Dorothy Day AKA Vicki Lester

Vickilester2

Yank Girls continued! Dorothy Day/Vicki Lester had a more substantial career than most starlets of the time. She played both leads and supports in a variety of B movies. She was most certainly beautiful and wasn’t a talent less hack. So, again I ask, what went wrong? The more I think about it, the more I understand it’s not a question of what went wrong, but what went right with the ones that actually made it. Hollywood is such a fickle, unstable town, and there is no given formula of success.

EARLY LIFE

Dorothy Gertrude Day was born on April 17, 1915, in Manhattan, New York City, to Alfred Day and Gertrude Van Der Raalte. Her great great aunt was the great actress Charlotte Cushman.

Dorothy attended grade and Julian Richman High School in the borough. After graduation, she started doing modeling work, and pretty soon was one of the 12 most photographer models in Gotham. For instance, if you picked up just one issue of a magazine in 1936, she was bound to be in at least 3 commercials, and her record was 10!

Like many New York models, Dorothy was signed by Walter Wanger for Vouges of 1938, and this catapulted her to Hollywood.

CAREER

Dorothy appeared in movies as Dorothy Day and Vicki Lester. She came to Hollywood in 1937, a seasoned model, to appear in Vogues of 1938. The name alone reveals much about th emovie – it’s all about the fashions, the pretty colors and beautiful girls. Story? Characters? Zero sum! While they actually have decent actors at work here (Warner Baxter, Joan Bennett), it’s a paper thin affair.

VickiLester1Dorothy’s name was changed to Vicki Lester, and she would remain Lester until 1943. She made her first appearance in Warner Bros’s The Patient in Room 18, a typical, run of the mill comedy-detective-potboiler. Warners churned out hundreds of movies just like this on a yearly basis – what to say? Chances they are any good are slim pickings at best, but often the movies were mediocre and decent enough. At least we have the charming Ann Sheridan in the female lead here. Maid’s Night Out continued in the same vein, a silly and charming little romance movie with future superstar Joan Fontaine in the lead. The story is same old, same old – a rich guy pretends to be poor to win a bet, and fall in love. Moving on! Fools for Scandal is a Carole Lombard vehicle with a uninspired story – American actress (Carole Lombard) visiting Paris meets a penniless Frenchman (Fernand Gravet). He becomes smitten with her and pursues her for the rest of the movie. This doesn’t sit well with her dull American beau (Ralph Bellamy). Again, what to say? Carole sure was a charismatic, charming actress, Gravet is a Gallic Don Juan and Ralph Bellamy plays the scorned, boring lover to perfection. Cute, nice and nothing more than that.

This Marriage Business is another B romantic comedy, starring Victor Moore as a small town justice, none of whose weddings have ended in divorce. Mix it up with a mischievous reporter and Vicki in the leading female role, and you know the drill. Like most of the films mentioned beforehand, it’s charming and breezy, but no high art. Go Chase Yourself squarely fits into the silly but nice crime movie category. Look out for an early role for Lucille BallHaving Wonderful Time was originally a Broadway play about a Catskill Mountains resort and the assortment of Jewish people who visit it. It was a biting satire on the types and stereotypes of the New York’s Jewish population, written by Arthur Kober (to me, better known as the husband of Lillian Hellman). Hollywood, in its typical fashion, took a nicely done show, watered it down (the characters are not Jewish anymore!) and gave us only a mildly interesting final product. The roster of talent here is impressive – Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Lee Bowman, Eve Arden, Jack Carson, Lucille Ball and Michael (Red) Skelton, but all are underused. Sky Giant is an insipid, lukewarm aviation drama whose main claim to fame is Richard Dix’s profile. Go figure!

