Posted by medusamorlock on November 15, 2007
Yes, once again I go into the darkness, this time to commemorate the life of renowned Hollywood costume designer Irene. The date of November 15th has significance here, because it was the day that in 1962 Irene jumped out of a window at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles and fell to her death, a suicide victim at the age of 61. An immense talent, and both a creative genius and a shrewd businesswoman, Irene had an incredibly fruitful career both in and out of the Hollywood spotlight, and her list of credits is astounding.
Born in Montana on December 8, 1900, Irene Lentz made her way to Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming an actress, and did manage to land a handful of minor roles in silent films beginning in 1921. She married the director of her first movie role, but after his untimely death in 1930, Irene turned away from acting and fell back on one of her other well-developed skills. An accomplished seamstress all her life with the added taste and panache necessary to move into dress designing, Irene opened a small dress shop in Los Angeles. The success of her business brought an offer from the ultra-swank Wilshire Blvd. Department store, recently moved into luxury Art Deco digs, to join them on staff as designer in their high-class, high price tag Ladies Custom Salon. Movie stars and the wives of movie stars were her frequent customers, as well as well-heeled society ladies, all of whom fell in love with the classy gowns that were Irene’s specialty.
Putting clothes on the backs of movie people brought her to the attention of studio brass, leading to her first movie costume design job in 1933. At this point Irene, as she billed herself, was freelancing for both independent producers and working at various studios, often working under other costume supervisors but brought specially in to design the gowns for the female stars such as Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard and many more. For ten years she worked all over Hollywood, amassing over forty major design credits, but after meeting and marrying writer Eliot Gibbons, brother of MGM art and production direction head Cedric Gibbons, she soon found herself at that studio, taking the place of the designer Adrian who left MGM to work for Universal.
The next ten years at MGM were busy and prestigious for Irene, who worked as costume designer and costume supervisor on over one hundred and fifty films. Her glamorous fashion imprint was found on prestigious dramas, Judy Garland musicals, raucous comedies, Esther Williams swim and song fests, and nearly every other movie that MGM released until the end of the 1940s. She received an Academy Award nomination for her costumes for the 1948 Barbara Stanwyck drama B.F.’s Daughter. It was the first year that Oscars were given in that category; actually two awards were given, for black and white and also for color movies, until 1957. Undoubtedly Irene would have been honored many more times had the category existed earlier.
Though she had incredible respect at MGM, she found the strain of working for her somewhat autocratic and old-fashioned (though incredibly talented) brother-in-law Cedric Gibbons was wearing on her, and in 1950 she decided to leave MGM and dedicate herself to her own fashion studio which she had founded some years earlier. She didn’t return to films until she responded to a plea from her old friend Doris Day to design her wardrobe for some movies she would be doing at Universal. Irene acquiesced to her friend’s request and returned to Hollywood to create Day’s stylish ensembles for the thriller Midnight Lace (her second Oscar nomination) and the NY advertising world comedy Lover Come Back, the second of three Day made with Rock Hudson. During 1962 she worked on the Rock Hudson aviation adventure A Gathering of Eagles.
At this time things began to turn sad in Irene’s life. Doris Day noticed that her friend was unhappy and preoccupied, and she learned that Irene had been despondent since the 1961 death of actor Gary Cooper. Irene confessed to having been madly in love with Cooper and when he died she fell into a deep depression. Come November 15, 1962, Irene checked into the Knickerbocker Hotel under an assumed name and began drinking heavily. After writing several notes to friends, including caring references to her husband Eliot who recently had a stroke and apologies for what she was about to do, Irene (according to some accounts) tried to slit her wrists, unsuccessfully. Failing that, at shortly after three in the afternoon, Irene opened her hotel room window on one of the highest floors and jumped out, landing on the lobby roof that jutted out from the hotel’s entrance. (Contrary to some reports, her body was discovered quickly and not days later.)
Irene left a legacy of imaginative costume design, creating looks that ranged from Lana Turner’s now-iconic white shorts set from The Postman Always Rings Twice, to opulent over-the-top creations for lavish MGM musical extravaganzas. You will be astounded when you read over her list of credits, and we will always remember all the beauty and wonder that she helped bring to the movies.
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