One of the best tap dancers to grace Hollywood, Eleanore Whitney never achieved a level of fame that her fellow tapper Ann Miller did, but she had the luck of playing leads and was a lively, vivacious presence in several Paramount 1930s musicals
Eleanor Wittenburg was born on April 12, 1917 in Cleveland, Ohio to Abraham and Anna Wittenburg. Her younger sister Ruth was born in 1920.
Eleanore’s mother was the sister of Adolph Zukor, who was already a wealthy businessman by then – he would only grow richer and richer as the founder of Paramount and a colossal figure in old Hollywood.
Little is known about Eleanore’s childhood, except that when she was ten years old she met Bill Robinson backstage at the Palace Theatre in Cleveland. He was so taken by her dancing that he took to giving her lessons whenever he was in the city. Later he offered to teach her each day during a two month stay in New York and was instrumental in the start of her career.
In the meantime, Eleanore took her education seriously, graduated from high school and attended college for one years before deciding on a full time career in show biz.
As Robinson’s protegee, she landed roles in prestigious Broadway productions, and ended up in Hollywood in 1935, just 18 years old and ready to rumble!
Eleanore was one of the those lucky people who get to Hollywood and land leading parts from the very start. Most of these people have a solid background in theatrics – and Eleanor had it in spades. Alas, this was not the only reason – Eleanore’s uncle was Adolph Zukor, and this undoubtedly helped the youth gain some credibility in Hollywood. This is notoriously hard for some newcomers. Yet, it would be a stretch to say that she was talentless chit trying to milk her uncle for top roles- not only was she the fastest tap dancer living at the time, but she never achieved a great career, and, indeed, never had parts in A class productions. Eleanore specialized in fluffy and puffy comedies with a low calorie plot and no great dramatic merit.
How many people can say that their very first movie is named after their character in it? Just a few, and Eleanor was one of them. Oh, Evaline! was a Broadway transfer to movies, a short one reeler . The Big Broadcast of 1936 was a pastiche of various Broadway skits, having Eleanore just one of many featured stars.
The course of her career was well charted by Millions in the Air, as it was the type of movie Eleanore would make many more times. The silly comedy with an unbelievable plot, handsome, endearing actors and an obligatory happy ending – and truly welcome to Hollywood! Timothy’s Quest , the typical warm story of a youngster who melts the stone heart of an older spinster, pushed Eleanor into second view as a very minor character, but she was back in the game with Three Cheers for Love. The musical, despite being an early Robert Cummings movie appearance, is totally forgotten today. Hollywood Boulevard , one of those movies that would have been great but ended up a failure due to a fatal flaw (a totally obnoxious character just overshadows all else) again had Eleanor deep in the supporting roster. The Big Broadcast of 1937, obviously just an update of the previous Big Broadcast movie, did not do any miracles for her career. Yet, at a time when many actresses would have been doomed to a slow decay, Eleanore rose to new professional heights with her next few movies.
Rose Bowl gave Eleanore another chance as the female leading role, and College Holiday was a pleasant enough romp with an impressive cast – Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Mary Boland and Martha Raye among others. Altough slightly overshadowed by such a large amount of talented performers, Eleanore still gets her own five minutes of fame.
Clarence put Eleanor as a part of a huge, comically dysfunctional family. Turn Off the Moon was a typical Paramount musical of that time – cheap, low quality and with an tepid musical score. Nothing notable to write home about and Eleanore was yet again pushed into the second tier by her male costars Charles Ruggles and Phil Harris.
Blonde Trouble was purely an escapist fantasy with her and Johnny Downs, then Eleanore’s real life boyfriend, in the leads. Given better circumstances, the two could have been a true musical pairing in the vein of Jeanette McDonald/Nelson Eddy, or Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire. Yet, as we already noted, Paramount in the 1930s was not the best place to be for musical stars. Their musicals lagged behind MGM, RKO and Warners by miles, and neither of their musical actor/actresses achieved any recognition in the genre via those movies.
