MONICA LEWIS — MISS LEG-0-GENIC

by

Albert H Morehead

As recently as last spring, Miss Monica Lewis of New York night clubs, Hollywood studios, and the airwaves, had never paid much attention to her legs. They were to stand on when she sang, to dance on when she danced, and to carry her forward in the entertainment world — an eminently proper function for legs. Apart from this, no one ever mentioned them except when some MGM photographer, shooting pin-up art, asked her to drape them over a chair or something.

Then a committee of the Society of Illustrators, having pored over a pile of cheesecake pictures six feet high, emerged with the unexpected verdict that Miss Monica Lewis is indeed Miss Leg-o-genic, possessor of the most photographable legs in the United States.

No one was more amazed than Miss Lewis herself. At first she suspected a practical joke.

“Men always liked to look at me,” she admits, “but it never seemed to me that their gaze lingered around my ankles. Or above my neck.” Monica’s legs may get the publicity but cannot obscure her eye-filling sweater-filling capacity. Recently she walked onto a television stage from behind a long, waist-high counter. The goggle-eyed young engineers in the control room were whistling through the soundproof glass long before her legs hove into sight.

Monica wouldn’t like you to think she climbed to stardom solely on her legogenicness. At the age of twenty-six she is a veteran of ten years’ successful experience in nearly every phase of her profession. She sings, she dances, she acts. She makes phonograph records, is on television and radio, and plays on the legitimate stage, in addition to her movie and night club work. Though stay-at-homes may just be learning about her, Monica has one of the biggest of all radio audiences. Twice a week she has her own show on the special Armed Services broadcasts, and long before her legs were publicly acclaimed, servicemen were sending in 3,000 requests a month for her picture. The figure is now between five and six thousand.

Nevertheless, a lot of good things have been happening to Monica Lewis lately. After two barren years in Hollywood, she finally was featured in two class-A pictures — “Everything I Have is Yours,” a lavish MGM musical, and “Break-up,” an RKO drama, both of which are now current. She was feted through the midwest, which she toured under commercial auspices, with crowds standing in line to get her autograph. All this since her legs received official recognition.

Cynics might suspect that somebody peeked (and when you gaze at Monica it’s hard to resist that suspicion). However, this is one title that was not merely a figment of her press-agent’s vivid imagination. Monica’s publicity man had nothing to do with it. If the Leg-o-genic title was a publicity plant, the blame (or credit, as you will) should go to a New York advertising agency, by name Donahue & Coe.

One of the jobs of this agency was to promote the Cameo brand of women’s hosiery, made by Burlington Mills. They felt the product could best be displayed while encasing a famous pair of legs; but whose legs were famous? Betty Grable’s, yes. Marlene Dietrich’s, yes. But Donahue & Coe wanted their famous legs to tour the midwest for eight solid weeks of department store appearances. They knew (a) that neither Grable nor Dietrich would do it, and (b) even if they would, the price would be astronomical.

So what to do? Obviously, if unable to afford legs that are already famous, one must create some famous legs that are more available.

Not that the selection of Monica Lewis’s legs was fixed. The Society of Illustrators is a distinguished coterie embracing nearly every famous magazine and advertising artist. Their committee used the true scientific approach. They covered the top of each pin-up and studied only the underpinnings. Not until their choice was irrevocable did they discover that they had struck it rich in other regions too.

Once Monica had been selected, Donahue & Coe promptly signed her up and dispatched her on the eight-weeks’ tour, complete with retinue and luxurious limousine.

Before the tour was two days old they knew they had the right girl. Here is precisely what Monica did on a typical day, often six and sometimes seven days a week: Up at 7:15. At radio station, 8:45 for 9:00 broadcast. At television studio at 9:45, 15 minutes for dressing and rehearsal, show at 10:00. At department store, 11:00 to 12:00, for personal appearance (including two lectures) and autographs. Businessmen’s luncheon at 12:15; make speech and award door prizes of hosiery. Leave in a rush at 1:30 for television studio, dress and rehearse 1:45 to 2:00, go on the air at 2:00. Back to department store for another hour, 3:00 to 4:00. Appearance on disk jockey broadcast, 4:30. Rush back to hotel, give cocktail party for sales clerks in hosiery department, 5:30 to 6:30. Interviews with local newspapermen, 6:30 to 7:30. Be photographed at 8:00, just as last straggling reporters are leaving. Dinner at 9:00 (room service; too tired to go out). Collapse into bed. It was the most backbreaking schedule this reporter had ever seen. But she always looked fresh and acted happy.

