Farewell to the
Beauty of the 1930s
Dorothy Lee was the
most dazzling and beautiful star in the 1930s, as well as one of the spunkiest.
She is widely famous for her many films with the celebrated comedy team of Bert Wheeler and
Robert Woolsey. Dorothy was born as Marjorie Elizabeth Millsap on May 23, 1911, in Los Angeles.
She grew up in a neighborhood that consisted of all boys, and they became her best friends.
She was quick to keep up with them and would beat them at any game or sport.
From an early
age Dorothy had a burning desire to be a star. At age two she did a little
dance at a local theater and was one of the baby stars with a local revue. Her mother even had
her little ballet shoes bronzed.
up on Gower Street, which was just around the corner from a local film
Dorothy would love to go watch motion pictures and one of her favorite movie stars was
Norma Talmadge. After coming home from the movies, she would amuse her grandmother all
night long by re-enacting the entire film.
As a young girl,
Dorothy had a crush on silent heart-throb Douglas Fairbanks. Being sick
the mumps, she wrote him a fan letter and he quickly replied with an autographed picture,
which immediately cheered her up during her illness.
age of 14, Dorothy spotted an ad in the local paper for girls to join the
team. She ventured to northern California (driving herself at age 14!) where she tried out for
the game and successfully passed. She was very athletic and quickly fit in; she was also the
smallest player. It was her team that had beaten Canada in a large tournament and Dorothy
was the player who scored the final points for the U.S. team which decided the game’s fate.
She became the star player and got quite a write-up in the paper.
The same year,
an older family friend needed a partner in his vaudeville act since his
taken ill. Dorothy jumped at the chance to join the show. She sang him a song, and he saw her
spunk and talent and she quickly became part of his act which was a sort of a George Burns
and Gracie Allen type of show.
joined the Fanchon and Marco unit. They were a former ballroom dance team
who produced theatrical revues. She was soon doing seven-day bookings throughout
Dorothy, who was
still named Marjorie, decided it was time for a change. So she changed
name, ‘I chose Lee from my darling grandmother and Dorothy I just came up with on my
own.’ Dorothy Lee was now destined to become a star.
In between all
her acting, Dorothy entered into a brief marriage with Robert Booth that
in divorce two years later.
spotted an opening in the Broadway show, ‘Hello Yourself,’ which she went
audition for. The star of the show was famous orchestra leader Fred Waring and his
Pennsylvanians. She was immediately chosen for the part out of 150 other applicants.
opened in New York. Dorothy was a sensation and the hit of the whole show.
During one performance when she was doing an extremely fast paced dance, one of her
stockings broke. Since bare legs were unacceptable on stage during that time, Dorothy
fidgeted with her stocking throughout the whole number, never faltering. To everyone’s
astonishment, the audience went into a frenzy and loved it. So from then on, they had to keep
that bit in the show.
Dorothy Lee and
Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians were soon cast in one of New York’s
first talkies, Syncopation (1929). It also starred Morton Downey and Barbara Bennett. Recently,
Dorothy reflected on the film: ‘Syncopation was my first picture in ‘29. I’ll never forget Morton
Downey who was older than I was. He would always try to shock me by constantly saying
four letter words to me. Fred Waring kept telling me, ‘don’t let him get to you.’ It was all a lot
of fun. I was also the first girl to stand up in front of a band and sing solo, and I introduced the
song, ‘Do Something’ which later became a trademark tune for the cartoon Betty Boop.’
and Fred Waring became quite an item. He was madly in love with her and
became engaged on and off through the years. He had an onyx ring with diamonds custom
made for her as an engagement ring. Unfortunately, the two never married, ‘I think it was
better that it ended up that way. We both had thriving careers and it wasn’t the time for us to
settle down. But we have always remained good friends,’ Dorothy explained.
It was in Syncopation
where comedian Bert Wheeler was taken by the beautiful actress. He
instantly knew that he wanted Dorothy to be his leading lady in his upcoming picture, Rio
Rita. Bert had searched all over for Dorothy but had no luck in finding her. One day, while at a
theatrical bar, he mentioned to an acquaintance, ‘I just saw the cutest girl, Dorothy Lee, in
Syncopation, and I’ve been looking for her everywhere.’ The acquaintance said, ‘No kidding,
I’m playing opposite her in ‘Hello Yourself.’’ A meeting was arranged and there was an instant
rapport between the two. They remained good friends for over 40 years and her children came
to know him as Uncle Bert.