Thrill of a Lifetime continued in the escapist vein, but the movie’s intrinsic charm and a few good performers make for a very pleasant viewing.
Campus Confessions revealed the future queen of the 20th Century Fox lot, and guess what, it was not Eleanore, but rather Betty Grable. Betty never came close to Eleanore as far as tapping goes, but she has that sass and passion easily detected by the audience in great movie stars, something Eleanore evidently did not have. Yet, it took a change of studio even for Betty to gain some prominence. One wonders could Eleanore perhaps have done the same?
Well, it is one thing we will never find out, as Eleanore did not even try to change gears, but simply gave up movies after marrying in early 1939.
She moved to New York, and had only one more professional appearance, on Broadway in 1946.
As we already mentioned, Eleanore was very lucky upon arriving in Hollywood – not only did she land leading roles immediately, but the press loved her so much she was photographed frequently and featured in everything from fashion spreads to columns about beauty tips. She even rode one of the first Vespa motor bikes to come to America (the bike looks really strange, not like the Vespa we know today). If we learned anything about these publicity tricks by now, it’s that they often have no real results – unfortunately, the same happened in Eleanore’s case. She was also infamous around Tinsel Town for being a perpetually thin girl who had to go on a diet to gain (not lose!) weight.
Eleanore had a difficult relationship with her dad, Abraham. Her parents separated early, and she was close to her mother and sister but not her father. When she achieved some degree of popularity through her Hollywood movies, he sued for failure to support, claiming it was her job as a daughter to financially back him up. She refused to pay at first, but later they got to an agreement (which was never enclosed to the public).
1936 was a busy year for Eleanore, both professionally and privately. She wooed John Howard, the handsome young actor, and was wooed by Luther B. Davis, who new how to treat a lady and escorted her everywhere, including the famous Santa Anita race track.
Eleanore dated her frequent costar, Johnny Downs, for a year and a half – they were one of the Hollywood couples who were paired both professionally and privately, along with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and so on. For unknown reasons, the couple never got engaged to married.
Then, something really typical of the Hollywood star machine happened – Eleanore allegedly dumped Johnny and took up the Stanford basketball ace, Hank Luasetti. The papers covered it from head to toe. It’s one thing when they play this game – love drama and triangles – inside Hollywood circles, and get a win win situation – everybody gets publicity, and usually everybody ends up with someone totally unrelated to the original troika – but it’s another thing when they push a clean cut, preppy guy from Stanford into the mix. Poor Hank had a fiancee back home in San Francisco and this damaged his relationship with the girl, and his reputation. While the true story remains to be seen, it’s an banal example of how Hollywood likes to twist reality for a little bit of “magic”.
Now, it’s stupid to claims Luasetti was a blameless victim (maybe he did have an affair with the pretty Eleanore?), but I sincerely think that Hank had a star crush on Eleanore, that they went out once or twice but their relationship was overblown by the ever vigilant reporters out for a juicy story, and he regretted even talking to her.
In 1938, Eleanore was seen with the legendary baseball player, Hank Greenberg. Greenberg would later marry starlet Mary Jo Tarola.
Eleanore married a well off man from a solid family: Frederick Backer, a former US assistant attorney, in February 1939. They were engaged just two months prior, in December 1938. Backer was born on December 2, 1909, in New York City to Sara and George Backer, both born in Germany. Backer as a well traveled man who visitd Europe several times before their marriage. The couple honeymooned in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
She was just 21 years old, but ready to dedicate her life to her husband and family. Columnists lamented her departure from Tinsel Town, but Eleanore left, and never looked back. She and her husband lived in Manhattan in 1940, along with his sister, Louise, a maid and a butler, indicating how well off they were. Their daughter, Nancy Anne Backer, was born in 1941. Eleanor continued to dance for fun, and even gave free dancing lessons to orphans in a New York orphanage.
Backer died in 1971. Eleanor did not remarry after the death of her husband, and lived the rest of her days in New York City.
Eleanore Backer died in November 1983 in New York City.