Check it out! I couldn’t have put it better than E.A. Hanks in her piece in Time Magazine — Enough With the Kooky Ingenues — Bring Back the Dame!
Check it out! I couldn’t have put it better than E.A. Hanks in her piece in Time Magazine — Enough With the Kooky Ingenues — Bring Back the Dame!
“She was a winner, Who became a doggie’s dinner…” — Nick Lowe
Memorialized in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and in the eponymous pop song, Marie Prevost is best-known today as a overly-nasal actress who killed herself without anticipating that her pet dachshund would get hungry after days of not being fed.
It’s a memorable Hollywood fairytale, the falling movie star who killed herself in despair and ended up being consumed by her starving if reluctant pup. But is it true?
At the end of the 19th century, Mary Dunn was born in Canada and later moved to Hollywood with her family. As a young teen, the beautiful girl found success as a Sennett Bathing Beauty. (Other Sennett Bathing Beauties include Gloria Swanson, Mabel Normand, and Carole Lombard.) Mack Sennett changed her last name to the fancier, French-ier Prevost, and she went on to star in movies as an unflappable flapper and later a charming comedienne at Universal and Warner Bros. Her career spanned 21 years, during which she not only survived the transition to sound, but managed to make over 120 films!
Marie had the requisite bee-stung lips and perfect pouty insouciance to embody the 20s female ideal. She was featured on the first cover of The Flapper magazine, which asked readers:
“How do you like our girl on the cover? Some fascinating little minx, Marie Prevost, isn’t she? And who but she could assume such a fascinating pose?”
Prevost flappered it up in lots of films, occasionally scoring a juicy lead, as she did in an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned (1923) where she had sufficient chemistry with her leading man to merit their marrying Kenneth Harlan the next year. She made three films with Ernest Lubitsch where his infamous “Lubitsch touch” was in full-effect in mischievous movies like The Marriage Circle (1924), where Marie once again got to play an impish, slightly risqué jazz baby who turns out to be a “good girl” in the end. She made films with other famous directors as well, including Frank Capra, Mervyn LeRoy and Cecil B. DeMille.
But in 1926, while starring in one of her six films with the original movie star Harrison Ford (you didn’t know there were two, did ya?), Marie’s mother died in a car accident. It hit Prevost pretty hard, and that, coupled with her divorce from Harlan, sent Marie straight to the bottle – and the fridge.
Her drinking and eating made her put on the pounds, and roles became harder to get. Too curvy to represent slim, flat-chested flapperdom (a trope that was losing steam, and steaminess, anyway), she was now primarily playing “blowsy tough dames” or the wisecracking sidekick to stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. She tried all kinds of crash diets with hopes of getting back in the game. In a 1936 New York Times article, “Sometimes They Do Come Back”, Prevost ‘s slide is evident:
“In the studio restaurant at Warners there is an “Old-Timers Tables” that is reserved, in tacit arrangement, for the group of former stars who like to talk over together their halcyon days. A few weeks ago, Marie Prevost sat down at the table. The siren of Mack Sennett days had been successful with a reducing course and had got herself a job as a contract player…She was put to work almost immediately, in a small part in The Bengal Tiger…Miss Prevost is unbilled in The Bengal Tiger: She has only three lines to say, and those short ones.”
Prevost’s “reducing course” consisted of drinking and not eating. A star just a few years before, Marie was now an “old-timer” and a has-been who was subsisting almost solely on booze –and hope.
On January 23, 1937, neighbors in her rundown apartment building called police to complain about a dog ‘s non-stop barking. Inside, they found Marie dead. Initially diagnosed as having died of acute alcoholism, the major cause of death was actually severe malnutrition.
To get back into pictures once again, Marie had basically starved herself to death. She was only 38.
Though she ate one too many hot dogs, today it’s the appetite of a different kind of weiner dog that has put poor Marie into the Hollywood Hall of Infamy. Despite Nick Lowe and Hollywood Babylon, the truth is that her poor distressed pet was only trying to rouse his sleeping mistress. The police report clearly states that the dog “had chewed up her arms and legs in a futile attempt to awaken her.” In her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1937, the paper details the more poignant than putrid scene:
“Whining at the-bedside was her pet dachshund, Maxie, and teeth marks on the actress’ body indicated animal had tugged at his mistress in ant attempt to arouse her.”
In fact, one can plainly see from the photo in Anger’s book that Marie’s corpse is intact. (And as far as the accuracy of Nick Lowe’s song, he even misspells Marie’s name in title!)
