Totty Ames is a incredible, inspiring woman. She lasted more than 20 years as a model, acted sporadically and without much success, but her claim to fame was the choice to become a songstress when she was in her 60s, and succeeding brilliantly! She reinvented herself several times, and always marched on. Let’s learn more about Totty!
Winifred Estelle Totty was born on November 3, 1922, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Flavel Arthur Totty and Annie Belle Carothers, both native Oklahomans. Her father was a fireman, her mother worked as an elevator operator. In 1930, the family were boarders in a Oklahoma City flat with another family, the the Tillerys.
Estelle’s parents divorced in the 1930s, and her mother remarried to Alec Cope, who worked for a power company. Alec, Annie and Estelle lived in Oklahoma City in 1940, and Estelle worked as a cinema cashier to make some pocket change.
Estelle knew that she was destined for a showbiz career and so, after graduating high school she continued working as a cashier for a time, then in 1943 she hopped onto a bus bound for Hollywood. To get some financial footing, she started to work as a cashier at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood boulevard. In her later years she started that she loved watching the world go by there, on the Boulevard.
Estelle tried to modeling and acting assignments, and pretty soon leading photographers hired her to model clothing, swim wear and lingerie, and pretty soon she signed with the Gene Nelson modeling studios in Hollywood. She became a sought after pin-up and was named, among other titles, Miss Night Fighter of 1943.
This is how she broke into movies quite late, in 1963.
Totty was a late bloomer as far as movie roles were concerned – her first role was in 1963, in Wall of Noise, a mediocre drama movie with a solid if uninspired story: Joel Tarrant (Troy Donahue) an ambitious horse trainer working at the Hollywood Race Track. He works for the coarse Matt Rubio (Ralph Meeker) and his wife Laura (Suzanne Pleshette) expresses a special interest in the social life of Joel. Donahue was a pretty boy who never showed any real acting chops, but was adequate in most role she played – on the other hand, both Ralph Meeker and Suzanne Pleshette were very good thespians and many a movie is worth watching just to see them (Meeker especially, I definitely have a soft spot for him!). Another plus is seeing Ty Hardin and Dorothy Provine in supporting roles, and enjoying the very good cinematography by ace cinematographer Lucien Ballard. it’s not an innovative, top of the crop movie, but an okay effort form the early 1960s.
Totty’s minor claim to fame today are her appearances in two Flint movies – Our Man Flint and In Like Flint. Flint is a more energetic and less suave version of James Bond, and as a character tailor made for star James Coburn’s talents. I love Coburn, and, while he was not a handsome man nor a particularly good actor, he was extra charismatic and absolutely unique as far as actor go, so any movie he made is worth watching to see him alone (much like Meeker).
Both Flint movies are in their core spy parody films and they are good as such. The plots are ridiculous, but who’s watching it for the story – there’s Coburn, mod 60s set and clothes design, groovy music, that overall Steve-McQueen-cool atmosphere and a heap or very pretty (and scantly clad) girls.
Totty’ last movie was Skullduggery. Barnaby Rudge, a reviewer on IMDB, perfectly summed up the movie like this: Skullduggery is a strange, strange film based on the novel “Ye Shall Know Them” by Vercors. To unleash criticism at the film feels really unkind, since it is a movie that deals with earnest themes like humanity, and pleas for upright moral standards and tolerance. But in spite of its honorable intentions and its well-meaning tone, Skullduggery simply isn’t a very good film. For me, the main problem is the terribly disjointed narrative which can’t make its mind up how best to convey its message. The first half of the movie is like watching a standard jungle expedition flick of the Tarzan ilk; later it teeters into sci-fi fable; by the end it slips into courtroom melodramatics. The differences in tone between each section of the movie are too great, too jarring, to overlook. They stick out like a sore thumb and remind you constantly that you’re watching a muddled, disorganized movie.
A nice try, but not a successful one unfortunately.
That was it from Totty!
Before she ended up in Hollywood, Estelle had a short marriage to a fellow Oklahoman, Harold F. Douglas. The two wed on June 29, 1940, in Canadian, Oklahoma, – she was only 17 and he was barely 21 years old. Douglas was born in 1919 in Oklahoma.
While some of these youthful marriages do work, this one did not and they divorced in about 1942. Douglas remarried to Mary Elizabeth Hinze, went to serve us the Us army in Korea and sadly died there in 1951.
