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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

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

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

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.

Scent, Memory, and Burlesque Queens

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.

Beth Short

Beth Short

Beth Short (aka “The Black Dahlia”) would have been 85 years old today.

It’s difficult for me to imagine her as anything other than a lonely, melancholy, enigma of a girl trying to navigate the frequently treacherous streets of postwar Los Angeles searching for someone to take care of her. Someone to love. During the late 1940s there were countless numbers of girls like Beth who were trying to find their way to different dreams: Hollywood stardom for some, and for others a cottage with a white picket fence, a loving husband and beautiful children.

If anything, the mystery of her murder has deepened since January 15, 1947 when her body was discovered on a vacant lot in Leimert Park. Her killer has never been positively identified.  There have always been theories, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. The truth is that we’ll never really know for certain who murdered her. But if we can’t bring her killer to justice, maybe the best we can do is to learn something of Beth’s life and by so doing, we can honor her memory.

Beth at Camp Cooke

Beth at Camp Cooke

Beth was one of thousands of young women who had flocked to Los Angeles during, and immediately following, WWII. There were good times to be had drinking and dancing with soliders, sailors and, Beth’s favorite, pilots. But the city was also a dark and dangerous place to be. Many of the former soliders returned to civilian life with demons that could not be vanquished with a bottle of beer or a spin on the dance floor with a lovely girl.

Because of my passion for vintage cosmetics and historic crime, I became interested in Beth’s makeup after reading comments made about her by one of her former roommates, Linda Rohr. Linda was 22 years old, and worked in the Rouge Room at Max Factor in Hollywood. When she was asked about Beth, Linda had said: “She had pretty blue eyes but sometimes I think she overdid with make-up an inch thick.”  Linda went on to say that the effect of Beth’s makeup was startling, that she resembled a Geisha.

Makeup in the 1940s emphasized a natural look, and it seemed from Linda’s statement that Beth was applying her makeup contrary to the latest trends — something that women in their 20s seldom did. I began to wonder; what was Beth hiding? She wasn’t concealing a physical defect, she had lovely skin and as Linda had noted, pretty blue eyes. It struck me that Beth was subconciously using makeup as a mask — a way to keep the world at arm’s length and to become the character she needed to be in order to go out and hustle for drinks, dinner, or a place to stay.

For more information and insights into Beth’s last couple of weeks in Los Angeles, including the REAL last place that she was seen alive (no, NOT the Biltmore Hotel) join me on Esotouric’s The Real Black Dahlia tour this Saturday, August 1, 2009. Kim Cooper will tell you about the news coverage of the case, especially as reported by legendary newswoman, Aggie Underwood. Richard Schave will have tales to tell, and I’ll expand upon my personality sketch of Beth. Our special guest, Marcie Morgan-Gilbert, will treat tour goers to a look at fashion from 1940s.

Esotouric is the Los Angeles based, family run, tour company that was founded by the husband and wife team Kim Cooper and Richard Schave.


The roles that women played during World War II were as complex and contradictory as at any time in history. On the home front they were wives, mothers, sweethearts, factory workers, and taxi drivers.  War time propaganda encouraged women to keep the home fires burning, while simultaneously raising children and driving rivets into the hull of a destroyer or the fuselage of a bomber.


I have noticed that one phrase appeared consistently in wartime articles on make-up and fashion, and that was “morale is woman’s business”. It was made clear that in addition to any other responsibilities she may have had, it was a woman’s patriotic duty to look her best at all times. The business of morale was taken seriously, and countless articles were written to advise women on how to be competent, effective war workers, and yet remain attractive and cheerful companions.


While the women of the home front were keeping things on track, servicemen needed to be reminded why they were fighting, and what they were fighting for; and nothing sent a clearer message than a gorgeous pin-up picture.  Hollywood stars Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell and Betty Grable were the three most popular pin-up girls of the era, and their photos accompanied soldiers in their footlockers around the world. Five million copies of Rita Hayworth’s picture were sold; that number exceeded only by Betty Grable’s iconic photo.


Photos from home were crucial to a fighting man’s morale, but sometimes a candid snapshot wasn’t good enough. I found an article in the Los Angeles Times from October 1943 entitled “Send Him Your Picture”. The article described in detail how to apply make-up for a professional portrait, and it also provided tips on what to wear and whether or not to apply whitener to your teeth. This all speaks to the significance of the pin-up photo during the war. The pin-ups weren’t merely masturbatory tools for lonely troops, but they were a necessary, if idealized, connection to home.


 Not surprisingly, the focus of home front culture was on victory. There were victory gardens, victory pins (to wear on your sweater or jacket), and there was victory lipstick.  Victory lipstick came in tubes made of paper, plastic, or wood because metal was required for the war effort.


Jergens wasn’t alone in using patriotic themes in their advertising, but they put an imaginative spin on it when they hired world class pin-up artist Alberto Vargas to create both a package design and an ad that urged women to “be his pin-up girl”. And of course it was Vargas, among other pin-up artists, who inspired some truly glorious nose art (art that graced the fuselage of many of the aircraft during the war).


It’s plain to see that Jergens grasped the relationship between pin-up art and the woman’s business of morale and used it masterfully to their advantage.


The pin-up girl ad campaign appears to have run during 1944, and the face powder box with the Vargas art turns up in ads for about a year following the end of the war in 1945.

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