When Amarillo-born Cyd Charisse became a movie star in the 1950s, no one who knew her in Texas was surprised. She was a strong-willed woman whose combination of brains, beauty, and talent made her one of the era’s most popular silver screen favorites. From overcoming a polio-inflicted childhood to becoming one of the most prolific dancing stars ever, her story one is of luck, determination, and triumph.
By Lori Duran Photography courtesy of Archival
No one glided across the screen quite like native Texan Cyd Charisse. When I saw her dance with Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings or with Gene Kelley in Singin’ in the Rain, she made it look effortless. I never realized she had to overcome polio as a child and had persevered and recovered from the dreaded affliction with childhood dance lessons…and then she kept dancing the rest of her life to the delight of millions. She was always in step with her hoofing talent, and was a beautiful representative of professionalism, grace, and strength. These qualities led her to a life in show business, and she became one of the most sought-after performers in Hollywood. In fact, she danced with the top male dancers of her time. Charisse described dancing with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as dancing with “two of the greatest dancing personalities.” Even though the studios’ interest in musicals was waning by the end of the 1950s, and since her strength was in dancing, her options were diminished. In the 1960s, Charisse moved on to other opportunities by working in television and even did some stage work with her husband. She inspired others with her victory over polio and dedication to her craft which she executed so beautifully throughout her well-lived life.
Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo in 1922 and was named after her aunt Tulla and uncle Ellis. The panhandle town of Amarillo is about as Texas as it gets. According to the book, The Two of Us by Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse (as told to Dick Kleiner), Charisse’s great-great paternal grandmother, Matilda Smith, had been one of the area’s earliest settlers. The family struck it rich with oil, yet the riches did not last beyond a generation. Her father, Ernest Finklea, owned and operated a jewelry store, while her mother, Lela Finklea, ran the household in which Tula grew up. The loving and stable upper-middle-class home also included Charisse’s younger brother, who called her Sid instead of Sis. The nickname stuck, with the eventual spelling becoming the now familiar, Cyd.
When she contracted polio as a six-year-old, her family had her take ballet as part of her recovery to build back her underdeveloped and thinned muscles. In The Two of Us, Charisse said, “one side of my back was slightly atrophied.” Her father loved ballet and encouraged his daughter to excel in it and according to Charisse, whenever a ballet troupe came to Dallas, the family made the trek to see them, a journey of 365 miles across the mostly rural highways of the era.
As luck would have it, Charisse truly loved and continued to dance for the rest of her life, gracing screens across the world. She was a gifted dancer who was driven to practice daily, and as a pre-teenager, she was sent to California for more intensive dance instructions. In 1934, as a 12-year-old, she joined the touring troupe, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where she was trained as a ballerina in the Russian tradition. This is also where she met her first husband, Nico Charisse and in 1939, at the age of 17, they were married. They owned and operated a Los Angeles area ballet school together. In 1942, the young couple had a son, Nicky. And just before World War II. Charisse and her husband were obtaining mostly uncredited dancing roles in Hollywood movies. Unfortunately, their marriage didn’t last, and they divorced in 1947, but that wasn’t the only thing about her life that changed.
MOVIE STAR MAGIC
The motion picture studios she went to seeking a contract liked everything about her except the spelling of her first name, so they modified Sid to “Cyd.” Charisse remembered later, “I had no delusions about myself. I couldn’t act…I had never acted. So how could I be a movie star?” She gradually received more parts in various movies and in 1946 signed an exclusive contract with MGM. The studio was the king of Hollywood musicals then, and their slogan boasted All The Stars In Heaven. She shared with close friends at the time, “Ballet is a closed world and very rigid; MGM was a fairyland. You’d walk down the lot, seeing all these fabulous movies being made with the greatest talent in the world. It was a dream.” That same year she landed a dancing part in the successful film, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).
On that set, she would meet her second husband, crooner Tony Martin, who also starred in the film. They married in 1948, and by 1950, Charisse had two young sons, a new husband, and a stellar career. She was talented, drop-dead gorgeous, and possessed a slender physique standing 5’6” tall. She seemed taller when she danced because her legs, once wasted by polio, were long and slender. Moviegoers idolized her as well as other famed dancers of the era. Samantha Bonds, of the James Bonds film series, once said, “It has always been a dream of mine to be Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisse.” She was one of the few who danced with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in motion pictures.
