Remembering Arlene Dahl

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Tuesday, January 4, 2022. We entered the New Year 2022 with a forecast of snow and cold and cold and snow all over the Eastern Seaboard. New Yorkers weren’t indifferent to the possibility of some white stuff on the ground to welcome the New Year. From the maps it looked like a blizzard and then some. However, although the temps dropped from the mid-50s on Sunday to the low low 20s by Monday, the snow was No — everywhere but here in little ole New York. Not really a surprise to this weather-watcher as the Big Storms have  amazingly skipped by us for the past couple of years, with the exception of some cold rain, otherwise a plain old, snowless winter day outside. Brrrr.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

Changes. How do we sum up the year just passed — living next to a wall of worry left over from the year before. But yes, the city is coming alive again, and people are moving themselves forward assiduously. The circumstances we’ve all been living under have definitely changed the social habits of many (but not everybody). As a result, the past two years of year-end holidays were quieter than in years past. The rules of separation under the “pandemic” are beginning to relax. The restaurants are jammed a lot more than ever — with the exception of these past few days when the Omicron variant had entered drama for the time being. Otherwise, you can feel the energy; we’re sharing it with each other with our presence.

Arlene Dahl left us November 29th. She was 96. I hadn’t seen her in the last couple of years. This wasn’t unusual as the last two years have isolated us in a variety of ways including not “seeing” people. The term “seeing people” here in New York is ordinarily comparable to seeing your neighbors in your neighborhood wherever you may live, or “seeing” them driving  or riding by on their way to or from.

Marc and Arlene — Life partners for 38 years.

In my Panglossian social life, Arlene and her husband Marc Rosen were/are the New York version of neighbors of mine who live all over town. For years we’ve been seeing each other at charitable affairs; at private receptions; and at restaurants occasionally dining together for years now. That’s the “neighborhood.” So we were social friends, as it is for many of us New Yorkers who get around.

Arlene, however, to me personally wasn’t really a “neighbor.” She was a Movie Star. Yes, way back when, but her identity was still wrapped up in her persona. It has been of a part of my life since childhood. It’s a powerful identity, a key part of our American 20th century culture. It was created. As a Movie Star Arlene was the real McCoy in that department. In her life — her golden youth — she was an MGM star.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the top of the top in the film business. There were several big and successful studios — Paramount, Columbia, Warner Brothers, RKO, 20th Century-Fox and Universal-International. But Metro, as it was referred to by people in the industry was the best retailer of beauty and luxury in our world. It was the all-American classic.

“More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” was its slogan, and the American public gladly noticed. And, it had what used to be referred to as the “Common Touch.” That was required in any American film production. Arlene was very much a part of that at its zenith.

Arlene Dahl in the ’50s.

Ideally, MGM was a reflection of the development and growth of this country mid-20th century. It was the ultimate marketer of the American Way. They were trained: how to smile, how to speak, how to make-up, how to walk. They were instructed to never leave their homes, never to be seen in public unless they were dressed and made up to look like they looked on the screen. The MGM “Stars” were the finest of their type in the entire film industry. The Picture and the Stars was the product of their marketing. This was the phenomenon of the 20th century.

The Famous MGM “More Stars Than in Heaven” image. When this was first published, the average American movie-goer could identify every individual star. That’s Arlene in the front row, far right, dressed in black.

And so I knew Arlene without ever having met her or seen her in person, from back when I was a kid in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. In those days 80 million Americans, more than half the population of the U.S., went to the movies every week (and often more than once). In that little New England town where I grew up, we went to the movies every Saturday matinee and saw it all.

In person, she had a quiet personality. There was a bit of a lilt in her laughter and she very graciously “didn’t miss much” of what was going on around her. But she wasn’t shy at all; she had a grace to her presence. Our conversations were mainly at table. She was an astrologer and very knowledgeable, which impressed me.

Although she had been living here in New York for decades, she  also still socialized at times with colleagues from the days at Metro such as Jane Powell and her husband, and Liza Minnelli who were frequent dinner guests. But none of this had an element of her past career, of “Sunset Boulevard” or Norma Desmond. Arlene lived in the Here and Now. The movie star represented a kind of iconic part of my cultural experience. It wasn’t as if she were promoting it; to her friends and family she was Arlene. But to an outsider, such as myself, she was an icon.

Arlene and Liza in 2010.

She was the only child of Norwegian-born couple in Minneapolis in 1926. Her father was the local Ford dealer. Her interest in theatre and performing started in late childhood and she followed it. After high school she moved to Chicago to become a model on her way to the stage. By age 19, in 1946, she was in New York with a part in a Broadway musical Questionable Ladies.

On opening night of the show, after the final curtain, back in her dressing room which she shared with two others, there came a knock on the door. Two men, one of them introduced himself as Jack Warner. Of course she knew; he was known to the world as one of the Warner Brothers. He was the mogul.