Dorothy went on to star in Rio Rita which also featured Bebe Daniels and
Coincidentally, in 1928 Dorothy had a brief scene with Bebe Daniels in the film Take Me
Rio Rita became
a box office sensation and Dorothy signed to a long term contract with
studio. Change was in the air and Dorothy was a rising star. She began appearing in many
delightful comedies with Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Dorothy’s talent and vitality added so
much to the Wheeler and Woolsey films, without her, they would have been a very pale
shadow compared to the great films that they have become. Dorothy’s song and dance
numbers are so enthralling to watch and she delivers each intricate dance step with amazing
It was in 1929
also that Dorothy attended her first Hollywood party. Her agent took her
famous Buster Keaton’s Italian-style mansion that he had built for his wife Natalie Talmadge.
‘It was my first big party and I was 18 and still pretty green. And I’ll never forget Buster
Keaton. He was the sweetest, nicest man you could ever know. He never smiled, but he
would always crack jokes and be very funny. Anyway, at the party we were all in the family
room. For Buster’s grand entrance, he appeared at the top of the stairs. Then he fell all the way
down them! We all just about fainted from the shock of it. But he was perfectly fine and
surprised us all. It was just a riot,’ Dorothy remembered.
other prominent stars that played opposite Dorothy were Edna May Oliver,
Brown, Russell Gleason, Rudy Vallee, and Lucille Ball.
The more Dorothy
could do the better it was. She was an athletic dynamo. She aced tennis
golf, where she won numerous tournaments and which were two of her favorite sports. She
would beat Cary Grant at ping pong. She could do 17 chin-ups with ease. Pole vaulting at
four-and-a-half feet was a cinch. She could beat any man at any sport. She had the strength of
Hercules, but at the same time no other woman could have been more delicately beautiful and
She was called
the five-foot bundle of pep and charmed everyone she came into contact
As 1930s writer, Richard Ray, put it in an article: ‘I had looked forward to interviewing
Dorothy Lee. Ah--a quiet two hours in a tranquil tea room tete-a-tete, I asking the questions
and she answering them with a dreamy look in those big brown eyes. As a matter of fact: ‘I
hate tea rooms,’ said Dorothy Lee. ‘Besides, I had a late breakfast and I’m not hungry. Do you
play golf?’ From that moment on I became tired and footsore. I chased Dorothy all over
Southern California. The route included 18 holes of golf at the Lakeside club, two sets of tennis
at the Lakeside Tennis club, a swim at the beach where Miss Lee has a summer home, and
several sets of ping pong in the game room of her house. At the end of the session, I was
hoping an ambulance would pass and rush me to my home and bed. She was ready to visit the
beach and take on the pleasure of rides and side shows. She is equally proficient at horse back
riding. Never in one girl have I seen so much animation and pep.’
This sums up how
athletic and never tiring Dorothy was. As a matter of fact, her only regret
not having parachuted out of an airplane; however, she did obtain her private pilot’s license
and flew her own plane from coast to coast.
In 1930 Dorothy
had many films to star in. She had become a full-fledged movie star. It
also in her contract that while she was in-between films she could tour with Fred Waring and
the Pennsylvanians. Waring had tailored a whole stage show ‘Rah, Rah Daze’ to feature
Dorothy. It was there that Dorothy’s favorite silent screen actress, Gloria Swanson, spotted her
and wanted to meet her after the stage show. ‘I was so stunned! She came back to meet me
and tell me how much she liked my performance and the show. I had admired her for years
and now here she was admiring me,’ exclaimed Dorothy.
Dorothy had an
interesting first meeting with Howard Hughs. ‘I met Howard Hughs at a golf
tournament in Agua Caliente. They had lost some of my luggage at the airport, and here I was
in a formal bar wearing a long evening gown with tennis shoes! I saw the back of Howard
Hughs and thought, ‘Gee, who’s that tall guy?’ He turned around and I knew it was Howard
Hughs! He said, ‘You’re Dorothy Lee, aren’t you?’ I nearly fainted because he knew who I
was. After that we and two other people played a few rounds of golf. The others wanted to
leave early so they decided to take a plane home and Howard said he would fly me home in
his huge private jet, and it was something to watch him fly that big plane of his. He took me
home and asked me if I’d like to go out to dinner with him. I said okay and I introduced him
to my mother, father, and everyone and we went out to dinner. At the time I don’t think they
realized who he was because when I told them, they were shocked and they said, ‘You’re
going out with Howard Hughs!’ From then on we became very good friends. He would send
his private car to come pick me up when we would go out and have a private dinner together.
