Imagine -- a stripper becoming the wife of a Los Angeles City Councilman, a well-respected politician. Hmmm. . . . Life is so very intriguing, and we can't invent the stories that have already been lived.
I'm working out a series of articles -- maybe a book? -- about now-dead performers, people whose names you may have never heard but who lived intriguing, notable lives nonetheless. People who changed the face of history in some way.
An ancient Egyptian tomb inscription: "To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again."
Who was Edna Margaret Cox? Margie Jacobs? Margaret Ferraro, wife of powerful Los Angeles city councilman, John Ferraro?
And who was Donnie Most’s mother-in-law? You remember Donnie Most, don’t you? "Ralphie" on the always-still-running-somewhere-in-syndication "Happy Days?" The red-headed guy?
All these identifications - Edna Margaret Cox, Margaret Hart Ferraro, Margie Jacobs, even Donnie Most’s mother-in-law - were one woman, a chameleon, an individual with many lives.
Her best-known persona, with highest visibility, was as Margie Hart, a name not yet mentioned. In Margie’s heyday, she was a stripper extraordinaire, considered one of the "big four" of most famous strippers of all times. Included with her were Rose La Rose, Ann Corio, and the name most everyone immediately recognizes - Gypsy Rose Lee.
Just because the current-day public may not automatically put a face with a name doesn’t mean that someone didn’t ever hold a visible place in the spotlight. So it is with Margie. My addiction to intriguing, unique photographs brought me together with this most fascinating woman. A large pile of showgirl photos in an antique shop caught my attention. These ladies were scantily clad, posed provocatively, each one more beautiful than the next. True "glamour shots."
Margie was a stand-out amongst stand-outs.
There was a period from the early 1930s and into the late 1950s when you couldn’t open the newspaper and not read Margie Hart’s name in some gossip column, or on the society page, or any version of entertainment news. Renowned gossip columnists scurried to be the first to tell about her daily life; some considered her a friend. Walter Winchell wrote about her. Dorothy Kilgallen asked her to guest-write her column while on vacation. They gave her many creative names to play up her profession: "Ace Stripper," "Pantymimist," "Stripeeler," "Queen of the Undie-World," my favorite - "Yankee Nude’ll Dandy," and one that became her well-publicized tagline, "The Poor Man’s Garbo."
Margie Hart, at her highest point, was the best-paid stripper in the world. That says a lot for Greta Garbo’s take-home pay, doesn’t it?!
Margie was born about 1916 in Edgerton, Missouri. She was one of nine children in an Irish family, and her grandfather claimed to be part of Robert E. Lee’s Civil War campaign at Appomattox. Her father was a sewing machine salesman, her mother a card-carrying member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Because of her mother’s membership, Margie was entitled to follow the tradition . . . and in mid-life, she did.
As a young farm girl, old-fashioned stars in her eyes, she ran away to join a chorus line in Chicago. This move sealed her future. In early adulthood she was about five feet seven, weighing about 112 pounds. Her pretty hazel eyes offset hair often termed "flame" red. She claimed she stayed in shape without dieting.
Her story started out much the same as many young girls trying to make it big in "show business," doing what she had to do to get her next break. She became a stripper - this she couldn’t deny - yet still she said she lived a normal, quiet life away from the stage. She contended that a mundane existence was norm for a lady in her type of work. Portions of her salary went to support eight members of her family in the Midwest.
Margie was quoted as saying, "The girls in the burlesque choruses can’t dissipate or it will show up. A girl in this business has no time to get into mischief. . . . The chorus girls are due at the theater at one and are there until the last show ends at eleven. Then they rehearse until two or three in the morning, except Saturday, when there is a midnight show at which they must appear. They go out to supper from 5:30 to seven, and Sunday is their day off."
Even in those days, and it was a desire that clearly never left her, Margie wanted to live in one place long enough to have her own apartment, stay home, and cook. She wrote short stories, read Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and movie magazines, often using them for costume ideas. New outfits were needed at least every week, and there was always a new one waiting on the rack for her next appearance.
Most of the creations were designed by one of New York’s most expensive, ingenious period designers, Billy Livingston, costing between $50 and $100. Margie paid for each from her earnings. Turquoise chiffons. Satins. White fox capes and ostrich feathers. At the end of the week, most were sold and profits used for the next crop. Some she loaned to lesser artists to copy at a fraction of the cost she originally paid.