Dahl in 1946.
And three years later on the cover of Life.

He told Arlene that he’d like to give her a screen test. This was a big moment for any actor particularly at that time when all theatrical entertainment was either on stage or at the movies. Movies united local theatre. Arlene did the Test. She later said she looked terrible, everything about it was off; her hair was a mess. The whole thing was terrible. She just wanted to forget it.

However, much to her surprise Jack Warner called her into his New York office. He saw something more from that test, and offered her a standard 7-Year Contract (First year and then the right to option thereafter for 7 years). She was immediately interested except, she explained to Mr. Warner, she was contracted for a year with the show in which he’d seen her.

“You’ll be outta the contract by the end of the week,” the mogul stated. Why? Because, he told her, the show wouldn’t last a week.  And it didn’t; Arlene signed with Warner Brothers and moved to Los Angeles.

The glamour girl role was her typecast. This was the mid-1940s. We had just emerged from the Great Depression and the Second World War. Arlene was an all-American girl wearing that wholesomeness of the Great Midwest, but with a natural aplomb. She looked like a wealthy all-American girl. It was not distinctly Eastern or Mid-Atlantic; it was a wider appeal to the wider audience. That was the result of her upbringing in the Dahl household and her red hair.

What you didn’t see in that presence was a very ambitious young woman. When you look at her life, her career, her six marriages, you’re looking at a life that was active and moving and not accidentally; she was naturally a working girl.  Studios in those days which was remembered as “The Golden Age” of American films were bustling with activity.

Its founders — all driven to succeed, hardworking men — had come from the bottom of the ladder, and were traveling on the top. L.B. Mayer who started out in the motion picture business at the beginning of the century with a nickelodeon in busy Massachusetts industry town northwest of Boston. Within a decade he had moved up and into the film business working in Boston and New York. Then Los Angeles opened up because of the better climate and the light.

In 1918, with his wife and two daughters Mayer moved out to Los Angeles and started his own business making silent films. Six years later, in 1924, under the organization and financial leadership of theatre-owner Marcus Loew, Mayer, along with Samuel Goldwyn, merged into Loew’s Inc.

With Fred Astaire in MGM’s Three Little Words.

Twenty years later, MGM was the very top of the line. After more than a year at Warner’s with very little to do in front of a camera, Arlene was lent to M-G-M for a co-starring role in Three Little Words starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton, and Vera-Ellen about a famous American song-writing team Burt Kallmar and Harry Ruby. Arlene was cast as Ruby’s wife.

Mr. Mayer liked her. It wasn’t long before she got out of her Warner’s contract and moved over to MGM. Three Little Words was released in 1950 and Arlene joined the ranks of “more stars than there are in Heaven.”

The following year she married Lex Barker who was famous for playing Tarzan in the movies. They were divorced a year later. In 1954, Arlene married another MGM star, Fernando Lamas with whom she had a son, Lorenzo Lamas. They were divorced in 1960 and she married Texas oilman Christopher Holmes with whom she had a daughter Carole (now Carole deLouvrier). In 1964 she married Alexis Lichine whom she divorced in 1969, the same year she married Rounsevelle “Skip” Schaum with whom she had another son, Stephen. That marriage ended in 1976.

Arlene with first husband Lex Barker.
Arlene Dahl and Fernando Lamas.
On the set of Journey to the Center of the Earth with Lorenzo and Gertrude the duck.
Arlene Dahl with her three children Carole Holmes, Lorenzo Lamas, and Stephen Shaum.
Arlene celebrating her birthday at Swifty’s with daughter Carole by her side.

Her association with Metro was just about over by 1960 (as it was for almost all of its “Stars”). Television had moved into the scene. Although she continued to work in television through the ‘60s and the 70s and then on The Love Boat through the 80s as well as One Life to Live.

As Lucinda Schenk Wilson on One life to Live.
As Monica Cross on The Love Boat.

In the early ‘70s she replaced Lauren Bacall in the role of Margo Channing in Applause on Broadway. Then in the 1970s she got into the beauty business as a director of products for Sears Roebuck, leaving in ’75 to start her own fragrance company, Dahlia. She wrote a book on beauty and began a column that was published internationally for several years.

As Margo Channing in Applause.

Handsome men, famous men, rich men; and then she was single after her fifth divorce in 1976 — although rarely without suitors — until 1982 when she met Marc Rosen a young product designer of perfume bottling who was 20 years her junior and crazy about her. Two years later they married, and remained so for the rest of her life, 38 years. She and Mark were very much a part of the social and philanthropic scene both here and in Palm Beach up until the last two years when most of us were isolated because of Covid. It was a long great life, well lived, coveted by her husband Marc and surrounded by family, friends — both lifelong and rather new — to the very last days.

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