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Bette Arnold, at 90; flamboyant owner of Bette’s Rolls Royce

Bette Arnold kept a convertible Rolls parked illegally out front while she ran Bette’s Rolls Royce restaurant near Faneuil Hall. Bette Arnold kept a convertible Rolls parked illegally out front while she ran Bette’s Rolls Royce restaurant near Faneuil Hall. (Charles Dixon/ Globe Staff/ File 1975)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 24, 2011

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Halfway through her run as proprietor of Bette’s Rolls Royce, a restaurant near Faneuil Hall famous for the eponymous car she let lounge out front collecting thousands of dollars of parking tickets, Bette Arnold took part in the 1975 edition of Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Some used the event as an occasion to make points about the school busing debate that roiled the city. Not Bette. Clad in a green body stocking, she rode the route atop the hood of her yellow 1963 Rolls, offering advice to politicians who would have welcomed the kinds of cheers that greeted her appearance.

“I always dress for the occasion,’’ she told the Globe. “Today I got more compliments than I can remember, because of my costume, you know. I think I could have been elected mayor.’’

Bette Jeanne Berman Arnold Charles — best to just call her Bette — knew how to run a business and was an attention-grabbing advertisement for her restaurant, which helped turn the area around Faneuil Hall into a destination for diners and the nightlife crowd.

After dividing her time in recent years between Boston and a summer place in New Seabury, Bette died Sunday in the Epoch of Weston senior health care center of complications of circulatory ailments. She was 90, but to nary a dissenting view, she insisted most of her life that she was “29 and holding steady.’’

Bette had a “good figure’’ and “sensational legs,’’ and lest anyone forget, she put that in her résumé, which, needless to say, was livelier than the average curriculum vitae.

Along with managing the restaurant, she would sing for patrons, including celebrities such as actress Shirley MacLaine. Bette hosted dinners at the State House and coordinated annual Christmas dinners for hundreds of disabled children. She sang throughout New England and rolled along in nearly every Boston parade for years, perched on her Rolls, creating a presence that prompted a few dozen television programs, magazines, and newspapers to feature her in stories.

Running Bette’s Rolls Royce for a decade was one of many careers. In her late teens, she started singing with her first husband’s big band, before branching into managing and booking musicians, starting a bus company, and investing in real estate by buying rental properties.

Then in 1970, Bette noted in her résumé, she “originated, designed, and built what has now become the most popular — and one of the best known — restaurants in Boston.’’

“Modesty wasn’t her long suit,’’ noted her daughter, Judith A. Cowin, a former justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

“She was determined, tenacious, flamboyant, and did not care about the rules,’’ her daughter said. “She was going to do things her way and be a success in the best way that she could. She also was a person with a huge heart, very loving and affectionate. She gave of herself freely to people who are now all over the world and love her dearly for things she did for them when they were young.’’

Among the rules for which Bette had little use were Boston’s parking regulations. She accumulated a pile of tickets for leaving her Silver Cloud model convertible Rolls-Royce in front of the restaurant, sometimes day and night. To bail the car out of the impound lot in 1973, she brought a stack of crisp 20-dollar bills to the Boston Municipal Court clerk and handed them to him, bill after bill, to pay $2,035 in fines assessed over the previous two years.

“I’m laughing with tears in my eyes,’’ she told the Globe.

Four years later, she requested a jury trial to fight another batch of tickets and ended up paying about $1,500 more than the original amount when she lost and the judge imposed higher fines. The judge also insisted she pay immediately with a certified check, rather than the personal check, sporting an image of a yellow Rolls-Royce, that she wanted to use.

She told the Globe in 1977 that keeping her Rolls in front of the restaurant was necessary. “I lose up to 40 percent of my business when it’s not there,’’ she said. Boston, she said, discriminated by ticketing her car when vendors and other business vehicles were allowed to park illegally without being fined. Unmoved, the city kept giving her tickets. It didn’t help that the Rolls and its parking spot were visible from the window of the mayor’s office in the old City Hall.

Except, perhaps, for guidance about parking regulations, friends often sought her counsel on a variety of matters.

“She was an excellent businesswoman,’’ her daughter said. “She was a very smart woman, period.’’

Bette Berman grew up in Brighton, the older of two sisters whose mother had been a piano accompanist and whose father ran parking lots. She graduated from Girls Latin School and from Simmons College, where she majored in psychology.

By then, she had met Chappie Arnold and was singing with his band and other ensembles. They married in 1941 and had two daughters, one of whom, Joyce Arnold Rusoff, who was known as Jackie, died in a 1970 auto accident.

Along with their own band, the Arnolds managed other artists and worked as booking agents. Then they got an idea when their children began reaching school age.

“When they had to take me to school, they realized many people didn’t have transportation for their children,’’ their daughter said, “and that’s when they started a bus company.’’

The marriage to Chappie Arnold ended in divorce, though until his death in 1988, he remained friends with Bette and Robert Charles, whom she married in 1975. With him, she ran another bus company.

“Despite all the demands on her time, she was a wonderful, wonderful mother and spent tons of time with her children, teaching us everything we needed to know, including values,’’ her daughter said. “She was also a super grandmother. She took our children all over the world traveling when they were teenagers.’’

In addition to her husband and daughter, Bette leaves three grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren.

A graveside service will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday in Newton Cemetery.

After selling the restaurant and the Rolls-Royce in 1980, Bette and her second husband traveled often, living for months at a time in places such as London and Paris. They crisscrossed Europe in a station wagon, and also visited Egypt, India, and countries in Asia.

Even in retirement, she kept a pace that would exhaust many.

“The most important thing in this life is to have a good time,’’ she told the Globe in 1975, while running the restaurant. “I have a great time. I’m up 20 hours a day. Who needs sleep? Sleep you’ll get plenty of in eternity.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.