Double Dare

This story originally appeared through the kind offices of Cliff Aliperti at Immortal Ephemera. It concerns my unique correspondence with one of Warren William’s friends, the late, late Dorothy Dare.

Warren William, Dorothy Dare and George Brent enjoy a Coke at William's ranch in Encino, California.

Dorothy Dare is one of those rare beings that have died twice. Along with a number of fortunate heart attack victims and innumerable comic book villains, this low-level starlet of Hollywood’s Golden Age received amazing renewed life (and duplicate death) in the age of the internet.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, Dorothy Dare was a pleasant, attractive young girl with an ambitious mother who had a dream. It was not so unique a dream, then or now; Mrs. Dare wanted her daughter to become a motion picture star.

Without going into the details of mother and daughter’s travails (of which I know very little, regardless), Dorothy Dare did, indeed, eventually make her way to Hollywood. During the 1930’s, while under contract to Warner Brothers, she shared the screen with a Who’s-Who of the studio’s stars, including James Cagney, Dick Powell and the man who posthumously introduced me to her, Warren William.

While I was researching my biography of Mr. William, I ran across her name when she posted a marvelously sweet remembrance of him on the web site Find a Grave.com. It was 2006, and Dorothy was then in her 90’s, still spry and sharp, learning and indulging in new technology that would put her in touch with movie fans the world over. She was one of those lucky people who became noteworthy and celebrated by dint of simply having outlived all their more famous (or shall we just say “famous”) contemporaries. As one of only a handful of people left alive who participated in the early days of sound film, and who still remembered the sights, sounds and personalities of that era of classic film, Dorothy again became something of a mini celebrity, her story appearing in newspapers and magazines as the World’s Oldest Internet Enthusiast. Her modest career became the subject of far more interest than it had ever been accorded during the heyday of her screen success.

As the oldest surviving person to have worked with Warren William, and also having been a personal friend of Warren and his wife, Dorothy was a natural to seek out for an interview. The day I discovered her post I wrote to ask if she’d be interested in participating in my research. She replied to my inquiry with a most generous email, promising to answer all questions to the best of her knowledge, and we began a correspondence about not just Warren William, but her career and life, friends, family and co-workers. It is safe to say that over the next year, we became quite friendly in our semi-weekly letters, and she helped illuminate many interesting and unknown aspects of Warren William’s professional and private life. Her memory was still quite good, but she also often supplanted it by delving into old scrap books, journals, diaries and address books for concrete facts like telephone numbers, summer home locations and information on some of the other old-time actresses who might still be alive. Many of her obscure recollections were confirmed and fleshed out by equally obscure newspaper and magazine references that I discovered over the intervening months.  

During the time of our correspondence, Dorothy endured a series of health and family troubles, a home invasion, a difficult move and a small stroke. I worried about her, sympathized with her and enjoyed her company. My girlfriend and I sent off Get Well cards and Birthday wishes, and she seemed genuinely happy to have us as a small part of her life. Dorothy eventually offered to have me to her home for lunch, give me an interview and a tour through her personal papers. So, I began planning my second research trip to southern California, first to squeeze in visits to the Warner Brothers archives, AMPAS library, UCLA, and then of course, a personal interview with the lady herself, now living just outside Los Angeles. Without sounding too morbid, I hoped that I would be able to see her in person before it was too late to take advantage of her kind offer.

In the fall of 2008 everything was set, and Dorothy agreed to a visit at the new apartment she was about to move into, near her daughter’s home in Laguna Niguel, just south of LA. After preparing an itinerary that would daunt a president on his first trip to the Middle East, I bought my tickets, prevailed on friends to put me up for a few days, and got ready to travel west. After months of emails, Dorothy and I exchanged telephone numbers and I told her I would call a few days ahead of time to get her daughter’s address and confirm our meeting.

In the days leading up to the trip, I suddenly couldn’t reach her. There was no answering machine and no voice mail, meaning I couldn’t even leave a message. She also did not answer her emails, a very unusual occurrence for Dorothy, who seemed to be on the internet regularly, shut-in as she was. Unfortunately, I was travelling at the exact moment that wildfires were threatening southern California that season, and I began to worry that her move had been scuttled, or perhaps she’d had a recurrence of the stroke she had suffered earlier in the year. It was too late now to matter, with the trip set in stone and every other arrangement on a timetable.

Up until the time I was in the airport I sent emails reminding her that I would be in Los Angeles, mostly to see her, and that she should look for a call from me when I arrived that afternoon. Over the next three days, it was clear that something was terribly wrong. That weekend, every call and email went unanswered and unreturned. By the time I headed home to Chicago, I had made the trip profitable, visiting every research arena I could squeeze in except one: the home of the sole surviving friend and acting partner of Warren William during his classic years at Warner Brothers. By now I was seriously worried about Dorothy’s health. At 96, anything can happen at any moment, and I dreaded the possibility that the woman who I had become friends with might be hospitalized or sadly, dead.

