Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers here. Today Joe told Frank about his encounter with the great star of the 1940’s Dorothy Lamour.
As the author and coauthor of more than 20 books about such celebrated Hollywoodians as Lana Turner, Lucille Ball, Loretta Young and Mia Farrow, Joe is all too familiar with the annoying habit stars often adopted — clamming up when it came to the touchier parts of their private or professional lives.
Discussions of illicit romances, marriages gone wrong, salaries, studio intrigue, costar rivalries and fights on the set were among the subjects usually off limits, especially when someone else in the room was taking notes.
Remember actress Arlene Francis’ dubious dictum – if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all? We, of course, prefer Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s formulation –”if you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me!”
It often took the diplomatic skills of a Talleyrand to tease out the more interesting parts of stars’ personal lives, and these were, of course, the parts they preferred not to discuss on or off the record.
Joe coauthored “The Amazing Careers of Bob Hope.” Joe’s pal Ward Grant, Hope’s publicist, said that Hope’s (and Bing Crosby’s) longtime onscreen pal, Dorothy Lamour, wanted to meet him to discuss a book project of her own. Interesting idea but Joe had reservations and other projects to attend to.
Besides back in 1980, Lamour came out with her autobiography, “My Side of the Road,” (as told to Dorothy McInnes) that covered most if not all of the bases relating to her life and 59-picture career. Joe figured that, well, that was that. What more could be written about Madame Dorothy?
After all, who would pay to AGAIN read a book about Lamour’s springboard into show business as Miss New Orleans of 1931. Or, that Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton (her given name) was a big band singer married to bandleader Herbie Kay at age 21 (it lasted four years).
Or, that her solid singing career on radio (she performed with the likes of Rudy Vallee) preceded her first Hollywood movie, an un-credited bit as a chorus girl in the 1933 Jimmy Cagney musical, “Footlight Parade.”
Or, that 1936’s “Jungle Princess” introduced the world to Dorothy’s signature sarong. (Say what you will, there’ no denying Dorothy looked smashing in the garment.)
And, while she was dogged by the darned thing for the rest of her life, the fact is that she wore a sarong in only six of her 59 movies. In a publicity stunt with Freudian overtones, Dorothy once burned a sarong before assembled photographers.
Fully covered certainly in “My Side of the Road” were Dorothy’s adventures with Bing and Bob and the seven “Road To…” movies, which spanned a dozen years beginning in 1940. Although Dorothy was never particularly close to Crosby on a personal level, she and Hope (as well as his wife Delores) remained friends until the end.
Dorothy’s career as a leading actress ended after 1952’s “The Road to Bali.” Ten years later when Dorothy’s career was a fading memory to most movie fans, a final road picture “The Road To Hong Kong” was made with Hope and Crosby. But Joan Collins took the leading lady role, not Dorothy.
The by-then 48-year-old Lamour was incensed by what she regarded as a casting affront, and took her case to Hollywood columnist, Louella Parsons. To placate Dorothy the studio carved out a cameo in “Hong Kong” in which she played herself.
The upside of all this was that Dorothy’s appearance in the movie drew the attention of none other than director John Ford, who a year later cast her in a supporting role in “Donovan’s Reef,” an action vehicle for John Wayne and Lee Marvin. And this movie appearance in turn led to some late-Sixties stage work.
Whatever Joe’s reservations about another Lamour book, Dorothy wanted to meet him and kept after Ward Grant to arrange a meeting. Finally Joe agreed.
There’s no question that after 1952, Dorothy Lamour spent less time on her career and more and more time on her marriage to William Ross Howard III, with whom she had two children and shared a step son. The couple, married in 1943, stayed together until his death.
He met Dorothy when he was in the service during WW II and she was a Hollywood star promoting war bonds with great gusto and success (the “Bond Bombshell” was personally credited for closing the sales on some $21 million – a staggering amount at the time – in war bonds). She was with Bob Hope entertaining the troops on Hope’s first of what would become his many legendary trips.
William Howard was a dashing, aristocratic officer in uniform. Dorothy Lamour was the patriotic beauty of solid, traditional values (Dorothy was Roman Catholic).
