How The Lane Sisters Rose to Fame
Their devoted mother tells all. A blithe, moving saga of struggle and success.
by Cora B. Lane
March 15, 1939
At seventeen, when I was working on my brother’s newspaper in Indiana, I had one ambition: To become a big-city reporter. So I married and became a small-town housewife. In the course of time, mother of five girls: Leota, Martha, Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla.
“If you’d just adopt four children,” Rosemary suggested hopefully once, very hopefully, “we’d have a baseball team!”
But we had plenty of problems without worrying about full-sized teams. Indianoia, Iowa, where we lived, was the typical insular American town. Thirty-five hundred inhabitants in the heart of the corn belt. We had our county fairs, church bazaars, our rigid moral principles and even more rigid prejudices. (I’ll never forget the furor it created when I first put the girls in basketball bloomers!)
We also had a singular advantage. The best conservatory of music in the state, Simpson College, was located in Indianola. The air was charged with Beethoven sonatas. Bach fugues. Even the iceman whistled arias.
But I don’t know how our family would have managed a piano if Leota hadn’t won it. Money was disturbingly scarce. My husband was a dentist, and lowans are noted for their excellent teeth. So there were times when we wondered where the next penny was coming from. To get that piano, Leota went all over town gathering coupons for some mail-order house.
In order to get other things for the children, I rented rooms to girl students. An easy enough matter, since we had a rambling old-fashioned house of sixteen rcoms. Out of that extra change came bicycle for the youngsters, the trapeze in the back yard—and the music lessons.
I wanted two things for those girls of mine. First of all, I wanted them healthy, to love outdoor games and sports. Even during the four and a half years that Rosemary and Priscilla were with Fred Waring’s band, I tried to find places where they could exercise in each city. And the older girls have kept it up no matter where they went.
My second hope was that each of the girls would excel in something, because I didn’t have that chance. They had every opportunity to study music. “But money comes too hard to waste on lessons,” I explained to them, ” if you’re not going to apply yourselves.” If they wanted anything, they learned to work for it.
We used to have what the girls jokingly called “kitchen conferences.” And we discussed everything from soccer to skirt hems. Once, I remember, we were having a lively debate about boys, when Rosemary, too young in be interested, punctuated it with a scream. She had fallen in the flour bin!
On Saturdays, I did nothing but cook. Chickens, huge cans of baked beans, … fudge cake. Then on Sundays, all the young crowd gathered around our table. Home has to be fun if you want to keep the youngsters in it. As the girls grew older they brought their boy friends to the house as a matter of course. I well recall Martha’s first beau. Martha, with her poetry and books, was the literary light of the family, and she nearly dazzled the poor boy by such gems of verse as:
I wish you were a cup of tea,
So I could pour you down the sink!
If they began going with the Wrong Boy, I’d encourage them to bring him home until they were tired of him. It worked every time.
Last summer, when Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla were working in the picture Four Daughters, they used to come home chuckling “Why, mother, all these funny homey things we’re supposed to do—pillow fighting, borrowing each other’s clothes, having jam sessions in each other’s rooms—that’s really us! ” And it was.
I knew that if I could teach them to like the simple, small things in life, the big things would take care of themselves. Just the other day Priscilla. or Pat as the girls call her, came home from the studio after doing what I believe they call “dress shots”—wearing an elaborate gown and furs in some sophisticated nightclub scene. After a while we missed her. I went outside to look, and there was Pat in old slacks, with a great smudge of white on her face, painting the picket fence. “This,” she announced, “is the most sport I’ve had in years!”
It was Leota, being the oldest, who inevitably was the pioneer. She began singing at Chautauquas and conventions throughout the state. But none of us thought of the stage. Not until the new voice teacher came to Simpson College from New York and asked to see me. ” Have you any objections to the theater?” he queried. “Because your daughter would succeed there.”
The theater…I had loved it all my life, but in Indianola it was not only frowned upon—it was all bound up with cloven hoofs and brimstone. Even after the teacher’s suggestion, perhaps nothing would have come of the idea if Leota hadn’t gone into Des Moines on that particular Tuesday morning with her chum, Alice Mclntyre. Alice’s cousin owned a flower shop, and while the girls were there Gus Edwards came in for one of the white carnations he always wore in his buttonhole.
“You should hear this girl sing, “the florist told him, indicating Leota.
“No time like the present,” said Mr. Edwnrds. ” Have you a piano?” And that’s how it happened.
Leota ran all the way home from the bus station waving a contract. But it meant leaving for New York—Broadway, She couldn’t go alone, and it was impossible for me to leave the younger children just then. In the end it was arranged that Lola should accompany her. They had been singing duets together and Gus Edwards readily agreed to engage them both.
Indianola was aghast. What was I thinking of, letting the girls go East alone?