Charisse was truly electrifying on-screen with her nearly perfect size 8 figure (in today’s terms, a size 4) that was accentuated with a wasp waist and gamine-like legs. She was a major presence in several important musicals of the 1950s and was often displayed in scenes of dreaminess, aloofness, or elegance. Charisse didn’t have a singing voice, so her vocals were dubbed, and movies roles emphasized her dancing, especially during the 1950s golden age of musicals. Some of her best-known movies were Singin’ In The Rain, The Band Wagon, Brigadoon, Deep In My Heart, It’s Always Fair Weather, and Silk Stockings. Her dancing was so provocative that Charisse recounted much later, “The censors were always there when I was on the set. When I was held up in a lift in Deep in My Heart…they were up on ladders to see if I was properly covered.”
In 1952, Singin’ In The Rain was one of the most successful movies of the year and provided Charisse with her initial monumental break into show business. There was a $5 million insurance policy on her talented legs, which was also likely a publicity move at the time. In the film, she made her initial impact by playing an aloof, beautiful woman who is then melted by the love of “the right man.” She has a vampy, torridly memorable scene dancing with Gene Kelly while wearing a slinky green dress accessorized with a long cigarette holder. They dance again in the film while she is wearing an elegant white dress in a dream-like setting. The film’s release established her as one of Hollywood’s most glamorous talents. In 1953, The Band Wagon provided her first leading role. Her character could not fall in love with Fred Astaire until she abandoned her high art pretensions. She stole the show when she danced in it, wearing red sequins. Charisse would later look back on her career and share, “I can watch Astaire anytime. I don’t think he ever made a wrong move. He was a perfectionist. He would work on a few bars for hours until it was just the way he wanted it. Gene was the same way. They both wanted perfection, even though they were completely different personalities.” Charisse, standing at 5’6” to Kelly’s 5’7” and Astaire’s 5’9”, were matches made in heaven.
In 1954’s Brigadoon, another tremendous hit for MGM, Charisse played the woman Gene Kelly’s character loves. She lives in a town, Brigadoon, which materializes only once every 100 years. Charisse later said this was her favorite Gene Kelly musical and commented on the difference between Kelly and Astaire as dancing partners afterward. “My husband could always tell whether I’d been dancing with Kelly or Astaire that day,” Charisse mused. “If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.” In 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather, her character had encyclopedic memory that intimidated Gene Kelly’s character, and she was haughty until corrected on Shakespeare. In 1957, she stretched her strengths further in Silk Stockings as a beautiful but ice-cold Soviet commissar. Even in a plain gray suit and playing the part of a stern Russian communist, Charisse was spellbinding. In the privacy of her hotel room, she twirled the luxurious silk stockings she had obtained to replace her communist uniform’s black tights. At first, her character doesn’t believe in dancing, but she ultimately capitulates to the male lead character, played by Astaire, and to the city of Paris.
NEW CHAPTERS UNFOLDED
However, movie musicals had passed their peak when Charisse’s character melted for Astaire’s in the late 1950s. Silk Stockings turned out to be her last major musical and due to MGM’s change in administration from movie kingpin Louis B. Mayer, budgets were slashed and there was no priority placed on musicals. Unfortunately, musicals were her forte, and she was deemed expendable in an era of changing movie consumer tastes. “If I had to give up either acting or dancing, I’d choose to keep dancing,” said Charise. She then appeared in dramatic roles to strong reviews, like Party Girl (1958), costarring with Robert Taylor, and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), sharing the screen with Kirk Douglas. She was cast in Marilyn Monroe’s last film, Something’s Gotta Give (unfinished, 1962), since Monroe requested Charisse play the secondary female lead of the 20th Century Fox film, as an interesting sidenote to Hollywood history. The two enjoyed an easy camaraderie, and since they shared the same publicity representative, Charisse and Monroe had always been professionally supportive of each other. Charisse appreciated all her peers, and the feeling was mutual. Fred Astaire was known to have said of Charisse and their many dance scenes, “She was beautiful dynamite. When you dance with her, you stayed danced.”
