Before her face appeared on this beauty ad, Betty Burgess was a screen actress hoping for fame
One of my favorite events is the Vintage Fashion Expo which is held a few times annually and alternates between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’ve been to both venues in search of vintage treasures, but it was in L.A. that I found this Hollywood Curler card (c. 1935). After some haggling, I paid five dollars apiece for two of them.
The image of an actress, Betty Burgess, appears on both cards, so naturally I wondered who she was. She was gorgeous enough to have been a leading lady, yet I’d never heard of her. I concluded that she had never “made it big.”
During the Great Depression films often featured a young woman with no place to sleep, nothing to eat, and only pennies in her handbag. Ah, but the girl always had a dream that shone as brightly as a theater marquee, and in the movies those dreams invariably came true.
In the 1937 drama A Star Is Born, for example, Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), a North Dakota farm girl, leaves home after seeing a movie at the local Bijou featuring her screen idol, Norman Maine (Fredric March). Painfully naive, as only a small town girl in a 1930s film could be, Esther hops a train to Hollywood where she meets her screen idol and, yes, realizes her dream of stardom.
The career of real life starlet Betty Burgess took a different path. I discovered that unlike Esther, Betty didn’t have to hop a train or board a bus to get to Hollywood. She was born in Los Angeles on February 15, 1917. Also unlike Esther, Betty’s break didn’t come through a meeting with one of her idols—she was discovered by a talent agent who was scouting local acting schools for potential clients. In 1935, after beating out forty other actresses, she won the lead role in the musical Coronado.
Betty’s performance was positively reviewed and I imagine it was because of that success that her photo turned up on my Hollywood Curler cards. Betty didn’t become a household name though; she only acted in a handful of films between 1935 and 1939, then her career abruptly ended.
Betty was talented, so I believe that she voluntarily abandoned her acting career to pursue something, or someone, she wanted more than fame. Her image on the Hollywood Curler cards reminds me that life evolves, and so should one’s dreams.
I paid $8 for this pack of Sta-Rite hair pins at a vintage textile show (cosmetics items pop up in all sorts of places) and it obvious to me from the women’s hairdos that the card dates from the 1940s.
I have dozens of items from the ‘40s in my collection because I am fascinated by the ways in which patriotism was used to market cosmetics to women during WWII. American pride was often denoted by red, white, and blue packaging as well as in advertisements which depicted women engaged in war work, or as pin-up girls awaiting husbands or lovers off fighting for our country. These ads make it clear that the women shown look as beautiful as they do thanks to a certain face powder or lipstick (which came in a wood or paper tube because metal was required for the war effort). Patriotic beauty didn’t stop at the hairline, either; each of the women on the Sta-Rite card is wearing her hair in a Victory Roll. If you’re a vintage fashion maven you’re probably already familiar with the style but, if not, a Victory Roll was one of the most popular ‘dos of the WWII era.
Magazines and newspapers all over the country provided women with directions for creating Victory Rolls; in fact, in 1944, the Los Angeles Times featured an article on “Factory Glamour” with these styling tips: “Part hair in center…roll it up on the sides, higher near the crown, tapering to the back of the neck. From the rear you show – a V for Victory!”
When I see the two young women on the Sta-Rite hair pin card I reflect on the meaning of patriotism. Victory Rolls may seem like a superficial way to show support today; but I have always been impressed by the eagerness of women during the 1940s to embrace styles that reflected their commitment to something greater than themselves. I don’t think that selflessness ever goes out of style.
Look at those Victory Rolls! If there was a third woman on the hairpin card they could be the Andrew Sisters.
LaVerne, Maxene, and Patty began performing when they where kids and they won first prize at a talent contest at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis.
The sisters got their professional start touring with Larry Rich and his 55 member troupe. They quit the troupe in 1932 and began touring on their own. They performed at fairs, vaudeville shows, clubs and they would often rehearse in the back of their father’s Buick while on their way to the next gig.
The sisters lived on the road for six years before their first major success with “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” (“To Me You Are Beautiful”) which charted at the top of the U.S. Billboard for five weeks. The Andrew Sisters had become celebrities. Their backseat rehearsals had paid off.
