Betty Graham has stories to tell. From her days picking cotton on her family’s farm in Missouri to her stint as Johnny Carson’s personal assistant, Graham, 74, had a disparate set of jobs before getting into the real estate business. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, her career as a residential broker to the stars took off in earnest. She worked with actors such as Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson and George C. Scott, along with the legendary “Tonight Show” host, with whom she had a 50-year friendship. She started her own brokerage in Malibu, then joined Jon Douglas Co., and stayed on when Douglas was bought by Coldwell Banker in 1997. She’s no longer a practicing broker, but as president and chief operating officer of the greater L.A. region for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Graham oversees 2,257 brokers in 39 offices. Although she’s been very successful at work, she admits she hasn’t been so successful at home, having been married six times. Though she isn’t ready to retire yet, Graham has designs on writing a book about “lessons learned,” and wants to get back into an early passion – photography. Graham recently sat down with the Business Journal at her spacious Beverly Hills office for a candid talk about her career, her days picking cotton and her friendship with Carson.
Question: What did you like about being a broker?
Answer: Real estate is a very exciting business. I think it’s more exciting than the movie business, because it’s built on real life drama. Every single day there is something exciting in a real estate broker’s life. Money and emotions go hand in hand. For a real estate agent, to get to ride that wave with their clients, it’s really fun.
Did you always want to get into the business?
No, I didn’t have a clue about real estate. I was raised on a cotton farm in the South.
Tell me about that.
It was a farm outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala. And then when I was 5 years old we moved to the southeast corner of Missouri, below the Mason-Dixon Line, to another cotton farm. And when I was 15 we moved to California, with everything we owned on the top of our car. My father had to find work. I remember writing in my diary – I still have that diary – I wrote, “We sold out today.” “Sold out” is a pejorative term now, but it meant everything was gone, except what we could take.
How old were you when you started picking cotton?
Probably 6. You get a little bitty sack first. Your mother makes the sacks for the little kids. What you do, your dad is at the head of rows and he’s got the wagon with a tractor in front of it. Your father is there with the scales, and you are picking back and forth, back and forth and when you get to the end, he weighs your sack and dumps it into the wagon and writes down in a book your name and how much you weighed in. We got 10 cents a pound; our dad would pay that – that was the going rate. Then he would take it to the gin; that means a good time on Saturday night. It meant we’d go to town – once a week we’d get to go to town.
That is a world apart from real estate and today’s Los Angeles.
It’s interesting, to find myself here, sitting in this seat, when I came from such meager beginnings. But so many people today are in exactly that spot. I don’t know how it happened that I ended up in real estate. Because I always wanted to be a journalist, I was a photographer. I really enjoyed that so much.
You must have some great stories from your time picking cotton.
I remember in Missouri, we had 100 acres and my father hired some Mexican laborers – how they got up to Missouri I don’t know. I was so excited because I had never been outside of the state, other than Alabama. My brother had gone to the Navy in Cuba so he had a Spanish dictionary he had brought home. So I put that darn dictionary in my back pocket and went out to the fields. I was going to communicate.
How did that go?
It was ridiculous. I was 10.
When did you come to California?
It was 1952. You hear all these California dreams, so we came to Kern County. We moved to Lost Hills, I went to Wasco Union High from there. I was just really good in English. I had shorthand, typing – all those skills that got you work out of high school. I came down here, went to UCLA at night. Then I went to L.A. Valley College and went to journalism school. That’s where I learned photography. I did two years there and we published the newspaper and I learned headline writing.
So you were a photographer in the 1970s before you became a broker?
I was. It is hard to make a living as a photographer. Because I was married, I had the luxury of not having to earn that much money. He – my son’s father – was a television and movie director (William Graham). You are a bump on the log on the movie set if you are a spouse. I was able to contribute; I got to shoot the shots that would be on the outside of movie theaters.
Any favorite photos?
I had a picture on the front page of the L.A. Times once. We lived on Topanga Beach, my son was 3 or 4 and a big seal was stranded ashore. The seal was there when we awakened that morning so I grabbed my son’s favorite stuffed toy, a seal, and we took it and ran down to the beach where the seal was and I took a picture of my husband and my son with the little stuffed seal nose to nose with the big seal.
How’d it come out?
It was a great shot. The L.A. Times put it on the front page and it said, “Strange Beach Fellows.” Then the UPI wire service picked it up and published it across the country. That was my highest moment, photographically. When I got into real estate, I said, “I’ll take the best pictures of my listings.” And I did. But eventually you are either a photographer or a Realtor.
Tell me about your start in the real estate business.
It was April 1976 and from the moment I got in I was so excited. I was just wired with excitement. I had introductions to the film business through my husband. The entertainment industry is interesting – there is a level of trust they have. They stick with the relationships they know. You get referred. So I really built my career that way.
Did anyone help you establish yourself in the business?
Johnny Carson – I had been his assistant when I was 18. I had just gotten out of high school, came down here and got a job. He was 28. It was a trust level. Years later, when I got licensed, he was a very loyal person. He didn’t trust a lot of people, but those he did he was very supportive of. I had four transactions with him personally, and I showed him and (wife) Alex lots of property. He referred people to me. That was a very good springboard for a new real estate agent.
You stayed friends with Carson for all those years?
In between my many marriages and his many marriages, if we were on the West Coast or East Coast, we’d have lunch together or something and catch up. When you have a long, long history, it was beautiful. I saw him many times the last year of his life – I had the honor of having dinner with him many times. He would call every once in a while and say, “Now how long have we known each other?” He was always counting and it got to be 50 years.
As a broker, was a lot of your business with celebrities?
