About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, make-up artist to the stars

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Dottie Ponedel was the make-up artist to the stars in the classic era. She helped develop Dietrich’s look and did her make-up throughout the thirties. She also developed Garland’s ‘natural’ look beginning in Meet Me in St. Louis. For years she was the only female make-up artist, hard to believe now, and for years the boys in the union tried to get her kicked out (see image below). The book is a reminiscence, jottings from memory once all the adventures had been lived and whilst Ponedel was living through a difficult and all too early retirement brought on by Multiple Sclerosis. In a way it’s a slight book; a person’s memories, treasured, vividly rendered, but of a past already distant when they were written.

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But what a person Dottie Ponedel was! She moved to LA with her mother and on 300 dollars they set up a bakery. She was picked off the street to work as an extra, and LA being a small town then, got to know all the big stars; Valentino and his first wife, Jean Acker, Carole Lombard when she was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. She moved from bit parts to dancing bits and even got a contract with Goldwyn. She became a make-up artist only when she solved a spit-curl problem for Nancy Carroll and Carroll insisted on having her onset. The film was Follow Thru in 1930. Then, by her account, Von Sternberg had seen what she’d done with Carroll and wanted her to do something similar for Dietrich. In the book Ponedel goes to great lengths to explain what she did do, and why Dietrich’s look in her American films was so different than in The Blue Angel. Soon she was under exclusive contract to Paramount as a make-up person, at a time when all of them were men, the most famous of them, the only one who enjoyed a similar level of fame to hers, being Perc Westmore, and that because he was head of the whole make-up department at Warners.

‘At the studios, the make-up men hated my guts’ writes Ponedel. ‘They called me everything under the sun because I wouldn’t make charts to show them what I was doing. Why should I, the way they were treating me. If they were smart, they would have done the same as I, take a little from this painting and that painting and use a little imagination and they would have the Ponedel make-up style. That’s how I became so well known’.

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Whilst Ponedel had been an extra, bit player and dancer, men had been a certain kind of problem. The sexual harassment seems relentless: ‘it seems every time I did a dance I got into trouble with the male sex.’ And it was structural, from the lowest to the highest: ‘Those big guys had offices that looked like Grand Central Station. I did a hop, skip, and jump around the oval table and he after me’.

IMG_0124Once Ponedel became a make-up artist most of that stopped. The make-up men and the union boys might have hated her. But the stars, particularly the women –Dietrich, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Stanwyck, Judy Garland — loved her. The book evokes a strong sense of female solidarity, women creating all-women networks in which they could find mutual support, help, voice their troubles. And we all know the hair and make-up people are privy to all the secrets. And Ponedel still respects them. We hear of Dietrich’s extraordinary generosity and kindness. How Paulette Goddard credited her with getting her role in Unconquered after De Mille had rejected her. How Garland stole back some of her own money from Sid Luft so that she could go to Rome. What come across here is the kindness and generosity of women one thinks of a bit as monstres sacrées. 

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Almost a third of the book is devoted to Judy Garland. The chapter that begins the story of their relationship is entitled ‘My Wonderful Judy’ and begins, ‘Now that Judy Garland has taken her final trip over the rainbow, it’s up to me to write the story that Judy and I were going to write together. I was with Judy a quarter of a century and if she wasn’t at my house or me at hers, or on the phone, I always knew what she was up to. Few people meant more to me in my life than Judy Garland.’

What follows, for almost a third of of the book or more is an account of that friendship, its professional beginnings and how it flowered into something deeper. Men do not come across well in this account. Here’s Danny Kaye jumping on Ponedel in a hotel room whilst she’s asleep and pretending he’ assaulting her for a practical joke. Ha Ha: the humour curdles the blood. Here’s Minnelli, distant, ineffectual, complete powerless to help, uncaring of the many adventures Garland is undertaking with other men; here’s Sid Luft, exhibiting the classic behaviour of an abuser and stealing her money; worse he’s stealing her money whilst she knows he’s stealing her money and she lets him because…well, one can always make more money.

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Garland, made up by Ponedel, and for the first time without the rubber caps on her nose or the caps on her teeth the studio thought necessary to ‘correct’ her look and make her fit for a camera.

It’s quite an extraordinary tale, partial, lacking in context, but offering information one doesn’t get elsewhere and told with a personality that jumps off the page. I recommend.

 

José Arroyo

 

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