Judging by some later articles, there seems to have been more marriages on Totty’s plate, but I could find only one – to Leonard Herman Barnet. They wed on November 21, 1951, in Los Angeles, California. Leonard was born in 1928 to Harry Barnet and Sarah Turppin, and worked as a suede cutter when he wed Totty. However, the marriage was anything but harmonious, as this article can attest:
Winifred Barnet, 31- year old fashion model, received a decree of divorce yesterday after testifying that six weeks after their marriage her husband degraded her from his beloved to his house’ keeper. Superior Judge Kenneth C. Newell granted her the decree from Leonard Barnet, 26, a suede cutter, to whom she was married here Nov. 21, 1952. “For the first six weeks I was very happy, with him,” said Mrs. Barnet, known professionally as Totty Ames. “Then one day he brought another woman to our home and the two of them announced they were in love.” “Did he say he was leaving you?” asked her attorney, Bentley M. Harris. “Oh, no,” she replied. “He wanted me to continue keeping love affair on the side.” Mrs. Barnet said she nevertheless tried to keep her marriage together but that she and the other woman
Totty worked tirelessly as a model and actress for decades to come, but her true renaissance happened when she was in her 60s. Namely, at age 65, Totty made her professional singing career performing in leading Los Angeles cabarets. Her career included Executive Assistant to Neil Diamond and co-owner of a designer showroom. Here is an article from her time as a songstress:
Many wannabe singers can work the microphone, the way the pros did it. But for a lot of reasons the dream got lost in the hustle of trying to make it. Make it she did, as an actress and a model, wending her way through marriages that didn’t work and stepchild-raising she could have done without. She likes to say she got into film the old-fashioned way, by sleeping with the producer, then adds wryly, “I was married to him.” On stage, she’s equally peppery, advising an audience she’s going to sing a mix of old tunes because “I’m 70 years old and I can damned well sing what I want.” After one career ended, someone said to Totty she ought to be doing what she’s always wanted to do, singing on stage, and she said why not? “If not now, I asked myself, when?” She began studying at age 64 and a year and a half later hit the stage at Gardenia. “Isn’t it wonderful,” she says now, “being 70 and doing exactly what I want to be doing?” I was thinking as she walked us through the sleepy gardens of “Deep Purple” how great it would be if we could all find that way around time and reach down to where energy once burned like magnesium and become a Totty Ames. I left the club still hearing music and drove home wrapped in the mist of a memory, thinking about time and a distant rain. “She’s 70?” Cinelll said, stunned by the willowy presence that held the spotlight like she was born in it. “We should all look so good.” Totty could have been In her early 40s, but looks weren’t the only thing. It was the way she sang with strength and youth that Impressed, as though she’d discovered a way around time and had returned from a secret place to baffle the aging. I know 70-ycar-olds who can’t make it across a driveway without a walker and whose voices quaver with the Infirmities of age; those who allow themselves to fall through time to eternity without so much as a struggle, like leaves carried away by an autumn wind. And thon there’s Totty behind a mike looking good and doing “ieep Purple” over a room with candle-lit tables until there isn’t another sound, only the hush of people remembering. What makes it remarkable Is this Is a whole new career for her, one that began In this same club just four years ago. She came to U A. from Oklahoma when she was 21 for the same reason most kids come here, to be a part of the magic. She had $10 and a dream. Totty loved music from the beginning, a little girl grabbing a broom and pretending it was a There’s gotta be 10,000 clubs In LA. that offer entertainment. Sometimes it’s just a guy at a piano looking distracted as he churns out tunes faintly similar to Muzak, other times It’s a vocalist or someone on an alto sax or a small band or magicians or comics or something. Maybe 10,000’s an exaggeration but it seems that way. I get calls from corners of the county where you’d never expect a club to be, saying come and hear the next Blllie Holiday or Billy Crystal or see a nude dancer named Tiffany who’ll knock your aocks off. I don’t go most of the time because I’m not a nightclub writer and haven’t got time to be everywhere, and nudity on stage has yet to knock my socks off. But a credible friend who used to write a column for the Houston Post said I Just had to hear Totty Ames. His name Is David Wcsthelmcr. You know him as the guy who wrote “Von Ryan’s Express” and “Sweet Charlie” and a lot of other good things. He hangs out at a restaurant in Venice called Casablanca along with Dan Seymour, one of the last remaining actors from the movie. Recently, every time I’ve seen David he’s mentioned Totty Ames. The guy’s persistent. We’d be talking about his new book, a memoir of his years in a PCW camp culled “Silting it Out,” unci he’d slip Totty’s name into the conversation. “Wht’s with this Totty?” I finally asked him one night. He said, “She’s a 70 year-old singer who didn’t start singing until she was OB and she’ll knock your socks off.” So the other evening I took Cinelll to a club on the Westside with the unlikely name of Gardenia. It was the day of the big rain In I ..A. and street lights reflected In the wet pavement, casting the night In an amber glow, recalling rainy nights long ago. Magic Is afoot on those kinds of nights when u storm has swept through and stars cmorgc like diamonds on black velvet. Music can carry you back to times and places you haven’t been in a lifetime of forgetting. Totty is like no septuagenarian you’ve ever seen. Up there In a gold lame’ pantsuit, she shines with an aura that defies age.”
Totty never really retired, always active and vital until the last moment.
Totty Ames died on July 10, 2015 in Glendale, California.