Back in the early 1970s, when she was playing the outspoken lead on Norman Lear’s All in the Family spin-off, Maude, Bea Arthur would host raucous dinner parties at her Los Angeles home. The guests were by and large gay men — closeted, as most were back then — who were drawn to Arthur, like moths to a porch light.
Observing these drunken evenings with fascination was Arthur's then-11-year-old son, Matthew Saks, the elder of two boys she adopted with her second husband, the film and theater director Gene Saks. "They were always excited to come to her house,” says Matthew, now 55, of his mother’s many gay confidantes. “I remember Rock Hudson was over once and him clearing the table. He was balancing five dishes on one hand. I was like, 'How can you do that?' He said, 'Before I was in the Navy, I was a waiter.'"
Arthur, who died of cancer in 2009 at age 86, occupies a singular space amid the pantheon of gay icons: Neither preening show diva nor pill-popping wreck, she was instead a pillar of liberal-minded fortitude, always at the ready to do battle with the Archie Bunkers of the world. (One can only imagine what Maude or Dorothy Zbornak, the English-teacher divorcee she played for seven seasons on The Golden Girls, would have to say about about that other noted blowhard from Queens who's currently running for president.)
Through it all, there was something inarguably patriotic about Arthur's social crusade, born as it was out the civil unrest of the 1960s. She even looked a bit like the Statue of Liberty. All of this held considerable sway over the emerging gay-rights movement. A decade later, as AIDS raged, Golden Girls only further served to cement Arthur’s belovedness. No one could knock her down — an overwhelmingly appealing attribute at a time when thousands were dying and survivors were being pushed to society's margins. The zingers, the sweaters, the oversexed best friend: Bea was just good medicine.
Fully aware of the appeal she held over her gay fans, Arthur decided to give something back, and left an endowment to the Ali Forney Center, an organization for homeless LGBT youth in New York City. In turn, a new 18-bed shelter on the Lower East Side, scheduled to open in February, will be named in her honor. “That’s something she wouldn’t have wanted,” Saks says of his mother, who led a deeply private and humble life. “But too bad. She deserves it.”
Arthur first learned of the center in 2005, when her friend Ray Klausen, who designed most of the Academy Awards sets in the 1980s, told her the organization was in dire financial straits. Arthur agreed to fly from her L.A. home to New York to mount a benefit performance of her one-woman Broadway show. It was mid-December and Arthur hated the cold. (She had to borrow a winter coat from her best friend, Angela Lansbury.)
“I was taken aback by her appearance,” recalled Carl Siciliano, Ali Forney’s executive director, of coming face-to-face with his idol. “I met a surprisingly frail and seemingly shy and tenuous woman. She looked much older and weaker than in her promotional photos.” Still, when it came time to deliver, “she was the Bea Arthur we all knew and loved.” After the performance, Arthur sat for photographs. The mostly-gay crowd very nearly flew into a frenzy, “pushing toward her, grabbing at her, eager for face time with the great legend.” She made it out alive and the benefit raised $40,000.
Three years later, Arthur died and left money to a number of causes, with the Ali Forney Center receiving the second-largest sum: $300,000. (Another, the American Indian College Fund, received $100,000.) “It seemed like all her charities were mostly about innocents — either kids or animals or gay or lesbian teens, who have a bigger fight than anybody can imagine,” Saks says. Siciliano credits the endowment with having gotten Ali Forney through the lean recession years. He pledged at her memorial to name the first building owned by Ali Forney Center after Arthur. After the City of New York recently turned over a long-abandoned former crack house, the Bea Arthur Residence for LGBT Youth was born.
Both of Arthur’s sons, Matthew and Daniel, 52, married women and started families in Los Angeles. Daniel became a TV set designer — he created the cozy, middle-class home of NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which resembles the All in the Family house. Matthew, meanwhile, born blond with handsome Anglo-Saxon features, pursued an acting career in his 20s. He even got cast as a wisecracking cop on an episode of Golden Girls, a moment that lives on in perpetuity on YouTube.
“I think I read for the part,” he says. “I don’t think it was just given to me, but probably it was. Who would say no? To me it’s embarrassing. I do occasionally get a $20 check in the mail.” He eventually abandoned acting and focused instead on home renovating and landscaping. His biggest client was his mom: He updated her Cliff May-designed Brentwood estate, a 1920s Spanish-style house, which sold in 2015 for $15 million.
If one persistent rumor about Arthur still follows her into the afterlife, it’s that she and her Golden Girls co-star Betty White, who played the dippy Minnesotan Rose Nylund, had a contentious off-screen relationship. Saks says it isn’t entirely without merit. “My mom was the real deal,” he explains. “I think she felt she was more of an actress than Betty. Mom came from Broadway. Betty starred on a game show at one point.”
He continues: “When they shot the sitcom, sometimes they had to stop. My mom would stay concentrated, maybe stay backstage, stand in her place there. And sometimes Betty would go out and smile and chat with the audience and literally go and make friends with the audience. Which is a nice thing — a lot of them have come from all over the country and are fans. I think my mom didn’t dig that. It’s more about being focused or conserving your energy. It’s just not the right time to talk to fans between takes. Betty was able to do it and it didn’t seem to affect her. But it rubbed my mom the wrong way.” Still, Saks adds, “there was no fighting at all. They were friends. At one point they lived close enough that they would drive each other to work.”
Don't let the gruff facade fool you: Arthur was a softy through and through, as evidenced by the Bea Arthur Residence for LGBT Youth — an honor, among gay icons, sure, but Saks puts things in perspective. "I don’t think my mom ranks up there with Liza, Barbra or Cher," he says. "But she has her own clique."