By Ronald Ahrens
Because Dinah Shore left thumbprints all over Palm Springs, I had to read about her. There were two choices on Amazon.com. One was Dinah: A Biography, from 1979. I can hardly tolerate the typography from that era; the cover alone put me off. The other, Miss Dinah Shore, by Michael B. Druxman, came out in 2015. I ordered that, thinking it was more contemporary.
Turns out, Druxman also wrote his book in the late-1970s, but a legal dispute between publishers kept it from being published, or so he says in the introduction. When he rediscovered the work in this decade, he put a few new touches on it, and BearManor Media brought it out. The type and design are contemporary, but this is a poorly edited and printed book with lots of gaffes, and what I’m seeing in the binding suggests it may be poorly manufactured as well.
Nevertheless, Miss Dinah Shore is deftly enough written, insightful, and full of charming anecdotes. All in all, a very pleasant story. The last biography I read was Is That All There Is?: James Gavin’s life of Peggy Lee. Despite the smooth New York treatment, it’s never a fun story. So what a relief to read about a kind, generous, self-possessed person in show biz. And just kept getting better and better. As Druxman says in the prologue, “[It’s] a tale of how love and strength of character merged to give us one of the world’s most exceptional women.” By no coincidence, Dinah was loved everywhere but, probably, Djibouti.
So who Dinah Shore? She was a Jewish girl from Winchester, Tennessee, a village with almost no Jews when she was born 102 years ago. Named Frances Rose Shore, she struggled early against polio (and her mother’s domination). Her father, Solomon, owned a successful department store. In 1920, when Frances Rose turned four years old, there were only 2,200 people in Winchester, which is near the Alabama border. Solomon succeeded in business, though, and when Dinah was about eight years old he sold his store and moved the family to Nashville, where there were better schools and more Jews. Frances Rose went to Hume-Fogg High School (still in business) and Vanderbilt University (ditto), to study sociology.
After graduating from Vandy, she sold her camera collection in order to finance her first weeks, and went to New York to make it in show biz. While running through her funds–“There’d always been dollars in my pocket because Daddy put them there”–she teamed up with (metronomic?) accompanist-arranger-conductor Martin “Ticker” Freeman in a long-lasting professional relationship. Then in 1938 she went to work singing for WNEW; her counterpart was Frank Sinatra. Both contributed their services free of charge, but new doors flew open. When Dinah picked up a short-term gig at the Strand with Leo Reisman’s orchestra, Solomon flew up from Nashville and “beamed his approval.”
Before long she got paid to sing on the radio. She started playing clubs and cutting records. A half-hour NBC program over the airwaves prompted the budding star to turn down Tommy Dorsey’s offer to join his band. “One of the greatest, most generous entertainers of his day”–Eddie Cantor–stepped in and got her involved in the movies. Soon she picked up the name Dinah for herself from the oft-sung favorite, “Dinah’s Blues.”
Dinah distinguished herself as one of the most energetic performers during World War Two, and here’s where I started thinking in present time. Would the likes of that once-vigorous chavista, Sean Penn, match Dinah’s bravery? She visited a Winchester schoolmate, Pfc. Emmett R. Anderton, Jr., who wrote to Dinah’s sister, Bessie: “Most of her entertaining is being done right up close to the front and with boys who have been in the thick of it since D-Day.” Dinah also landed her man, the actor George Montgomery, who had a special talent for furniture-making and also became the devoted father to their two children.
Montgomery and Dinah eventually split up, and she jumped right into a bound-to-fail-fast second marriage. She persisted, though, believing in true marital happiness. “I just know it’s there, I really do. I’ve seen one or two or three really happy marriages, where people give to each other, respect each other, live in terms of each other. Seeing even a few makes you realize, God, it must be possible. What a wonderful way of living and thinking and feeling –to be able to give and take selflessly.”
Dinah had a fling with the much younger Burt Reynolds, a smotheringly publicized romance, but she never remarried. Other than this unfulfillment, her story just keeps getting more wonderful. Despite middling success in the picture business, she had smashes on radio, then made the tricky transition to television, winning a slew of Emmys and immense fame. Those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s also remember her massive, unprecedented success in pitching for Chevy.
Hardly a feminist, Dinah said things like, “It’s a man’s world, and thank heaven for it.” Nevertheless, she made a profound impact on femininity. She was renowned for her style and grace, and she excelled in the kitchen: women bought her cookbook to experiment with when they weren’t transfixed by her TV show. She played tennis like a fiend, and then she took up golf, too. By her hand women’s professional golf made a huge stride with creation of the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle tournament–today the ANA Inspiration–played annually at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage.
Making another big mark in the desert, Dinah built a midcentury-modern showplace in Palm Springs and lived here while her kids finished high school. Many desert dwellers met her, and everybody says the same thing: “What a fine woman!” Few Hollywood stars have continued to earn acclaim beyond death.
Just five days short of her 78th birthday, Dinah died of ovarian cancer. Half of the ashes are at Hillside in Culver City. But the other half are at Forest Lawn in Cathedral City. Ex-hubby Montgomery, who outlived her six years after she died in 1994, is also buried here.
I went out today, turned off Dinah Shore Drive into the club, and talked my way through the gate in order to get photos of Dinah’s statue and the Wall of Champions.
Then I drove north, along the boundary of MLCC’s Gary Player course, to Forest Lawn. Yes, I hunted down the marker even though the office staffer claimed not to know Dinah was on the premises at all. Thanks Forest Lawn! I’ll have my ashes scattered along the Loup River in Nebraska before paying for your overpriced parking. From now on your mail goes on straight into the trash.
Finally, I crossed Ramon Road to Desert Memorial. Less than 200 yards in a straight line from Dinah’s spot, Frank Sinatra is buried with his parents and Barbara. How could one not be struck by the two singers’ starting their careers together, remaining life-long friends, and sticking together in death?