They fell in love, got married and presumably lived happily ever after. (Although Dorothy starred in the 1968 national road show of “Hello, Dolly,” her family life came first and she remained largely a homemaker.)
Howard’s family came from of old line Maryland lineage (he and Dorothy lived during the 60’s and 70’s in a suburb of Towson), and Howard himself was described as a businessman with interests in the frozen food and advertising businesses.
Then something interesting happened. Like much of the entertainment world, Joe was highly impressed with Lamour’s energetic re-emergence in the entertainment world following her husband’s death in early 1978.
All of a sudden, she was all over the place – on television (Bob Hope specials, “The Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote”) and in regional theater.
The question: was Lamour’s cover-all-bases showbiz return after nearly 35 years of domesticity just another example of a merry widow kicking up her heels? Joe wasn’t sure, so he dropped by Lamour’s home in North Hollywood during the 1980’s to find out.
After a series of meetings and conversations about a possible book project, it became clear that Lamour’s frenetic re-emergence on the show biz scene in the 1980′s — which astonished much of show business at the time — was primarily driven by one thing.
As she confessed to Joe, Dorothy needed the money.
Like many women of her age and time, she had absented herself from the finances of her family, leaving such matters to her businessman husband. After he passed she discovered that all their credit cards had been maxed out. That all their stock had been sold. That her husband had cashed in his life insurance. That there was little if any money left.
Dorothy was urged to file for personal bankruptcy.” No,” she said.” I’ll go back to work and pay all my debts.” And that’s exactly what she did.
Fortunately her step-son, William Ross Howard IV, knew enough about the entertainment business to take over as Dorothy’s agent. At first the only job available was a supporting role in an El Paso dinner theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park”.
GASP! IS THAT DOROTHY LAMOUR ?
Lamour told Joe that her most trying moment occurred when she walked onstage for the first time, and was greeted with a collective gasp from the audience. Naively expecting to see a youthful, sarong-draped Dorothy out of her earliest movies, audiences had to visually adjust to the deliberately frumpy-looking actress in her mid-Sixties playing the mother of a new bride.
But with Dorothy’s name, the offers soon came flooding in. What began as nervously tentative return driven by financial desperation quickly turned into late-career show business triumph.
Lamour suggested to Joe that her financial predicament could provide the makings of a wonderful new book, with Dorothy the centerpiece representing so many women of her generation who had blissfully left finances to husbands only to find themselves financially stranded after their mates departed. There was a real story here!
All across America there were thousands of women in their 50s, 60s and 70s who, when their “upper middle income” or even “rich” husbands died, found out they had in fact been living in a financial house of cards. There WERE no stocks, investments or bank accounts that these women could fall back on.
Without a movie star name to back them up, these women were forced to return to the work force often as waitresses, restaurant hostesses or sales clerks. Writing a book with Dorothy about how such women cope in such pressing circumstances seemed to Joe to be a worthy and most interesting project.
He whipped up a four-page book proposal, and took it to several New York publishers. One, the late Lyle Stuart, snapped it up. He told Joe he was buying the book idea at least partially because Lamour was the first movie star he had fallen in love with. (Stuart had never forgotten seeing as a young teenager Dorothy in 1936’s “The Jungle Princess.” Ah, that sarong!)
And, Stuart was savvy enough to realize the potential of a book about a famous Hollywood star experiencing the same distressing situation as an average housewife confronting the reality that dear departed husband had spent all the money. (Similar fates befell, by the way, Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds.)
But over time, Lamour began to get cold feet. Would this book be too revealing?
She finally made it clear to Joe that the subject of her financial straits was something much too personal — not so much about her personal distress but about the negative effect public disclosure might have on the memory of a man she had loved for more than three decades.
To Joe’s regret to this day, the book project with Dorothy never came to be. (Dorothy continued working into the late 1980’s. She even appeared as a disheveled housewife who gets bumped off in the horror movie “Creep Show 2.”)
She died in her North Hollywood home of a heart attack on Sept. 22, 1996. She was 81. Dorothy is remembered in many ways including her two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her movies and another for her radio shows. By most accounts she was pretty well off financially at the end.