In 1959, Charisse and her husband, Tony Martin, starred in an unsold television pilot for a family dramatic series, Night People. Martin played a nightclub singer, and Charisse was his spouse. After offers for movie roles declined in the 1960s, Charisse acted on the dinner theater circuit and made guest appearances on variety TV and in European films. Starting in 1974, the That’s Entertainment film series premiered celebrating old Hollywood movies, including the MGM musicals where Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse had danced together. Their dance number, Dancing in the Dark, was a pivotal part of That’s Entertainment and remains an unforgettable dance scene for both Astaire and Charisse. In 1976, Charisse teamed with her crooner husband, Tony Martin, for a series of successful nightclub revues.
“I’ve done about everything in show business except perform on Broadway. I always hoped that I would one day perform at the World Series of show business. If anybody tells you they’re not intimidated, they’re lying,” said Charisse years before landing her Broadway debut, at 70, in Grand Hotel in 1992. In later years, Charisse and Martin continued to stay in the social swirl in both New York and Los Angeles. In 2006 President George W. Bush presented Charisse with the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities, the highest official U.S. honor available in the arts. Sadly, Cyd Charisse passed away in 2008 of a heart attack at the age of 86, yet her films live on with Turner Classic Movies, on DVD and streaming. She was the consummate professional until the end and shared with Gene Kelly when he asked what she might eventually want written on her gravestone. Without hesitation, she replied it would be: People sometimes had a problem placing her face, but they never forgot her legs.
When Jack’s commission ended, the duo decided to retire, and after much discussion, they chose Grace’s home state of Texas, specifically Salado. The society pages showed a photo of them disembarking an Air Force plane, with the heading, Famous World War II Fighter Pilot And New York Runway Model Return Home. Several Air Force officers, including Colonel Van Bibber and his wife Ruth, owners of the famed Stage Coach Inn, along with a dozen or so other officers, had also picked Salado as their retirement dream site. A group of them even went in together and built a short flight runway for the officer’s small private planes. Jack was content.
On any given day, Salado would be best described as a quaint little village, with an old-world atmosphere, nestled along the I-35 Highway between Dallas and Austin. With only 250 inhabitants at the time, it was merely a rest stop for weary travelers wanting a good meal. The Stage Coach Inn, a great place to stop and eat, pulled in many travelers.
Directly across the street from the Stage Coach Inn was a cluster of old limestone buildings, some with only a façade left. One of the buildings had a large opening on the wall that perfectly framed Mill Creek, surrounded by beautiful open pastoral fields. The thought of having a world-class couture salon in this little out-of-the-way town was unbelievable, if not laughable. But Grace Jones saw something more.
She had ideas of her own rumbling in her brain and told Jack that she wanted to use her world experience to open a boutique. In his mind, he envisioned a small dress shop where ladies could gather, gossip, have a cup of tea, and possibly buy a daytime dress. When he drew out a store sign on paper, it read Grace’s Dress Shop. Grace was speechless. Looking at his plans for the building, Grace was not happy. Her vision was nothing at all similar to Jack’s. A dress shop? The next thing she knew, he would be signing her up for weekly quilting bees. No, no, no, not for Grace Jones.
But she knew how to work with Jack and started planning one step at a time. He never saw it coming…the Grace Jones freight train. When they saw the old stone buildings on Main Street behind the Stage Coach Inn, they instantly fell in love with the limestone structure. It perfectly exuded provenance, history, and endurance. They had to get it. After much finagling back and forth, the building was finally theirs. But opening an exclusive clothing salon in the small out-of-the-way town of Salado was going to be hard enough. Getting those customers to the destination was as formidable a challenge as getting the very selective shoppers to buy. But Grace Jones knew from the get-go that her customers would be different. They would certainly not be looking for a shirt or a pair of jeans. Her customers would be looking for the world’s finest clothing, and she would carry the world’s finest clothing. Jack Jones could do nothing but surrender.
