Welcome to Vintage Powder Room Cinema! This week’s feature is directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on the novel REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier. It is a wonderful mix of suspense and romance, and stars Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Enjoy the movie!
Maxim de Winter, who is in Monte Carlo to forget the drowning death of his wife Rebecca, meets the demure paid companion of matronly socialite Edythe Van Hopper and begins to court her. The girl falls in love with Maxim and happily accepts when he asks her to be his wife. The bride’s happiness comes to an abrupt end when Maxim takes her to his grand seaside estate, Manderley. There she is tormented by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who continually reminds the young bride of the great beauty and elegance of the first Mrs. de Winter and undermines her attempts to assert herself in the household. One night shortly after her arrival, a boat is wrecked off shore, and during the rescue attempt, another submerged boat is found in which the body of Rebecca is trapped.
You wouldn’t be surprised if a knock-out blonde with a gorgeous shape became a pin-up model. But what would you think if that same blonde also became a pin-up artist? You might think it’s impossible and that only a man would pursue a career as a pin-up artist; but you’d be wrong. There were a few female pin-up artists during the golden age of pin-up, and the most famous of them was Zoe Mozert. The stunning illustration used in the IRRESISTIBLE advertisement above is representative of Zoe’s work.
From my collection.
Zoe Mozert was born Alice Adelaide Moser on April 27, 1907 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Her father was a mechanical engineer who invented and patented a design for a cast-iron stove vent. Her father’s invention brought the family modest wealth, and as a result Zoe was able to attend a private boarding school in Virginia.
Following high school Zoe enrolled in the LaFrance Art School. One of her fellow students was John W. Scott. Scott would become a free-lance pulp artist. His work appeared on the covers of “Uncanny Tales”, “Western Story”, “Marvel Tales” and many others.
Zoe posing for Earl Moran
From 1925 to 1928 Mozert was enrolled in advanced classes at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. She paid for her tuition by modeling at the school, and she also modeled for her herself! Zoe would photograph herself or set up a mirror in order to capture her pose — she must have saved a fortune in modeling fees.
H.J. Ward cover
While in school Zoe met other artists who would become well known as pulp or pin-up artists. Among her contemporaries was H.J. Ward. Ward was in one of Zoe’s classes and she probably posed for some of his paintings during this period. Ward’s illustrations for magazines such as “Spicy Mystery” are classic. Unfortunately, Ward’s career was cut short by a cancerous tumor in his lung. He died at age 35 on February 7, 1945.
In 1932 Zoe moved to New York City to seek employment as a free-lance illustrator. Her first jobs were for “True Story” magazine. In 1933 she won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League, and by 1934 Mozert was hitting her stride. She created some exquisite covers for pulp magazines, and her work also began to appear on movie posters.
Because Zoe’s work was as glamorous as it was as sexy, it was perfect for ad campaigns for cosmetics (such as for IRRESISTIBLE) and for Hollywood films.
In 1937 she was hired by Paramount Pictures to create the poster for the Carole Lombard film, TRUE CONFESSION. I’ve never seen the film, but I find myself mesmerized by Fred MacMurray’s pimp-like moustache.
The most sensational movie poster of Zoe’s career was, without a doubt, the rendering she made of provocatively clad Jane Russell for the Howard Hughes feature THE OUTLAW.
Howard Hughes was an engineer, inventor, and a man obsessed with women’s breasts. He designed a cantilevered underwire brassiere to emphasize Jane Russell’s “girls”. The bra sounds like it would have been a nightmare to wear — Hughes added curved rods of structural steel which were sewn into the bra below each breast.
Structural steel may be perfect for bridges and skyscrapers, but I think that it would be less than ideal for undergarments, at least in terms of comfort. Just thinking about wearing a bra with steel rods in it makes me wince.
Russell later said that she never wore the bra, and that Hughes never noticed. I can’t believe that he ever took his eyes off of her chest, so maybe he thought that that the steel rods were invisible.
Hughes’ underwire invention wasn’t the only brassiere designed with full-figured Jane Russell in mind. Years later she’d pitch a support bra for Playtex – but it probably didn’t have any structural steel in it.