I needn’t have worried quite so much. Dorothy Dare was invulnerable to such problems.

When I returned, I finally received an email from her – she had indeed suffered another stroke, and was terribly disappointed to have missed our rendezvous. Shortly after she was forced to change her email address, complaining of harassing and vulgar letters that frightened her. From there our correspondence became gradually more infrequent, and then was gone altogether. A few weeks later I received an email from her personal assistant, letting me know that she had passed on peacefully, in her sleep.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because although I might be an idiot, I’m also a skeptic.

Something didn’t feel right about this change of fortune. It smelled fishy and strangely pat. I began to wonder about why Dorothy was so neatly unavailable at the exact moment that I was travelling to see her, and then about how her assistant made sure to let me know she was gone, but provided no information about services or funeral arrangements. And I couldn’t help noting that said assistant sported the immensely appropriate initials “BS.”

It didn’t take me long to begin to unravel the story of this little shell game – one that involved no loss of money, but wasted my time, made me feel quite foolish and killed off a little of my remaining faith in human nature. Message boards were just then starting to buzz about the possibility that the person who was claiming to be the elderly actress was in fact, a poseur; a young fan impersonating her on the biggest forum for lies and scams ever devised by man. The rumors were supported by the fact that no obituaries for Dorothy Dare had appeared anywhere – not in any Los Angeles newspaper, or in the trades, or on classic movie blogs and web sites.

I quickly went to the Internet Movie Database to confirm her passing. As was the case when I checked her personal information at the beginning of our correspondence, she had no date of death listed. Looking at IMDB again a few days later I was shocked to learn that someone had discovered how to kill a person who was already deceased. Dorothy Dare, dead today at 96, had also previously passed on in 1981, at the age of 70.

Thus, after a momentary shake of the head I had to accept the irrefutable fact that everything I had learned or heard from “Dorothy Dare” was now unusable. Reams of interesting and insightful stories might as well have been plucked from the pages of Hollywood Fairy Tales, Volume 21, The Warner Years. Warren William did not have a loud and nearly physical political argument with the Nazi-sympathizing Emil Jannings just as Adolph Hitler was coming to power in Germany. Marian Marsh probably did not throw herself at Warren, resulting in a kind (and character reaffirming) romantic rebuff. There was no 1934 fire on the Warner Brothers lot where Warren heroically helped to beat back flames in an effort to save lives and property. Except – there WAS such a fire, and Warren DID help fight it, according to articles that I subsequently ran across in my research. At the time “Dorothy” mentioned the incident to me, I’d never even heard about such a fire (which resulted in the total destruction of Warner’s Burbank studios), much less Warren William’s part in it. What the hell was I supposed to believe now?    

I began to deduce that my duplicate Dare was likely in possession of files, scrapbooks, newspapers and memorabilia from which she (he) was pulling various facts and stories, sometimes dressing them up to suit what I wanted to hear. Strangely, I almost felt that this nettlesome doppelganger was, in their own way, trying to help – passing on information from obscure sources that could be useful to a biographer. The problem was that nothing could be counted on to be truthful, except what could be corroborated in some other manner. And that meant that the whole maddening correspondence had to be deep-sixed along with Miss Dare herself.   

Over the following year or so, I occasionally found a grain of truth to one of Dorothy’s stories here or there. Far more often the geologic gaps in her information were apparent as I debunked one after another of her Warren William recollections. For example, Warren’s wife Helen was positively not born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. There was also apparently no truth to the Double Dare “memory” that Mrs. William did not frequent her husband’s sailing boat because she was prone to seasickness. Oh, and if the underage Dorothy Dare had a torrid (and very secret) affair with Colin Clive – Doctor Frankenstein himself – I certainly couldn’t confirm it.

In the end, my nettlesome impostor did provide a few weeks of amusing dinner party conversation, which almost – but not quite – made up for the time wasted on such juvenile (or perhaps psychologically bent) shenanigans. The offending party – if they are out there and reading this – will have their own final day on earth sometime, and one can assume that by then they will have done nothing with their lives worthy of inspiring others to imitation. It is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery – and flattery is for those who have qualities to laud, not the timorous souls who passively appropriate the accomplishments of others.

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About magnificentscoundrel
John Stangeland is the biographer of 1930's film icon Warren William, a lazy business owner and a washed-up comic book artist. He's not bitter, though.

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