The day before her iconic namesake boutique opened in 1962, Jones walked through her store’s enormous wooden front doors to check on the furniture’s final placement. Her designer, Bryant Reeves, had found beautiful and luxurious French parlor furniture pieces from an old 1870s home in Waco. An exquisite Austrian crystal chandelier hanging from the high ceilings just inside the door was the perfect accompaniment to the austerity of the old limestone walls and oak floors. A large oak table covered in pale marble, placed just off the side of the entrance, was the setting for Jones’s favorite bouquet of fresh flowers and registration book, awaiting to be opened for the first of her new customers to sign. Nothing over the top, just simple provincial elegance. This proud owner wanted her customers to see her excellent taste reflected in the store, therefore assuring them of the quality of her merchandise. The store was not gaudy or ostentatious in any way, just the quiet suggestion of old money and opulent good taste. Very old money.
Getting down to business, Jones knew exactly the designers she wanted to carry and which collections. Her vision was to offer her customers a service they could not find anywhere else other than possibly Neiman Marcus. Even if they had to drive a little out of their way to get to her store, she would make it worth their while. The salon would offer exclusivity, personal assistance, confidential showings, and ambience. Tea and cocktails, along with finger sandwiches and cookies and her favorite hamburgers, were delivered on silver trays, carried by uniformed assistants. Exclusivity was the true ambience.
Opening day arrived along with a line of limousines, Cadillacs, and helicopters. The massive iron brand, with the name Grace Jones written out, was mounted on the roof above the front doors. It could be seen from blocks away, hanging in the air, as if an enormous branding iron had just burned Jones’s name into the hide of thin air. The parking lot was adorned with giant stone planters of red geraniums, her favorite of the month.
Almost immediately, the parking lot was full, and the large wooden doors opened for the crowd coming to see what Grace Jones had to offer. She had done a magnificent job of advertising. The salon was filled with the curious, of course, but among the visitors would be some of her most loyal customers throughout her store’s lifetime. This opening night would mark the start of a new endeavor for Jones, one that would would capitalize on her very best strengths and prior experiences to lead her to this final life challenge. She would call it serendipity, but others would call it dogged determination. Once she opened her store in Salado, clients started arriving daily with one goal in mind, and that was to shop at her eponymous boutique. Her enthusiastic customers came from all over the world, using the wide-open, smooth graded field behind the building for a perfect landing strip, even if it was a bit disconcerting to the cattle grazing the land.
With no training in business or merchandising, Grace Jones would, nonetheless, become an award winner year after year as one of only two destinations for couture in the State of Texas. Stanley Marcus and Grace Jones were inarguably the reigning royalty of fashion merchandising in the state. Her store became so iconic and recognizable that people would pronounce her name and the store name as if it was one and the same…simply Gracejonesofsalado.
During the sixties and well into the millennium, Texas would become the mecca of pioneering intellectual, cultural, technical, and political dreams; the whole world would eventually have an eye on the happenings in Texas, specifically Central Texas. Among her favorite customers would be Jane Sibley, Liz Carpenter, Joan Brashear, Carolyn Farb, Gray Hawn, Stella Rowan, Bennie Green, Dr. Nancy Heerssen, Janie Briscoe, Bennie Green, Clair Mashburn, Miriam Cox, Loretta Young, Gene Tierney, Governor Ann Richards, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Kissinger, Meg Heyer, and Sandy Leech. A veritable blue-book of Texas Blue-Bloods.
Born in Salado, Liz Carpenter was the real deal when it came to Texas Women. She was as comfortable in the country walking barefoot in a creek as she was at a White House dinner in Washington, meeting Henry Kissinger. There was nothing pretentious about Liz…what you saw in public was authentic. She was completely comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes.
Jones and Carpenter could not have been more different. Jones was conscious of every move she made and every carefully chosen word that came out of her mouth. She was dressed perfectly from head to toe every minute of the day, always ready to make the best impression possible. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, more important to her than her external presentation. Always dressed in the very best designer clothing with her hair perfectly coiffured, she was a study in sublime control.
