Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a memoir in process by the late Arlene Dahl provided to NYSD by her husband Marc Rosen. If you like Hollywood stories, you’ll love this one:
In the late 1940s — early ’50s, the three leading hostesses in Hollywood were Cobina Wright, a social columnist for the Hearst Newspapers who held court in a large white mansion; Yolanda Saylor, a Venetian dynamo who charmingly murdered the English language with her bon mots and was married to Jay Saylor, a decorator to the stars; and the queen of them all, Lady Mendl, nee Elsie de Wolfe, renowned interior designer and wife of an English diplomat, Sir Charles Mendl.
Her much coveted invitation to a dinner was THE stamp of approval and proof that you had arrived socially in Hollywood. The film community by and large was not a part of this rarified Hollywood. It was reserved for individuals that society leaders like Elsie deemed suitable to join them.
These ladies ruled with a velvet glove and vied for prominence in that social firmament.
Elsie was by far the most sophisticated and soignee, and internationally famous. Devout Francophiles, Elsie and Sir Charles had been living for years at her beloved Villa Trianon, the only private home that had access to the gardens of Versailles because it had been a royal property. During World War II when the Germans were about to descend upon Paris, the Duchess of Windsor sent her Rolls Royce to spirit Elsie and Charles out of France via Spain to NewYork.
Why Elsie, a native New Yorker then in her mid-80s would move to Beverly Hills, a town she had no previous experience in, remains a mystery. Undaunted, however, she purchased a large but ordinary house there and named it “After All.”
Having left her FFF (fine French furniture) behind, she discovered a young L.A. designer, Tony Duquette, and became his mentor. Together they made her new house into a showplace with his unique tromphe l’oeil furniture pieces and her signature touches — such as green and white striped ceilings, shiny black floors, mirrored gardens, etcetera.
Dinner at Elsie’s quickly became the chicest and most coveted invitation in town. The elegant European atmosphere she created was “larger than life.”
Arlene Dahl, then a young working actress in New York, had been brought out to Hollywood to make a screen test for Jack Warner who had noticed her in a Broadway musical. She met actor Richard Greene on the Warner studio where he was making the film The Border Incident, and he invited her to a dinner party that he and his wife actress Patricia Medina were giving. He told her that he’d ask another dinner guest, Sir Charles Mendl, to send his car for her.
Greene described Mendl to her as a charming and distinguished diplomat, a grandfatherly older man with “an eye for beauty.” At the dinner, Arlene was seated next to Sir Charles and they hit it off immediately. Halfway through dinner he said, “You must meet Elsie, she would love you.”
At the time, Arlene, hailing from Minnesota, had no idea that Lady Mendl was the famous decorator Elsie DeWolfe. Shortly thereafter, Sir Charles sent his car and driver to pick her up at The Vine Lodge where she was staying when doing her screen test, to take her to their house for the luncheon.
On arrival Elsie greeted her in the grand living room, seated on an emerald green loveseat with her two toy poodles Gin and Tonic with their fur tinted the same shade of blue as Elsie’s.
“Call me Mother,” Elsie said to Arlene, extending her hand to greet her. As Arlene’s own Mother had died when she was fifteen, this greeting was both poignant and prophetic to her.
That same afternoon at the luncheon, Elsie invited Arlene to attend a black tie party the following week that the Mendls were giving for the legendary Cole Porter.
“It was with wild anticipation” Arlene recalled, “that I nervously fingered the invitation that had just been delivered. The elegant crème-colored envelope was addressed to me inscribed ‘by hand’ in the upper right hand corner. I ran to my desk to find a letter opener so as not to tear this precious object. As I slipped the pristine green-bordered card out of its lined envelope, I noticed an embossed green fox emblem at the top of the invitation. It read: What to wear: Cole Porter, Black tie.”
“I had packed in such a hurry when I left New York for Hollywood and my screen test that I’d forgotten to include anything suitable for a formal dinner.
“I’d have to buy a new gown even though my resources were extremely slim. I’d just received my first $500 weekly paycheck, which covered my rent and food.
“Would there be enough left to cover a proper gown? I’d just have to chance it. I grabbed the keys to my studio rental car and headed south to Bullocks Wilshire which was told was the best shop in town, and located on ‘The Miracle Mile’; and that was exactly what I needed … a miracle!
“The designer shop was on the third floor and as I was looking over the gowns on display, I was approached by an elegantly dressed woman who asked if she could help me. I told her I’d been invited to Sir Charles and Elsie Mendl’s black tie dinner and was looking for something appropriate. She seemed suitably impressed and came back from the stock room with a beautiful ivory satin gown with a matching stole.”
