sally_hairnet_final

I’m always curious about the back story, if any, behind a product’s name.  It makes good marketing sense for most product names to reflect either a tangible attribute of the product being marketed, or to evoke a desirable emotion for the end user.  Cute little puppies make us feel warm and fuzzy about a product. In the case of the SALLY hair net I found that there was an extremely popular musical of the same name playing at the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway in New York in 1920 – which corresponds to the date of manufacture of the hair net.Sally1929_poster

SALLY opened on December 21, 1920 at the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway and ran for an incredible 570 performances!  By the time that the show closed in the mid-1920s, it would be among the top five money makers of the decade.

I can easily imagine women making a connection between the hair net and the hit musical.  SALLY boasted music by Jerome Kern, and lyrics by Clifford Grey.  It was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, and starred Marilyn Miller.  

marilymiller_youngMarilyn Miller was an enormously popular stage and screen actress, and while she often played in rags to riches stories which end happily, her own life was marred by tragedy.  By the 1930s Marilyn had become increasingly dependent upon alcohol, possibly to relieve some of the discomfort of the frequent sinus infections from which she suffered.  

Marilyn checked herself into a New York hospital in March 1936 to recover from a nervous breakdown.  While there she underwent surgery on her nasal passages.  She succumbed to complications from the surgery on April 26, 1936 – she was only 37 years old.

There are a couple of interesting footnotes to Marilyn Miller’s story.  Census records reveal about half a dozen “Marilyns” in the United States in 1900; by the 1930s, following Miller’s stardom, it was the 16th most common first name among American females!

Marilyn-Monroe-and-Arthur-Miller-1956In the late 1940s, Norma Jean Baker changed her name to Marilyn Monroe at the urging of Ben Lyon, a one-time actor turned casting director at 20th Century Fox, who said she reminded him of Marilyn Miller.

And in an ironic twist, Marilyn Monroe would herself become Marilyn Miller when she wed the playwright Arthur Miller in 1956.

Another inspirational SALLY, whose name may have drawn women to the hair net package, was WAMPAS Baby Star, burlesque queen and fan dancer extraordinaire, Sally Rand.

What was WAMPAS?  It was a promotional campaign sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers which honored thirteen young women each year whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. They were selected from 1922 to 1934, and annual awardees were honored at a party called the “WAMPAS Frolic”. Those selected were given extensive media coverage.

 wampas 1927 headline

Sally Rand was one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1927and her stage name, like Marilyn Monroe’s, was chosen for her by someone else.  In Rand’s case the name was bestowed upon her by Cecil B. DeMille who was inspired by a Rand McNally atlas.

rand_paramountclub
 

After the introduction of sound film Rand became a dancer, and she was best known for the fan dance which she popularized starting at the Paramount Club.

bolero_poster

Her most famous appearance was at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair entitled Century of Progress. She had been arrested four times in a single day during the fair due to perceived indecent exposure while riding a white horse down the streets of Chicago, but the nudity was only an illusion.

 She also conceived and developed the bubble dance, in part to cope with wind while performing outdoors. She performed the fan dance on film in Bolero, released in 1934.

Sally Rand with her artfully manipulated fans and bubbles became a part of popular culture, and in Tex Avery’s cartoon Hollywood Steps Out (1941), a rotoscoped Rand performs her famous bubble dance onstage to an appreciative crowd. A grinning Peter Lorre caricature in the front row comments, “I haven’t seen such a beautiful bubble since I was a child.” The routine continues until the bubble is suddenly popped by Harpo Marx and his slingshot, with a surprised Rand (her nudity covered by a well-placed wooden barrel) reacting with shock. Rand is referred to as “Sally Strand” here.

 

Rand also makes an appearance in the crime fiction of Max Allan Collins in his book TRUE DETECTIVE.  If you like historical mysteries set in the 1930s-1960s, pick up one of Collins’ novels featuring the character Nate Heller.  I’m a fan of all of Collin’s work (he wrote the graphic novel THE ROAD TO PERDITION), but I’m particularly fond of the Nate Heller tales because Heller mixes it up with the likes of Chicago gangster Frank Nitti, and other historical figures such as Eliot Ness, and Amelia Earhart. 

AVearhart

In STOLEN AWAY, Heller becomes involved in the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. I’m looking forward to the first Nate Heller novel in about a decade – it’s entitled “BYE BYE, BABY” and it is due out in August.  The novel will feature Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Hoffa, and even the CIA.  

I’m always up for a historical thrill ride, which is why I’m cautiously optimistic about the release this week of Rock Star Video’s L.A. NOIRE game, which purports to be an accurate portrayal of the cityscape of Los Angeles in 1947.  I have a compelling interest in 1947 Los Angeles for a few reasons.  My friends (and fellow social historians) Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak originated the seminal LA crime-a-day blog 1947project which undertook the mammoth task of the daily retelling of the crimes and human interest stories of 1947 in prose and in photographs.  As a tour guide for ESOTOURIC I participate in THE REAL BLACK DAHLIA tour, which seeks to examine Beth Short’s life in the weeks before her murder (in January 1947), as well as exploring the lives of other young women during the post-war era in Los Angeles. 

I was unable to make it to a preview of L.A. NOIRE a few weeks ago, but Kim and Nathan were on hand to critique the pre-release version from a historical (not game play) perspective.  Nathan blogged about the experience HERE.  

Unfortunately, Nathan’s free walking tour on May 29th, which will explore some of the locations used in L.A. Noire, is filled to overflowing; however, anyone may attend the free SUNDAY SALON that precedes the tour (noon-2pm), and Nathan’s pre-walking-tour presentation (2pm+) on the architecture of “L.A. Noire.”  

