She was alone, with mouths to feed,
her dreams of art school pounded
into dust. In bleak necessity she
took a job at Texas Bank and Trust.

They liked her at the bank, devoted
worker that she was, and praised
even promoted her. They let her
dress the windows for the holidays.

Her major gripe about the daily
grind was for the typos made
with carbons triplicate–shades of
ugly smudges so hard to erase.

Then she recalled how artists
will “paint over” when they err
and wondered: could her errors be
concealed, if not effaced?

At home,with trusty kitchen blender
she concocted a solution using
mostly tempera paint, and despite
the frowns from higher-ups

the typing pool named her a saint for
bringing them those little jars of white.
It was as if mistakes were gone.
(Though underneath they still lived on.)

The rest is history, as they say.
She started her own business
selling “Liquid Paper,” as it’s known, and
one fine day, Gillette, the corporation,

phoned her with an offer she could not refuse.
She sold-out for a bundle—took a cruise
to good and plenty, did Ms. Bette Claire.
In 1980 Bette died,a millionaire.


Bette Nesmith Graham, inventor of “Liquid Paper,” was also the mother of Michael Nesmith, one of the
four “Monkees” in that pop/rock band of the 1960’s. In an interview with late-night talk show host David Letterman, Michael was asked about his mother’s secret formula for “liquid paper”, and insisted it shall remain a secret.

70 responses »

  1. How wonderful that you re-told this story in such fine style. Being exposed to the Monkees via TV I suppose way back in the 60’s I did know of this mother’s invention – but I don’t recall how. Your reading is a marvelous feat of story telling!

    • I think the Monkees did not spring from an amateur “garage band” like so many groups did, back in the 60’s, but they were created as a fictitious band for a TV sitcom…and it turned out that they actually did become a performing group outside of the show because of it….early reality TV!
      I’m glad you liked the story-telling….a little break for me, with something different. Thanks, Pauline!

  2. So our minds ARE flying back and forth, from the high sierra to (New England right now? Is this where you live?)
    Talking with you is making me more comfortable with all this snow.
    I knew some of this story, the Monkey part, but not the woman part.
    I assumed the inventor was the Monkey’s father.
    I could never take the Monkeys seriously. They were a financed, created band. Who knew, maybe mom paid for it. If so, good for her.
    Then, I got confused and had to google clarify that Bette Nesmith wasn’t related to Evelyn Nesbit. Had to clarify the spelling.
    It would have been so cool if they were all related!
    Because I can just imagine the poem you would write about them all if they were!
    Be well my friend.

    • Yes, I live in Maine at the moment. We know about snow, still I was amazed to see the sheer amount of it, high in your Sierras.

      I had to chuckle at your not taking the Monkees seriously….did anyone? They were ridiculously funny; I enjoyed watching them on TV a few times, and always laughed at their antics. I saw them as a spoof on the garage bands of that era.

      Too bad, as you say, Bette and Evelyn were not related…there could have been a whole saga spun out of that one.

      Take care, and don’t get “off piste” when you’re out skiing….(or piste-off, either! πŸ™‚ )

  3. I especially enjoyed your poet’s turn in this: ‘It was as if mistakes were gone.(Though underneath they still lived on.)’

    It was interesting to learn Bette was the mother of Mike Nesmith. I wonder if she ever went back to art school…

    • You probably know about those cases of “pentimento” in the art world where technology has discovered paintings underneath paintings…Bette was likely thinking about that when she came up with her humble invention. Like you, I wonder if she ever did go back into art…I found no evidence that she did….yet I can imagine she had plenty of opportunity, if she had wanted to do so, once she was living on easy street. I like to picture her retired, finally, and enjoying the time to paint.

  4. That’s a fascinating little sketch of a life, Cynthia. I agree with Laine Anne Jensen about the poetic sensibility in your lines. And I find it pleasing to see that she died rich β€” famous in her own right and not as someone’s mother.

    • I don’t know if Bette ever cared about her son’s fifteen-minutes of fame, or even about her lack thereof, her invention was such a small thing. I agree, it’s pleasing to see that she died rich. So many are the little quotidian conveniences we take for granted….it’s fun to stop and wonder sometimes, “who thought to invent that?” I think there is even such a thing as an IG-NOBEL prize to honor those who do such mundane science. I hope Bette had time for an enjoyable, leisurely retirement with all her riches! Thanks, John.