In 1941 Zoe signed an exclusive fifteen year contract as a top pin-up artist for the publishing company Brown & Bigelow. Brown & Bigelow had other talented pin-up artists under contract such as Rolf Armstrong, Gil Elvgren, and Earl Moran.
In 1945 Zoe Mozert moved to Hollywood where she worked as an art advisor and as an artist. Her original art, when it is available, is highly sought after. I found an original illustration on the internet for $6500.
Sadly, that’s more than I can afford so I’ll have to be content with searching auction sites, ephemera shows, and antique malls for magazine covers and calendars.
Mozert retired to Sedona, Arizona in 1978 where she continued to work as an artist. She passed away at age 85 in 1993.
I was recently interviewed by the mysterious, and stylish, FILM NOIR BLONDE for her blog. Over the course of the two part interview we talked about my collection of vintage cosmetics ephemera, as well as a runaway lipstick tube in the 1946 film noir THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Please visit FILM NOIR BLONDE she is, as she says, “Black & white and chic all over”!
Lipstick is a wonderfully versatile cosmetic. For many women it is the one beauty item they’d take with them if stranded on a desert island. I know that it would be my choice.
But, as we’ve seen over the past couple of posts, lipstick can be a trouble maker. It casts a spell on some men which lures them into liaisons with women other than their wives. It leaves tell-tale traces on clothing and skin, and lingers provocatively on cigarettes smoldering in an ashtray, or imprinted on a cocktail glass — so much power in such a little tube. Is it possible that lipstick may drive men’s passions with a force so great that it may culminate in murder?
Take the 1946 case of William Heirens. It was alleged that between June 1945 and January 1946 the 17 year old had murdered two women, and murdered and dismembered a little girl. At the scene of the second murder, that of Frances Brown a former U.S. Navy WAV, there was message from the killer scrawled in the victim’s lipstick.
The Chicago press dubbed the fiend “The Lipstick Killer”, and residents of the city spent several nerve jangling months until William Heirens was arrested and they breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But did Heirens commit the murders, or was the teenager coerced into confessing by hard nosed Chicago cops desperate to make an arrest?
Sixty-four years later Bill Heirens is still alive, and still in prison. At 81 years of age he is considered to be the longest serving prisoner in Illinois state history, and it seems that he may die there. Death in an Illinois prison would be justice if he is guilty, but if he is innocent…
There have been many other crimes in which lipstick was used to scrawl a message on a nearby surface, or even on the body of the victim. It doesn’t matter what words are used, or if the message consists only of cryptic symbols – there is something about the act of using lipstick that makes a compelling and strangely intimate statement.
My favorite lipstick as a portent of evil moment comes in a scene from the 1946 film noir “The Postman Always Rings Twice” . Frank (John Garfield) has just arrived at a small cafe. He’s a drifter and is considering responding to the “Man Wanted” sign outside when he’s greeted by the cafe’s owner, Nick (Cecil Kellaway), and urged to come in for a burger. Nick tosses a burger on the grill behind the counter, but is called away for a minute to pump gas at the station outside.
As Frank waits at the counter he hears something drop to the floor, and observes a tube of lipstick rolling toward him. As he stoops to pick it up he notices white open-toed pumps at the ends of two extremely shapely legs. The dame wearing the pumps is also wearing white shorts, a white cropped top, and is a blonde. The blonde is holding a compact and powdering her nose. Frank has just met Nick’s young wife Cora (Lana Turner). The tension between the two is palpable. Their eyes meet and they immediately engage in a power play. It’s obvious from Cora’s demeanor that she is a woman who is accustomed to getting the attention of men, and having them do her bidding. She waits for Frank to bring her lipstick to her, but he doesn’t budge. Which of them will acquiesce to the other?
As you’ve seen, Cora finally gives in. But that’s just in the short run – in the long run the breathtaking blonde convinces the drifter to commit murder. It is a perfect noir moment, made all the better in my book because a tube of lipstick is the catalyst.