Not that audiences came to see what she was wearing.
What were her performances like? What exactly did the woman who became Donnie Most’s mother-in-law, and ultimately the wife of a well-respected Los Angeles councilman, do for a living - four times a day, four minutes each act?
She didn’t sing, dance, talk. She was, literally, a professional seductress. She undressed, slinky piece by slinky piece, dropping aside each garment until she wore . . . nothing . . . except a thin covering below the waist, and probably a smile. She’s believed to have been the first stripper to actually remove her G-string on stage. That’s how she made so much money, and became arguably the second most well-known stripper of the 20th century.
Yet it appears the life took its toll.
"Men have their qualms about women in this profession," she said at one point while still in the business. Dates, she lamented, were few and far between. Men on her side of the burlesque curtain were hesitant to ask out a girl earning two or three times their salary, and meeting appropriate men from outside the "theatre" world was difficult. She wasn’t always pleased with the type of man who came to see her shows, and wouldn’t have dated them.
She was socially conscious . . . or maybe it was just a savvy method of keeping her name in the headlines. Either way, amidst the backdrop of WWII, Margie was forever at the forefront of creativity when it came to doing her part for the cause.
In 1940 she was worried that national guardsmen might be lonely on active duty so she sent Maj. Gen. William Haskell, New York commandant, 5000 autographed photos of her in a very appealing though modest-enough pose. She asked him to distribute them to his men, but to "bachelors only."
Over and over she adamantly stated that she considered her work "a job," and often said she just wanted to "get the act over." In 1941, at the height of her success, her earnings allowed her to own a 500-acre farm in Malthrip, Missouri. What did she do there . . . when she was there? She raised pigs. Yes, pigs. And her grandest desire was to win a blue ribbon at a county fair for her pedigreed pigs.
Another great image. A stripper raising pigs on a farm. Life is certainly strange.
Also in 1941, she was offered $1500 cash if she would part with fan letters written by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. That brings up all sorts of interesting possibilities, doesn’t it? Margie refused the offer.
She was a New York City air raid warden in 1941. Hmmm. . . . Think about it. A famous stripper, with a face most everyone of the day had seen in the media, as well as a body seen, intimately, by more husbands than would be willing to admit, leading Middle-American Harold and Martha into the shelter as the siren went off. What a mental picture! At least Harold would’ve enjoyed the experience.
In those days she was still called a "girl." She clearly understood it wouldn’t always be that way, and this was foreshadowed when she wrote a play called "Move Faster." The storyline showed that a good "girl," a nice "girl," could earn a comfortable living seductively removing her clothes, and still be a "girl" any mother would be happy to have her son bring home. This theme reverberated throughout her life year after year.
In 1942, Margie Hart brought about the beginning of the end of striptease as a profession, as it had been known for so many years. She was starring in a show, "Wine, Women and Song," banned in some locations around the country. The show then went to Broadway and came into the direct line of public and governmental fire. The production was sued, with Margie as the stand-out star. There was even the possibility that she, and the show’s other actors, might be called to "do her stuff" in front of the jury. The other option?
The jury was taken to the theater to see the show.
America - what a great country! I’ll bet many men wished they’d been called for that trial! The jury - seven men and five women - finally decided the show was indecent, and it was closed. Margie wasn’t held responsible, and while the producers, company, and stage manager faced jail time, she went on her merry way. Publicity seemed to only heighten her popularity.
Margie Hart eventually retired from striptease life. On the 4th of July, 1942, in Belton, Missouri, she married her press agent, Seaman (yes, his real first name) Jacobs, and settled in Encino, California. In his own right, Seaman became just as famous as Margie, a celebrated early television writer. Margie was quoted as saying, "It just isn’t right for a married woman to do that kind of work." In 1953, they had a son.
Despite her retirement, Margie managed to keep her name in the limelight. It was actually noteworthy in 1945 when she tripped down stairs at her mother’s Kansas City home. A photo op was waiting, and the public wasn't disappointed when her picture showed up in newspapers across the country. Her injured foot was bandaged and propped on the sofa, while her other leg rested on the floor. She was dressed to the nines - of course! - in a rather low-cut dress, heels (or a heel) on the working foot, and she sported a playful smile while daintily re-doing bandages on her boo-boo. Clearly, publicity was alive and well even back then.