  5. Love this!! what a gem of a poem…..a most clever sketch honoring this woman. I loved your choice of the word “effaced” , the rhythm of this song to Bette Claire!

    • There are so many ballads and sagas about legendary—mostly male— adventurers, that it is fun to spin a small one about a humble person who saw a need and invented a way to fill it which then took off and became a tiny light for so many. I’ll bet Bette herself was nonplussed at how things can snowball, as she was finally sitting pretty with all her riches. We don’t have those old typewriters anymore, or carbon paper, but the new versions of “correction fluid” are still around in several forms, and even kids are familiar with them, so I guess what Bette started still lives on! Thanks for stopping by to comment, Julie.

      • yes! actually I still purchase and use “white-out” – which to me is still a New England snow storm….. to correct errors I make in non-erasable ink on all kinds of things! I love this Ballad of Bette Claire!!

        • I think there are several such products, now, with different names, and they also come in a stick form. Someone told me her grandchild uses one of those….(don’t ask me what for, since I was under the impression that we of the pen-and-ink era were a dying breed! πŸ™‚ )
          Big smile, about the New England “white out,” though fortunately we haven’t had one this year…so far…x

  6. Thank goodness for Bette. I started office work back in the carbon paper era and liquid paper saved retyping when I worked for a Member of Parliament. She definitely deserves a ballad. Maybe her equally clever son, Mike, could set it to music. He is an enormously creative man in his own right ( and the Monkeys may have been a “manufactured” band but they weren’t without ability. As for the epithet, “manufactured band”, isn’t an orchestra manufactured? Or an opera company? Or a theatre troupe?

    • It was so aggravating, wasn’t it, to do any amount of typing before these wonderful computer keyboards, with their wonderful “deletes’s” and “undo’s”came onto the scene….

      It’s funny that the critics called the Monkees a “manufactured” band. They were all musicians hired separately for that TV sitcom which was to satirize the proliferation of amateur neighborhood “garage bands” at the time. It turned out that they were really good, musically, and they did go on to do well as an actual band on their own, beyond the TV show. I think the trash talk about them as somehow not being “authentic” must have originated with some sour-grapeists, (who were probably still in the garage…) Thanks for the link about Michael.

      You worked for a Member of Parliament? I am impressed!

      • God bless the computer! Shortly after I started work for the MP one of the other offices on the Hill got an AES Word processor. Do you remember those behemoths? All those form letters and pat replies suddenly got a whole lot easier. Don’t be impressed by the MP employer. Someday, I’ll write an expos-eh on THAT job but I’ll consult legal advice first.

  7. Great story and one I never knew. I could see where I hoped this was going quite early on. How often hopes are confounded, but this came good. How pleasing that a typist solved this problem and made the money, not some big corporation trying to reduce their costs. Sorry, the poetry worked too, but this was all story for me.

  8. Poor Bette, all she did was reinvented the palimpsest!

    Reading the footnotes:
    Naturally I had wondered if David Letterman had died as I read the ‘late’ night talk show host, and I think the secret formula for liquid paper is KFC’s secret spices mixed with a bit of vanilla extract.

    Heavens to Betsy (or Bette), we decoded the human genome–it think we can crack the damn liquid paper formula!

    • The only problem is, those monks who penned the palimpsests, first tried to obliterate the writing on the skins they wanted to re-use, and prepare them for re-use with knives, abrasives and pumice…a labor-intensive job of calligraphers. Of course they didn’t succeed entirely. Some technology guys have recently discovered certain texts of Archimedes under the words of old monastery prayer books! Bette didn’t try to destroy, just cover up…more like a “pentimento.”

      I just checked….I did put a hyphen on “late-night”, making it an adjective describing Letterman’s show. If David were “late,” it really wouldn’t affect me greatly, however. I didn’t watch his show as a rule…it came on too late, and he thinks he’s a lot wittier than I think he is. If I watched him before bed,it probably would have caused insipid nightmares.

      “We” decoded the human genome? I’ve heard that on the news, but I have no idea what that means, if I should believe it, or if it is a good thing. I wasn’t part of that “we.” Of course, a good chemist could easily crack the liquid paper formula. I think several entrepreneurs who sell under a different name have done so, long ago. The point is, Bette was the first one to think of it…..I think….maybe.