The 1940s brought enormous sucess to the Andrew Sisters. They appeared on the radio, in 17 Hollywood films, and earned $20,000 a week! That is $328,000 in current USD — not exactly chump change. But the sisters weren’t just about the money, they were patriots and participated whenever they could in wartime entertainment. In June 1945 they were a featured act in an eight week USO tour and performed for thousands of servicemen.
As harmonious as they were on stage, sadly the sisters were occasionally in conflict with one another. They broke up for the first time in 1951 because Patty had joined a different group, with her husband as her agent. It may not have been such a big deal if Maxene and LaVerne hadn’t first learned of Patty’s defection in a newspaper gossip column.
In 1954, Patty decided to pursue a solo career. She was good, but she couldn’t duplicate the success she’d had as a part of the sister act. Maxene and LaVerne formed a duo and were well received, but the truth is that the 1950s were shaping up to be a much different decade than the 1940s had been.
Rock ‘n Roll was gaining in popularity and the audience for music was changing. A show called BANDSTAND premiered locally in September 1952 on a Philadelphia television station. The sisters couldn’t compete with newcomers like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
LaVerne (the eldest of the trio) died of cancer in 1967. It was LaVerne who had founded the original group and she was frequently the peacemaker when there was a falling out. Maxene and Patty performed together for another year before Maxene announced she would become the Dean of Women at Tahoe Paradise College. Patty was again a soloist.
When Bette Midler had a hit in 1972 with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, Maxene and Patty made something of a comeback.
Maxene and Patty had their last hurrah with the 1971 reveue “Victory Canteen”, but when Patty’s husband brought a lawsuit against the show’s producers an extensively scheduled road tour, which included the sisters, was quashed.
Patty and Maxene reunited on October 1, 1987 when they received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame; but the reunion was short-lived. The sisters would never again be close.
Maxene died of a heart attack on October 21, 1995, and Patty died today, January 30, 2013, at age 94.
I had no idea when I began this post that Patty had just died. I find that a bit unsettling.
When I’m looking through my collection trying to decide on a subject for a post, I rely on free association. According to Wikipedia free association is defined as:
“The method of free association has no linear or preplanned agenda, but works by intuitive leaps and linkages which may lead to new personal insights and meanings. “
When I picked up the Flamingo hair pin card a few days ago and flipped it over, I saw that it was dated 1947. The first leap in my free association was to the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, which I’d thought had opened in 1947 (actually it opened in December 1946). The next few associations I made were easy and seemed to me to be a natural progression: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel who was responsible for building the Flamingo Hotel (and was murdered in June 1947), Virginia Hill (Siegel’s mistress, nicknamed “Flamingo”), and last I thought of Elizabeth Short (aka the “Black Dahlia”) who was found murdered in Leimert Park in January 1947.
Someone else may have thought of the lovely pink birds, but that’s just not how my mind works!
Virginia Hill was a stunner. Red haired, vivacious and headstrong, she was bound to get attention from men. She was born in Alabama in 1916, and as a teenager she went to Chicago; however, it’s not clear if she went there to ply her trade as a prostitute at the 1933 World’s Fair, or work there as a dancer. In any case it was only a matter of time before she’d come to the attention of rich and powerful men looking for a little arm candy. In Chicago in 1933 the rich and powerful men were primarily mobsters, or politicians. She met Joseph Epstein, an associate of Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik (member of the Capone gang), and then she moved up through the mob hierarchy subsequently becoming mistress to Frank Costello, Frank Nitti, Charles Fischetti, and Joe Adonis.
Virginia testifying at Kefauver hearings.
“She was smart and she knew how to keep her mouth shut,” said Bea Sedway, the wife of mobster Moe Sedway. Eventually Virginia’s smarts, and her tight lips, led her to become a courier for the mob. She’d deliver funds all over the country, and even make occasional trips to Switzerland with bags of cash for deposit in numbered bank accounts.
