Make-up artist Dorothy “Dottie” Ponedel actually wrote her memoir decades ago after becoming housebound with multiple sclerosis. In it she reminisced about being an in-demand actress and dancer in silent films, and later, as a make-up artist to the stars, including Marlene Dietrich, Joan Blondell, Adrienne Ames, Carole Lombard, Paulette Goddard, and Judy Garland.
For various reasons, Pondedel’s manuscript was not published before her death in 1979 but thanks to her niece Meredith Ponedel, and film historian and writer/editor Danny Miller, it now has a life as About Face, The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel: Make-up Artist to the Stars (BearManor Media). The bulk of the book is in Dorothy’s own words, and as such serves as a unique bridge to Hollywood’s Golden Era from someone who lived at its very heart.
In fact, to say she was a ‘make-up artist’ seems somehow inadequate. Ponedel had a unique genius: she designed a sculpting and highlighting process for each of the stars she worked with. She also collaborated closely with the directors and cinematographers of the day. In short, Ponedel was key to the creation of the screen siren image, which was integral to Hollywood’s Dream Factory.
It is no surprise that major stars ensured Ponedel was written into contracts, but sadly, her huge success also made her a target of the mainly male union. An “impassioned” letter from Ponedel to Make-up Artists Local 706 is included at the beginning of the book. She is clearly fighting for fair play:
“Again I have been informed that there is a movement to oust me from the Union for the crime of being a Woman.”
Ponedel became close to many of the women she worked with, as well as a dear pal of the male stars, including Gary Cooper, who would occasionally hide out in her house. In fact, her home became party central but also safe harbor for many. The phone could ring in the wee hours from a friend desperate for her wise counsel.
Ponedel’s relationship with Judy Garland — a combination of best friend and mother — is very poignant. My great uncle Louis B. Mayer is also mentioned in relation to Garland, and in one line Dorothy Ponedel explodes an overly repeated dark myth.
In the same chapter, she shares a very funny memory about another great uncle, Jerry Mayer:
“As I walked in his office, I was dumbstruck because I never saw such a beautiful place. I kept turning until I got to his desk, like I was doing some kind of dance.”
Reading this was such an odd experience because just months ago a cousin sent me what may be the only known photo of Jerry Mayer’s office, and it is a breathtaking Art Deco palace. It’s fun to imagine Dorothy Ponedel doing a full circle trying to take it all in, while Jerry Mayer waits patiently behind his desk, and more than likely had a good-natured chuckle at her awestruck expression.
As I read About Face, I became quite emotional — her voice, her fierce loyalty and love, her self-deprecating humor, her philosophical acceptance of life’s twists and turns — is all deeply moving.
I also enjoyed Meredith Ponedel‘s epilogue, in which she describes her relationship with her beloved aunt, starting as a toddler, when in 1959 she, her brother, and her father (who became Frank Sinatra’s make-up artist) moved into Ponedel’s home after the death of her mother.
Meredith also gives us a window into her own relationships with her aunt’s most enduring friends, Joan Blondell and Judy Garland. As Meredith discovers, they were intensly protective of their Dottie, and no wonder as Ponedel remained a loving touchstone, even metting out tough love; something I am sure she found painful to do.
I am so grateful Meredith did not decide to write a biography about her aunt but instead let her manuscript tell her story. Her voice is not sophisticated but it is authentic, and that is the precious element that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a time machine.
About Face is also rich with photographs from Ponedel’s collection (my thanks to Meredith for allowing them to be shared here), many of them inscribed with words of gratitude from those who relied on her for that otherworldly beauty that transformed them into modern day goddesses.
You will love About Face AND Dorothy Ponedel, as I did. Thank you, Meredith and Danny, and BearManor Media’s founder and publisher, Ben Ohmart, for a wonderful book.
To buy the book on Amazon, click here.