      • Naturally I don’t own a television set, but there is one on the “Little Bo Peep” deck and I will ask my cruise director if she can play reruns. We are passing Argentina now, I think. Should be a good night for television. There was to be a shuffle board tournament too, but it had to be cancelled do to suspected steroid use. Good thing there was liquid paper on hand–it’s now a curling match, and no one will be any the wiser.

        • It’s just as well, not owning a television set…nor would I bother with re-runs on Little Bo Peep deck. But you have reminded me….you are still on your trip around the world with Pomegranate Cruise Lines! I know this is a celebratory voyage. I hope some of the other passengers realize you are a prize-winning author, and when you approach the Captain’s Table for dinner, in your formal dress, you receive a certain number of deferential and appreciative smiles from the cognoscenti. I wouldn’t mingle with those competing in the curling match, however. Sweeping ice with a broom is so dΓ©classΓ©e.

          • No, I always travel incognito. Nonetheless, the Captain asked if I’d join him at his table and I told him I’d rather swallow a cup of bleach. I haven’t heard from him since. Still, it’s a wonderful cruise. I wasn’t really expecting to see glaciers in Argentina. Maybe I’ll have to talk to the captain after all.

            • You surely should talk to the captain—or someone—about the Argentinian glaciers. Are you sure you didn’t just see you were going to a place name starting with “A” and jump to the conclusion it was Argentina? Is the air a bit nippy at the end of your nose? Maybe you’re actually in Alaska…

  9. Such a beautiful piece!
    Invention of the Liquid paper was a blessing. A single mother, I used to take up typing jobs. It is wonderful that Bette was able to enjoy her earned wealth. There are many inventors who blessed humanity but died in poverty.
    The Monkees started as a fun TV Show indeed, but some of their songs will always be a part of the era.
    Thank you for your poetic story, and the memories πŸ™‚

    • That’s so true about unrecognized inventors. So many things that make human life better for us all are surely taken for granted….Sometimes when I think of this I have good feelings about the human race. Though Bette’s invention was a very small thing, it made a big difference to so many who had to face that old typewriter day after day.
      And indeed some of the Monkees’ songs will always be a part of that era….”Last Train to Clarksville,” and “Daydream Believer” come to mind. Thank you for your lovely comment, Inese!

    • Your mention of business history reminds me how we so often equate “History” in general with political history, or the history of powerful men and societies, when there are so many interesting particular branches, like business, clothing, transportation, etc…etc….and all the little stories, like that of Bette Claire. And surely you are too young to remember the Monkees!

      • Yes, and there’s oral history, which you or I could give and the history that grabs you by the throat that someone writes about later, e.g., refugees leaving Syria and North Africa. And speaking of personal history, I DO remember the Monkees and their TV show (as well as that other one, the Partridge Family) and now ‘hey, hey we’re the Monkees’ is stuck in my head like an earworm. I will be 59 in June…

        • Sorry about the earworm…it could be worse! You are only a couple of years older than my baby sister, who just turned 57. I call her my baby sister— though she is a lovely grown woman— because she will always seem that to me. I am the oldest of seven, and when my fifth brother in a row was born I despaired of ever having a sister….Jennifer finally arrived when I was fifteen years old. I left for college when she was three, and we never lived under the same roof together again. But if you knew the Monkees, I should assume she probably watched the Monkees, too. I must ask her!

  10. It takes a Cynthia Jobin to roll Auden’s Miss Gee, and the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, and an historical personage, all into the one wonderful ballad. I didn’t know any of that stuff. Since it’s been on my mind of late, I thought the “form” contributed to the poem … the “retro-ordinariness” of Bette so matched the style! All a delight (like ice cream!)

    • I like that “retro-ordinariness.” In seeing photos of Bette, I was nostalgically taken back to that era when she worked at the bank— the clothing, the hair styles, of ordinary women who might have worked in offices. It’s a fairly plain ballad, without some of the traditional musicality or refrain, but story is paramount, as I think the essence of that form demands. In several cases I opted for internal rhyme rather than strict end-rhyme…but that’s what I call “tweaking” so the sound is a bit more like the mundane speech of our time. I am happy that you find it a delight! (And I have left a comment on your site about hokey-pokey ice cream.) Thanks, Bruce!

