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Celebrity Women & The Wheels that Woo Them
By Bill Kelly

Mae West favored her town car

Perhaps movie legend Frances Farmer said it best — "They were kings and queens in those days, idols to be adored. All perfect. All untouchable."

Even today, aficionados of the Golden Era strain for a piece of that bygone memorabilia; Vivien Leigh's Oscar for "Gone With the Wind" sold for $563,500; the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in "The Wizard of Oz" went for $168,000; the short, Austrian-style dress worn by Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music" was auctioned off from $12,650.

But more than signed scripts, autographs and the like, owning a car once driven by a star of the Golden Era brings one unimaginable pleasures of recognition and adulation, and, according to one collector, "it confirms one's status."

"Value is placed on how memorable the movie star is, more than the condition of the car itself," said another collector, who, among other vehicles, owns an automobile that once reposed in the grandeur garage of Marlene Dietrich. "I select my cars as one would a prize bull or a promising filly — only I pay five times as much."

When Valentino and his wife, Natacha, went to Europe in 1922, the purpose of the trip was to buy antique props for his new movie, "The Hooded Falcon," based on the life of El Cid. The Ritz-Carlton company advanced them $40,000 for the props, but the squandering Valentinos spent an additional $60,000 for personal curios, including a few classic automobiles, which they brought back and stored in their garage at Falcon Lair, their 80-acre Beverly Hills estate. Natacha's most prized possession was her custom-built Isotta Fraschini.

Stardom, celebrity and fancy cars gave the Valentinos not only status, but a sense of security. On the other hand, their car collection kept them financially strapped, and when their marriage fell apart in 1925, Natacha wrote Rudolph: "A man should control his own destiny. Automobiles are controlling yours."

If automobiles could talk, George Raft's limousine probably would burst a piston to tell a story that happened in the '30s when Raft was billed with Eddie Cantor in "Palmy Days." One night, Raft noticed a flaming redhead who was in the chorus, who seemed despondent. He asked her if something was wrong. "I'm flat broke, need rent money and on top of that, my mother is arriving from back East," she sobbed. Raft peeled $100 from his bankroll. "He insisted that I take it, along with his grand limousine and chauffeur," she said later.

"I met my mother at the Pasadena train station. When she saw my car, she was overwhelmed. That night was one of the most marvelous evenings of our entire lives. The chauffeur drove my mom and me to a fancy restaurant; we had a terrific time."

Several year later, Raft was astonished when the girl approached him in the Brown Derby restaurant and insisted on repaying the loan he long ago had forgotten. In later years, Lucille Ball still recalled the "mile-long limousine" and the generosity bestowed on her by Raft.

Clara Bow, "It" Girl, stands beside her red dual-cowl touring car in 1928

Clara Bow, the "It" girl, was one of the top box-office draws of the Roaring 20s. She symbolized sex in a decade preoccupied with the subject. One of her famous lines was, "The more I know about men, the more I like dogs." She also liked fast cars.

Bow had a half-dozen studio cars and chauffeurs at her disposal, but she loved to disappear from the Hollywood "honkie crowd" now and then and head for the wide-open spaces in her own red, 1928 dual cowl touring car. "I can't get a car that will drive fast enough," she once said. Legend has it that when Bow suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931 at age 25, she fled Hollywood, leaving behind one of her most prized possessions, a '14 Stanley Steamer given to her by one of her many lovers, Gary Cooper. The car, valued by experts today at around $70,000, was stolen and never recovered.

The first big gift Elvis Presley bought his girlfriend, Ginger Alden, was a beautiful milk-white Mark V Continental. According to Gary Peters, a limousine service owner in Los Angeles, this is what happened:

"I got a call at 4 a.m. on a Friday from Elvis. He said he wanted a white-on-white Mark V delivered to his hotel in Las Vegas right away. But Ford Motor Co. was six months behind in delivery on white-on-whites. Elvis became enraged, and at his insistence, I called several California dealers until I found one [a Continental] in Glendale. I paid for it with a $17,000 personal check, although I didn't have any money in the bank. I drove straight to Las Vegas, arriving at 1 a.m. Elvis presented the car to Ginger, and I caught the next flight back to L.A.

"He called again. This time he wanted me to pick up the car in Las Vegas and deliver it to Memphis. So my son and I flew to Vegas and drove the Mark V to Memphis. We arrived at 9 a.m., took the car to a car wash then delivered it to Graceland. 'Here's the Lincoln,' I told Elvis. 'That didn't take you long,' he said. 'We drove all night,' I told him. And he said, 'Well, you shouldn't-a-hurried. I got her a Cadillac Seville, so I won't be needing it.'

Jean Harlow by her Cadillac limousine.

Harlow next to her Cadillac town car

Sex symbol Jean Harlow enjoyed automobile touring in the mild climate of Southern California. The top was never raised on her '37 touring car while she owned it because she liked to display her beauty. Among the many cars the "blonde bombshell" owned was a Cadillac limousine, license number 1T500, and a '30 French-built Hispano-Suiza.

Joan Crawford's '33 Cadillac, with its huge whitewall tires, is a Model 452C Towncar by Fleetwood. She purchased the Towncar from Hillcrest Motors in L.A. The car changed hands numerous times before returning to Hillcrest in 1973 as part of its historic automobile collection.