A lipstick tube introduced Frank and Cora, and it comes full circle with Cora’s death – just as Cora is promising Frank that they’ll share many kisses that “come from life”.
Ladies, when you apply your lipstick the next time you may wish to pause and to reflect upon the power implicit in such a simple act.
I wish that this hair net package was in better shape, but they can’t all be perfect. I know that condition is crucial when you’re collecting, yet sometimes it doesn’t matter very much to me. I feel especially protective of the packages and boxes that are worn, and often the ones in rough and fragile condition are the only examples of certain designs that I’ve been able to locate. Regardless of their condition, I treat each addition to my collection as a treasured artifact from the past which deserves to be carefully and lovingly preserved.
The Hollywood Hair Net package is from the 1940s, and the bright red color, along with the four stars, brings to my mind Hollywood’s part in the war effort. The woman depicted on package looks like a starlet awaiting her big break, biding her time as a hostess in the Hollywood Canteen.
The stars would never shine as brightly as they did when they were doing their bit for servicemen, and women, from all over the globe. The Hollywood Canteen was the war time passion of Bette Davis, John Garfield, and Jules Stein. Miss Davis served as president, and Mr. Stein, President of Music Corporation of America, headed up the finance committee.
By the time the Canteen opened its doors On October 3, 1942, over 3000 stars, players, directors, producers, grips, dancers, musicians, singers, writers, technicians, wardrobe attendants, hair stylists, agents, stand-ins, publicists, secretaries, and allied craftsmen of radio and screen had registered as volunteers.
If you were a U.S. serviceman, or woman, or a member of the allied forces your uniform was your ticket to a star studded evening. Imagine the morale boost a solider would get when he was served coffee by Marlene Dietrich or Betty Grable!
Here is a photo of lipstick smeared Sgt. Carl E.W. Bell with Marlene Dietrich. Bell was the one millionth solider to visit the Canteen! It’s amazing that it took the Canteen less than one year to host one million servicemen. That’s a lot of coffee and donuts.
Servicemen could not only eat, socialize, and star gaze at the Canteen, they were treated to the best live entertainment that Hollywood had to offer. The roster of entertainers was a “who’s who” of radio and movie talent: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, and many more.
One of the most spirited sister acts ever to boogie woogie across a stage, and a favorite of war time audiences, was the Andrews sisters. Patty, Maxine, and LaVerne travelled and performed for the troops throughout the war. Watch them perform, “I’m Gettin’ Corns for My Country” at the Canteen. I would have loved to have been in the audience on that night.
Many of the hostesses at the Canteen loved to jitterbug, but not every one of them was hep to the jive. Sometime during the evening of October 31, 1942, an overly enthusiastic Marine grabbed the hand of a hostess lieutenant, Florida Edwards, and began to spin her around the dance floor. Florida yelled for help, but none was forthcoming. The jiving Marine spun his unwilling partner so hard that she became airborne and landed with a crash on her spine on the hard floor. Florida was laid up for a month, and then decided to sue the Canteen for $17,250 in damages. The case would become a battle of the swing experts.
But before we go any further, let’s get hep to some hipster slang from the era.
Hep cat (n.) — a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive
Icky (n.) — one who is not hip, a stupid person, can’t collar the jive.
Jitterbug (n.) — a swing fan
Florida Edwards admitted in open court that she was an icky. She told Judge Henry Willis that “Jitterbugging is a very peculiar dance. Personally I don’t like it. It reminds me of the jungle antics of natives. There is a basic step, and then there are variations. It’s the most ungraceful dance I’ve ever seen. They whirl you. They pick you up. They throw you down.”
“Did you just stand still when you told him you didn’t jitterbug?” queried the Canteen’s Attorney Walter Schell.
“Well, you don’t stand still with a jitterbug. They don’t let you,” explained Miss Edwards to the attorneys and judge who had never witnessed jitterbugging.
Judge Willis wanted to know if the jitterbugs drank. “No”, replied Florida, “They’re usually sober. They’re just crazy.”