It was. Rod Steiger – I sold his house in the Colony. And because I was on the map in Malibu, agents from town referred their business to me. We sold Charles Bronson a house, George C. Scott. All of my clients are all dead. It’s a good thing I’m not in the sales business now (laughing).
Were you ever star struck?
I was pretty unaffected by it, I think because I was married to a behind-the-scenes person. That part was only mildly interesting to me. Their homes were fascinating to me. I think it was an asset, because I was there for business, and to protect them and make them feel safe.
You worked for Jon Douglas Co. for a long time before he sold his company.
Jon Douglas would be my hero. I learned so much from him. I had owned my own company with a couple of other women in Malibu – Coast and Canyon Realtors. I met him because I was representing the Malibu Board of Realtors at California Association of Realtors functions. He was just so dazzling – everybody loved Jon Douglas. He started recruiting me, dialoguing me at these meetings. It was 1982. I sold my ownership to my two partners and moved to Jon Douglas Co. and my career went through the ceiling.
Besides Jon Douglas, do you have any other role models?
My mother, Bertha Teasley, was an incredible role model. She was fantastic. When you pick cotton there is a direct correlation between how hard you work and how much money you make. I have five brothers and two sisters – on a cotton farm you had a big family to support the crops. My mother would get up in the morning and milk the cow before daylight, and come in and make us breakfast and then make lunch for the field, and go to the field and pick more cotton than anyone else and then get back home to make supper for us. She could pick 300 pounds of cotton a day. The most I ever picked was 100 pounds.
Are people you’ve done business with surprised you were a cotton picker?
Yes. I think probably the authenticity is a comfort, the fact that I wouldn’t be trying to hide my background. I think it was good for me to work that hard. I was never a very good ironer though.
I understand that when you were offered this job you didn’t accept it right away.
It was a very big deal for me but I couldn’t say yes immediately. I had to say, “I just don’t know. A, I don’t know if I can do it. And, B, I don’t know if I have anything to contribute.”
Why did you decide to accept the job?
In the end, I’m a salesman, and salesmen like to grow and like to be challenged, and I knew this would challenge me, so I had to say yes. Although, I asked for a wardrobe allowance – I got turned down. I asked for a hair allowance – I got turned down.
How is the company doing now?
Right now the high end is reviving. It really went flat in ’07 and a bit further down in 2008, and it started getting a little more level in 2009. Since the first of the year there has been a definite increase in the high end. It’s about the challenge again. It’s about – how do you hold your company together, keep the agents in a good frame of mind moving forward and at the same time, tell them we are closing Burbank, we are merging two Brentwood offices?
How have you been able to balance your career with family life?
It’s a challenge. I’m unfortunately not very successful as a wife. I’m much more successful as an employee. I’m not married at the moment. I still see my ex-husband, record producer Tom Catalano. I had him to dinner last night with some clients, with some friends. But I’m not married. I have two Yorkies.
It sounds like you’ve had some interesting companions over the years – a record producer, a director.
I have, you’re right. The thing is, my life is extremely full. So while I would like to have someone to wake up with, and someone to laugh with sometimes, at the same time, that might interfere with my connection with my managers, with my agents.
What do you do to unwind after a tough day’s work?
If I am very wound up I have two choices, it’s either going to be Mozart or country music. It’s hardly anything in between. I really resonate back to the country. The San Joaquin Valley is very country. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, all the hard country – I really do enjoy it: the wailing, the moaning. And my sister, she’s amazing, she’s 85 and she still teaches line dancing in the San Joaquin Valley.
I understand you have a home there. Is that an escape?
I have a house in Pine Mountain Club, which is in the mountains in Kern County. It is an escape. This is concrete here; I live in a high-rise. I love the work, it’s wonderful, but it’s really nice to just enter into the high trees and the mountains. There are times when I will go every weekend and there are times when I can’t get there for a month.
How much longer do you think you’ll work?
My superiors in New Jersey tell me I can work as long as I want to. I’m liking what I am doing and like Johnny Carson said, “If my ratings go down, I’ll quit.” It would be nice to be able to capture the reward of having endured this recession. I’d like to have my legacy be a swing upward.
You’ve mentioned wanting to writing a book about your life. How serious are you about that?
It sort of burns in me. I certainly have no appreciation for tell-all books. It would not be a tell-all, if there were anything to tell. But it would be hopefully the lessons. That’s why I keep those guys up there (gesturing to a group of antique porcelain penguins that sit above her desk). Did you see “March of the Penguins?” Amazing, their tenacity. I just think in sales, an agent should remember what it takes to keep moving forward.
And when you retire, would you head to your Kern County home and write that book?
Yes, and I would get my cameras out. I always had darkrooms, and they are so passé now. So I would have a lot to learn in terms of digital photography, and that would be fun.
TITLE: President and Chief Operating Officer
COMPANY: Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage of Greater Los Angeles
BORN: 1935; on a farm in Clear Creek, Ala., near Tuscaloosa
EDUCATION: UCLA; studied journalism at Los Angeles Valley College
CAREER TURNING POINT: “I was happily selling Malibu real estate when Jon Douglas asked me to manage his Malibu office. We built that marketplace for the company, opened a second office in Point Dume and I managed both locations for the company, with very competent associate management help from Kim Collen.”
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: “CBS television executive William Dozier was a huge positive influence in my life. His widow, Ann Rutherford Dozier, continues to mentor and inspire me. They taught me to touch life at new points, expand my horizons, both in education and travel.”
PERSONAL: Lives on the Wilshire Corridor in Westwood, has a weekend home in Pine Mountain Club, near Frazier Park; divorced, with one son, Charles Vanderveer Graham, 42, who lives in Santa Barbara
HOBBIES: Cooking, reading, photography, sailing in the Caribbean
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