By this time, Margie was aging and had to work to be visible if she didn’t want to be forgotten. As an ex-stripper, away from the stage since her marriage, now over 30, she was known to be savvy in the art of promotion.
In late summer 1945, she tried to go overseas with the USO to entertain troops. In a letter she wrote to the Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper, she told them her services were refused even though she’d gone so far as to volunteer to read poetry in a Mother Hubbard dress. Her words: "If it’s sex you’re worried about, relax. I’ve got other talents. I can sing. I can act."
Margie’s earlier wishes to live in one place long enough to have her own apartment ultimately came to pass - and then some. In August of 1955, she and Seaman Jacobs divorced. Margie received title to their $125,000 Bel Air home, 5 per cent of Seaman’s gross earnings, and another 5 per cent as child support.
In the 1960s, in her mid-forties, she was smack in the center of her transformation from flashy, some might even have said trashy, showgirl, to socialite and community member. She was married to her second husband, a local businessman. In 1962, a newspaper blurb stated, "Margie Hart, the former top-ranking striptease artist, has settled down to a life of domesticity on the west coast, and her two adopted children are being kept far away from any contact with show biz."
Not only did she have her own place, she went into real estate and bought and sold homes well enough to make another decent living from it. This was a smart woman who knew her talents, her limitations, and managed to capitalize on both.
But the truly amazing part of Margie Hart’s life came many moons after she no longer removed her clothes for a living. In the 1970s, she married Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro, a well-respected citizen. It seems that her real estate career, buying and cleaning up Los Angeles properties before re-selling them for a healthy profit, as well as work with charitable causes, put enough space between who she had been, and who she had become, and people were no longer concerned with her sensational past. If they were, they didn't dare bring it up in the face of Councilman Ferraro's placement in the moving and shaking world of local California politics.
This is where the easy-to-find information on Margie Hart’s life - excuse me, Mrs. Margaret Ferraro - became sketchy. She had learned the publicity lesson well in earlier days. She knew when to step out of the limelight, and from the point where she became the councilman’s wife, her large-scale press moments seemed limited to blurbs in society columns, photo ops standing figuratively behind her husband, and recognition for her business savvy.
But a past heavily-laden with sexual innuendo is hard for our publicity-hungry society to ignore, and John Ferraro must have held powerful sway. He’d been in local government since the 1960s, so by the time he married Margie he already had his feet well-planted on the political scene. He championed historic preservation, and led the drive to renovate the Los Angeles zoo. He helped bring the 1984 Olympics to Los Angeles - by this time Margie was by his side, and was instrumental in adding the Staples Center to the city.
This man was no slacker. What steely presence did he have to weather storms that most certainly must have come his way when it became known he would marry one of the most infamous strippers in American history? One can only speculate over gossip, gossip that no matter how far removed Margie by then may have been from her past, still had to filter throughout socialite circles in which Ferraro moved. He’d been married before. He had grown children. His 35-year tenure on the city council was the longest-running of any member.
"She loved people and they loved her," he said in a statement after her death. "She was very intelligent, enjoyed her own unique views of Los Angeles and the world of politics, and didn't mind sharing those views."
Margie must have been a heckuva woman. I would have really liked her, enjoyed her personality and intellect, and could have learned important lessons from her . . . about life and the art of living it well.
This is the story I’d like to uncover. As fascinating as it had to have been to be a stripper, Margie’s strength of character was her real draw. She certainly was really something, to move from humble beginnings, to sensational backstages, into "blue" tinged limelight . . . to become a mother, then a businesswoman and finally, a high society mover and shaker.
Margie got the home she always wanted - where she could cook, write short stories, raise animals, enjoy her family, read fashion magazines . . . and probably business magazines. Margie lived the American dream and then some, and was savvy enough to not only reach for that brass ring, but buy and sell it - over and over.
Margie Hart, aka Edna Margaret Cox, aka Donnie Most’s mother-in-law, finally found her true identity, the identity that brought her the love and respect it seemed she’d always wanted . . . as Mrs. Margaret Ferraro, wife of Los Angeles Councilman John Ferraro.
Kudos to you, Mrs. Ferraro! To speak your name, all of your names - we will bring you back to life, if even only on paper, so others can glean even a tiny flicker of what it means to have a dream and work to achieve it. You are - not were, are - a great example of how to reach for the stars - and maybe become one. You have my admiration.
Site: Life, Love, Entertainment: Margie Hart
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