We were more like brother and sister though since I already had a beau and he knew it.’
Dorothy also sang for Phil Harris and his band in 1932 at the Ambassador
Hotel in Los
Angeles for six months, and Xavier Cugat would play in between intermissions. Hughs came
to the hotel just to see Dorothy perform. He brought Jean Harlow as his date and that is where
Dorothy met her and recalled that ‘she was a very sweet girl. I lost touch with Howard
through the years, so I can’t understand what became of him with all that crazy stuff because
he was such a wonderful guy.’
Fame also didn’t come hard for Lee. She was shocked to see a huge billboard with her face on
it promoting her film, Laugh and Get Rich. ‘I was leaving the studio when I saw that and I was
so stunned. I let go of the brake on my car and my car sped away,’ she said.
which brought Dorothy to the spotlight again was when she and good friend
June Clyde were invited to a big Hollywood gathering. She remembered, ‘We were invited to
this big party and June and I were both not big fancy dressers, but this time we decided to get
a real fancy and expensive dress. So we individually went to Bolish Wilshire department store
and I bought the most beautiful gold lamŽ dress with pastel colors. I called June and said,
‘I’ve found the most beautiful dress’ and she said, ‘I did too!’
‘So, I arrived at her house and we were wearing the exact same dress! I said that I would go
home and change but she said, ‘No, don’t worry about it. Let’s just go like this.’ We went to
the party dressed the same and sat at the same table. Everyone kept coming up to us and
taking our picture. We got quite a write-up in the society columns.’
In 1932 Dorothy made
another Wheeler and Woolsey picture titled Girl Crazy. And in 1933 she
married USC football star Marshall Duffield who became a movie director. It was in Dorothy’s
many Wheeler and Woolsey movies where Duffield spotted and became spellbound by her
charm and after they met it was love at first sight.
to Duffield, Dorothy was appearing in the highly acclaimed stage production
‘She Loves Me Not.’ After the closing of one night’s show, Dorothy had an encounter that she
is very blessed to live through. ‘After the closing of ‘She Loves Me Not’ Marsh and two other
friends of ours were standing a few feet away from me when three men came up to me and
said, ‘Miss Lee, could we speak to you for a minute?’ I went over in the corner with them and
they circled around me and one put a gun to my stomach and demanded that I hand over my
paycheck to them. I was so angry that the thought of dying didn’t cross my mind, I said, ‘for
one, I don’t get paid today and if I had, I wouldn’t give it to you. I work hard for my money!’
Somehow they got scared off and after I told Marsh and he hurried up and called the police.
They were later caught by the police while riding on a streetcar.’ Dorothy was the ultimate
daredevil and completely fearless. ‘All I could think of then was how darn mad I was, but later
on it hit me I could have been hurt...I’ve been blessed.’
Another aspect of Dorothy’s fearlessness was during the making of The Cuckoos, where she
suggested that the professional knife thrower throw real knives at her. ‘They had it rigged in
the movie where it appeared that Mitchell Lewis was really throwing knives at me while I was
leaning against the wooden board. One day I ran into the real knife thrower and he said, ‘I bet
you’re afraid to let me throw those knives at you.’ I said, ‘Oh, no!’’ So Dorothy stood in front
of the wooden board and let the professional knife thrower throw his knives. Luckily Dorothy
made it out unscathed.
The rest of the
1930s were very exciting for Lee. She appeared in dozens of films, shorts,
Broadway shows that were very critically praised. She was a shining movie star and adored by
all the public. However, her two year marriage to Duffield didn’t last. They remained good
friends and she helped him get into a very lucrative business. He died a very wealthy man
many years later.
