Monday, February 4, 2013

Encounters with Racism - Travilla, Marilyn Monroe & Dorothy Dandridge


There are two instances involving Travilla that only solidified his decision to keep Dona's family heritage a secret to his grave. The first nearly cost him his career due to the discrimination that ran rampant, even in liberal California.

The image below of Travilla and Monroe is a somewhat familiar one, but the original photogaph had never been seen in it's original uncropped version until the 2012 publication of "Dressing Marilyn" by Andrew Hansford.

Though unidentified in the book, research indicates it is possibly jazz pianist Hank Jones, who would play again for Monroe in May of 1962 when she sang "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy in New York City.
According to Bill Sarris, Travilla and Marilyn spent a casual evening at the 5-4 Ballroom at 54th and Broadway in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Considered to be the California equivelant to Harlem's Apollo Theater in New York City, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and B.B. King performed before large crowds. Neither thought much of the matter until 20th-Century Fox got wind of the "date" when executives somehow saw the photo. Months earlier, Monroe had weathered her nude calendar scandal thanks to public sympathy, appeared on the April 7th cover of LIFE Magazine as "The Talk of Hollywood" and had recently been given the lead in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Much of the ticket buying public wouldn't be as forgiving if this image were  printed in newspapers across the country, and the studio wasn't happy that Travilla had so carelessly put their commodity in jeopardy for a night of drinks and music in "that part of town."

When Marilyn found out that they were threatening to fire Travilla as designer for "Blondes" because of his actions, she went to the front office and said that if he went, she went with him. The studio backed down and this incident only deepened the duo's friendship.

Two things I'm curious about - how did the only copy of the photograph get into the Travilla Archives. and did Marilyn and Mr. Jones remember this particular night a decade before?

The second incident involved Travilla's relationship with actress Dorothy Dandridge, who actually had befriended Marilyn a couple of years before Travilla when the pair studied together at the Actor's Lab. Both also took vocal lessons from pianist Phil Moore, with late-night fireside chats about relationships and the industry afterwards in Dandridge's West Hollywood duplex. In fact, Dorothy would be referred to many times as "the black Marilyn Monroe." in both the press and in the black community.
A Travilla sketch for Dandridge's stage shows.
Travilla designed many costumes for Dandridge's niteclub performances beginning in the early 1950s and the two developed a lasting friendship in which Travilla witnessed at least one uncomfortable case of discrimination. Bill Sarris told me of a trip he and Travilla took to Las Vegas to see Dandridge perform in the early 1950s. After the show, the trio obviously wanted to hang out and catch up, but the management would not allow Dorothy to be seen in any public areas of the hotel or casino, so they went back to Dandridge's room by way of the kitchen. The men were disgusted that she was acceptable to perform on-stage for the white clientele, but not good enough to mingle among them before or afterwards. A sad double-standard fortunately now erased.


Two images of Dandrige wearing Travilla onstage in Las Vegas circa 1952-54.
Dandridge's film career never really took off except for her Oscar-nominated performance in the lead role of Carmen Jones so she continued performing in nightclubs with an occasional film role. But Travilla always kept in touch with Dorothy, as the LA Times reports on a Summer 1961 party he threw for Ann Sheridan where "former twisters as Shirley Jones, Barbara Eden and Dorothy Dandridge were doing the Greek hasspiko."

The singer's career continued on it's decline as told in a Palm Springs LIfe article on the history of the Chi-Chi Niteclub and Dandridge's 1962 eight-day engagement where "Looking stunning in a a white, body-hugging Travilla gown, she mesmerized the audience with sensitive renderings of wistful songs such as "What is This Thing Called Love?" After the show closed, Dandridge threw a party ofr the orchestra and slowly got drunk on Champagne."

Dorothy would die of a drug overdose in 1964. Ironic that her last residence was an apartment complex Marilyn had lived at during her rise to stardom.

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