Doris Eaton Travis, at 106; was last of the Ziegfeld Follies Girls

Doris Eaton Travis in costume for the Ziegfeld Follies at 14. Doris Eaton Travis in costume for the Ziegfeld Follies at 14. (Ziegfeld Club)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / May 13, 2010

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NEW YORK — For a quarter-century, Florenz Ziegfeld auditioned hundreds of thousands of young women vying to become chorus girls, the Ziegfeld Girls, those lace-and-chiffon visions of glamour who were as much a part of the Jazz Age as Stutz Bearcats, the Charleston, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In all, from 1907 to 1931, he picked about 3,000, and on Tuesday the last Ziegfeld Girl died. She was Doris Eaton Travis, and she was 106. She died of an aneurysm in Commerce, Mich., said a nephew, Joe Eaton.

Beneath towering, glittering, feathered headdresses, the Ziegfeld Girls floated across grand Broadway stages in lavish pageants known as the Ziegfeld Follies, often to the wistful tune that Irving Berlin wrote just for them: “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.’’

They were former waitresses, farmers’ daughters, and office workers who had dreamed of becoming part of Ziegfeld’s own grand dream of “glorifying the American girl’’ (preferably with exact measurements of 36-26-38) in splendiferous spectacles.

They performed with the likes of Will Rogers and Fanny Brice, and everyone flocked to see them, including President Wilson and Babe Ruth.

“It was beauty, elegance, loveliness,’’ Ms. Travis recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 2005, “beauty and elegance like a French painting of a woman’s body.’’

Ms. Travis might have been the youngest Ziegfeld Girl ever, having lied about her age to begin dancing at 14. She was part of a celebrated family of American stage performers known as “the seven little Eatons.’’ George Gershwin played on her family’s piano, and Charles Lindbergh dropped by for “tea,’’ Prohibition cocktails.

After three years with the Ziegfeld troupe, Ms. Travis went on to perform in stage productions and silent films. In 1938, in Detroit, she opened the first Arthur Murray dance studio outside New York. She eventually owned 18 Murray studios in Michigan.

Ms. Travis never stopped performing. In 2008, at age 104, she danced at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS annual Easter benefit, something she started doing in 1998. But no spotlight was as bright as the one she basked in as an ingenue.

In her book about Ms. Travis, “Century Girl,’’ Lauren Redniss quotes a Chicago critic: “Mine eyes are yet dim with the luminous beauty of a girl named Doris.’’

Doris Eaton was born in Norfolk, Va. She was 5 when she made her first public performance, in “The Cupid Dance,’’ a routine she could replicate a century later.

In 1911, she and her sisters Mary and Pearl were hired for a production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play “The Blue Bird’’ in Washington. By 1916, the three were outearning their father, a newspaper linotype operator.

The sisters, their younger brother Joe, and their cousin Avery appeared regularly in plays. In her memoir, “The Days We Danced’’(2003), Ms. Travis wrote that producers knew that “if you needed three or four more children, you could call Mama Eaton and get them all in one place.’’

Four Eatons were in the Ziegfeld Follies, and five appeared on Broadway, sometimes three or more at once.

Ms. Travis was introduced to the Follies in 1918 by her sister Pearl, who by then was a dance director for the troupe. Arriving for a rehearsal, Ms. Travis ended up being hired for the summer tour, starting the day she finished eighth grade. Besides inflating her age, she used pseudonyms to evade child-labor laws.

She began as a chorus girl and understudy to the show’s star. In 1919, she wore a red costume and played the paprika part in the salad dance. In 1920, she had a solo, a jazzy tap dance.

She left to be in silent movies, plays, and musical revues, one of which was the Gorham Follies in Hollywood. She married the owner, Joseph Gorham, who died six months later.

In 1926 she joined the Hollywood Music Box Revue, “patterned after the Follies, only not so grandiose,’’ she told Interview magazine in 1999. During the Depression, show business opportunities dried up. Mr. Travis rejected burlesque and was almost ready to become a dime-a-dance girl in the city’s dance halls when Arthur Murray hired her to teach ballroom dancing in Manhattan. She taught 70 hours a week until moving to Michigan to start the new franchise.

In 2007, Oakland University in Michigan gave Ms. Travis an honorary doctorate. She responded by singing and dancing “Ballin’ the Jack,’’ a song popularized by Lillian Lorraine, a renowned Ziegfeld Follies’ star.

A little more than two weeks ago Ms. Travis returned to Broadway to appear again at the annual Easter Bonnet Competition held by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, this time at the Minskoff Theater. She did a few kicks, apologizing that she no longer performed cartwheels.