1935 Dorothy went to England and stayed with good friend June Clyde. She
England a while to test the waters and she auditioned for some film roles. Dorothy soon
became bored of waiting around in England. ‘I got homesick and didn’t want to stay any
longer. So as soon as I boarded the ship to leave, I received word that I had secured a part in a
movie. I wasn’t about to get off the ship and I said, ‘No way! I’m going home!’ It wasn’t too
bad that I gave up the role because as soon as I got home I made another Wheeler and
The year 1936 brought
Dorothy her last Wheeler and Woolsey picture, Silly Billies. It was a sad
ending to such a unique and unsurpassable partnership. While in Catalina Island taking
publicity photos with Wheeler and Woolsey, Dorothy’s friend set her up on a blind date with
tycoon A.G. Atwater, who was brother-in-law to Philip K. Wrigley, the bubble gum mogul.
Atwater was late for dinner on their first date and Dorothy became furious because he didn’t
show up without notifying her. He later called and apologized. He took her on a tour of the
Island and being instantly in love with Dorothy proposed marriage. It took a while for Dorothy
to agree but after they got to know each other better, they married.
Since all of
the women in the Wrigley/Atwater family didn’t have careers, for the love
husband, Dorothy decided to give up her acting career to be a stay-at-home wife. During this
time Wheeler and Woolsey made two other motion pictures without Dorothy and it was
greatly obvious that without her presence they were severely lacking. Unfortunately, the
opportunity to ever make a Wheeler and Woolsey movie again would be over for good when
Robert Woolsey contracted kidney disease and died in 1938. Bert Wheeler was crushed over
the death of his partner and Dorothy was equally saddened even though she didn’t keep in
close contact with Woolsey.
friendship with Wheeler thrived though. While needing a partner for his
show, Bert relied on his dear friend Dorothy to join him. Atwater, being displeased by her
choice to act again told her of his feelings. Dorothy was not swayed by him at all and said to
A.G., ‘Too bad, Bert needs me!’ The stage show went well and Dorothy recalled, ‘It was so
much fun and if we had stayed together as a team I’m sure we would have become another
Bert and Betty Wheeler.’ Referring to Bert’s early fame in vaudeville with his first wife Betty in
the late teens, early 1920s.
marriage to Atwater became strained and the two amicably separated. Dorothy
decided to continue with her acting career and starred in the stage show, ‘One For The
Money,’ in Chicago where she played with the then unknown Gene Kelly. ‘He was so
wonderful. Gene and I went through all the dance routines together and we did a really cute
tap, jitter-bug type of dance. We worked so hard on it that my legs were so sore that I had to
have them rubbed each day.’
She next appeared in the Sigmund Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein show titled ‘New Orleans’
with Tommy Ule. Her role was that of a Southern Bell where she did a comedic song and
Dorothy also appeared
on stage with Milton Berle. ‘He was a lot of fun and a riot! While I was
doing one of my acts on stage, he would be behind the curtain teasing me, trying to make me
mess up on my lines. Luckily he didn’t succeed, but it was a lot of fun.’
Lee began appearing
in bit parts in films, and during one of them she played with Lucille Ball.
‘We would look at each other and say, ‘Why are we playing such a small part?’ Lucy was a big
star then, and she’d say, ‘We’re getting paid well for it so why not.’’
In 1941 Dorothy
met and married business man John Bersbach. Once and for all she decided
give up her career to raise a family. Dorothy became a very good mother to four beautiful
children (one girl and three boys). She still was quite a socialite and mingled with many
celebrities. She even helped Jane Russell organize various worthwhile charities.
1960 Dorothy’s marriage to John Bersbach came to an end. Not long after
Dorothy hooked up with longtime neighbor and top-notch corporate attorney Charles
Calderini, who was madly in love with the beautiful Dorothy. He built her a beautiful home on
275 acres of land in scenic Galena, Ill., overlooking the Mississippi River. Their marriage was a
dream come true and they traveled the world together.
In the later
days of Bert Wheeler’s life he became ill with emphysema. He would often
Dorothy at her home where she would help him rehearse his lines for his stage shows and he
adored her children. Sadly, Wheeler died alone and broke in 1968.
Dorothy Lee counted
herself blessed, ‘I thank God for being so blessed and to have been able
to do all the things I ever wanted to do in life. I have a very wonderful family and terrific
friends. Today I can sing, ‘I did it my way.’’
Dorothy Lee passed away June 24, 1999. She was 88.
The Big Reel Magazine