  11. Oh yes I do know this story of Michael, the Monkey, and his Mother with liquid white lady!! Your telling of the story is so much better than anything I’ve read. This was fun Cynthia – have a wonderful weekend!

    • I bet you are too young to remember manual typewriters, and making copies with carbon paper, Shubha? Those poor typists had to work very hard to correct the most simple typos when they were at work…..if you tried to erase, it made terrible smudges, and often ruined the document, so you had to start again from scratch. Thus the invention of a “white stuff” that would simply cover over the typo so you could type the correct word or letter over it was a real godsend to those poor overworked secretaries! Now we are lucky, with computers, to be able to make corrections in text with the simple touch of a key… πŸ™‚ Thanks for coming to read and comment, Shubha!

  12. “EVEN promoted her. They let her
    dress the windows for the holidays.”

    Damning by faint promotion.
    Nailed it.

    I really like that you did this: Wrote a hero poem about a woman, and a real person, at that, rather than some mythic Barbara Fretchie or curfew bell-busting Bessie, bless their dear self-sacrificing souls.

  13. A fascinating biographical poem, Cynthia. Gosh, what a woman! Bette Clair deserves to be remembered. Such a shame, though, that she died six months after selling out to Gillette, aged just 56.

    I’m reminded of Yorkshireman Percy Shaw (1890 – 1976). What Bette Clair did for typists with her β€œLiquid Paper”, Percy did for motorists with his invention of the β€œcat’s eye”. He was awarded the OBE in 1965.

    Fond regards,


    • I am fascinated by the little ordinary things that someone invented to make life better in some way for us all….probably many times inadvertently, and probably in an attempt to do it for themselves first. I like that a whole lot better than the Mister or Ms. Fix-it who imposes ideals on others, constantly trying to “make a difference”, when the only difference they make is a lot of bothersome hot air. πŸ™‚ Thanks for your lovely comment, Paul.

  14. I always come away with a nugget–and a memory. Mrs. Sutliff the principal’s spouse taught typing, using a record of ‘Hungarian Rapsody’ we had to keep the beat of, which she additionally tapped out with a yardstick. No ‘white out’ for us–nor when I worked in various office pools later on between theatre auditions/roles. But one thing is certain….we made far fewer typos before ‘white out’ than after! Still, having that awful eraser replaced with a little dab’l’do ya was sooooo wonderful. Women invent things we really really want and need–because they’re always expected to just suffer and smile through.

    • I love the Hungarian Rhapsody bit! I took a course called “Personal Typing” in High School because I thought it would stand me in good stead for doing college term papers. My dad said: go ahead and learn to type, but don’t tell anybody you know how! (I think he was a feminist before I ever was… πŸ™‚ )
      I agree that we made fewer errors when correcting them was more difficult….now that’s a good tangent to extend and muse upon….It was all more difficult before the computer, but I do think the use of language, both written, typed and spoken, was far more careful and sophisticated in the past. And now you’ve got me going with “a little dab’ll do ya” Wasn’t that a commercial jingle for Brylcreme or Brillcream…or whatever? Thanks for the memories, Lance!

  15. “The first Brylcreem product was a pomade created in 1928 by County Chemicals at the Chemico Works in Bradford Street, Birmingham, England. The pomade is an emulsion of water and mineral oil stabilised with beeswax.” There we go. If we’d known what’s in it, we wouldn’t have used it. Again, to draw on the subject of typing– I had to ask the principal if I could also take shorthand along with typing, because I thought it would greatly help me in taking notes in college. He said, “No. Shorthand is only for the girls.” I still wish I knew shorthand.

    • I tried learning it on my own, once, with little success. But if you learn all the internet shorthand the kids use in their texting these days…like OMG and LOL and the many, many others, you could be sitting pretty with that old ambition…

    • I’m always amazed at the wonderful little things people invent to make life easier. This little ballad is actual history….but I guess any “creative” telling could be seen to give it the tinge of fiction. You have got me thinking….is a poem fiction?

  16. How delightful to learn the history of Liquid Paper from a poem. I never much enjoyed history at school but may well have if it had been presented in poetics. You’re onto something, Cynthia!

    • You think so? I guess there is a certain amount of “historical” verse, but it’s usually about celebrated men and their battles….not that interesting to you or me. It’s these little things that need attention, and I happen to think the simplest things are the most interesting, and sometimes the most profound. But judging from your photos and poetry, I guess you do too!

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