Liz Carpenter was a whole different story. Out front and loud with a laugh that could echo, she was funny, irreverent, incredibly entertaining, and brilliant. Always shooting from the hip, throwing out story after story, the room would be rolling in laughter while she entertained and held court. Carpenter, a force herself, was a real Texas whirlwind, gathering up friends and allies in her cyclone. She could pull people from every social and political arena and make a party out of it. She knew how to have a good time and especially how to tell a good story. Her friends worshipped the ground she walked on and constantly sought out her company like a group of camp followers. In addition, with experience in the White House, and as a reporter, she was confident holding her own in all conversations, anywhere, anytime, and with anybody. Carpenter, as a result, also happened to have an enormous amount of influence.
If there was a flaw to her presentation, it was her wardrobe. Carpenter had some lovely features…beautiful sparkling eyes that were always alive with curiosity, a Texas drawl that could soothe the soul, beautiful skin, wonderful silver hair that framed her face, and a fabulous smile. These were her best assets, and she learned to use them well. As for her attire, she just never understood what looked good on her. So, she left it up to others to tell her what to wear.
When the news started traveling all the way to Washington that there was an haute couture salon in little Salado, Texas, Carpenter was fascinated. This state was her birthplace, and she could not imagine this type of store in Salado. So, the next time she traveled to Texas, she made it a point to visit the store and see about all this fuss. The day that Grace Jones and Liz Carpenter met, a best friend bond was permanently sealed. They hit it off immediately…two polar opposites without a thing in common, other than nearby birthplaces. But, they were both women from Texas, both born in the country. And they were both incredibly determined to get things done. This was the full extent of their commonality. Yet, their odd friendship would last for the rest of their lives.
If there ever was someone who needed the help of a personal shopper, it was Liz Carpenter. Never one to pay much attention to her attire, she would show up in the most unflattering ensembles, always loud and always big. Her taste ran from bright to brighter, with red being her favorite color as if that needed to be said. “When Grace and I met, we really hit it off. It was instant liking. Our vibrations just worked together, although we are not at all alike. Grace is a perfectionist. She is always cool, never gets ruffled. While I can’t say the same for myself,” said Liz Carpenter at the time.
The reporter had asked Liz what qualities she most admires in her friend, Grace Jones. “Even more than the store and her history in the big war and her modeling career in New York, I would say that I am most impressed with what she has done to put Salado on the map. Opening a store that is now internationally known for its sophistication certainly brought our little town into the limelight. Who would have thought we would have fashions from Milan (Liz said Me-laann, true to her Texas drawl), Paris, and Rome in this tiny town? Certainly not me, who grew up here when Norwood store was our only place to buy gingham.” Liz went on to add, “I am especially proud of her having faith in Salado. Nobody encouraged her. They all said it was too far for people to drive, too inconvenient, too out of the way. No one would ever find her store. But she did it anyway.”
Houstonian Carolyn Farb regularly bought from Jones and modeled in fashion shows, especially those involving charity events and philanthropic fundraising. Farb has received many accolades for her work, including an honorary doctorate. As a woman always wanting to wear the very best, she frequently shopped at Grace Jones. “Grace was such an extraordinary fashion beacon,” shared Carolyn Farb. “People came from far and near to get her fashion advice. It is not as if it was easy to get to her store in Salado, but it was always worth it. There are not many like her. Then, the designers were revered, not like these characters today on television fashion shows. Grace introduced us to the very best collections with such conviction; we always felt secure with our purchases. Of course, Grace had her opinions, but I admired her greatly.”
Jane Sibley, the well-known and respected Austin Arts enthusiast and philanthropist, was one of Jones’s earliest customers and best friends. She and her husband, Dr. D.J. Sibley, became good friends with Jones, but Jane’s initial interest was the exclusive designers she carried in her store. “I could barely believe my eyes when I saw the designer labels,” mused Jane Sibley. “This was just a little off-the-road shop. My Lord!” Sibley was a perfect size for modeling, but even better, she had the personality and presence that the audience loved. More than one husband wanted to buy the gorgeous ensembles Sibley modeled on the runway hoping their wives would look as great as she did.
By far, Grace’s favorite designer was Geoffrey Beene, a man of incredible and exquisite talent. His architectural genius, seen repeatedly in his designs, were Grace’s best-selling collections. Clean yet sophisticated, his collections always sold well.
