The 1931 New Orleans pageant that launched the career of Dorothy Lamour
In 1931, the very first Miss New Orleans competition was held, with a teenage high-school dropout named Dorothy Lambour taking the crown. The victory was a step toward a career that would take her away from New Orleans and lead, eventually, to Hollywood stardom. The name “Lamour” — without the “b” — would come later, as would her trademark sarong and her appearance in a popular series of seven “Road” movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Lamour died in 1996 at age 81, but her legacy lives on, not only because her movies show up regularly on cable television but also because the sarong has become identified with her, like such props as Groucho Marx’s cigar, Marlene Dietrich’s legs, Faye Dunaway’s “Bonnie and Clyde” beret, and Veronica Lake’s peek-a-boo hairdo.
- Lamour was known as “the sarong queen,” even though she said in interview that she wore the silk garment in only about a half-dozen of the 60 movies she made.
- She first tied on a sarong – a creation of the Oscar-winning Paramount costume designer Edith Head – when she played Ulah in “The Jungle Princess” (1936). Among the other movies in which Lamour wore that garment were “The Hurricane” (1937), “Typhoon” (1940) and “The Moon of Manakoora” (1943).
- In an interview quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Lamour said, “I thank God for that little strip of cloth.”
- One of her sarongs is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.
- She was born Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton on Dec. 10, 1914, “in the charity ward at Touro Infirmary,” she said in a 1974 interview. “We were not well off.” When her mother remarried, young Dorothy took her stepfather’s name of Lambour, which evolved into Lamour — “love” in French — when she went into show business.
- After winning the Miss New Orleans crown, she competed in the Miss Universe pageant but was disqualified for breaking a contest rule: She wore lipstick.
- She moved to Chicago, where she was a store clerk, a waitress and an elevator operator before auditioning to sing with Herbie Kay’s band. He became the first of her two husbands.
- “Lambour” became “Lamour” during a Dallas gig when she was singing with Kay’s band and a sign painter inadvertently omitted the “b.” It stuck.
- During World War II, she was so successful selling War Bonds that she was dubbed “The Bond Bombshell.”
- FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had a serious crush on Lamour. In violation of his own orders, he hired bureau employees to hang a moon in his backyard to impress her. According to Richard Hack’s biography of Hoover, the two spent a night together in a Washington, D.C., hotel. When Lamour was asked whether she and Hoover had a sexual relationship, she said, “I cannot deny it.”
- In 1976, David Cuthbert of The Times-Picayune teamed up with Bob Bruce and Ruth Moore to create “Lamoura of the Islands,” a musical spoof of Lamour’s sarong-clad characters that was set on “a tropical isle east of Samoa and south of the Industrial Canal.” It was successful enough to merit a sequel, “Lamoura and the Curse of the Voodoo Queen.”
- Later in her career, Lamour took to the stage, performing in dinner theaters and in the title role in a touring version of “Hello, Dolly!,” which played New Orleans.
Dorothy Lamour’s achievement is not only a source of hometown pride but also a reminder that success in show business is possible with the right combination of talent, timing, connections and luck. Lamour’s performances never received the acclaim accorded to work by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Meryl Streep, but she did reach the goal to which so many performers aspire: undeniable stardom.