Rowena Cook

Rowena Cook’s career might be considered lackluster by most standards, but she proved to be amazingly resilient performer in the long run. Rowena came to Hollywood via a contest, which is not good-by itself. Let’s be real,  most of the people who come to Hollywood by winning a contest (be it a beauty contest or anything similar) stay in the bottom levels of the pecking order, and Rowena was no exception – but unlike the majority of those people, she really wanted to act, not to become rich and famous. When such a person, with such aspirations, doesn’t hit fame in Hollywood, he find other outlets for his passion – and Rowena sure did! Let’s learn more about her!

EARLY LIFE

Rowena Sturges Cook was born on October 16, 1917, in Staten Island, New York, to Rowena Sturges and her husband, Wilburn Eugene Cook. Her older sister, Cordelia S, was born in 1906 in Mexico. Her father died in 1919 and, as far as I can tell, the family lived on his inheritance. Rowena and the girls moved to Traverse, Michigan in 1920, and moved to Pasadena around the time the recession hit.

After her education in Pasadena (of which I could not find anything), Rowena came to Chicago in the 1930s, working for about a year on a weekly radio show, before moving back to California in pursuit of an acting career.

In order to break into movies, Rowena entered the “Gateway to Hollywood“. It was a showcase for young up and coming actors, sponsored by Jesse Lasky, who conducts’ the search for new film talent via the show. She won, along with Ralph Bowman, Mary Jane Barnes and Lynn McKinley. And then it started!

CAREER

Rowena, as Alice Eden, was signed by RKO and got a decent role in Career, a movie showcasing life in a small Iowa town. And this is one good film – actually, it’s one of the few times that Hollywood realistically portrays the mentioned small town life. This ain’t no Andy Hardy, with his squeaky clean characters, perfect families and pristine streets – this is the real deal – as a reviewer on IMDB wrote:

This is a much grimmer world, where people are forced to face up to real issues, with no easy solutions; where panic and self-interest often take the place of reason and community-consciousness; where young love is often thwarted by ambition (and not just on the part of the career-minded male either); where the town drunk is not just a figure of fun, but contrives to be both boorishly obnoxious yet tragically sympathetic; above all, where venality is uppermost in just about everyone’s mind — except of course in the embittered storekeeper hero (revenge is what he’s after).

No wonder that the great Dalton Trumbo wrote the script – there is a ever present social undercurrent, and a very serious one. Sadly, the movie didn’t do any favors to anyone involved, including Rowena.

This is the story of a young girl who goes to Hollywood and hopes to become the next Sarah Bernhardt. Initially, Rowena was thrilled over winning’ the contest and getting a role and a contract. She’d spent years studying dramatic art, and naturally thought she’d be considered an actress. But she learned that people just thought of her as a contest winner. Her contract expired, and she was on her own. Instead of giving up hope, she decided that this was really her chance to make good. “I literally buried Alice Eden,” she said, the other day. “And started out to be just Rowena Cook.”

Sadly, Rowena Cook amassed only one credit. Kit Carson, an enjoyable but not particularly noteworthy western, with Jon Hall and Lynn Bari in the leads. A special bonus – Dana Andrews is also there!

That was all from Rowena!

PRIVATE LIFE

Rowena always maintained how she prepared for a theatrical career from her earliest days… When she got the Gateway to Hollywood contest, this is what papers wrote about her:

It seems that I will not have to worry about Rowena Cook’s (Alice Eden’s) future during the present year. She has 13 weeks of Alice Eden to do on the radio if she gets out of Des Moines alive. And then a picture and then the business of choosing between two or three contracts which have been slipped in the mail. Marvelously Lucky? You think that this little girl from New York has been marvelously lucky?

The sweet and dumb days have passed from Hollywood forever; a stupid grin and a good pair of gams are not enough at this time. Alice Eden is pretty enough to

Well, if you will start now and work for the next 17 years at plain and fancy dramatics, perhaps you will be lucky, like Miss Cook. She frittered away the precious hours during the first two years of her life and then someone told her that life is real and life ia earnest. “Oh, yes,” she said. “In June, 1939, only 17 years from now, Mr. Wrigley and Mr. Lasky will want me ta do a picture for them. Time’s a wastin’.” So there she Is as you will see her on Saturday.

Rowena’s only surge of publicity came when during that time, right after the win. As Andy Warhol would say, she had her five minutes of fame. Here is atypical article from that brief period:

Miss Eden, 21 and “blue-eyed blonde,” too was happy over her good luck and hoped it might lead to screen fame and fortune. Tuesday afternoon they presented medals at the A. A. U. and Wednesday night they will appear at the Varsity theater for the opening of the first picture In which they played featured – roles “Career.” Thursday morning they leave for Chicago and 13 weeks of radio work, and, in October, back to California.

It seemed like a wonderfully active, almost hectic life filled with interesting activities.. But it just didn’t last. On the other hand, Rowena’s co-star, John Archer (real name Ralph Bowman), enjoyed a long, if not especially successful career in Hollywood, amassed more than 100 credits, and married Marjorie Lord, and was the father of actress Anne Archer.
Rowena had a pretty low-key romantic life. On March 18, 1940, she married John Irving Laird, a fellow actor, in Los Angeles. Laird was born on December 10, 1911, to  Irving E. Laird and Ethel Taylor in Waukegan, Illinois, and came to Los Angeles for movie work as an actor. The marriage lasted eleven months, and they divorced in 1941. Laird remarried at least twice, second time in 1981, and died on August 5, 2003, in Florida.

By 1942, the US had entered WW2, and Rowena asked to be released from her contract so she could move to New York to help the war effort. This is what makes her such an interesting woman – when she saw that Hollywood wasn’t going to make her a top class actress, she opted to develop her skills in other ways and just left. No drama, just begin very efficient! In Nee York, Rowena began working as a trainer for new female Navy recruits at Hunter College in New York, and she did some part-time work as an actress, determined to become a legitimate stage actress.

In the theater circuit (during the run of John Loves Mary) she met director Vaughn Baggerly, whom she married in 1948. Vaughn Herbert Baggerly was born on April 18, 1917 in Davenport, Iowa, to Glenn Baggerly and Martha Crow, the youngest of two boys. The grew up and was educated in Davenport High School and attended the College of Theater Arts, Pasadena and then moved to Coral Gables, Florida, where he worked as a stage director. He was drafted in 1942, serving as a cryptographic officer and in the Special Services Corps. After returning to civilian life, he lived in New York.

The couple settled in Los Angeles, where their daughter Susan Rowena was born on July 31, 1949.  Despite his thriving theater career, Baggerly decided to become a professional Army officer, and was stationed in Tokyo during the Korean War. Rowena and Susan followed him there, and Rowena volunteered with a Red Cross at a local hospital. The couple returned to the US in 1955, and their son Vaughn David was born on July 28, 1955 in San Francisco.

Baggerly retired from the Army in 1964 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, then started to develop a recreation program for the Job Corps, and became head of the Job Corps office in San Francisco in 1965.

In their spare time, Vaughn was a director and Rowena an actress for the Theater of the Fifteen Company in Coral Gables – their love for acting never left them, and it was sure more than a simple fling but a deep passion. Not many actresses profiled on this blog could say that about their craft.

Vaughn retired in 1984 and he and Rowena settled in Laguna Nigel, Orange County.

Vaughn Baggerly died on January 20, 1990 and was buried in Illinois. Rowena moved to Barrington, Illinois, where she lived in a nursing home and was a capable illustrator and children’s stories writer.

Rowena Cook Baggerly died on March 2, 2004, in Barrington, Illinois.