Betsy Durkin Matthes already had a high-flying career as an actor and lyricist when she began learning to fly an airplane in 1975 at Shelter Island’s Klenawicus Airfield. But she was also the mother of a 4-year old, so when she barely made it over the trees at the end of the runway on a take-off due to the instructor’s inattention, she ended the lessons, taking flying up again in the 90s with a different instructor, and eventually completed several solo flights, clocking 300 hours of flight time.
By then she had retired from acting, and flying gave her a sense of power and agency.
“Once, I was coming into MacArthur (airport), and the weather was closing in,” she said. “There is nothing like that experience. You know you are the only one who can get you down.”
Bravery, and a willingness to do what needs to be done, runs in her family. Betsy was 3 years old when her father, a paratrooper in World War II, died in the Battle of the Bulge, leaving Betsy’s 25-year-old mother a widow with a child to raise and no job skills. Six months later Betsy’s maternal grandmother died, and Betsy and her mother went to live with her maternal grandfather in Newburgh, N.Y. He took care of Betsy while her mother went to secretarial school.
“I adored him,” said Betsy.
Betsy was 7 years old when a friend of her mother’s named Gladys Clough took her to see the New York City Ballet production of “Swan Lake.”
“It changed my life. I decided I was a swan,” said Betsy. By then, Betsy’s mother had remarried and moved and Betsy threw herself into the study of ballet, moving back to New York to live with her ballet teacher near West Point and teach in her ballet school. She graduated first in her high school class at Highland Falls High School, and studied at the School of American Ballet.
Ms. Clough also took Betsy to see Julie Andrews in “The Boy Friend,” after which Betsy memorized every song in the show. Years later, Betsy’s big break came when the Cherry Lane theatre in New York cast a new production of “The Boy Friend,” and she auditioned for the chorus. A finalist on the strength of her dancing, they asked if she could sing anything from the show. “Anything,” she replied. They hired her to play Polly, in a traveling production, “because I was Polly, I didn’t have to act.”She was 16 years old.
She performed in “Cactus Flower” on Broadway with Lauren Bacall in 1965, the year that she and Gerald Matthes, an account executive at an advertising firm, got married. She performed in the original production of “The Athenian Touch,” and also worked in daytime dramas, including a stint on the Gothic soap “Dark Shadows” in 1966, when she played a governess who went into the past with her lover.
When Betsy’s son Peter was born, she decided she would never go on tour again.
“I knew a lot of people who were successful actors but their children grew up without them,” she said. “My career took a big turn.”
She began to do commercials, short term assignments that usually didn’t require her to travel. She took the work seriously, and had three housedresses made for her in different colors to wear to auditions. “I discovered very early in my commercial career that I was primarily cast as a young mother or a midwestern housewife. I wanted to take full advantage of that fact.”
Betsy and Gerald Matthes came to Shelter Island for the first time in 1971 when their son was 14 months old, bought an unwinterized house in the Heights, and named it Belfield. Although the marriage ended 14 years later, Peter continued to visit Shelter Island with his father, and Betsy’s connection to the Island continued, although she would not live here again until 1993.
A chance meeting with Carly Simon, who lived in her New York apartment building, led to Betsy’s third career when Simon listened to a recording of some of Betsy’s songs, and decided to help her get them recorded. Soon Betsy’s song, “Love is Holding On,” was the B side of a Cissy Houston record that made the charts.In 1978, Betsy wrote a song called “Love Express,” with Alvin Fields, a disco tune that was played at Studio 54, and became a hit. In her 30s, with a child in elementary school, she found herself writing dance music for people much younger, and continued to do so until disco had run its course a few years later.
In the early 90s, Betsy met composer Jack Cortner while working as a lyricist.Jack had written the theme for “Edge of Night,” and when Betsy met him he was looking for someone to write titles for a jazz recording he was working on. They married on May 21, 1993.
By then, Betsy was done with acting.
“I gave 27 years of my life to the theatre, it was everything to me. And I closed the door on that.” In 1996, she graduated from Marymount Manhattan College with a Bachelors in International Studies, achieving the college degree that she deferred to her 50s in the interest of an acting career in her 20s.
Betsy’s next career, as an author, was partially a result of the quiet and solitude of her life on Shelter Island, where she said, “the stress lifts off you like an onion skin.” The trouble was, she’s not one to relax. In 2006 she published the first of two books, “Dressing the Man you Love,” and in 2015 she published “Forever is Not for Everyone,” the story of the life of her father. She found the editorial and design skills she needed on the Island, tapping local editors and designers to help her turn her manuscripts into published books.
Betsy’s son Peter is a filmmaker, and lives in New York with his wife Rebecca, a writer. When their son Ian was born last year, Betsy embarked on yet another major project, to be as active a participant in the life of her grandson, as her grandfather was in her life. Three days a week, Betsy devotes to Ian, going into the city to take care of him.