Behind the walled privacy of Lucille Ball's Beverly Hills mansion, with its flagstone terrace and immense swimming pool, sat her dazzling light-blue '62 Ghia L6.4 Coupe, with an OHV V-8 of 352 horsepower. These precious cars were manufactured between 1960 and 1963 in Detroit. The L6.4 was one of the most expensive cars on the road, and extremely rare even when new. It was in great demand, and it justified the huge salaries of the affluent. Other Hollywood idols who were fortunate to own Ghias were Eddie Fisher, Dean Martin, Hoagy Carmichael and Ginger Rogers. Incidentally, Ginger's first car was a second-hand Plymouth, which she bought herself at the age of 18.

Singer Lena Horne only owned two cars in her entire life. In 1950, while she was in England, she saw a picture in a magazine of a Jaguar and called the factory, which was just opening up again after the pounding it had taken during the war. Jaguar invited her to see the cars it was manufacturing. After touring the factory, she ordered one.

A car similar to Lena Horne's 1950 Jaguar

"It was a Mark IX silver-gray sedan with an English driveside and lipstick-red upholstery," she said. "They made it especially for me, and I had it shipped to America."

The prestige of owning a Jaguar seemed a little unrealistic when you consider that Lena Horne never learned how to drive.

The first car that actress Lily Tomlin owned was an army-green '69 Firebird convertible, which she bought at the end of '69 because it was cheaper. She drove it from New York to California when she joined the cast of television's "Laugh-In." "It was so banged up," she said, "that people kept saying to me, 'get a new car.' But I was afraid that if I ran into something with a new car, I'd be miserable. People on the show used to call it 'The Tank.' When I finally got rid of it, it had fallen apart." Today, Tomlin owns two clunker Sevilles and a red '55 Dodge Royal Lancer, none of them prized possessions.

Cars of the stars invariably carry an element of excitement and curiosity for various reasons. Serious collectors say (sometimes with a wince), that cars that a celebrity was killed in, or was arrested in, or even robbed in, hold a certain fascination and are extremely sought after. In the long run, long after the star's name has disappeared from the marquee, the star's car remains on center stage.

One anxious collector says that one day, the $215,000 Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible that Zsa Zsa Gabor was driving when she was pulled over by a cop in Beverly Hills in 1989 will be worth twice that amount to a car buff. The former Miss Hungary and cosmetics entrepreneur unknowingly made the car famous when she was pulled over for driving with an expired license, having an open container of alcohol in her car and an expired car registration.

Another car that became famous because of a run-in with a policeman was Frances Farmer's '41 tan Ford Coupe. On the night of Oct. 9, 1942, she was driving to a party down Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu to Santa Monica when an officer pulled her over for failing to lower her lights in a dimout. She insulted the cop and was hauled off to jail and put on probation. After Farmer was committed to the state hospital for the insane at Steilacoom, Wash., the car sat in her mother's driveway, rusting away until a scrap man happened by and bought it for junk. "Evidently, the poor fellow didn't know what he had," a super-rich collector of Hollywood memorabilia sympathized. "I'd given $100,000 for that car today."

Tragically, a car that became famous because of its owner's death was Grace Kelly's 10-year-old British Rover 3500, which skidded on a snaking road at Cap-d'Ali in the Cote d'Azur region of Monaco in September of 1982 and plunged 120 feet down a treacherous mountain. Unfortunately, it was a road that Princess Grace had driven a hundred times before. She lost control of the car after suffering a relatively minor cerebral incident, one that need not have been fatal to anyone who wasn't driving down the Moyenne Corniche at the time. A gambler at a nearby Lowe's casino offered to purchase the totalled vehicle for $60,000, but Prince Rainier had it burned.

A young Angela Lansbury with car

Angela Lansbury arrived in America from England during the war and settled in Los Angeles with her mother and two twin brothers.She and her mother pooled their savings and bought a cream-colored two-seat Ford with a rumble seat for $125. "That car represented freedom," she said. They drove to Idlewild, Big Bear and Palm Springs, picnicking along the way, letting their dogs run. After she signed her first contract with MGM, Lansbury bought a new DeSoto.

There once was a time when you might have found, sitting on almost three acres of land in Westport, Conn., a '79 blue Volkswagen convertible belonging to Paul Newman and an orange Plymouth station wagon that his wife, Joanne Woodward, liked to drive. Now she can be found behind the wheel or being chauffeured around town of a Ford Crown Victoria.

"The most fabulous car I ever saw in my life" confided Forrest Tucker once, "was Bobby Darin's dream car. In March of '61 Joan Crawford offered him $150,000 for the car, which he turned down. It took seven years of planning by Darin and Andrew Di Dia. Crushed diamond dust was used in the paint applied in 30 coats to the car."

The cars of the stars, more than anything else, always have kept the fanatical hope and faith of middle-class America alive. In the midst of gloominess, there was always that one glistening spot, Hollywood, where the hallmarks of the free enterprise system, rivalry, status-seeking and discernible income continued through the purchase of cars of the stars in the traditional American way.