In dispute was how much control a woman had once she had been thrown into a spin. Florida’s friend Luise Walker, floor manager of the Canteen, stated that once a woman was in a spin she was in trouble. Luise compared a spin to a boomerang or “English on a golf ball”.
Rug-cutter and jive expert for the Canteen, Connie Roberts, (see photo) refuted Luise’s testimony, and in a demonstration she walked away unharmed from a spin.
Testimony and jitterbug demonstrations notwithstanding, Judge Willis declared that the jitterbug was a “weird dance of obscure origins” and awarded Florida Edwards $8170 in damages. The amount wasn’t exactly chump change – $8170 dollars in 1943 had the same buying power as $102,331.38 in current dollars.
In his decision Judge Willis wrote, “In an extra violent spinning of her body as a part of the extravagance of this weird dance, she missed connecting with her partner, due to his losing balance because a table was pushed against him by the crowd on the sidelines.”
Judge Willis held that the Hollywood Canteen had failed in its duty to furnish Miss Edwards with safe employment and permitted a jitterbug enthusiast to “indulge in his ‘crazy idea’ of dancing with the plaintiff as the helpless victim.”
I was curious enough about Florida to see if she ever again appeared in the news.
Sure enough on January 27, 1944 a notice appeared in the Los Angeles Times announcing the marriage of Miss Florida Edwards, actress, to J.C. Lewis a radio producer and author of the musical score for the service show “Hey Rookie”.
The pair was married at the Hotel Frontier. In attendance at the wedding was the groom’s sister, Diana Lewis who was married to “Thin Man” William Powell.
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.
Holiday parties are just around the corner. If your face isn’t a perfect oval (few of us are so lucky) and you’re not sure how to identify the best hairstyle or makeup to enhance the shape of your face, watch and learn from this delightful tutorial from the 1940s.
This coming Saturday, November 14, 2009, it will once again be my pleasure to co-host Esotouric’s “The Real Black Dahlia” tour. The tour isn’t so much a “who done it” as it is an exploration of Beth’s last couple of weeks in Los Angeles.
My abiding interest in vintage cosmetics, social history, and crime led me to create a thumbnail sketch of Elizabeth Short’s personality based upon her choice of cosmetics. What was it about Beth’s make-up that set her apart from her contemporaries? Join us on Saturday and find out.
Beth Short's mugshot
Her make-up selections may have been unusual, but in many ways Beth Short was typical of a certain group of young women characterized as the “Children of the Night” by Caroline Walker in an interview she conducted with Lynn Martin (who had been one of Beth’s roommates in Hollywood). These young women floated from man to man, and occasionally from job to job (they weren’t often employed). They weren’t prostitutes, they were simply a part of the post-war generation who gravitated to Hollywood for reasons of their own. Maybe they believed what they’d seen in the movies, that Hollywood was glamorous place where a pretty girl could parlay her looks into riches and fame.
For the rootless young women in Beth’s set Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles were often desperately lonely places offering little more than dark barrooms in which to hang out and wait for a man to buy them a drink and dinner. Any of them could have ended as Beth did — dead and dismembered in a vacant lot in Leimert Park within view of the Hollywood sign.
Join us on the tour and learn more about the woman at the heart of Los Angeles’ most infamous unsolved murder.
In her false witness, we hope you’re still with us,
To see if they float or drown
Our favorite patient, a display of patience,
Disease-covered Puget Sound
She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars,
And leave a blanket of ash on the ground
I miss the comfort in being sad
— from “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” by Kurt Cobain
There’s something about the woman on this lipstick card that reminds me of the actress Frances Farmer. Maybe it’s the caption as much as it is the picture.
Frances Farmer was an absolutely gorgeous blonde who first hit the newspapers when, as a drama student at the University of Washington in Seattle in April 1935, she won first prize in a subscription contest sponsored by a local radical labor newspaper “The Voice of Action”. The prize for winning the contest was a six week trip via ocean liner to Soviet Russia to see a production at the Moscow Arts Theater. Frances’ mother Lillian wasn’t thrilled about the trip, and she told reporters “There has been no break between Frances and me over the trip. My fight is with the Voice of Action for sending her to Russia where she will be thrown in full contact with people who will probably make every effort to persuade her to Communism.”
