Dorothy Lamour, 'Road' star, dies Obituary: She teamed up with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in a series of "Road" movies and made the sarong famous.

September 23, 1996|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Dorothy Lamour, the Hollywood star primarily known in the 1930s and 1940s for her portrayals of exotic South Sea heroines wrapped in a silk sarong that became her trademark, died yesterday in her Los Angeles home. She was 81.

A sultry, dark-haired Louisiana beauty who never actually saw the South Seas until she was nearly 70, Lamour was a veteran of about 60 films. In addition to her early "sarong" pictures, she was also the love interest and straight-faced foil to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their seven "road" comedies -- among them the "Road to Morocco," to "Zanzibar" and to "Singapore."

The swift-quipping "road" movies were, Hope once said, "like a tennis game with Dottie in the middle watching."

Lamour told People magazine in 1982, "Mostly they would ad lib, playing with the lines I'd worked so hard to memorize.

"The night before 'Road to Singapore' I naively studied my script like crazy. When it came time, the ad libs started flying every which way. I kept waiting for a cue which never came. In exasperation I said, 'Please, guys, when can I get my line in?' They stopped dead and laughed for 10 minutes."

She once said of those films, "I was the happiest and highest paid straight woman in the business."

The fabled sarong, the creation of Oscar-winning designer Edith Head, wound up in the Smithsonian Institution's costume collection, even though, as Lamour remarked, "I made 60 motion pictures and only wore the sarong in about six pictures, but it did become a kind of trademark.

"And it did hinder me. They expect you to always be the young girl leaning against the palm tree. Why should you want to act?"

A classic product of Hollywood's star system and studio publicity buildup, she spent years under contract to Paramount Pictures, which promised in ads to show "as much of Lamour as the censors will permit -- with or without the sarong."

While popular at the box office, she was considered a limited performer. "The one thing of which nobody ever accused Dorothy Lamour in the '30s was acting," one critic wrote.

As Lamour herself would good-humoredly say:

"I thank God for that little strip of cloth."

In later years she toured in "Hello, Dolly" and did occasional dinner theater and singing engagements. In 1980, she wrote a largely unrevealing autobiography, "My Side of the Road," which she described as "too clean to keep going very long." And later in the 1980s, she went on a nostalgic one-woman tour, "bringing back happy memories" to her original fans.

Her life story was a true rags-to-riches tale, beginning with her birth in the charity ward of a New Orleans hospital in 1914. With the given names of Mary Leta Dorothy, her marquee name, Lamour, was taken from her stepfather's last name, Lambour, which sounded enticingly like the French word for "love."

Poverty forced her from school in her teens. She started to learn secretarial skills, but when a friend won a Miss Universe contest and toured with a vaudeville unit in 1930, Lamour went along as part of the entourage.

In 1931, she won the Miss New Orleans title. She competed for Miss Universe but was disqualified for breaking a contest rule by wearing lipstick.

Hoping to become a singer, she moved to Chicago, where friend working for a radio show made her a last-minute replacement for a no-show guest, and her singing won her an audition with bandleader Herbie Kay.

She toured with Kay, who became her first husband in 1935, and headed for New York City, singing at nightspots such as the Stork Club. She also sang for an NBC radio show, "Dreamer of Songs," which brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Paramount signed her for $200 a week in 1936.

That same year, her first film role -- and first sarong -- was the title role in "The Jungle Princess," a yarn about a pilot, played by Ray Milland, who crashes his plane in a jungle and finds Ullah, a native girl in a sarong.

The movie, and the sarong, made a hit. Yet of the many films Lamour made, the sarong appeared in only five others. These included "The Hurricane" and "Her Jungle Love" (1938), again with Ray Milland.

Lamour divorced band leader Kay in 1939, and in 1943 married William Ross Howard III, an Air Force lieutenant she met during World War II. The first marriage was apparently affected by career demands, but her second marriage was happy and lasted until his death 35 years later. After the war, her husband went into advertising, and the couple had two sons, John Ridgely and Richard Thomson.

The couple moved to Howard's native Baltimore, where she served on the Baltimore Civic Center Commission. In 1968, she returned to Hollywood with her husband, who died in 1978.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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