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The actress at the heart of Philadelphia Eagles history

Frances Upton Bell was an actress whose greatest role took place off the stage.

Frances Upton when she was with the Ziegfeld Follies.
Frances Upton when she was with the Ziegfeld Follies.Read moreCOURTESY / Upton Family

Frances Upton Bell was a leggy, blue-eyed actress, a Ziegfeld Girl who before marrying into a distinguished Philadelphia family starred in Hollywood films and on Broadway alongside Bob Hope, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor.

But her greatest role took place offstage. And today, 86 years later, that performance’s repercussions continue to be enjoyed and appreciated here in the city that became her home.

In 2019, as the NFL continues to push for more female coaches, scouts, officials, and executives, Frances Bell’s significant contributions to America’s most popular sport have been nearly forgotten.

According to a son, she provided the money when husband DeBennevile “Bert” Bell pulled the defunct Frankford Yellow Jackets out of bankruptcy and created from the ruins of that defunct franchise a new team, one the couple would call the Philadelphia Eagles.

During the black heart of the Great Depression, when professional football was far less popular than the college game and her husband was struggling to find himself, Frances Bell had cash and an idea.

“My father had no money at all then to invest in an NFL team,” Upton Bell, the youngest of their two sons and the onetime general manager of the New England Patriots, said in a recent interview. “Like everybody else then, he was interested in college football. My mother was the one who urged him to get involved in professional football. And she gave him the money to do it.”

Philadelphia is a major market and the NFL eventually was going to land here. Without Frances Bell, though, that might not have happened as soon as 1933 and the Eagles, like so many other teams in the young and cash-strapped league, might never have endured.

Born Frances Upton, the daughter of a New York City detective, she was working at Macy’s perfume counter in the early 1920s when a talent agent, impressed by her looks, urged her to consider a stage career.

When she met her future husband at a Manhattan cocktail party, she was already a successful actress and engaged to the son of Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch.

Bert Bell, who eventually won her, had been a football star at Penn. He was, as he roared through the Roaring Twenties, “a social drunk,” his son said, one trying to find his place in the world.

Bell, whose lawyer father owned Center City hotels and whose brother would become Pennsylvania’s governor, tried stockbroking but lost $50,000 in the market crash. His father bailed him out and found him a place to live and work at his Broad and Chestnut hotel, the Ritz-Carlton.

“Bert Bell was born rich and did his best to become poor,” said Upton Bell. “He worked his way down the ladder.”

His passion for football never ebbed, however, and he took assistant-coaching jobs at his alma mater as well as Temple. Smitten by Upton, he asked her to marry him. She said she that wasn’t going to happen unless he stopped drinking.

“So he threw a party in Atlantic City, invited her and announced there that he’d never drink again,” Upton Bell said. “And he never did.”

They were secretly wed in Chicago in 1933. And as they pondered life together, Bert Bell made it clear he wanted a future in football.

Frances, whose career had taken her to cities across the country, had developed an interest in the pro game. She told her husband of the excitement the professional Bears, with star halfback Red Grange, were creating in Chicago.

“My father was only thinking college football, but my mother convinced him that there might be opportunities in professional football,” said Upton Bell.

Frances took her husband to his first pro game. He was hooked.

The Yellow Jackets had folded in 1931 and Philadelphia was without an NFL team. So the Bells walked to City Hall and initiated the process of getting the Yellow Jackets out of bankruptcy and getting a new team for what then was America’s third-largest city.

Lud Wray, Bell’s old Penn teammate, put up some money. Frances, who’d stopped acting but had cash in the bank, supplied her husband’s share, $2,500.

“Today she never would have given up her career. But those were different times,” Upton Bell said, “and she said, and I’m paraphrasing, `If we need money, I’ll go back.’”

After leaving City Hall, Bell spotted a National Recovery Act placard on a Center City window. The blue eagle at its center, symbolizing the nation’s resolve to overcome the Depression, struck him as an apt name for a new football team.

“He asked my mother what she thought,” said Upton Bell. “She said, `That’s it.’”

Following the team’s 1933 season, the Bells had a proper church wedding at St. Madeleine Sophie Catholic Church in Mount Airy. They honeymooned in a rented house in Ventnor, where Eagles players sometimes worked out on its front lawn.

The Eagles failed on the field and at the box office, losing $85,000 in their first four seasons. Bell put his debt-ridden team on the auction block, then repurchased it for $4,500. Frances again provided capital.

His father’s wealth didn’t help. John C. Bell had stopped subsidizing his son and when he died in 1935, his estate was placed in trust for his grandchildren.

“He loved my father, but we got it all,” Upton Bell said of himself, Bert Jr. and sister Jane. “And we blew it.”

It was then that their father, realizing he couldn’t long compete with Chicago, New York, even Green Bay, urged fellow owners to institute a draft of college players to eliminate costly bidding wars.

“He wasn’t getting any money from his father and this was the Depression. He was desperate,” Upton Bell said. “They didn’t even own a home and they wouldn’t buy one until after he became NFL commissioner in 1946. They lived in rental properties all over.”

Those residences sometimes got crowded. Eagles players often stayed with the Bells, and for a time Frances’ sister and brother-in-law resided there, too.

“It was always a little crazy,” recalled Upton Bell. “But if my mother ever complained about it or about money, I never heard her.”

Bert Bell would sell the Eagles when named commissioner. In that job, he would start transitioning the NFL into a sporting and cultural behemoth. He died of a heart attack at Franklin Field during a 1959 Eagles game.

Frances survived until 1975 when, not long after climbing that same stadium’s grandstands to watch a game involving son Upton’s World Football League team, the Charlotte Hornets, she suffered a heart attack. She died in Lankenau Hospital on Thanksgiving Day at 71.

Recently, a documentary produced by a Massachusetts cable-TV system, ACMi, focused on Frances Bell’s hidden contribution to NFL history.

Bert Bell, the film’s narrator states, “saved the game from self-destructing,” but it was Frances Bell “who saved Bell from himself.”

And out of that salvation, a Philadelphia sporting obsession emerged.