I asked the best reporter I know, actually the best all round writer and editor I know, my long time BFF, Barbara Varro, to write a post or two or more…on her reflections of celebrities she interviewed while fashion editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. Her wit, wisdom and total honesty make her a perfect person to do my first nenasnotes guest post. She sent along some tear sheets of her interviews with many of the icons of the 20th and thinking of Streisand, Tomlin, Twiggy and Shrimpton into the 21st Centuries. I have added some head shots of her interviewees. I know you are going to enjoy her reminiscences….perhaps I can convince her to do more in the future. Here we go on a trip down memory lane…
Nena has prompted (pushed) me to reminisce about my life as a newspaper writer and editor. We go way back when I was the fashion editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and she was the fashion maven at Saks Fifth Avenue.
In reflecting on my newspaper activities I remember interviews with designers, but some of my fondest memories are those with celebrities. Colleagues at the paper used to say, “follow the stars with Barbara.”
Of the models I interviewed one of the standouts was the British Twiggy who came to Chicago for a promotion for Gamble/Aldens catalog. The narrow-as-an-arrow model with huge eyes enhanced with multiple pairs of false lashes was only 17. She giggled and seemed vacuous. But she was very popular at the time. She was sweet to a group of teenagers crowding around her when she arrived at the Ambassador East Hotel, saying in her cockney accent, “Oy love Chicago. Never been here before.”
Jean Shrimpton, another wildly popular British model of that era, was classier than Twiggy. She retired from modeling after a few years and ran a bed and breakfast in Penzance with her husband. On a vacation there one year I ran into her and she was friendly but did not want to talk about her modeling days and the adulation she experienced. She said she was happy just being a normal woman living in Cornwall.
Whenever I went to California to cover fashion I had opportunities to talk to celebrities. Once we fashion editors were invited to a clambake on the set of the TV series, Peyton Place, and we hobnobbed with such stars as Ryan O’Neal, Mia Farrow, Dorothy Malone and George Peppard.
Another time we hit a jackpot of stars at the discotheque The Factory, set in an old furniture factory in Hollywood. We were guests of actress Polly Bergen, who was hawking her Turtle Oil cosmetics at the time. We were gaga whenever the elevator stopped and out came stars such as Rock Hudson, Sonny and Cher, Liza Minnelli, Rosalind Russell, Fred Astaire, Tony Curtis, Joan Collins, etc. Polly had asked the editors not to bother the stars, but one of the women had the nerve to ask Astaire to dance, and he did. The rest of us were too chicken to do such a thing but what a story she had to tell.
Debbie Reynolds was a delight, brash and witty. We fashion editors were invited to her home (when she was married to shoe magnate Harry Karl) for dinner and a showing of the Helen Rose collection. Standing next to Helen by her pool, Debbie said, “Years ago Helen told me that I looked terrible. I had been wearing $11 Lerner dresses at that point. Today, whatever I know about dressing this lady taught me.” Later, Helen said, “Over the years I have designed for a lot of stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, oops…I forgot.” Debbie shot back, “I didn’t.”
Debbie Reynolds and Helen Rose
I interviewed singer/actress Doris Day twice. She was lovely and talked a lot about animals. She was weepy when she told a story about Strongheart the German Shepherd. She said that friends referred to her Beverly Hills home as “the canine country club.” She also said that whenever she was on a movie set people would say, “here comes that animal nut whenever I went around looking to see if the animals were properly cared for and fed.”
I spoke to Barbra Streisand by telephone just before she gave her first concert in Chicago at Soldier Field in 1966. She mentioned that her sleek, short hair was styled by Chicago’s Fred Glaser and she had bought three gowns by Sarmi at Saks Fifth Avenue. She said that she had attended the fashion openings in Paris and had bought several Diors but had to had them altered because she was pregnant. At the time she was married to actor Elliot Gould. The Sarmis she would wear for the concert were all tent shapes to accommodate her growing mid section.
Zsa Zsa Gabor was a stitch. She was holding forth at lunch in Booth One at the Pump Room and was flattering a male friend, telling him that she loves a man who knows how to order, when she actually did most of the ordering. She was her usual bubbly self and was wearing a lot of jewelry including a humongous diamond ring that I said was big enough to give her hand a hernia. She told me that she had always been impulsive. “I even get married and divorced on impulse,” she said.
Ginger Rogers came to Chicago to do the play “Forty Carats” at Drury Lane. She was very particular about how she was to be photographed. When the photographer and I entered her suite at the hotel she was seated on a sofa surrounded by four big lights on poles. She said we could not take candid photos. She looked fine but her hair was long and platinum, billowing on her shoulders like cotton candy. She told me that she did not relish talking about the chiffon and feathered gowns she wore when she danced with Fred Astaire. “That is over,” she said. But she did mention the old saw about how she danced as well as he did but she did so backwards and in high heels.
Singer Rosemary Clooney was a great interview subject, so warm and self deprecating. She talked freely about her disturbing marriage to Jose Ferrer, who was abusive. She spoke about her former addictions to Percodan and about the rehab treatment that saved her. She also spoke fondly of Bing Crosby, who appeared with her in the movie “White Christmas.” And he wrote the forward to her book, “This for Remembrance.”
Lily Tomlin, who was performing on the TV hit “Laugh In” at the time, was a witty interview. She said, “I have no taste. I like comfortable, raggedy clothes.” And she said she hated to shop. Her idea of heaven would be opening her closet and finding “all new clothes that someone put in it and all in my size.” Asked about her character Ernestine, the telephone operator who wears 1940s clothes, she said, “Ernestine likes the 40s look. It was the look she had when she was young and she never changed.”
It was fun to walk down memory lane with the stars, some who have passed and some still present.”
A nenasnotes…Yes, Barbara it was fun to walk down memory lane with you and here we are friends for more years than we care to admit, still sharing a giggle or two, good food and always…always a bit of nostalgia! I’m going to work on her to share some of her incredible travel stories, fingers crossed. Good times….to be continued.
All Chicago Sun Times tearsheets courtesy of Barbara Varro. All other photos from Pinterest no photo credits available Barbara and Nena photo taken with Barbara’s camera several years ago at one of my visits to her home.