Prevost died a pauper, with only $300 and a few IOUs made out to Joan Crawford, a pal from silent days who’d lent her some money. Marie was also remembered by other luminaries; stars attending her funeral included Barbara Stanwyck, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Clark Gable, and her old boss Mack Sennett, and her destitution prompted Hollywood to form the Motion Picture Relief Fund and the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital.
Marie was a lovely, talented woman who died not of despair but from the hope that fueled her starving for stardom. Her end is sad, not sickening, both for poor Marie — and poor Maxie.
Met Deb, 65-years-old and still getting all hot and bothered (but mostly hot) when she discovers a classic film she haven’t seen before. Like me, she grew up crazy about old movies; turns out we’d both sneak out of our bedrooms as children to go watch the “The Late Show” on an old black-and-white TV while everyone was asleep. And like me, Humphrey Bogart was her first crush, though unlike me, her first love was a dead ringer for Bogie. “When I hit Boston at the tender age of 18, and still ‘innocent,’” says Deb, “the man was a dead ringer for him. Over 20 years older, a real “tough guy”, right off the silver screen. He left me with my ‘innocence’ and the last words ‘Bye baby, I’d like to run into you in 10 years.’ My heart was broken.” Deb truly believes she’s been so influenced by these films that she “draws the people and situations into my life that mirror them” – and she “ wouldn’t have it any other way!”
Deb came upon The Lost Art of Being A Dame by chance, “always looking for another window into the fascinating and often overlooked ‘films of yesterday.”” Says Deb, “These films need to be recognized and preserved for their valuable contribution to film history …especially those DAMES!!”
Clearly Deb’s a dame with taste, passion and experience, so I invited her to pen a guest post about one of her all-time favorite dames. She chose Ava. (Do you really need a last name?) Here’s Deb’s tribute:
She was the sex symbol who dazzled all sex symbols. She was the temptress who drove Frank Sinatra to the brink of suicide and haunted him to the end of his life. Ernest Hemingway saved one of her kidney stones as a sacred memento and Howard Hughes begged her to marry him – but she knocked out his front teeth instead.” 1 WOW. I wish I had said that, and it was too great to leave out of my personal tribute to one of the real “dames” of all time, Ava Lavinia Gardner.
Born in poverty to a struggling family of tobacco farmers she rose in fame to become one of the most desirable women both onscreen and off. “ She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific!” 2 was Louis B. Mayer’s reaction after viewing her screen test (her heavy North Carolina drawl made it almost impossible for her to be understood). But from that screen test a star was born.
I wanted to be Ava from the time I was old enough to watch her films. I loved her voluptuous figure and her dark looks. Sadly, I was a flat-chested, washed out skinny kid with dirty blond hair and curses of all curses, blonde eyelashes to match. I remember wearing a very tight sweater to junior high school one day, forgetting to “stuff” my bra, with disastrous results: one side of me completely “caving in” when a classmate accidentally bumped me in the hallway.
I fell in love with Frank Sinatra too, whom Ava “stole” from his wife Nancy. (But let’s get real ladies and gents, no woman ever really “steals” a man — they go willingly.) I refused to wear shoes and took up walking barefoot most everywhere; I had heard Ava held the same preference. Humphrey Bogart, who starred with her in The Barefoot Contessa, once remarked that her character “Maria” was Ava in real life, rising to stardom yet in moments returning to her roots in rural life and “real” people.
She suffered so onscreen, as “Honey Bear Kelly” in Mogambo with Clark Gable; as Lady Brett Ashley in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; as Cynthia Green in another Hemingway story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro; and as Maxine in my personal all-time favorite, The Night of the Iguana.
At only 19 she married Mickey Rooney, later Artie Shaw in 1945, and finally Frankie in 1951. She never had children; she became pregnant twice during her marriage to Sinatra, but terminated both pregnancies. “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies” she was quoted as saying. Such was the brutality of the “studio system” of the day. (Dixie’s note: I’m not so sure that’s really why she terminated the pregnancies. Lots of MGM stars, like Lana Turner for example, had babies while under contract.)
In 1990, with her health failing from emphysema, Ava died in London at the age of 67.
It’s been years since I first adored her, but at 65 I still love her films. There is something immortal about her –her vulnerability always comes through, even in her “tough gal moments”. And that alone, in my eyes, makes for a REAL “dame”.
