By Steve Starr
In 1934, beautiful blonde rising star Dorothy Dell grieved in March over the death of actress Lilyan Tashman, and, in May, of actor Lew Cody.
After attending Lew's wake she remarked to a friend, "The old theatre tradition says death strikes in threes. I wonder who'll be next?"
Dorothy Dell Goff was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, January 30, 1915. Her parents Elbert and Lillian loved to enroll their gorgeous baby in beauty contests, and Dorothy won her first award when she was just thirteen months old as "The Most Beautiful Baby in Hattiesburg."
When Dorothy was ten, her family moved to New Orleans. Throughout her teen years, Dorothy won trophies for contests including "Miss American Legion," “Miss Biloxi," and "The Girl With The Perfect Back."
While attending the Sophie B. Wright High School for Girls, she made good friends with future movie star Dorothy Lamour. The two Dorothys both pursued dreams of show business, and both developed good singing voices.
Goff performed on numerous local radio shows, and was soon asked to sign a vaudeville touring contract with the famed Fanchon & Marco. She agreed to tour only if her mother, her sister Helen, and Dorothy Lamour could accompany her.
In 1930, Dorothy Goff won the title of Miss New Orleans, and then the gorgeous girl won both the Miss America and Miss Universe contests while wearing a $2.98 bathing suit and a $3.75 cotton dress. Dorothy was 15 years old. The following year, friend Dorothy Lamour won the contest for Miss New Orleans.
Singing throughout the country in 1931, Goff was offered a chance to appear in what would be the last edition of the Ziegfeld Follies in New York, in which some of the biggest Broadway stars of the day appeared. In the show, she sang a sexually infused, lewd solo, “Was I Drunk, Was He Handsome, And Did My Ma Give Me Hell?”
Dorothy Dell Goff legally changed her name to Dorothy Dell, and stardom was on her heels. After forty-two weeks in the Follies, Dell appeared on Broadway in Tattle Tales, and her affair with bandleader Russ Colombo further elevated Dorothy’s celebrity status. Soon, she was asked to film three musical shorts on the East Coast for Vitaphone Pictures.
Before long, she was headed for Hollywood, taking along her entire family. There, in the city of the stars, she signed with Paramount Pictures, and appeared as a dockside saloon girl in her first film, Wharf Angel, released on March 16, 1934. Critics loved her, and she was proclaimed to be the find of the season.
Her next role was a hard-boiled saloon keeper opposite star Shirley Temple in Little Miss Marker, and the day it was released, Dell’s picture appeared on the cover of Paramount Magazine. Dorothy was now being given the full star treatment. She was glamorized by the studio makeup artists, and given gorgeous gowns to be seen and photographed in.
Dorothy was interviewed by numerous fan magazines, remarking to one, "When I do marry...I want to fall in love so hard that I shall give up my career for it. Otherwise, it's a no-go. I do not want to fall in love with an actor...because they make boring husbands." The man in Dell's life, with whom she was reportedly engaged, was Dr. Carl Wagner, who had just performed surgery on her mother.
In April 1934, Dorothy's began filming her third movie, Shoot The Works, a musical comedy in which she sang a hit song "With My Eyes Wide Open, I'm Dreaming." After an advance screening of the movie, film writer Edwin Schallert wrote, "She is a sort of younger Mae West type, which is something in discoveries. There have been several actresses so nominated, but they haven't fulfilled the idea. It looks as if Miss Dell were really it."
After attending an all night party at an inn in Altadena on June 7, only six days after the release of Little Miss Marker, which received fantastic reviews, Carl was driving Dorothy home to Pasadena when the car skidded off the road on a curve, struck down a telephone pole, bounced off a palm tree and crashed against a huge boulder in a ditch. Dorothy, 19 years old, was killed instantly and pinned into the wreckage. Dr. Wagner died a few hours later at a Pasadena hospital.
Twenty-two days later, on June 29, "Shoot The Works" premiered to great reviews. One month later, her former lover Russ Colombo was killed by a friend’s antique pistol.
Dorothy Dell made three movies in six months in Hollywood, and seemed destined for immortality, with a long and lucrative career. Very few know of her today, though her friend Dorothy Lamour went on to become a very big star.
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. Starr, a photographer, designer, artist, writer and chronicler of film personalities, is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original art deco artifacts and photo frames, celebrating its 39th anniversary in 2006. Starr’s personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood’s most elegant luminaries.
Starr’s column on movie stars of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, named STARRLIGHT, appears in various periodicals, including Entertainment Magazine Online (EMOL.org), the Windy City Times, and the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
STARRGAZERS- Radiant Photography by Steve Starr is available privately and for events, and at various locations in Chicago including the beautiful Rumba Restaurant, the Seneca Hotel’s Chestnut Grill and Wine Bar, Cornelia’s Restaurant, the Cabaret Cocktail Boutique, Lucca’s Restaurant, the Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club, Katerina’s Nightclub, and the Whitehall Hotel’s Fornetto Mei, where Starr will photograph you and your friends, print, frame, sign and immediately deliver your photo on the premises for $10. For further information and current schedule phone 773-463-8017. Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine.Visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com, where you can enter The Starrlight Room, view some of his collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy photos, letters, and autographs he has received from some of his favorite stars.
Photo of Steve Starr at the Whitehall Hotel, January 28, 2006, taken by NBC News Director Harold “Sandy” Whiteley.
Sources: Dorothy Dell The Last Ziegfeld Girl by Eve Golden
They Had Faces Then by John Springer and Jack D. Hamilton
Dorothy Dell websites