Vicki was finally cast in at least marginally better movies with The Mad Miss Manton, another piece of fluff, but well made and acted fluff. When you pair Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, you are bound to have at least a semi decent movie, and this has a script to match. This was Dorothy/Vicki’s last movie for a brief time, and she returned in 1940, with The Great Plane Robbery, a forgotten movie about a (gasp!) plane robbery. You’re Out of Luck is another in the series of films that paired Frankie Darro and Montan Moreland as best friends fighting crime. we have already mentioned it in this blog, as Kay Sutton plays the femme fatale. Decent but nothing special. Tall, Dark and Handsome is a parody of early 1930s movies, with Cesar Romero in the lead and a pretty good supporting cast – Sheldon Leonard, Virginai Gilmore, Milton Berle, Charlotte Greenwood. It’s quite funny at times and ultimately, a satisfying watch for this genre. Tom Dick and Harry proved to be the best known movie on Vicki’s filmography. This is a screwball comedy done right – simple but effective story, witty dialogue, great actors! While I understand that a number of people will never like movies like these, it is hard to deny that there are qualities (I lack a better word for that) about these movies that are impossible to reconstruct today. Classic! And Vicki has a pretty good role in this one, as one of the girls. Next came The Miracle Kid, a so-so boxing drama with Tom Neal in the lead.

VickIlester3And thus Dorothy came to the dreaded moment of an actresses life – the moment she starts to appear in low budget westerns. The movie in question was The Lone Rider and the Bandit. No comment. Her next one, Sleepytime Gal, is a Judy Canova comedy, movies that are sure to polarize the public. You either love or hate it. You’re Telling Me is another forgotten comedy. Her last movie under the moniker of Vicki Lester was I Live on Danger, actually a pretty decent crime movie with a sterling B class cast – Chester Morris, Dick Purcell and Jean Parker. Morris is a likable actor, and Parker could have catapulted to A class easily if she only had the right breaks.

After this, Dorothy reverted to her old name, moved back to the East Coast, and did a wartime propaganda short movie, Women at War. She then took time off to get involved in the war effort, and returned to movies in 1945, with Diamond Horseshoe. Now, this is a kind of musical I like better than some MGM extravaganzas. While it’s lush and lavish like a musical should be, it actually has a pretty good story, and the stars are simply magnetic! Who can not like Betty Grable? She such a vivacious, lively presence! Same goes for Dick Haymes. And here comes the last one… Kiss Them for Me. Now, this is one weird movie. The plot is actually above average, and the character Grant plays, if you get over the posh Mid Atlantic accent, is well written. However, there are some parts of the movie that just baffle me. Why did they have make them? Plus, Suzy Parker, for all her beauty, is a terrible actress. So sad…

That was it from both Dorothy Day and Vicki Lester.

PRIVATE LIFE

How did Dorothy get her moniker? Well, after making Vogues of 1938, she returned back to New York City for a brief visit, and when she came back, she learned from the studio brass she was renamed, without consulting her, to Vicki Lester, the heroine of A Star is Born, played by Janet Gaynor.

Vickilester4Dorothy played the piano, danced and sang. She was a clothes horse, and her ideal was “heaven of clothes”. She hated throwing away old shoes. Her favorite foods were caviar, steak, truffles and creppes suzettes (she sure had expensive taste!). Her favorite color was blue, and her favorite flower was the gardenia. She liked to watch football and ice hockey. She mostly read epics (Gone with the Wind, Anthony Adverse, Good Earth). She was superstitious, collected handkerchiefs and carried her lucky matrix ring with her at all times. For keeping her figure trim, she swam and ice skated.

There is a article that claims that Dorothy was married in the mid 1930s, and had a son from that marriage, who was born in about 1935. I could not find any such document, but this is possible, as her life in New York is obscure at best.

When she landed in Hollywood in 1937, she was a constant duet with Willard Parker, handsome B actor who would end up marrying Virginia Field in 1951 (I love Virginia!). By the end of the year, she was hooked up with another handsome B actor, Jon Hall. However, there were persistent rumors she would wed Parker, and they even had good odds in the Hollywood marriage betting pool (oh yes, they even had that back in the 1930s. Crazy decade!). She also managed to squeeze Milton Berle in between. However, by early 1938, she was seen with neither Hal or Parker, but with a new swain, Paul Draper.

