. Played brilliantly by Nancy Kulp, Miss Jane remains one of the show’s most memorable characters, and here’s a parade of standout moments that show us how her wardrobe helped cement her legacy.

1. Miss Jane Hathaway the Artist

It only took seven episodes before we saw Nancy Kulp slip into something sillier, this artist look that we consider her character’s first masterpiece in transformation.

2. Is that Nancy Kulp or Groucho Marx?

In the later seasons, the volume got turned up on Nancy Kulp’s costumes, and this was perhaps the height of that hilarity.

3. A hillbilly before the first season ends.

By the end of the first season, we got our first look at Nancy Kulp in hillbilly garb, and even doing a dance with the whole Clampett family! Talk about letting loose! This primed us to expect the unexpected from the typically kempt Miss Jane.

4. Remember when Miss Jane posed as Uncle Sam?

The color episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies do not disappoint when it comes to costumes, especially this red-white-and-blue suit arguably louder than any other suit she donned the whole series.

5. Miss Jane, the pageant queen.

There were many plots that involved Elly and Jane in competition for a suitor’s attention, but this beauty contest in the third season was the first time they turned that trope into a swimsuit competition!

6. Don’t think Miss Jane’s beneath a denim suit!

Need proof that Miss Jane Hathaway is a trendsetter? Check out this denim suit she donned at the very start of the ’70s. It was her idea of beach attire, and the bucket hat just perfects the look, don’t you think?

7. Fancy Nancy!

There were plenty of times, as we’ll get into soon, when Nancy Kulp showed up looking stunning on The Beverly Hillbillies, but we get flashes of Carol Burnett and Friends when we saw this particular evening attire and wacky updo!

8. Miss Jane’s very first evening look.

Let’s take a moment to just genuinely appreciate how Nancy Kulp completely owned silk, pearls and simplistic elegance. Bask in the very first time we saw her in a seriously stunning evening look from the first season.

9. That’s not to say she didn’t also know how to overdo it…

Between the wig, costume jewelry and dangly everything, Miss Jane almost looks as out of sorts in this outfit as Elly May did in an evening gown!

10. Proper, even in pajamas.

Last look is all the proof you need that Miss Jane even prefers to sleep in a suit, donning these neat blue pajamas in contrast to Granny’s gowns, but that changes soon when the writers get her character stuck in a sleeping bag that Granny’s trying to free her from here. It’s just one more example of all the physical humor that came just from shaking up Jane Hathaway’s wardrobe!

References

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