Frances Bergen, 84; Actress’ No. 1 Role Was as Wife and Mother to Stars

Times Staff Writer

Frances Bergen, a former model and occasional actress and singer whose show business career took a back seat to her longtime role as the wife of beloved ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the mother of their actress daughter Candice, has died. She was 84.

Bergen died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after a prolonged illness, said family spokeswoman Heidi Schaeffer.

Bergen was once described by former Times film reviewer Kevin Thomas as “one of Hollywood’s enduring, elegant beauties.” She was Frances Westerman, a graduate of Los Angeles High School and in her early 20s, when she attended Edgar Bergen’s popular radio show as the guest of a staff member.


After spotting the Birmingham, Ala., native’s long legs in the front row, Edgar Bergen, about 20 years her senior, reportedly asked to meet her. More than a year later, in 1945, they were married.

By then, she was a successful Powers model in New York City and was seen in magazines and on billboards as “the Chesterfield girl” and “the Ipana girl.”

In the 1950s, Bergen appeared in several films, including “Titanic,” and had guest roles on television in “Four Star Playhouse,” “Fireside Theatre,” and “The Dick Powell Show.”

She also played Madame Francine on “Yancy Derringer,” the short-lived 1958 series starring Jock Mahoney as a former Confederate soldier.

At one point, Bergen aspired to a career as a chanteuse and had several engagements in major supper clubs. But in a 1990 interview with The Times, she recalled reluctantly turning down a six-week singing engagement at a top club in London.

“I had to go ask my husband,” she said. “And his reaction to my great enthusiasm was, ‘You mean you would leave me and the baby!’

“Candy, ‘the baby,’ was 10 at the time. He carried on so about it that I didn’t take the job. But I was raised by a Southern lady in a mid-Victorian manner and that’s the way it was in those days. I didn’t talk back to my husband. I was taught that you do have to compromise and not assert yourself as much as you might want.”

Career ambitions aside, she devoted most of her time to what a 1990 Times story referred to as “playing the pretty foil” for her husband and his famously smart-aleck dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

In her 1984 autobiography, Candice Bergen wrote that although her mother -- “a woman of abilities and ambition” -- had acted on television and was an accomplished singer, she “had serious doubts that she alone had ever existed on her own.”

Frances Bergen, whose husband died in 1978 at age 75, said in the 1990 interview: “Oh, you bet it was impossible to have your own identity.

“The [public] reaction to my husband was astounding. 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

“Then I was Candy’s mother and 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.’ ”

But, she said in the interview, she wouldn’t trade her life for anything.

In the 1980s, Bergen had small roles in films, including “American Gigolo,” “Rich and Famous” and “The Sting II,” and appeared in episodes of TV’s “MacGyver” and “Murder, She Wrote.”

She also played the matriarch in writer-director Henry Jaglom’s 1990 dramatic film “Eating,” turning in what The Times’ Thomas called “surely the best part of her career.”

Born Sept. 14, 1922, Bergen and her mother moved to Los Angeles after her father died when she was 10.

In addition to her daughter, Bergen is survived by her son, Kris; and a granddaughter.

Burial will be private. A memorial service is pending.

The family suggests donations in Bergen’s name to the American Heart Assn. or the Arthritis Foundation.