Frances Bergen, 84, Actress and Model

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Frances Bergen, who died Monday at 84,was featured on billboards for Ipana toothpaste and Chesterfield cigarettes, but it is as wife of Edgar Bergen, mother of Candice Bergen, and genial straight man to the dummy Charlie McCarthy that she will be remembered.

Although it is difficult to imagine today, one of the most popular radio shows in the 1930s and 1940s starred a ventriloquist, and it was 21-year-old Frances Westerman’s great fortune and curse to have married him in 1945, at the height of his fame. Edgar Bergen was twice Frances’s age, and she sacrificed most of her career to care for their children, Candice and Kris, and to act as the puppet Charlie McCarthy’s doting stepmother.

Having been educated in public schools in Los Angeles, where she was a high school pom-pom girl, she was suddenly caught up in a social whirl with the biggest celebrities in all of America and regularly dined with the likes of Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Walt Disney.


“The reaction to my husband was astounding,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “We’d be out to dinner or dancing and people would come up and tap him on the shoulder and ask, ‘Where’s Charlie? Where’s Charlie?’ I must admit at one point I thought, ‘If I hear the name Charlie one more time, I’ll …'” One imagines a visual component to the interview appropriate to a woman who was a talented actress. She could sing, too.

While Edgar Bergen was jealous of her time, Frances Bergen managed to squeeze in the occasional nightclub gig and occasionally appeared in films such as “Titanic” (1953), in which she played Madeleine Astor. One missed opportunity that stung came in the mid-1950s, when a club in London offered her an extended engagement. She recalled Edgar Bergen’s reaction as, “You mean you would leave me and the baby!” Candice Bergen was 10 at the time, but Frances Bergen stayed home.

She nevertheless insisted on continuing to audition, often bringing the increasingly appealing Candice along. “I did have this complex about going on auditions because I thought the casting director would be thinking, ‘Oh, I wish it was her daughter but instead here comes Mother Bergen,'” she told the Times.


Despite the career frustrations, she apparently adored Edgar Bergen. “He literally raised me,” she said in a 1984 interview. “In some ways he was more of a father than a husband.”

But with his death, in 1978, came a renewed acting career, first as Mrs. Laudner, one of Richard Gere’s enthusiastic clients in “American Gigolo” (1980). She briefly joined a traveling company performing the Richard Rodgers musical “On Your Toes.”

From there it was smallish roles in a number of films, including “The Sting II” (1983), “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), and “Eating” (1990), a semi-improvisatory comedy in which she, bewildered that a young Frenchwoman could be anorexic, tells the woman, “Of course, you have such wonderful food in France.”


By then, her daughter had begun her reign as Murphy Brown, the tastiest morsel on prime time. Frances Bergen made a few appearances on the show, among her last.

In “Knock Wood,” her 1984 autobiography, Candice Bergen sketched out what life was like for her mother: “She had acted on television and was an accomplished singer — a woman of abilities and ambition; instead she felt like Mildred Pierce.”

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