Monday, April 27, 2009

Portrait of a Girl

I was stuck, oh was I stuck. What to do for a post? The time had come to give a rest to the "wacky day" celebration (mind you, a temporary rest). For now, no more of the variations on the "which came first, the photo or the painting?" theme, though I've got a sheaf of them. There are some really good posts in the works, but those have to be doled out carefully. Today was one of those days I wished this was a blog where you can open up the newspaper and start typing about the first thing that catches your eye. And so I did, and then I spotted an article in the New York Times about the lone surviving Ziegfeld Follies girl. My post had just written itself.

It was four years ago that I got a phone call from her, all 101 years young at the time. Her name is Doris Eaton, and at the age of 14 she became the youngest girl ever to be hired by Florenz Ziegfeld. The year was 1918. Now she is the only one of them remaining. Her older sister was Mary Eaton, she was the more famous but her life went awry and she suffered a sad ending, which seemed an all too common fate among the Ziegfeld girls. So why did she call me?

I had recently learned about a very unusual Bolles portrait that had changed hands, allegedly the subject in the painting was a Ziegfeld Girl. After a time I was successful in contacting the new owner of the painting, Sherrie, who was very supportive, but unfortunately I learned that the seller could provide little information about the painting beyond that the Ziegfled Girl in the portrait was named Marilyn, and that she had died at an early age. That part was true for Mary Eaton as well as for Marilyn Miller, one of the most famous Ziegfeld Girls of them all. She died from complications of alcoholism at the age of 37 (she was played in different movies by June Haver and Judy Garland). But there were several other Ziegfeld girls who went by Marilyn and Mary. So who was the girl in the painting?

It just so happened that Sherrie lives in my home town so on a trip I was able to meet her and see the painting first hand. The most likely candidate for the girl in the painting was Marilyn Miller but side by side comparisons with photos left me unconvinced (don't forget, this is not one of those posts so you're not going to see them) and that's where the story ended, for a while. Sometime later I learned that there was a Ziegfeld Girl named Doris Eaton, who was not only still alive and kicking, but hoofing with the best of them. So I sent a scan of the painting to the publisher of her recent book Century Girl and asked to have it sent along to Mrs. Eaton (it seems wrong to call her by her first name) to see if she recognized her. This was the sort of thing I've done from time to time after starting this project, and I had little confidence it would generate any sort of response. But a week later I got a call on the phone. Her voice was as gnarled as an old walnut but also just as strong. I was flabbergasted and for a few seconds was speechless before I could blubber out a response. On the phone was a lifeline to a time long past; a women who heard George Gershwin play her family's piano, met Babe Ruth and posed for Alfred Cheney Johnston (demurely I might add). Mrs. Eaton told me she examined the scan of the painting and concluded it was a "configuration" of several Ziegfeld Girls rather than a portrait of a particular person. She added she was certain it was not either her sister or Marilyn Miller and it was quite evident from her tone that the memories and images were still sharp in her mind. We spoke for a few more minutes, and I think I recall her saying that she left the Follies after a couple years to go to England to make movies. I thanked Mrs. Eaton for her time and hung up, my brief connection to another era was cut. It felt like the end of a classic movie when the theatre goes dark.


duriandave said...

What a great story!

BTW, does that Bolles painting predate his commercial work? And was it rare for him to do portraiture like that?

Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

GoodGodAmighty, I know what you're saying. The connections to times past and times future are cosmic threads binding us all together.

I once spoke with Jack Benny on the phone and realized the network of connections that branched backward from that event. Likewise when I met Lucille Ball. The people they knew, the things they did. Honest, I'm not trying to name drop, it's just that their heyday was an era of greatness, and to connect to it in any way is awe inspiring.

To have this woman call you is wonderful, as in full of wonder.

Very nice post.

Jack R said...

Hi Dave,
My guess is around 1924 or so for the painting, so he was well into his commercial career by then which begin in 1914 and maybe as early as 1910.

Hi Thomas,
Thanks for sharing your own experiences about links to a past time (and I don't think anyone would take it as name dropping). I think this sort of feeling can only occur in someone who has an emotional connection with the past, be it movies, art or fashion. I've run into a number of passionate blogger who write about past fashions (and wear them too).