June Cleaver, the suburban housewife portrayed by Barbara Billingsley in the sitcom Leave It to Beaver, was known for doing household chores while wearing high heels and a single string of white pearls. The heels allowed her to remain taller than Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers, who played her sons on the show and grew taller than their onscreen mom during the show’s seven-year run. The pearls, she said, were for vanity’s sake—perfectly covering a large hollow in her neck.
Billingsley, who died last week at 94, “always wanted to be an actress,” said the Los Angeles Times. Born in Los Angeles, she got her first break when she landed a part in a Broadway comedy called Straw Hat that opened (and swiftly closed) in 1937. Billingsley decided to remain in New York because, she said later, it was “more fun than college.” There she met and married her first husband, restaurateur Glenn Billingsley. She went on to marry twice more and give birth to two sons.
Following a series of small parts in B movies and forgettable television shows launched in the medium’s primitive era, Billingsley in 1957 won the part with which she would forever be identified—June Cleaver, “the flawless housewife lovingly going through the motions of running a home,” said The Washington Post. Some critics—and many women—criticized Billingsley for setting an unattainable standard of femininity and maternal wisdom, but she never apologized for her character or the show. “Good grief,” she told an interviewer, “I think everybody would like a family like that.”
After Beaver’s cancellation, in 1963, Billingsley remained so identified with June Cleaver that her career went dark until 1980, when she played a prissy passenger with a hidden talent in the disaster-movie satire Airplane!, said The New York Times. When a flight attendant has trouble communicating with two black passengers, Billingsley volunteers to help. “Oh, stewardess,” she says, “I speak jive.” The scene set the pattern for her later TV career, in which she did several guest bits that lampooned her image as the model 1950s mom.