In 1938, it was reported that Dorothy and Allan Lane, western star, were not an item but quite the opposite – they absolutely disliked each other off camera. The most ironic part of this story is the fact that Dorothy and Allan knew each other from way back, when she was just starting as a model in New York City and he owned a modeling agency.

By March 1938, Dorothy was steady dating Dick Purcell. The relationship turned serious pretty soon, and they were to be wed in July 1938. We gifted her with a sapphire engagement ring. They set the wedding to October. In July, he was on location for filming Valley of the Giants, and they wrote passionate love letters to each other daily. And upon his return, Dick took rumba lessons to please Dorothy. They planed to fly all over the States for their honeymoon. Ah, love! At the same time,  Dorothy fell into a feud with Frances Mercer over the title of Best Dressed Woman in Hollywood.

VickIlester5The couple had a spat in September, got over it, and when Dorothy landed in hospital in October 1938, Dick was with her every single day. Then, all of a sudden, the papers started mentioning that the man Dorothy really loved was not Dick, but rather some Billy Reed? And truly, by November 1938, they were kaput! After that, in typical “can’t live with you, can’t live without you” fashion, they were on and of for a few additional months. Purcell dated Jane Wyman, then tried to hush it up and claimed that Dorothy was his one and only and that he will wed her… typical hammy behavior. By the time Dorothy got really sick in October 1939, they were over. Her mother came from the East to take care of her. Now, this is my theory of what happened – During her convalescence, she met a Dr. Sterling Bowen, who became her fiancee by the end of the year. That barely lasted until early 1940 – she took up with John Rose, a Disney executive, afterwards. She then dated Dick Behans and Alex D’Arcy. She got together again with Dr. Sterling Brown by June 1940. Sometime in the 1940s, Dorothy also had a few dates with Mickey Rooney.

By 1939, Dorothy was dating Bennett Cerf, the wealthy publisher/bon vivant, former husband of Sylvia Sidney. This too did not last, and by mid 1940, she was seen with director Al Hall. Then came Bob Oliver. Later that year, she started to date Eddie Cherkose, famed songwriter. What started as a nice, lovely dovely romance ended a bitter feud by June 1941. That year she was also romanced, long distance, by Stuart Schweit (all the way from Chicago!). In August 1941, she was laid up in the hospital bed once again, this time ptomaine poisoning. By early 1942, she was dating Matty Fox. He was swiftly replaced by Cesar Romero in March 1942. By April, it was Terry Hunt, the bodybuilder. By November 1942, there was talk she would elope with Richard Deer (or Derr). This was a serious relationship, but it didn’t lead to the altar. Perc Westmore took over by early 1943. In April 1943, she was dated by Brazilian playboy George Guinle. However, by June 1943, she was serious with George Brent. Boy, did she move fast! She then went to a USO tour of Europe with Jack McCoy, and allegedly even met the Pope in Rome.

lildorothydayIn early 1945, she met Steven Stanford, and married him on December 2, 1945, in Los Angeles. Stanford was born on November 6, 1909, to Charles Stanford and Rhoda Jamnik in Norway. He was a Norwegian ski champion who decided to turn to clothes designing. He spent some time in Paris and New York before settling in Hollywood.

She gave up movies and bought a dress shop. She started designing clothes, and was quite successful at it. However, the marriage was very short lived – they separated in July 1946. Stanford remarried in 1960 to Betty Skelly and died on July 25, 1979.

Betty wasted no time in waiting, and started dating director Jack Bernhard. They were married on November 13, 1947. Jack was born on to, Joseph Bernhard and Tillie Schmalzback. He grew up in the States, and started working as a writer then as a assistant producer, finally graduating to producer. During the war, he served in the UK, where he met Jean Gillie, and actress who would become his wife. They married in about 1944 and divorced in 1947. Jean died in 1949 (what a sad waste! She was a superb actress).

Both Jack and Dorothy retired from movie by the early 1950s. I have no idea what they did afterwards, nor if they had any children.

Jack Bernhard died on March 30, 1997, in Beverly Hills, California.
Dorothy Day Bernhard died on May 7, 2001, in Beverly Hills, California.

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