1. “Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing” by Lee Server @ www.amazon.com/Ava-Gardner-Love-is-Nothing
Thanks Deb! You’re a darn fine dame yo’self!
I always thought Teresa Wright was talented and sweet, but kind of an ineffectual limp noodle. She plays the good girl well, and I guess that was my problem. Sure, her screen characters had pluck, but pluck is an anemic version of the charming ballsy-ness of a Stanwyck or the fearless hijinks Irene Dunne . . . → Read More: I Was Totally Wrong About Teresa Wright!
The thing about hearts that love a lot, they just keep breaking. And this time it’s the ease and energy with which I love a lot of stuff a lot – weird, wonderful stuff – that’s doing me in.
The last vestige of the big weekend Manhattan Flea Market, known as ‘The Garage”, is . . . → Read More: Flea-Smitten
A LOT of people come to me looking for help finding a job. They either contact me with a hidden agenda of wanting me to give them a job (fat chance), tell them about some incredible job somewhere for which they’d be perfect (fairly chubby chance), or help them craft their resume, LinkedIn profile . . . → Read More: Best Job Hunting Advice You’ll Ever Get, Ever!
What would you do if you had to choose between becoming a famous movie star or traveling the world with the love of your life? When she was just 20 years old, Ann Dvorak made just that choice, and it changed the course of her life.
If you love classic movies — . . . → Read More: Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel (The Most Interesting Star You’ve Never Heard Of )
I learned about blow jobs from Charlie Chaplin. (Yes, that Charlie Chaplin.) I was about 12 and with my babysitting earnings I bought the book Hollywood Babylon. As a passionate old movie fan, and an adolescent girl with a filthy mind and an even filthier curiosity, a book like Hollywood Babylon was a dream . . . → Read More: Mary Astor and Her Dirty Diary
Like the more well-known Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace was one of the most popular ladies who sang the Blues — in an era and genre in which women routinely outsold their male counterparts. Her career spanned seven decades and had a significant impact on two distinct blues movements separated by half a century. She was also unique among the ladies who sang the blues as she wrote her own lyrics, giving a voice to the female experience in more ways than one. “There isn’t anything I sing about that hasn’t happened to me,” said Sippie, the author of such songs as “After I Was Loved My Eyes Flew Open Like an Electric Light”. Almost a century ago, Wallace sang about things that wouldn’t be discussed at American dinner tables until Monica Lewinsky hobbled on to the scene.
Most people I meet aren’t aware that things were not so prim and proper back in the day. Take just a couple of Blues songs, like Cleo Gibson’s “I’ve Got Ford Engine Movements in My Hips”; “I Let My Daddy Do THAT” by Hattie Hart; Margaret Carter’s understandable plea, “I Want Plenty Grease in My Frying Pan”; and Clara Smith’s lament, “Ain’t Got Nobody to Grind My Coffee”. (We’ve all been there.) Hell, as a teen back in the permissive 70s I was actually shocked when I heard Al Miller’s tragic tale of woe, “I Found Your Keyhole Baby (But My Key Just Won’t Go In)”. And when it comes to dames, they don’t get much dame-er – or game-er – than Sippie.
Beulah “Sippie” Thomas was one of 13 (yikes!) children, born November 1, 1898 in Plum Bayou, Arkansas – a place no doubt whose name sounds much more pleasantly pastoral than the reality. (Coincidentally, eighty-eight years later she died on November 1st as well.) Beulah got her nickname because she had almost no teeth until she was 3 and had to sip everything she ate. When she was still a child, the Thomases moved their weary loins and big brood to Houston where Sippie sang and played piano in the church where her father was deacon. But like many preachers’ children before them, in the evenings the children would sneak out to tent shows. By her mid-teens, Sippie and her brothers Hersal and George were playing and singing the Blues in tent shows throughout Texas
Sippie got herself a solid following, and in 1915 she and George moved to New Orleans. (By the way, what’s the most dangerous thing to be? One of Sippie’s brothers! Hersal died of food poisoning at the tender age of sixteen, while George would die after being hit by a streetcar.) Two years later the woman who penned the ditty “A Man for Every Day of the Week” got married to Matt Wallace.
While in New Orleans Mrs. Wallace met Jazz giants like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong ,who were friends of her brother George. Before long Sippie went on the road and was in great demand as “The Texas Nightingale” on the Theater Owners Booking Association black vaudeville circuit. (Its acronym, TOBA, had performers describing it as “Tough on Black Asses.”)
