She's 84, doggone stylish and a rare breed

April 22, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

Friday evening, Lina Basquette celebrated her 84th birthday at home in Wheeling, W. Va. On Saturday, she drove alone to Baltimore --the rain dragged out the trip to seven hours --in her 1991 red Chevy Cavalier. She spent Sunday at the Baltimore County Kennel Club's 55th show, judging classes of Akitas, Great Pyrenees, Komondors, giant Schnauzers, bull mastiffs, Samoyeds and Portuguese Water Dogs -- no, she begs your pardon, she judged Portuguese Water Dogs last week at a show in Hagerstown.

Consider it a typically frantic weekend for the silent film star, former Ziegfeld dancer, renowned Great Dane breeder, American Kennel Club judge...and author.

At a moment between various obligations, Basquette relaxed in the Paddock Lounge of the Hunt Valley Inn with a cigarette, a vodka and tonic and some thoughts about her recently published autobiography, her dogs and herself.

"I have a wonderful habit of bouncing back," she said. "People are always asking me how it is that I look so well; the last time I had a physical was when I was 50. I have a dentist and a veterinarian. That's it."

And she looks, well, mahvelous. About 5'3," her hair an ageless shade of beige, she is svelte and snappy. She's wearing two-inch eyelashes and jewels a-plenty: Six rings -- one of them a watch surrounded by ruby-colored stones; a gold peacock pin, a gold cat pin and a gold choker with the likeness of one of her former charges, the Great Dane renowned in the show world as Champion C & B's Special K Gribbin.

She also wears a pin of a tiny gold angel which was a gift from a friend.

"It's my guardian angel," she said. "I'm a little superstitious. Supposedly,if you buy one for yourself, it won't work. But if someone else buys it for you, it will."

The more she tells about her life, the more you believe in guardian angels. The first project of her over-zealous stage mother, Lina was promoted as the ballet prodigy "Anna Pavlova, Jr." by the time she was seven. Dance roles in such silent films as "The Dance of Love" and "The Caravan" followed and she became the first pupil to enroll in Universal Film's school for movie children.

By 1923 -- at the age of 16 -- she began her Broadway career as a "America's prima ballerina" in Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies.

It was quite unusual for a dancer so young to secure a contract with Ziegfeld. But Lina was unusual.

"Most ballerinas were blond and fragile and fluffy looking. I had dark hair and olive skin and this sultriness. I was one of those ballerinas that was on the sexy side, rather than on the coy side. A dramatic ballerina."

Two years later Basquette began the first of her seven marriages when she wed Sam Warner, co-founder of Warner Bros. He died two years after their wedding, shortly after finishing "The Jazz Singer." As a young widow and mother, she resumed her film career with a starring role in Cecil B. DeMille's 1929 "The Godless Girl." She records all of the details in her autobiography "Lina: DeMille's Godless Girl."

While her book peers into the crannies of the early days of the film industry -- Basquette made 47 films, almost half of them by the age of 20 -- the book also tells of Basquette's relationship with dancer Marge Champion, her half-sister and junior by 12 years, and of love affairs with such celebrities as Jack Dempsey.

"There's a lot of humor in the book, a lot of sex. But I don't hurt anybody. It's very truthful," she said.

"DeMille's Godless Girl" covers her first 30 years of life. The original manuscript covered 4,000 pages. William Denlinger, the Virginia publisher who also published Basquette's book, "Your Great Dane," cut the text down to 488 pages. Basquette has almost finished the second part of her autobiography, a book entitled "It's A Dog's Life."

Any talk about her film career eventually turns to the dogs she said rescued her from it; during the past 40 years, Basquette became known as one of the most noted Great Dane breeders in the United States.

It was in 1947 -- when she married Warner Gilmore, her sixth husband and general manager of the St. Moritz Hotel --that she began to raise purebred dogs. In 1950, the couple established Honey Hollow Kennels in Lahaska, Pa. to breed and show Great Danes. Basquette got her all-breed professional handlers license that same year.

In 1951, she got another divorce.

"I gave up show business and men all at once," she said. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me. I stayed a good girl because I didn't want the dogs to be ashamed of me."

Basquette became known for her special grace and flair handling dogs at shows. She handled dogs until she was 79, then she became a judge; she averages about 25 shows a year. Still legally married to Frank Mancuso -- they separated in 1959 -- she lives in an elegant apartment created from the 40 foot-by-60 foot dining room of an old mansion in Wheeling. She speaks proudly of her six great-grandchildren and of the column she writes for Kennel Review, a monthly dog magazine.

Although most of Basquette's films have slipped into obscurity -- her last was 'A Night For Crime' in 1943 -- she still receives fan mail from around the world.

And she has accepted another acting job in an independent film to be shot in Charleston, W. Va. She will play the part of a West Virginia mountain lady.

"They said I must look older," Basquette said. "It's part comedy and part drama, which is right down my alley. But I want you to know I'd rather judge a dog show than do a film any day."

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