Frances wasn’t necessarily persuaded to embrace Communism, but she became even more determined to pursue an acting career. She returned to the U.S. during the summer of 1935, and her first stop was New York where she sought to launch a career in the theater. What she found instead was a Paramount Pictures talent scout, Oscar Serlin (credited with discovering Fred MacMurray). Frances did so well in her screen test that she was signed to a seven year contract on her 22nd birthday, and she promptly moved to Hollywood.
While Frances had more than enough talent for Hollywood she never had the temperament. She was headstrong (as evidenced by her trip to Russia against her parents wishes), and she had very little tolerance for the studio system which was firmly in place during the 1930s. Under the studio system every aspect of an actor’s life was managed — not the kind of arrangement designed to bring out the best in Frances. She was quoted as saying “Hollywood is a madhouse. It consumes ambitious youngsters. There’s no time to consider anyone. Hollywood casts you, forces you, pushes you. If you survive you’re plain lucky.”
Very early on the studio machine began to spin the story of Frances’ trip to Russia into something less likely to draw negative attention to her, or her political leanings. Initial reports stated the truth, that Frances had won first prize in a subsciptions contest for Voice of Action — but immediately following her arrival in Hollywood the story was retold very creatively with Frances winning a trip to Europe as the first prize in a popularity contest!
Paramount didn’t realize that they had a tiger by the tail. Frances arrived in Hollywood in September 1935, and by February 1936 she’d eloped to Yuma, Arizona with fellow actor William Wycliffe Anderson (aka Leif Erickson). Friends said they were surprised by the elopement and Frances’ mother Lillian said she was “completely floored”.
Clifford Odets c. 1937
In 1937 Frances left her husband at home and went off to Connecticut to work in summer stock. There she was invited to appear in Clifford Odets’ play “Golden Boy”. As were many people in the 1930s, Odets was a Marxist and his work reflected his politics. Ironically, when called before the House on Un-American Activities in 1952, Odets avoided being blacklisted by disavowing his past Communist affiliations and naming names.
Clifford and Frances had an affair while she was in New York; however, he was married to Acadamey Award winning actress Luise Ranier and he refused to leave her. Frances and Luise had more in common than Odets — both were creative, stubborn, and each was often characterized as “temperamental” by studios that were in the business of trying to crank out hits (particularly during the years of the Depression) and were not so much interested in whether a story had artistic merit.
After her affair with Odets soured Frances returned to her husband, Leif, in Los Angeles. The marriage began to crumble and talk of a divorce turned up in a few gossip columns by November 1939. In fact over the next couple of years the two were referred to in the newspapers as “ex” so often that I assumed they were divorced. Then I came across an item from the Los Angeles Times dated June 10, 1942 that stated that Erickson had just filed divorce papers in Reno so that he could marry actress Margaret Hayes.
Hotel Knickerbocker c. 1930s
Frances had spent the late 1930s and early 1940s earning a reputation for being difficult, primarily due to alcoholism. In mid-October 1942 Frances was arrested in Santa Monica for driving while intoxicated and for having bright headlights in a dimout area. She was fined $250, of which she paid a portion. She was given additional time to pay the balance. When she missed the deadline for payment a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. The actress was finally located at the Hollywood Knickerbocker where the arresting officers had to use a pass key to gain entrance to her room. Frances wouldn’t leave without a fight and she had to be forcibly dressed and dragged out of the building. All the while she was shouting “Have you ever had a broken heart?”
Frances would first be diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis, and soon thereafter with paranoid schizophrenia for which she would receive insulin shock therapy (later discredited as a treatment method).