“It’s a Walter Florell design,” she explained; “Perfect for you, it’ll emphasize your white skin and red hair. No jewelry,” she advised, “just bare shoulders with this stole to cover them if it gets chilly.”
“She quickly ushered me into the ‘star’ dressing room to try on this special creation.
“As I admired myself in the three way mirror, the saleswoman remarked, ‘It’s a gorgeous gown on you. You’re sure to be the ‘star’ attraction of the evening.’”
“How prophetic,” I thought to myself. “I knew I just had to have it but when I saw the price tag, I was floored! $495.00! — just five dollars less than my paycheck! How could I spend my entire paycheck of the gown of my dreams?
“I confided my dilemma to the nice lady who turned out to be the buyer for the designer department. She said she understood, and offered to open a charge account for me so that I wouldn’t have to pay the entire sum until the end of the month — a solution that I could accommodate.
“I felt like a queen as I carried my precious package to the car and drove back to the Vine Lodge. Visions of this fabulous party and the impression I hoped to make kept dancing through my head.
“The week flew by filled with singing and dancing lessons sandwiched between preparations for my screen test, Accent on Youth, with various contract actors playing my leading men.
“Finally the moment of truth — June 12th — arrived. I felt like a debutante as I dressed for my first Hollywood black tie party given by the famous Lady and Sir Charles Mendl.
Arlene’s memory of the evening:
Wouldn’t you know that the zipper on my beautiful gown got stuck between my waist and shoulder blades and no matter how hard I pulled and tugged it wouldn’t budge. At that same moment, I was being called for by Russell Armes, one of the actors under contract to Warner’s.
Russell was tall and handsome and had been especially helpful in preparing me for my screen test, so I had invited him to escort me to this very special night, and he graciously accepted.
But could I ask him to zip me up when we’d just met last week and this was our first date?
Guess I’d have to. Couldn’t be late for this momentous occasion.
I grabbed my white stole and filled my evening bag with a compact, lipstick, comb and my Mother’s white lace handkerchief and some ‘mad money’ just in case.
As I was checking my hair and make-up in the hall mirror, the doorbell rang and Russell appeared looking very much the leading man. He made fast work of my zipper and we were off. I felt like Cinderella going to the ball. Russell was my Prince Charming and Elsie was my fairy Godmother.
When we arrived at the Mendl’s John, the butler, had a big smile of approval on his face as he opened the door for us and took my stole. Suddenly, Sir Charles was at my side and led us both into the drawing room to see Elsie and meet the other guests. I felt like Alice in Wonderland.
We were surrounded by Hollywood royalty, the biggest names in Hollywood. Sir Charles introduced me as “the next big Hollywood star” which embarrassed me considerably as I gazed into the eyes of Clark Gable, Joan Fontaine, Fred Astaire, Reginald Gardner and his beautiful wife, Nadia. Suddenly standing before me was Joan Crawford.
I couldn’t breathe. I managed to stammer, “Oh Miss Crawford, you are my mother’s favorite actress!”
Her face fell visibly.
“And mine too!” I quickly added.
But it was too late. She shot me a drop dead look and turned to her escort, Greg Bautzer, who thought it was amusing, and moved on.
I was so flustered and uncomfortable I could have died. I had made a major faux pas already.
Crawford, then in her forties, was famous for creating feuds in the press with new, young stars. She would vindictively continue a nasty campaign about me for the next decade.
Holding court in the elegant drawing room, Elsie motioned to me to come sit by her side. I noticed that the needlepoint pillows next to her had quotations embroidered in white ‘Never Explain, Never Complain,’ and ‘Don’t worry, It never happens,’ ‘Anon.’
I wondered who ‘Anon’ was.
Elsie introduced me to the famous fashion designer Adrian, who asked me where I was from. “Minneapolis, Minnesota” I answered in my best Norwegian accent. Adrian was amused as was Elsie who coaxed me to say more in my Scandinavian accent. As I obliged, dinner was announced on the terrace.
Russell escorted me in to dinner. I noticed that there were clusters of white roses down the center of the long narrow tables joined together with sprigs of green ivy on a white damask tablecloth interrupted only by three tall silver candelabras. The crystal stemware and silver service plates under elegant white china made me think of a Minnesota winter. It was breathtaking.