By 1940 Virginia had moved to Los Angeles where she met and fell for married wise guy Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. He would give her the nickname, “Flamingo”. The relationship between the mobster and his mistress was volatile and their fights were legendary. But they did make a handsome couple – the gorgeous red head and the mobster with the movie star looks.
Ben had met his match in Virginia. She couldn’t stop his womanizing, but she knew how to hold his attention in a way that his other lovers did not. In a situation that could have come out of a Noel Coward comedy, Siegel once had three of his mistresses lodged simultaneously at the Flamingo Hotel: Virginia Hill, Wendy Barrie, and Countess DiFrasso. Virginia couldn’t abide the Countess and when she discovered that the woman was staying at the hotel she confronted her, and nearly broke her jaw. Virginia was definitely a tough broad. But then living and consorting with mobsters wouldn’t have appealed to a dame with a weaker constitution.
When Siegel became involved in building the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas it soon became clear that he wasn’t much of a businessman. Cost overruns were adding up at a reckless pace. The local contractors were robbing Ben, literally! They’d heist materials from the job site, and then re-sell them to Siegel at an enormous profit. While the contractors were stealing from Ben, Ben was stealing from the mob.
The Flamingo opened in December 1946. The weather was horrendous, and the hotel wasn’t even finished, so crowds of celebrities weren’t beating down the doors to get in. The big opening night was a total bust. Nursing a wounded ego, and fearing that the mob’s multi-million dollar investment in the hotel wouldn’t show a profit, Ben scurried off to Beverly Hills where he holed up in the house that Virginia rented there on 810 N. Linden Drive.
On the night of June 20, 1947 Ben would pay the price for his mismanagement of the Flamingo Hotel deal with his life. As Siegel sat with his associate Allen Smiley in Virginia’s Beverly Hills home reading the Los Angeles Times, an unknown assailant fired at him through the window with a .30-caliber military M1 carbine. He was hit several times – twice in the head. No one was charged with the murder, and the crime remains officially unsolved.
Virginia was in Paris when she received the news of Ben’s death. It’s said that she fainted dead away. There would always be speculation about Virginia’s possible role in Ben’s assassination. But it’s highly unlikely that Virginia would have been tipped off about the plan to rub out Siegel, and even more doubtful that she’d have left one of her brothers in his company with the knowledge that a stray bullet could make him collateral damage.
The truth is that she and Ben had had an argument, and she stormed out in a huff and left for Paris. Any knowledge that Virginia may have had about the killing went with her to her grave. She’d been a mob gal for way too long not to understand that her best chance for survival was to keep quiet. In fact right after Ben’s murder she was denying everything, including being his lover: “If anyone or anything was his mistress, it was that Las Vegas hotel. I never knew Ben was involved in all that gang stuff. I can’t imagine who shot him or why,” she reportedly told the police.
In 1950, Virginia would take center stage at the Kefauver hearings. Senator Estes Kefauver headed a senate committee that was investigating organized crime. The hearings were even televised; introducing Mr. and Mrs. America for the first time to the Mafia. The televised hearings were compelling, but it was Virginia’s comments in the private sessions that would raise eyebrows.
She’d spent most of her time during the public hearings denying knowledge of, or involvement in, the rackets. But privately she was much more candid. She admitted to never having worked, and told the commission that she was able to survive on the generous gifts that were given to her by some of her admirers. Time magazine reported in its obituary of Hill on 1 April 1966, that Hill spent her time on the witness stand “boggling Senators with her full-grown curves and succinct explanation of just why men would lavish money on a hospitable girl from Bessemer, Alabama”.
What WAS her explanation for the gifts and money she received from mob big shots? According to Virginia it was her unparalleled skill at giving oral sex! Although I suspect Virginia would have phrased her explanation a little differently.
Virginia would eventually settle in Europe with her third husband, a former Sun Valley ski instructor, Hans Hauser. She was trying to avoid the IRS, and probably some of her former mob acquaintances.
By 1966 Virginia was broke, and it may have begun to occur to her to tell her story in a book or film. In 1962 retired mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano had reportedly considered a film deal and was supposed to meet with a producer at the airport in Naples, Italy; however, his famous luck ran out before the deal could be made. He died of a heart attack at the airport on January 26, 1962.
