Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) 🇺🇸

Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) |

September 03, 2023

That Ann Sothern charm, I am happy to say, is still on tap, just like the soda fountain in the patio of Ann’s new Bel-Air house. Susie McNamara, or Maisie Revere, or Katy O’Connor of CBS’s “Ann Sothern Show,” it’s still perennial Sothern cooking — a happy, saucy Ann who, on her second time around on TV, says, “I don’t want to be different I just want to be familiar.”

by Favius Friedman

Only one thing can get Miss Sothern’s dander up (well, perhaps one or two things) and that is, if unthinking visitors stroll into Ann’s luxurious white-and-black dressing room on the Desilu lot and take an incautious step towards her beautiful new rug. “Wipe your feet,” Ann, the good housekeeper, says, pointing to the array of doormats around. “I want to keep my white rug white.”

She’s pretty proud of that decorator’s-dream dressing room, with its bright red door and black carriage lamp outside. It’s the talk of Hollywood. Incidentally, and understandably, Ann aims to see that it remains just that — a home away from home where she can be happy in her work, because “it’s so important to have nice things around.”

She is, this anything-but-dumb, indestructible blonde from Valley City, North Dakota, delighted about her promotion to the job of managing the plush “Bartley House” which is the locale of her new show. After all those years as a private secretary — remember Susie? — she confesses that she just never learned to type. And as for her having hotel experience… “Well, of course, I’ve had hotel experience,” says Miss Sothern, straight-faced. “I once danced a tango with Conrad Hilton.”

Suaver and wiser these days is Ann, and though aware that she should be an obedient girl and stick to slimming cottage cheese and lettuce salad, she’s not one to turn away a broiled New York steak, garnished with shoestring potatoes, occasionally. Relishing a dressing room lunch like this with friends recently. Ann said, “Oh, I shouldn’t have eaten so much. That lunch was a killer!” She ate every crumb of it just the same.

Proud as she is about her achievements on TV, her success as a recording artist, night club entertainer and sharp, sharp business woman, Ann is prouder yet of being related to one Patricia Ann Sterling — a “raving, tearing beauty who just happens to be my daughter.” Patricia — or Tish — is 14, but likes to think of herself as 18. Tish is Ann’s daughter by Robert Sterling (they were divorced some years ago), and she is, as many of Miss Sothern’s friends maintain, the reason for Ann’s being.

It did not surprise Ann in the least when Tish, approaching her 13th birthday, informed her mother that the one gift she wanted in all the world was an eyelash curler. She got it, of course. As Ann said, “I can remember when I could hardly wait to be ‘old’.”

“I hope I’m an understanding mother, though there are times, I must say, when I don’t quite ‘dig” all of Tish’s teenage talk. The first time she came home and said she was “all shook up,” I was all shook up. Youngsters today seem to learn about life too early, and I still look on Tish with amazement and amusement. She’s allowed to wear lipstick and medium heels, and right now, her paramount interest is horses and boys. She’s a wonderful rider and has a very indulgent grandfather who gave her a lovely Palomino mare of her own not too long ago. But as for acting, I don’t know. Whatever she chooses will be all right with me.”

Tish is taller than her mother, almost as blonde and looks much like her. The truth is, Ann has tried to discourage her daughter from following in her footsteps. “It’s really a lot of very hard work,” says Ann, “and I don’t think Tish is as dedicated as all that.”

Miss Sothern, of course, would be the first to acknowledge that she truly loves her work. She is not only the star of The Ann Sothern Show, but half-owner (with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), production aide, script-picker, unofficial casting director and self-appointed chief worrier. “The day Katy O’Connor was born,” said an associate, “Ann knew she was astride a million dollar tiger.” When Ann’s top-rated “Private Secretary” series went off the air, it was because she and her former producer had some basic arguments. “It wasn’t worth it,” said Ann, and retired to bank the residuals from past shows. She also filed suit for some $93.000, and demanded an accounting of all funds.

But this was not to be the end of Maisie, or Susie, or even of Ann Sothern. Tempting her suddenly was a hunk of catnip dangled by old friends Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball — a plot to star Ann in a new series as one Katy O’Connor, heart-of-gold assistant manager of a swanky New York residential hotel. Ann was to be the same free-swinging blonde, but with fancier clothes, plus a 50% interest in the new show. Not even Ann could resist. “It just happens that Desi Arnaz knows more about television than almost anybody in the business,” said Ann, “and you can’t argue with success. As for Lucy, the two of us worked together in the old days at RKO. Now I produce my show and she owns the studio. I guess that settles that.”

Miss Sothern, a lady tycoon extraordinaire, need hardly worry as to who owns what. She has been doing pretty well in the dollar department almost from the time she was born Harriette Lake in Valley City, North Dakota. “You know. I’ve never really seen Valley City,” said Ann not long ago. “My mother was a singer on the road and she stopped off and had me there. I spent most of my childhood in Minneapolis.”