In 1923 she went to Chicago’s toddlin’ town and began performing in the cafes and cabarets. In 1923 she became an overnight success when she recorded her first record, “Up the Country”, which sold more than 100,000 copies in the first three months. Sippie went on to record over forty songs between 1923 -29. In addition to her great women-centric lyrics, her records featured her pals who just happened to be the era’s best jazz musicians; in addition to King and “Satchmo”, her sidemen included people like Clarence Williams, Johnny Dodds and Sidney Bechet.
The bona fide Blues star’s most popular recordings included “Special Delivery Blues” with Louis Armstrong, “Bedroom Blues” (written by George and Hersal Thomas), “I’m So Glad I’m a Brownskin”,“Mighty Tight Woman” and arguably her most famous tune, “Women Be Wise” – a warning about keeping your mouth shut when it comes to your man’s bedroom prowess.
Successful as she was, in 1929 Sippie moved to Detroit and left show business in the early 1930s when the Blues craze died down, as did several relatives. She got religion and stopped doing secular music, concentrating on church music. But thirty-some years later Sippie had her Fitzgerald-poo-pooed second act. She launched a comeback in 1966 with fellow Texan and longtime friend, Victoria Spivey. She followed up an album with Spivey with Sippie Wallace Sings the Blues and Women Be Wise.
But, just as things were looking up, Sippie suffered a massive stroke in 1969. “It was six months before she could walk or talk,” recalled her manager, “but the first thing she did was to play the piano.” This Blues badass was not about to let a little thing like that stop her. “If I was in the middle of dying,” said Wallace, “and someone said, ‘Sippie, sing me a song,’ I’d stop dying to sing that song.” She was still in a wheelchair in 1972 when popular singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt heard of her idol’s recovery and urged that she be invited to perform at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival.
After majoring in African studies at Radcliffe, Bonnie Raitt had become a fixture on the folk/blues scene in Cambridge coffeehouses. In 1968, an album in a London record store featuring a photo of Sippie caught Bonnie’s eye. “I saw the rhinestone glasses and the tiger-striped vest and said to myself, ‘This woman really knows how to dress.’” (I would have fallen in love with her in that outfit, too. I get girl crushy feelings just thinking about it.) The two women met and really hit it off, culminating in the trans-generational soul sisters’ duet on Sippie’s Women Be Wise. In 1971 Bonnie recorded her own rendition of “Women Be Wise” and Wallace toured and recorded with her throughout the 1970s and 1980s, while also performing on her own. Bonnie helped Sippie score a recording deal with Atlantic Records and recorded an eponymous album that featured Raitt and was nominated for a Grammy in 1983 and won a W.C. Handy Award for “Best Blues Album” in 1984.
Bonnie really related to her friend’s twin love of music…and men. “Sippie has always seen the struggle of the sexes with a sense of humor and compassion,” explained Bonnie. “She knows that freedom is the name of the game even though women have always had to answer to men.”
Sippie died on November 1st 1986, but her legacy lives on. Thanks to Ms. Wallace, millions of women like me know not to “Advertise our man” and are far better off for it. Continue reading Sippie Wallace: A Mighty Tight Woman
You never think it’ll be you.
After all, you seem sane (publicly). You think you’re pretty cool (privately). But then, one day you wake up and somehow, it’s happened. There’s no use denying it. You‘ve become crazy parrot lady. There’s no escaping the fact I’ve become one of those women you read about, . . . → Read More: Unplanned Parrothood
Carole Landis is known primarily as the bosomy blonde movie star who offed herself over Rex Harrison. Of all the schmucks who’ve driven ladies to leap, the idea of killing yourself over a tool like “Sexy Rexy” seems especially senseless. But in Hollywood’s Golden Years one of filmdom’s most glamorous and popular stars did indeed end her life over that Doolittle douche.
Today not many people have heard of Carole Landis, but her story is one of Hollywood’s most fascinating tales, with more twists and turns than her enviable curves.
Carole’s story begins in Midwestern Gothic luridness with a steady stream of heartbreaking details that make you periodically have to stop reading and go, “Seriously?!”, then sigh and warily dip in for more.
She was born Frances Ridste on New Year’s Day in 1919 in the aptly named burg of Fairchild, Wisconsin, to a farmer’s daughter and a “drifting railroad mechanic” who’d already abandoned the family before little Carole came along. (The “drifting railroad mechanic” wasn’t a stable family man? Quelle surprise!) Her mother was no saint either; Charles Fenner, her second husband, and the man with whom she’d been having an adulterous affair, was most likely Landis’s biological father. The youngest of five children, two of whom died in childhood, her early years were filled with poverty and sexual abuse.
