Sunday, November 09, 2014

I Don't Know Why "Serious" Biographers Peddle Urban Legends

One of the five books--real books, not downloads on Kindle, since I love to skip around on non-fiction titles and read out of sequence--I am reading is a biography I got the other day about the Hollywood star and dancer Vera-Ellen (1921-1981). The title of the book is called Vera Ellen: The Magic and the Mystery. Since I started the book near the end which talked about her tragic final years of losing her baby to SIDS and living a life of seclusion as a result, I am not sure where the mystery about her is. Everybody who knew her never had a bad word to say about her and remembered her as a very kind, thoughtful person. Onscreen she always had a impish quality about her and was cute as a button. Of course she was an extremely talented, extremely dedicated dancer almost and perhaps to the point of being downright anal about it. She pushed herself so hard she likely ruined her health because of the weird eating habits she supposedly had (and to this day are still common among dancers) to keep her weight low and most likely suffered from anorexia in the years before it was commonly known to the public. She died of cancer in 1981, aged only 60.

Vera-Ellen made very few films in her career, a total of 14 in all. Her best known films remain 1949's On the Town and 1954's White Christmas. Unfortunately for her, the Hollywood musical declined by the end of the fifties, and here she was still in her thirties and could still dance up a mean streak. There just wasn't enough for her to do, so she married a second time to a Rothschild (who wasn't all that rich) and had a baby daughter when she was 42 (old back then) who unfortunately died at three months of age.

She was as talented a dancer as anybody who ever appeared in films. There is no question of it. She could dance any type of dance and could easily keep up with the likes of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. The sad thing is she is little remembered today, but she should be.

Anyway, getting to the urban legend. This biographer, David Soren, still peddles the easily debunked story of Vera-Ellen's neck. The legend goes that Vera-Ellen always kept her neck covered once she started displaying signs of anorexia because she had basically what is known as a turkey neck. The neck covering was most noticeable in White Christmas where it was obvious she was extremely thin and frail. The story goes that if a woman suffers from the effects of anorexia, it prematurely ages the body, especially the neck. Vera-Ellen was so self-conscious about it, the story goes, she had all of her costumes and clothes designed to hide this hideous deformity or always wore chokers or necklaces to somehow deflect attention away from it. Of course one of the reasons women wear chokers or necklaces is to ATTRACT attention to the neck, but why get in the way of a good story?

Unfortunately for the urban legend, there are pictures and film footage of her taken around the time of White Christmas that plainly show her neck was normal. Now she might have had a tiny scar on her neck she wanted to hide, or she thought her neck was too skinny, or perhaps she liked high collars, but whatever the reason, the turkey neck explanation ain't it.

I still think the book is okay, but if you are going to be a serious biographer, you can't be peddling urban legends. He probably shouldn't try to psychoanalyze her, either.

In case there are readers who don't know who I am talking about, here's Vera-Ellen in one of her most famous numbers, "Naughty But Nice" from the 1952 film The Belle of New York:

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