This she did, as a child music prodigy. Ann’s mother was Annette-Yde, a well-known concert singer, and her maternal grandfather. Hans Nilson, was a famous Danish violinist. Before she was ten, Ann had been run over by every type of wheeled vehicle, except the horse-drawn, including tricycles, bicycles and cars. Once she was almost burned to death when her nightgown caught fire. By the time she was 11, little Harriette Lake, the ebullient, wise-cracking Maisie-to-be, was playing Beethoven, Brahms and Bach on the piano, and at 13 she had her own original composition, “Study in B,” performed by the Minneapolis Symphony. While Ann was still in her teens (movie mogul Harry Cohn was later to name her “Ann Sothern”), her mother came to California — and it was there Ann was discovered while doing a duet with her celebrated parent.

This led to an acting career in New York, and then Hollywood, where in her fabulous MGM “Maisie” days, Miss Sothern was the tenant of a star’s dressing room that had just been vacated by the fabulous Garbo.

There was a marriage to bandleader Roger Pryor, and then, later, a second, to actor Robert Sterling. Both ended in divorce. But Ann did have her daughter Tish, a magnificent Beverly Hills home filled with antiques and Meissen china, a Lincoln Continental convertible (the classic Mark I, not the later, series), a vacation home in Sun Valley, Idaho, and a reputation as a skier, art collector and champion fisherwoman. Once Ann refused to pose for publicity pictures in a scanty ski outfit that some manufacturer wanted to drape around her chassis — and an elegant chassis it was, too. The ski costume was an abbreviated thing and as Ann described it, “It came clear up to here.”

“Look,” Ann told the manufacturer tartly, “when I pose in anything glamourous, it’s going to be an Adrian gown. But when I ski, I ski in Andre pants.”

Yet even with all her success, being single isn’t quite Ann’s cup of tea. “I’m a girl who shouldn’t be alone,” she says to friends. Men were available, but not Ann’s kind of men. Then came the bleakest period of her life. She found herself suddenly an invalid, after an almost fatal siege of hepatitis. It was a long, mysterious illness, a two-year fight against a completely debilitating disease. But as Ann’s friends have said, “It was her faith in God that helped her hack to health. That, and her love for her daughter. She was all but forgotten, but she came back greater than ever.”

But for a long time there seemed little to live for except pain. Ann’s career was gone, much of her money was gone, and she had to play Maisie on the radio, working with a mike suspended over her pillow. She shut herself away from the world and contemplated the prospective ruin of her life and career. “I thought I was Ann the indefatigable, the indestructible, but I found out I was as vulnerable to pain as the next woman,” she said. “I told myself that if I recovered, I would build a spiritual structure so firm and so substantial that the worst shocks of life could not disturb it.”

That was when she became converted to the Catholic faith. One friend who helped her enormously was actor Richard Egan. He was enormously patient, sweet and understanding during a miserable period of my life.” The truth is that Ann, in real life, is the antithesis of the slap-happy blonde. She is not a girl who makes friends in a hurry. It takes her a while to thaw out, but she has never lost a friend. Her tongue, at times, can be peppery, but she is not malicious. On occasion, strangers stop her, saying coyly, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but — “They are just as likely to get cut short with “You’re right, I don’t.”

There are, of course, things that Ann cannot do. “She can play Beethoven,” laughed one intimate, “but she can’t finagle a yo-yo worth a hoot.” Her eyes, she declares, are “Jack Benny blue,” and she confesses that she is “probably the worst sleeper in the world — the worst. I go to sleep and in four hours I’m awake — wide awake.” She cannot walk into a room unless something is open. “If a room is closed,” she says, “I open something. I have a thing about tunnels.” Though she no longer goes game fishing or skis — “I can’t afford to break anything”— she recently became a trap shooting enthusiast while vacationing at her home in Sun Valley, and she enjoys the feel of a fine gun. “But I won’t go hunting,” she says. “I can’t bear to kill any living thing.”

Ann maintains, there are “have” and “have-not” people when it comes to humor. “You’re born with it, definitely,” she insists. And she can laugh at herself. “I can’t stand someone who can’t laugh at himself.” She believes it important to be aware of your faults, and when you’re wrong, to admit it. She has a huge stock of determination, and once stayed off the screen for a whole year, just because she didn’t like the parts that her studio assigned to her.

Above all, Ann is feminine and undeniably attractive, and has many women friends as well as men. But toward men she is alert, witty and anything but naive. Candid about her acting ability, she once confessed, “I just don’t have that thing that makes you want to play Joan of Arc.” Yet she made up her mind several years ago to become a four-career girl and invaded the night club field with a $40,000 act, just to prove she could do it. The spot, of course, was Las Vegas, and before she did her first show, she went to morning Mass. “What’s she trying this night club thing for?” someone asked. “For $25,000 a week,” was the answer. The ovation Ann got, according to reports, was overwhelming. “If you don’t stop cheering,” she told the enthusiastic crowd, “I’ll start crying and my mascara will run.”