I’m attending the Sunday Salon on May 29th, and I’m fortunate to have scored a place for myself on the walking tour. I’m looking forward to a day of Noir fun in Los Angeles.

 

 

This is such a wonderful photo – it is of Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Fisher (nee Gruber).  Dorothy worked as his secretary at Paramount Studios in the 1940s. I was fortunate to have met Dorothy, she was an honored guest on a couple of Esotouric’s Chandler tours, and she was a remarkable woman.  Because we lived near each other we’d carpool to the departure location for the tour. We’d swap stories in the car on the way. She told me about a dinner date in Malibu with the actor Ray Milland, and she also told me about meeting Billy Wilder.  She said that Wilder was a powerfully magnetic man: “he made you feel like you were the only person in the room” she said.

Dorothy passed away in December 2008, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have spent time in her company.  She was talented, intelligent, lovely, and a lady through and through. I think of her each time we visit Chandler’s Los Angeles.

So, if you’re a fan of noir, crime fiction, the Los Angeles Athletic Club and/or the best gelato in Los Angeles, this tour is for you! Because we stop at the historic Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank, by the end of the tour I’m craving a gin gimlet something fierce. Lucky for me Scoops gelato generally offers a few liquor flavored choices (the vanilla/Jim Beam is delightful!)

I hope you’ll join us – especially since July is the month of Chandler’s birth.

  

As soon as I saw the roadster (a  Duesenberg?)  in the illustration on the hair net package,  I knew that the  jaunty young lady at the wheel had to be the world renowned girl detective Nancy Drew.   

When you were a child did you ever want to be Nancy Drew?  I did.  And all these years later I’m still so captivated by the idea of being a gal gumshoe, a dame detective, a she shamus, that I give crime tours with the LA-based company Esotouric on most weekends.  But even the tours aren’t enough to satisfy my longing be a PI, cop, or a stylish and witty helpmate, like Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films.   

Just because I never became a private investigator or cop (I like to believe that I DID become a stylish and witty helpmate) that doesn’t mean that I can’t pursue my crime busting dreams.   I’ve discovered a few ways in which to get my crime  fix – the aforementioned tours, and I volunteer at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society (LAPHS).   

Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel

The historical society has a fantastic museum which is housed in an old police station. I spend my time there organizing and digitizing a collection of Daily Bulletins, and Juvenile Reports.  The Bulletins began in 1907 and were distributed to each officer, every day (with the exception of Sundays and holidays). The Bulletins provide a daily snapshot of life in the growing city of Los Angeles, as reflected in the criminal behavior of its citizens. 

Nancy Drew did her sleuthing in River Heights, not in Los Angeles, and she began her amateur detecting as a 16 year old in 1930. The early books depict Nancy as a very modern girl — just as she should have been in the years following WWI.  She had a litany of accomplishments including: dancer, driver, cook, car mechanic, swimmer, seamstress, painter — and she was fluent in French!  If she’d had a leather cat suit, I’m sure she could have given Mrs. Emma Peel (of the  1960s series The Avengers) a run for her money.  

Mildred in mid-dive c. 1925

The woman who ghosted the Nancy Drew books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate from 1929 to 1953 was Iowan, Mildred Wirt Benson.  Mildred was nearly as accomplished as Nancy. At the University of Iowa she participated in swimming, soccer, and was a student journalist.  Following graduation  she worked as a general reporter for the The Clinton (Iowa) Herald.  

Mildred was only 21 when, in 1926, she answered an ad placed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate for ghost writers. Her first assignment resulted in the novel, Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario.   

Mildred appears to have remained as feisty as Nancy Drew ever was, because she began to take flying lessons at age 59.  I’m glad to report that Mildred lived a long life – she passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.  

Nancy Drew has gone on to have a long and eventful life too. There were some terrific films in the 1940s featuring Bonita Granville as Nancy, and more recently (2007) Emma Roberts played the girl sleuth. In 2002 the first Nancy Drew book, The Mystery of the Old Clock, sold over 150,000 copies!

  

 Oh, and if you think that Nancy Drew was a pre-feminist bimbo who couldn’t possibly have had an impact on intelligent and strong women, think again. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton cites her as an early influence, and so do Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor.  

For more information on Mildred Wirt Benson visit the University of Iowa Digital Library.

Elizabeth Short

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.

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard

 Join us on the tour and learn more about the woman at the heart of Los Angeles’ most infamous unsolved murder.

See YOU on the bus!

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.

On January 15, 1947 the body of a young woman was discovered in a vacant lot in a suburb of Los Angeles. She would later be identified as Elizabeth Short, and dubbed the Black Dahlia.

Over the decades many people have attempted to solve the crime. Steve Hodel in his book [Black Dahlia Avenger] arrived at the conclusion that his own father was the killer! And he’s not alone. Janice Knowlton wrote a book [Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer] accusing HER father of the murder.  Neither book is credible. The crime has been depicted in fiction too, most notably in James Ellroy’s neo-noir novel The Black Dahlia.

So much attention has been focused on trying to solve the mystery of her killer, that surprisingly little effort has gone into unraveling the enigma of Beth herself.

Max Factor ad c. 1947

Max Factor ad c. 1947

One of the ways in which to unmask the real Elizabeth Short — who she was, and who she wanted to be — is to deconstruct the face she presented to the world.

Murder and pancake makeup. What’s the connection? 

Join us on the Esotouric crime bus on Saturday, November 1, 2008  and find out. 

I dare you.