“I’m thinking of their future,” I said. “I feel I can trust them as well in New York as in Iowa!” Uppermost in my mind has always been the idea that if you’re particular enough in the way you bring up children in the beginning, you won’t have to worry about then later.
Two weeks after Leota and Lola left, a telegram arrived: “Assigned leads in Greenwich Village Follies. Hurray! Can you send us fudge cake? ” It was signed “The Lane Sisters.” Gus Edwards hadn’t favored the family name of Mullican, so he had changed it to Lane. Since then all of us have adopted it.
The greatest event of my life was when they sent for me, and I sat in a box and watched the two of them come out on the stage. When the last curtain fell, they bundled me excitedly into their dressing room. “It’s a good thing you taught us to think.” We could do anything other people could,” they chortled at me. “Because when the star was taken ill we had to learn her whole dance routine in eighteen hours! “And then, seriously, with that this-is-big-family-business look, they said, “Mother, you’d better see that Rosemary and Pat begin dancing lessons right away. You have no idea how important it is in this work.”
I went back slightly bewildered and happy and terribly proud.
It was curious, the way each of the girls branched out in her own particular field after that. Martha, for instance, began quietly selling her verses to national magazines. Then a young English instructor came to the college fresh from travels in Egypt. They married. Now Martha divides her time between her typewriter and mixing food formulas for the absorbing young person who is the first grandchild in the family.
Leota wanted to sing in grand opera. From the time she produced Carmen in the backyard, she has had that dream. The money she earned in musical comedies, all her work at the Juilliard School of Music, where she subsequently won a scholarship, have been toward the fulfillment of it. This spring it will partially come true when she has an audition at the Metropolitan.
Lola, on the other hand, preferred drama. While Rosemary was the lively one, the game-getter-upper, it was Lola who dramatized even my trips to the five-and-ten. It wasn’t extraordinary that after she went East she continued it. She played in The War-Song with George Jessel, and one morning we received a wire stating that she had been signed to a Hollywood contract.
Rosemary and Pat promptly told the town. And Indianola turned out in force to see, her first picture, Speakeasy. They ran a special car to Des Moines for the purpose. But the trip had a strange effect on Pat.
Not long afterward Indianola was having its county fair, inaugurated with a parade the whole length of Main Street. I was too busy to watch it, but in a few moments the phone began ringing. ” Have you seen Pat?” the neighbors chuckled. “She’s in the parade! ”
I hurried downtown. At the tag end of the procession rode my youngest daughter on her bicycle. She had trimmed it with crepe paper and she was ducking her head from right to left. ” I’m Leota and Lola Lane’s sister!” Bow. “I’m Leota and Lola Lane’s sister!”
The town was in spasms. And I imagine it had another convulsion of sorts when Rosemary began playing at the Epworth League meetings on Sunday night in beaded gowns from Hollywood!
Family reunions two or three times a year in New York became the program. I would go on from Iowa with the two little girls, and Lola would come from California, and we’d have the sequel to the “kitchen conferences” in Leota’s apartment. Part of the fun for the younger ones was raiding their sisters’ trunks and ” dressing up.” This is Lola at the ball,” Rosemary would say, sweeping into the room—and little realizing that one day she would be imitating Lola on the screen. (For one of the first pictures under their contract with Warner Brothers, Hollywood Hotel.)
At home again, Rosemary and Pat trotted off to Des Moines every Saturday to study dancing with Rose Lorenz. During the week I hired a boy to come in end play the piano while they practiced their routines. Before long they had a small act worked up. They appeared at the Paramount Theater when Lola’s pictures played there, at the auto show. Then, on one of our reunions in New York, the met Fred Waring.
“Mother, he’s asked us to join his band! Mother, you could travel with us! Mother—”
I’ve tried never to be too possessive with the girls, but there are times when you do have to act as a balance wheel. This was one of them. They could sign with the band on one condition—that they continue their studies. During the next few years they worked like Trojans. Rehearsals, radio shows, floor shows, stage shows, school work. . . . And every time they played New York they went immediately to coach in dramatics with Frances Duff-Robinson, who had been Katharine Hepburn’s teacher and in voice with Lionel Robsarte. They spent thousands of dollars getting their teeth straightened. Somebody asked them the other day about romances during this period. “You don’t have many romances in braces!” giggled Pat.
My part of the job was seeing that they had enough rest and plenty of good plain food—not always an easy matter traveling about the country. I tried, too, to keep them in simple clothes.
When Warners sent for them to play in Varsity Show with the band, one of the first things we did was get a house. Not in the city. Out in the valley, where, as Rosemary says, “you can feel yourself think.”
Small towns? I love them. They’re the heart of America. They are the best place in the world to bring up children. Because that taste of country life keeps them more natural, keeps them from being brittle, affected.
I have a prayer for my girls. It’s this: That they may keep on loving little things.