Monica came by it naturally. Her mother, Jessica Lewis, was an opera singer, and her father, Leon Lewis, an operatic conductor, with the Chicago Civic Opera Company in its peak days, along with stars like Mary Garden and Feodor Chaliapin. In this long-haired environment, Monica, her sister and her brother naturally studied music from birth. Brother Marlo was a good enough violinist to win a scholarship at the Chicago Conservatory; her sister Barbara became a concert pianist; and Monica, the youngest, was well grounded in musical theory, learned sight-reading and arranging, and developed a singing range of two and a half octaves.

But it didn’t take entirely with any of them. Marlo Lewis quite music for the advertising business and is now one of the principal television producers for CBS, “Toast of the Town” being one of his shows. Barbara became a housewife and mother. And Monica turned to jazz.

When she should have been wearing bobby sox and sipping sodas, she was singing in the hottest jam sessions in Greenwich Village. She was barely sixteen when she got her first radio show ($5 a week, Saturday afternoons), and she was a finished professional at eighteen, singing on a network radio show and in night clubs like the Stork Club and Blue Angel. (This isn’t unusual in show business; most of them, if they’re going to be good, start very young.)

Few songstresses have made as many phonograph records as Monica. She became a recording artist by marriage to Bob Thiele, who was even more addicted to hot music than Monica was. He was the only boy friend Monica ever had, and she had waited for him while he was in the navy; when he got out he married Monica and started a recording company, with Monica as his first and principal star. She sang everything: swing songs and sweet songs, novelties and tearjerkers. She even made children’s records, narrating fairy tales for the little tots. Bob’s company, Signature Records, eventually went out of business, but Monica’s recordings were bought by other companies and some of them are still on sale.

This experience helped give Monica her present versatility. Another factor is her remarkable memory. She knows 2,000 popular songs, words and arrangement (from previous performances), well enough to sing them without music or rehearsal. Other performers express amazement at the ease with which Monica records. Whenever she leaves Hollywood (as on last fall’s tour) she and the three-piece group with which she sings — piano, bass fiddle and guitar — put three months of shows on tape, and record eight fifteen-minute shows in a three-hour session. She walks in, says hello, plants herself before the microphone, and they do the show. Never a retake. (Hardly ever?)

The marriage of Monica and Bob may have been stormy for them but it had its amusing aspects for their friends. Bob was a jealous husband and wouldn’t let Monica go to the big mixed parties that abound in the world of popular music; too many men around. But of course he went; business necessity. Having arrived at the party he would greet his host, hie himself to the telephone, call Monica, and talk to her for two hours. Then he would hang up, say goodbye to his host, and go home. But the marriage finally went the way of most theatrical marriages. It ended in divorce after two years.

Professionally, Monica has been most successful in night clubs; her appeal is greatest when you see her in person.  Though alarmingly outspoken, she is warm and sympathetic and makes a friend of anyone she meets. In the movies, however, she has never had a sympathetic role, being typed as a “blonde menace” — the girl who threatens to steal the heroine’s man. Monica wants to escape (“Among other things,” she remarks, “I’m not really a blonde”) but can she? Susan Hayward managed to graduate, after years of menace roles, to the heroine parts, but no one else has done it.

Still, Monica can comfort herself with this thought: whatever happens, she can always be a salesman. On her midwestern tour, her spiel for Cameo stockings (“we use ’em at MGM”) increased sales 60% in the territory she covered, and whatever radio program she was on, immediately after the pause for the commercial she would add (ad-lib.) an extra plug for the sponsor’s product. She managed, in one day, to say something nice about four makes of radio, two competing refrigerators, and three brands of cigarettes. Fortunately for Monica, none of the programs had a cigar sponsor.

——————————

Some Background

A Letter from Monica to my father

 

Notes on Monica's parents and siblings

Leon Lewis and Jessica Lewis, at Croyden (403), 9/26

She was opera singer, he one of the conductors, at Chicago Civic Opera Company in early '20s. Both have taught for years, and they have just taken new studio at 28 E. 73 and will teach again. She taught voice, he piano and music. All three children took lessons regularly, Marlo was good enough on violin to get scholarship in Chicago Conservatory, Barbara was concert pianist, now married & three children but still plays for dance rehearsals, and Monica took daily voice lessons and learned musical theory as well as singing, can sight-read and arrange. Has range of 2 1/2 octaves. Might have sung opera, but didn't have taste for it. Earliest singing with jazz groups, who were crazy about her; ask Leonard Feather. First professional singing at WMCA, barely 16, got $5 a week on Saturday afternoons.

Got Hollywood contract by success on Chesterfield show, Johnny Johnston (she got $225 a week). MGM started her at $100. Her biggest advantage has been special Armed Services programs, radio, twice a week, free. Three-piece group, piano, bass and guitar. They tape the shows, as much as three months in advance is she's going to be away. Remarkable ease, she walks in and they record and almost never need more than one take. Audience 90 million, not broadcast to public at all. She has remarkable memory, knows 2,000 popular songs, words and previous performance well enough to sing them almost without rehearsal.