The Mystery of Bab Beckwith, John F. Kennedy, and Howard Hughes

Several years ago, I attended an estate sale on the outskirts of town, where I purchased the photograph shown here. Almost 20 inches high, it is a striking image of Bab Beckwith, a woman who was once famous from coast to coast.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Bab was a famous model, a jetsetting pilot (back in the days when few women were), and a glamorous and rather mysterious figure who — based on the scant information found about her on the Internet — once dated John F. Kennedy and Howard Hughes. Not at the same time, I presume.

And then, after going through at least two and possibly three marriages, she moved to Memphis, and died here just a few years ago.

But that's all I know about her. I purchased the photo, because the people running the estate sale told me she was a famous model, and her name was scribbled on the back. I then went home, switched on my Tandy home computer, and began to see what more I could learn about her. Well, not much, not even a Wikipedia entry, and just occasional (and frustratingly brief) mentions on websites here and there. But still there was enough to make me realize that she was indeed somebody very special at one time. Various internet sites showed pictures taken during lavish modeling sessions, and I even found full-page ads that ran in Life magazine in the 1960s, where readers apparently knew her so well that if "Babs recommends Chesterfield Cigarettes," well, that was good enough for them. Another ad had her posing with Clark Gable, as I recall.

But that's about all I could find. So I contacted (okay: pestered) the people who had run the estate sale, and they finally put me in touch with neighbors and others who knew her in Memphis in her last days. I thought I had struck paydirt when one lady — a former neighbor — claimed to have acquired a massive scrapbook once owned by Bab, and offered to share it with me. But after weeks of delays, she finally (and absolutely) changed her mind, telling me that she didn't think her family would want the publicity. I tried to tell her that should be the family's decision, not hers, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. And my attempts to locate Bab's family, whoever and wherever they were, came to naught.

So here you have it: a stunning portrait of a famous and beautiful woman, who danced and dined with future presidents and billionaires, and then came to Memphis and lived out her life without anyone knowing who she was.

Not even Vance Lauderdale.

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

About This Blog

Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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