Over the next several years Frances would spend much of her time as a patient at the Western State Hospital in Washington. Frances’ autobiography “Will There Really Be A Morning?” describes her incarceration at the hospital as a brutal nightmare. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Kill Bill” the bride (Uma Thurman) awakens from a coma in a hospital to discover that a sleazy orderly has been pimping her out. Similar outrages were alleged in Frances’ autobiography (which was probably entirely ghostwritten by a friend of hers). In the book it is said that she was a sex slave for some of the doctors and male orderlies. This unsubstantiated treatment of Frances was depicted in the 1982 film “Frances” starring Jessica Lange.
In 1978 Seattle film critic William Arnold published a fictionalized, and highly sensationalized, account of Frances’ life entitled “Shadowland”. The most salacious details of Frances’ life (many of which have been accepted as fact) seem to emanate from that book.
Frances at Television City c. 1958
One of the most horrendous “facts” of Frances’ life at Western State Hospital was that she’d had a lobotomy. Transorbital lobotomies were performed at the hospital during Frances’ time there; however, there is no record that she was ever subjected to the procedure.
Frances did make a comeback of sorts as the host of a local talk show that aired in Indianapolis from 1958 to 1964. The show “Frances Farmer Presents” remained in the number one position for its time slot during the entire run.
Frances Farmer died at age 56 of esophageal cancer in 1970.
I don’t normally write about perfume, even though I love it, because I don’t collect it. But this past August I had an occasion to discuss perfume and burlesque with a wonderful woman who knows a great deal about both. The woman I’m talking about is none other than legendary burlesque queen, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland. I met her because she was a special guest on Esotouric’s “Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice” tour.
She began her professional dancing career as a Minsky’s girl in New York city; and she may have stayed there if it hadn’t been for a crackdown on the burlesque houses beginning in 1935. The citizenry and, perhaps even more importantly, Mayor LaGuardia, considered burlesque a corrupt moral influence. The mayor and the citizens groups couldn’t shut Minksy’s down without a good reason — there would need to be a criminal charge against Abe Minsky. At last, in 1937, a dancer at Minsky’s was busted for working without her G-string and the law stepped in. New licensing regulations would allow the burlesque houses in New York to stay open, provided that they didn’t employ strippers! Not surprisingly, that bit of legalese put a bullet through the heart of burlesque in the city.
Betty and her troupe of dancers headed west to begin a limited engagement at the Follies Theater on Main Street in Los Angeles. It may have started as a limited engagement but Los Angeles audiences loved Betty and she would continue to dance at the Follies for about 15 years.
Before she was dubbed the “Ball of Fire”, Betty was known as the “littlest burlesque star”. That appellation may have described her stature (she is very petite), but “Ball of Fire” captured her spirit. Is she still a ball of fire? You bet!
Because I had an opportunity to chat with her, I decided that rather than ask her to reminisce about celebrities she’d known, or places she’d worked, I’d ask her if she’d had a signature scent, particularly something she’d worn when she performed. She seemed a little surprised by the question, saying she’d never been asked that before, but she responded instantly. Her favorite fragrance had been Coty’s L’Aimant; and it was part of her act! She told me that before she appeared on stage she’d spray a liberal amount of the cologne all over herself so that when she “worked the curtain” the scent would waft over the first few rows.
I told her that I thought it was absolutely brilliant of her to have conceived of using a fragrance in such a creative way. There has been an enormous amount of scientific research done on olfactory memory; but you don’t have to be a scientist to know that certain aromas trigger powerful personal memories. I cannot smell leaves burning without recalling my midwestern childhood.
As far as I was concerned, autumn had officially arrived when leaves, raked into neat piles, were burned in nearly every yard in my neighborhood.
I’ll bet that there were men who saw Betty perform who subsequently carried with them forever the memory of her perfume. I wonder how many wives and girlfriends received gifts of L’Aimant from those men over the years; and I also wonder if the men knew why they’d selected that particular perfume at a counter crowded with choices.
Betty lamented that Coty had long ago discontinued her favorite scent — but if you know where to look you can still find a vintage formulation of the famous floral. I’ve ordered a bottle for Betty, and I hope it prompts her to relive some of her most precious memories.
If you’re interested in seeing one of Betty’s performances, all you need to do is to go to YouTube. I’ve also written a little different story about Betty for In SRO Land.