Friday, August 05, 2011

Caribbean Kate and the Singer Saga

Updated 8/13/11
Whether it's a Vespa she's tooling around on in London or a Singer roadster in Jamaica, Katharine Hepburn gets photographed with some pretty cool vehicles. First the Vespa:
Katharine Hepburn leaving Shepperton Studios during filming in London in 1956. From Jesse's Hepburn/Vespa post

Go to Just A Car Guy's blog post for the story and more pics. The third photo down shows her with wardrobe man Johnny Hilling on the set of The Iron Petticoat, filmed in England by London Film Productions in 1956 for MGM. The movie, which starred Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn, premiered in Berlin, West Germany on June 30, 1956 and was released in the U.S. on January 7, 1957. The film is also known as Not for Money.

As for the Singer, the classy website The Nifty Fifties is a daily must-go-to for me, and if Vanessa hadn't recently posted the picture below, I'd most likely would never have come across it even though the picture has apparently been kicking around the intertubes since at least 2008 and is on dozens of other sites:
Katharine Hepburn and Irene Mayer Selznick in a Singer SM 1500 Roadster. Taken circa September, 1952 at Montego Bay, Jamaica. From The Nifty Fifties.

The photo by Slim Aarons (whose self-portrait is captured in the hubcaps) of Katharine Hepburn and her friend and passenger Irene Mayer Selznick (daughter of Louis B. Mayer and ex-wife of David O. Selznick) is said to have been taken in 1953. Kate and Irene are seen stopped along Montego Bay's waterfront in Jamaica. Whenever Katharine vacationed in Jamaica she liked to stay at the estate of Noel Coward (now an inn) which was just over a couple of hours east along the coast from Montego Bay. I believe the original photo traces back to this page from this collection.

Now here is where the story of the roadster gets interesting. In her 1989 book A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn, Anne Edwards wrote about a trip Hepburn took to Jamaica in September, 1952 in-between her London and New York performances in George Bernard Shaw's The Millionairess. While the set and cast of the play sailed to New York, Hepburn and Selznick flew to Jamaica to vacation a few days at the Coward estate. Edwards wrote that "The two women arrived in an open sports car - unheard of in Jamaica and apparently shipped in by either Kate or Irene." Edwards goes on to say "Up until that time, Noel had firmly warned of the danger of sunstroke and on the insistence of his Jamaican friends had used a closed car. From that point on, he followed Kate's lead and always drove about in an open car on the island..." (Emphasis mine.) In all probability it was Kate who imported the car. She had spent some of her off time in London shipping antiques back home - certainly she could have arranged to buy a car and have it sent to Jamaica. However, it seems more likely that it wasn't a new car shipped from England at all, but her own personal roadster shipped from New York.

William Vaughan was an erstwhile Broadway actor - a decade earlier, when the actor he replaced got drafted, Vaughan went overnight from bit-part to leading man in Counsellor-at-Law at the Royale Theater, while the next block over Katharine Hepburn was starring in Without Love at the St. James Theater. Later he turned car dealer, wannabe car maker, and sometimes amateur race driver. In 1952 he had the exclusive Singer distributorship with his own dealerships in New York:

and Hollywood:

Vaughan was not above using celebrities to sell cars. The likes of Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Marilyn Monroe were seen in - or on - them (see more posts above).
This 1950 advertising handout featured Lucille Ball, in conjunction with her and Desi's new act at the Roxy Theater, in a Singer Nine roadster:
Lucille Ball in her Singer Nine Roadster on the sidewalk outside the Roxy Theater, New York City circa June, 1950. From Singer Period Advertisements.

On the back is the ad copy ginned up by Vaughan Motors:
From Singer Period Advertisements.

Living in Connecticut, Kate would have bought her 1951-52 Singer SM 1500 Roadster (4AD) from Vaughan's New York dealership. Well, it could be a 1952 4AB, since the last 250 of those built had the same outside skin as the 4AD, but with the 4AB mechanics underneath. Some Singer aficionado please help me out here. Kate's example was delivered without trafficators, which would have been in the bodywork just behind the door as seen on the Singer Nine in the above ad.

I can find no account (although I haven't looked all that hard yet) of Kate taking a Jamaican vacation in 1953. So, is this picture from the late 1952 trip? Did Slim Aarons simply wait a few months before copyrighting it in 1953? Did Kate and Irene go back to the island after the New York run of The Millionairess - which ended on December 28, 1952 - and greet the New Year on Montego Bay? Who knows? Suffice to say that Slim Aarons, either intentionally or inadvertently, captured for posterity the first roadster in Jamaica, and it's a Singer!

For a concise yet brilliant history of Singer Motors, see History of the Singer Car by Kevin Atkinson, from The North American Singer Owners Club website.

For a look at Bill Vaughan's Vaughan-Singer Special, see the story at Forgotten Fiberglass website. To see other Singer Specials, go here.

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