Maybe a visit she’d had from her former lover, Joe Adonis, days before her death was a meant to be a reminder that people don’t tell tales about the Mafia and live. Maybe their meeting was just the two ex-lovers chatting about old times. We’ll never know.
In March 1966, Virginia Hill’s body was found in a snow drift in Koppl, Austria. She’d allegedly taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
Oh, and before I forget – the last leap in my free association exercise led me to Elizabeth Short (aka the “Black Dahlia”). Her bisected body was discovered in a vacant lot in Leimert Park on January 15, 1947. Beth Short’s murder is arguably the most famous in Los Angeles’ history, and remains unsolved.
The reason I thought of Beth is simple, the 63rdanniversary of her murder is fast approaching; and as a tour guide for Esotouric, I’ll be a part of the “Real Black Dahlia” tour this coming Saturday, January 9th. I’ll be reading from some of the letters that Beth carried in her suitcase, as well as giving a thumbnail personality sketch of her that I’ve developed based upon her choice of make-up. For tour information visit Esotouric.com.
Doesn’t the woman on the Sta-Rite hair pin card resemble the sophisticated movie stars of the 1930s?
Some of the most stunning cosmetics packaging was designed and manufactured during the 1930s. In 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression, one in four people were out of work. Many others would be thrown off of their farms and out of their homes. With so much day to day uncertainty and hardship people took pleasure in small things.
Bullocks Wilshire, Los Angeles
Imagine that you’re a shop girl at the Bullock’s department store in Los Angeles during the 1930s. The clientele would have been upscale, and after a full day of waiting on them your feet would be aching and your spirits might be low — yet with only a few pennies in your handbag, you could go to your local dime store and pick up something beautiful. With a card of the Sta-Rite hair pins you could go home and experiment with a new hair style – perhaps something with a few wicked little pin curls on your forehead.
The Sta-Rite card is an excellent example of some of the best cosmetics/beauty advertising produced during the 1930s. The colors are deep and lush, and the woman is supremely stylish, all angles and shadows, with just a hint of a smile playing across her lips. In fact, the woman on the card is evocative of the portrait of Joan Crawford by George Hurrell. I wonder if Joan used Sta-Rite pins to get “…the tiny ringlets and curls that fashion demands”.
Norma Shearer in a sultry pose
During the late 1920s Hurrell was introduced to silent film star Ramon Navarro by aviatrix Pancho Barnes. Navarro was impressed by the photos taken of him and recommended Hurrell to the actress Norma Shearer. Norma was married to MGM producer Irving Thalberg and was trying to convince him to cast her in the starring role in the film “The Divorcee“. Norma’s career had been built on playing the girl next door, and she was seeking sexier, more complex roles. Irving Thalberg was knocked out by Hurrell’s photos of Norma. The photos were so alluring – she smoldered – that she won the part she wanted. She also won an Academy Award TM!
Norma would go on to appear in many successful pre-code films for MGM such as: Let Us Be Gay (1930), Strangers May Kiss (1931), A Free Soul (1931), Private Lives(1931) and Riptide (1934); and Norma and Joan would be bitter rivals in the 1939 film The Women.
Joan Crawford wearing the Letty Lynton dress
Joan Crawford’s career would have an astonishing upward trajectory for decades. Hurrell’s photograph of Joan for the 1932 film Letty Lynton made the dress she wore so popular that it was reported that between authorized copies and knock-offs over one million of the dresses sold world wide!
Despite the furor over the glorious organdy dress (designed by Adrian), the film would be pulled from distribution due to a lawsuit over copyright infringement. Unfortunately, Letty Lynton remains unavailable to this day [although a fuzzy copy in multiple parts appears on YouTube.]**
I’ll bet that the Sta-Rite woman would have wholeheartedly approved of the careers of Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer – both of whom were glamorous, sexy, and sophisticated.
**NOTE: Updated info as of August 10, 2010. The Letty Lynton video that was available on YouTube when this was first posted has been pulled by the studio. There are undoubtedly still bootlegged copies in private collections.