Geoffrey Beene was one of the very first designers to show in Jones’ salon. Upon arrival to show his newest collection, Beene grew slack-jawed at his first glimpse of the country back road entrance to this exclusive salon. But the sight of a huge grain mill across the street shocked him even more. With a bit of sneer, he asked, “Is that really a grain mill?” Grace Jones was quick to reply, “It certainly is. And we in Salado are very proud of it.”
The longtime receptionist at Geoffrey Beene, Joyce Hinklin, remembers Jones’s sophistication. “We all really loved her, but especially her accent. After I spent time around her and Mr. B, also a Southerner, I found myself talking just like them. Everyone would ask, ‘Joyce, why are you talking like that? You aren’t a southerner!’ And I’d tell them, ‘Lord no, I’m from the South Bronx!’ I just can’t help myself when I am around Grace Jones.”
As a special gift exclusively for Jones, Geoffrey Beene created an Ombre dyed multi-layered silk chiffon gown in one of his most ethereal creations. After it was photographed for Vogue, Beene had it carefully wrapped in tissue and asked his assistant to mail it to Jones with a card that read, I designed this for you.
Fashion leaders like Geoffrey Beene, Ron Amey, Michael Vollbracht, Count Sarmi, Jean Louis, Pauline Trigere, Bill Blass, Adolfo representative Oscar DeLavan, Mollie Parnis, Bernard Perris, George Halley, Christian Lacroix, and so many others who came to Salado had to blink twice to believe what they were seeing. Was it really possible that Grace Jones was showing and selling haute couture out of a rock bunker in the middle of nowhere? A rock bunker with its own landing strip.
Is it conceivable that some panicked, calling back the design studios to confirm they were at the correct address? Salado, Texas? But Jones always made the trip memorable for every designer who put forth the effort to trust in her. Count Fernando Sarmi, the Italian-born American fashion designer and businessman, squealed the first time he caught a glimpse of a cow behind the store. In his heavy accent, he was startled into asking, “Ewwww, Is that a coo?” Again, without haste but with a smile, Jones answered, “why yes, and it can moo, too.”
REALLY, IT’S A RUNWAY
One of the most memorable events held at her salon was a fashion show for Christian Lacroix. He was the newest darling of the fashion scene in the 1980s and regularly featured on the front page of every fashion magazine from Texas to Paris. Many stores in Texas, the state with more Lacroix customers than any other place in the nation, were all fighting for the exclusivity to carry his collection, with Neiman Marcus fighting the hardest. But Grace Jones was the only store chosen.
Upon arrival in Salado, Lacroix was startled and speechless to see that the runway for his show had been built in an open field behind the store. Crazy Texans, he must have thought. But as the limousines began arriving, he felt somewhat relieved. As the excited guests took their seats, the music began. Jones took the stage to introduce her guest designer, and after signaling to start the show, the music was turned up. The beautiful backdrop of Mill Creek running behind the stage and the ambience of the pastoral setting surrounding the audience must have been memorable. As the models Jones had hired for the event started their runway walk, the audience was already applauding. Then, out of the corner of her eye, Jane Sibley saw something moving to the far right. As she turned to see what it was, a cow lazily sauntered up and walked directly in front of the stage and then continued meandering through the audience. There was a loud gasp from the onlookers, and especially from Lacroix. But Jones just signaled for the models to keep walking; she never lost her focus. The cows were just part of the ambience, as far as she was concerned. Lacroix looked horrified. But at the finale, the audience gave his collection a loud standing ovation. He said that he wasn’t quite sure the applause was for him or the cow. He sold 150 dresses at this one show. Crazy Texans, indeed.
Another reminiscence came from the designer, Michael Vollbracht. “I worked for Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene and then went out on my own for a while, designing prints,” recalled Vollbracht. Grace was so gracious, supporting me in every way, including hosting a fashion show in Salado. Well, I know Texas…but I wasn’t at all prepared for it. I barely remember riding to one of the fashion shows…Grace was driving. I had no idea where we were or where we were going. Somehow, when the evening ended, we were all in a hot tub with Liz Carpenter.”
Grace Jones passed away in Salado in 2008. However, she will long be regarded as the First Lady of Texas Fashion, from an era of elegance we can recall fondly and with hopes that she would still have her favorite designers today. For more information on the book, visit http://www.gracejonesofsalado.com.