I looked for my place card, hoping I’d be seated alongside my escort so I’d have someone familiar to talk to. At each place setting there were green ivy leaves on which our names were inscribed in white ink. I passed Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, Arthur Rubinstein and then I saw my card. Looking to my right was not Russell’s name but Clark Gable’s.
What in the world would I have to say to either Clark Gable or Arthur Rubenstein? Or they to me? My chair was pulled out by Mr. Gable who smiled revealing ravishing dimples. He motioned for me to sit. I felt faint.
The table was set for twenty. At the head was Sir Charles and at the other end was Lady Mendl talking animatedly to Cole Porter. Seated directly across from me, much to my horror, was my mother’s favorite actress.
Our eyes met for a brief icy moment before she turned to talk to Adrian. Greg Bautzer, her dinner companion (and lover), was seated on her other side. He began flirting with me and continued to do so throughout dinner, which did not go unnoticed by Miss C.
This was not good.
Our first course continued with the winter white theme. Cold vichyssoise was served in tiny green soup tureens with accompanying cheese sticks.
“Will you be in California for long?” Mr. Rubinstein asked.
“Not really,” I said, “I’m here for six weeks to make a screen test for Warner Brothers.”
“Well, if I know Jack (Warner) he’ll keep a beautiful girl like you around for much longer than that.”
I was about to thank Mr. Rubinstein for the compliment when wine glasses were tapped. Sir Charles rose to welcome everyone and to toast the guest of honor, Cole Porter, who was still deep in conversation with Lady Mendl.
Charles told a few amusing stories having to do with music and then began to sing — a cappella — some hilarious new lyrics he’d put together to the tune of “You’re the Top” in a booming baritone voice. Everyone laughed and applauded his efforts. It broke the ice that was beginning to build from across the table … for the moment.
Mr. Gable wanted to know what part of the country I was from and when I told him Minnesota, he asked if I liked to fish. (Minnesota has 10,000 lakes.) I filled him in on my background of hunting and fishing with my father which began at a very early age.
We were in the middle of a conversation when hot plates were set in front of us.
A large silver platter was passed with tiny baby lamb chops dressed in fancy white paper pants, surrounded by carrots, string beans and fluffy white mashed potatoes. As I helped myself to this delicious concoction I took a deep breath.
The wonderful aroma promised a delicious dinner.
Suddenly, Joan Crawford rose from the table tapping her crystal wineglass (which had just been filled with the finest red Bordeaux) to toast our host and hostess. As she was about to toast the guest of honor, she (seemingly) lost control of her wineglass tossing its entire contents across the narrow table, and down the bodice of my white satin gown.
I was speechless as I watched the red drops cover my bosom then trickle down past my waist to my skirt. There was a hush in the room. Suddenly, Joan Fontaine jumped to her feet shouting,
“You bitch, you did that on purpose!”
Having said that, she rushed to my side, lifted me out of my chair and ushered me upstairs to Elsie’s inner sanctum.
I was horrified and humiliated. I wanted to evaporate. I started to cry as I watched Joan try to make the red stains disappear with cold water. I began sobbing as I saw the red become pink.
Finally, Joan remembered having seen me enter with a white satin stole. She called down to the butler’s pantry and asked John to bring my wrap up to Lady Mendl’s bedroom.
While we were waiting, she demanded, “Dry your tears so that bitch won’t have the satisfaction of seeing you cry.” Adding, “Besides, a red nose is never becoming.”
The stole appeared and Joan wrapped it across my chest covering the stains and tied it in the back. She then handed me her compact and told me to powder my nose.
“Now take a deep breath,” she ordered, “And let’s re-enter the party as if nothing happened.” Easier said than done I thought.
“After all,” Joan continued with a smile, “you are an actress.”
On our way downstairs she assured me that she and Sir Charles would see that “Lady Macbeth” replaced my gown.
Needless to say, Joan Fontaine became my friend for life.
As we descended the stairs we saw Cole Porter at the piano playing “You’re the Top.” Halfway through the song, he looked at me and motioning to the piano bench, said “come sing with me.”
Reggie and Clark coaxed me over to the bench. I thought I was dreaming. (Thank god I knew most of the lyrics.) But I was flabbergasted when he suddenly started to harmonize with me. Was this really happening or was I dreaming? Singing with Cole Porter, seated beside him at the piano?
Talk about dreams coming true, although I could never have imagined anything like this back in Minneapolis.
Suddenly, Dinner at Elsie’s’ took on a rosy glow which all but erased the earlier disaster.