By her own admission, Ann has had “an awfully long career — awfully long.” What has kept her a success and a public favorite so long is not because she is more talented, or even luckier, than other show business personalities. “She happens to have, among other things,” one critic said, “that quality that is all too rare in the tinsel world of entertainment — sincerity. This, plus a genuine love for her work. As one ardent fan, a private secretary, no less, put it, ‘There’s something about her — she’s so cute and likeable. She’s a little peach pie.’

Little peach pie Miss Sothern is indeed, but she is also as canny and dollar-wise a business woman as ever came down the pike. In “Private Secretary” she was, designedly, the “darling of the broken fingernail brigade, the secretaries.” When she put together her record album several years ago called Sothern Exposure, she wisely did standard ballads — “he Last Time I Saw Paris, Always, and others of that genre. The album sold well. Her music publishing business, the A-Bar-S Music Company, came about as a result of her entry into the record field. It’s a money-maker, too.

Says Ann, “I signed a contract to record an album for Tops Records, and while looking over possible songs to record, I found a beautiful original called ‘Another Year,’ written by Ian Bernard. When I told Ian I would like to include it in the album, he said, ‘Wonderful! But we’ll have to get a publisher first.’”

What follows is just what one would expect of Miss Sothern. “I found out,” said Ann, “that publishers of songs receive royalties on performances, and if a song is successful, a lot of money could be made selling sheet music. We were in the publishing business the next week.”

There is also the Ann Sothern Sewing Center in Sun Valley — a project Ann started several years ago. It had its genesis one day while Miss Sothern was on one of her periodic holidays at the famed ski resort. “I wanted to do some sewing,” she says, “and I discovered there was really no shop in town that carried a complete line of materials. Something clicked and one month later I opened the shop.”

The business has prospered so that its owner has had to break through the walls for expansion, and she now carries a line of smart ready-to-wear sports clothes. Ann is her own head salesgirl, and everything she sells is merchandise personally bought, either in San Francisco or New York. “When I’d go on buying trips,” Ann smiled, “the Seventh Avenue garment manufacturers would keep staring at me. “Aren’t you Ann Sothern?’ they’d ask. ‘What are you doing in the “rag” business?’ I had to explain that I was there in my capacity as a lady buyer. It always floored them.”

Ask Ann if the Sewing Center pays, and her answer is quick. “I never go into anything that doesn’t pay,” she says. “There’s no fortune in the sewing center, but it does all right.” Other Sothern ventures that do “all right” are her A-Bar-S Cattle Company, which runs some 1200 head of white-faced Herefords on a “tenant” arrangement in Idaho; Vincent Productions, her original TV unit, and now her new Anso Productions, created specifically for the current CBS series. Entrepreneurs of all varieties constantly seek her out, hopeful that Sothern money will finance their projects. But Ann displays an uncanny knack for picking sweet from sour.

She was tempted with a sheep ranch in Wyoming, a land speculation deal in Brazil and a plan to “electrify the Sahara Desert to make it productive.” All such blue sky deals were given a quick “No.” “One day,” Ann recalls with a smile, “I was invited to buy an interest in a new hair restorer. But when the inventor called and displayed a shining bald head, I knew this wouldn’t do for me.” Ann likes to say that she is lazy — the laziest girl around. “All through my career I seemed to be kind of thrust into things.” But for a lazy girl, she is a spunky, ash-blonde dynamo, improving each shining hour. Almost nothing is done on her show without her sharp-eyed approval. “If anyone tells you TV is easy,” she says, “you can hit them over the head for me. I live on gelatine and orange juice, just to keep going. In television you must give of yourself at such a pitch that it takes everything out of you.”

Yet she still has time for long hours with Tish (“We have a wonderful rapport”), for planning the color schemes of her executive offices, her dressing room, her big new house. “Recently,” said Ann, “I changed my whole life. I’ve always lived with blue, a kind of grey-blue, very soft. When I moved into my new house — it’s the biggest, best house I ever had; I just rattle around in it — I did the whole thing in white, except for my coral bedroom. I just thought it was time to do the whole bit differently. And I like it; I’m happy in the house, and that’s so important. Tish is happy, too; what more can I ask?”

Marriage, perhaps, but on this subject Ann has little to declare. “I don’t rule out marriage,” she admitted. “There’s just nothing to be said about it now. I bought this house, not so much for myself but for Tish. I guess I’m an old-fashioned mother, but I feel that children should have a home to come to — and that they should want to come to the house with their friends. Of course, if I meet the right man, I’ll quit this business in a second. Until then, I’ll have to spend my time hermetically sealed on Stage 3, waiting for Tish to grow up and have lots of children so I can be a grandmother.”

“Grandmother, indeed!” laughed a friend. “Somebody better hurry and get that key to Stage 3; there’s a lot of Sothern peach pie still cooking!”


Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) |

CBS-TV’s Ann Sothern Show may be new in format but the character that Ann portrays is lovably familiar to everyone.

Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) |

Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) |

Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) |

Her daughter is Ann’s favorite subject. Recently she bought a house not so much for herself as for “Tish to be happy in.”

Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) |

Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) |

Ann Sothern — Who's a Dumb Blonde? (1959) |

Collection: Screenland Magazine, March 1959