Carole was such a beautiful infant she earned the nickname “Baby Doll”. According to family sources, she was sexually molested by a relative for much of her childhood. Given young Baby Doll’s shitty start in life, it’s no surprise that Carole 1) seemed much older than her years, and 2) was interested in being in show biz. Little Carole covered her walls with photos cut from magazines of movie stars like Mary Astor and Clark Gable. At age nine, little Carole ran up on stage during a local talent show and started to sing. Using make-up tricks to hide her age, she started entering beauty pageants at the tender age of twelve! (She won a pair of silk stockings and an electric heater. Who says beauty can’t buy you anything?)
In high school Landis often skipped class – “boy crazy ” was the general consensus. “I always seemed so much older than the other kids my age,” said Carole, “They seemed like tots.”
She was ahead of her classmates and ahead of her time. As a teenager she tried to form an all female football team at school, but the principal stopped her because it was “unladylike”. It’s not surprising that Carole dropped out of high school at 15 to get her whole show biz thing underway. She worked as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub, she sang with a dance band, and she worked at a hamburger stand, a department store, a movie theater. She dyed her hair blonde and changed her name to “Carole Landis” after her favorite actress, Carole Lombard. She eventually saved up $100 and hightailed it to Hollywood.
Her 1937 film debut was as an extra in the original film version of A Star Is Born. Next she found herself in various horse operas and an untold number of cheesecake photos. Eventually her cheesecakery paid off big; in 1940 studio head Hal Roach cast her as a scantily-clad cave girl in the original film version of One Million B.C.. Just as it would for Raquel Welch a quarter-century later, the movie made Landis a star. Soon, just as Clara Bow had been dubbed the “It Girl” and Ann Sheridan was crowned the “Oomph Girl”, publicists gave Carole the title the “Ping Girl.”
The Ping Girl moniker was attributed to a take-off on the popular motor oil ad at the time that claimed to take the ‘ping’ out of an engine and “make it purr”.
Some claimed it was a mash-up of PIN-up Girl. Some say it alludes to Carole’s erection-generating abilities, as in “I saw her and –ping!” Miss Hard-On of 1940 may have very well been aware of this etymology; once in an interview Landis said ‘ping’ was a term in Hollywood slang, but neglected to mention for what.
Most interesting to me about the whole “Ping Girl” thing was how brilliantly Carole (or possibly her PR folks) leveraged being against the sobriquet:
“I want a fair chance to prove myself something more than a curvaceous cutie. I want to get out of bathing suits and into something more substantial. Unfortunately the publicity department of my studio does not agree. They have conceived the brilliant idea of selling me to the public as ‘the Ping Girl’. This flash of genius is to be illustrated with a series of pictures out of their files, suggestive of anything but acting talent.”
Still, Landis was well aware that being pin-uppity had been her ticket to the big time:
“Leg art did the trick — naughty leg art, if you happen to look at it in that light. When the boys needed someone to pose in a skin-tight white bathing suit, go sleigh riding in shorts, or climb a ladder in a skirt, they’d yell, ‘Get Landis!’ That made everybody happy except, maybe, the goody-goods and the bluenoses, and I suspect they took a second peek now and then.”
Like a lot of women, Carole had a lot of ambivalence about using her assets to get ahead. She posed for cheesecake photos by the thousands, but then resented all the attention they garnered.
“Heaven knows I want people to think I have sex appeal. But I also want to think I have something besides sex appeal.”
God knows Carole was a smart cookie in every sense of the word. She loved to read, and was a fan of Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, and W. Somerset Maugham. (Hemingway gifted her with a set of personally autographed books.) But it was Landis’s more physical charms that got her places, both on and off-screen. She scored a contract with Twentieth-Century Fox, and was involved with studio head Darryl Zanuck, though it’s not entirely clear to me which came first, the chicken or the egg. She was in a series of successful films, playing second fiddle to Betty Grable in I Wake Up Screaming and Moon Over Miami. But she lost a pivotal role that ended up thrusting Rita Hayworth into stardom in the soapy bullfighter pic, Blood and Sand — very likely because she ended her affair with Zanuck. In fact, her ditching Darryl got her relegated to B pictures at the studio from then on. Continue reading The Scandalous Suicide of Hollywood’s Carole Landis