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.