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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Coralee Burson Davis

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Object ID: WV0222.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Coralee "Coco" Burson Davis’ service in the Coast Guard SPARs during World War II, including her involvement in the play and musical Tars and Spars, and her acting career and personal life after the war.

Summary:

Davis describes her early love of theater, her per-service show business pursuits, and her failed attempts to enlist in the Women Marines and US Navy WAVES before joining the Coast Guard SPARs.

Davis discusses of her assignment to US Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, DC, including her work typing vouchers; giving recruiting lectures; appearing on the radio show The Fighting Coast Guard; visiting wounded soldiers; and trying out for the play Tars and Spars. She also describes play rehearsals in Palm Beach, Florida; being reunited with a Japanese friend who was sent to an internment camp at a performance; famous people cast in the play; actors and actresses she met; visiting military hospitals; and performing on a TV show. Of her performance in the Tars and Spars film, she mentions the actors she worked with and living in Hollywood. Other topics from Davis' service time include traveling in Pennsylvania while performing the play; doing publicity for the film in New York; her opinion of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; her memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor; and returning to civilian life.

Davis discusses living with actress friends in Manhattan after her discharge from the SPARs and returning to California with friends, where she visited her family and met her future husband, Walter “Bunny” Rathbun. She mentions forming a summer theatre with Walter, and his death due to Hodgkin’s disease. She then discusses meeting her second husband, Horace Davis, on a visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico, different cultural dating traditions in Puerto Rico, and her husband’s work with the Foreign Service. She also mentions their moves to Washington, DC; Europe; and Charlottesville, Virginia.

Creator: Coralee Burson Davis

Biographical Info: Coralee "Coco" Burson Davis (b. 1921) of Pasadena, California, served in the Coast Guard SPARs from 1942 to 1946 and was a member of the Tars and Spars musical revue and movie cast.

Collection: Coralee Burson Davis Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

LJ:

I'm at the home of Mrs. “Coco” Davis, Charlottesville, Virginia. We're here to do the Women Veterans Oral History interview. I'm going to start with an easy question. When and where were you born?

CD:

I was born in Eagle Rock, California, between Glendale and Pasadena, California, in 1921.

LJ:

Tell me about your family and home life. What did your parents do?

CD:

My mother was a homemaker. I never knew my real father, because my mother and father divorced when I was less than a year old, and I had a stepfather momentarily. I grew up mainly with my grandparents in my early life. They lived in Pasadena, and that was where I really became interested in the theater.

LJ:

Were they in the theater?

CD:

No, but my uncle, who was ten years older than me, was a student in the first class of the School of the Theater at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, which was the state theater of California and very well known. He really, I guess, instilled the interest of theater in me when I was growing up, and saw that I got in some of the plays when he was the art director of a particular show. He then went on, after he graduated, to become one of the art directors of the main stage at the playhouse, and eventually went into television.

Mainly, I was a dancer. I had studied ballet for ten years with a very fine teacher in Pasadena, so I danced in a number of shows at the playhouse. For all intents and purposes, I grew up around theater people and that atmosphere, so that instilled in me my very long-time love of theater.

LJ:

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

CD:

No.

LJ:

Did you like school when you were growing up?

CD:

Very much. I did.

LJ:

Did you have a favorite subject?

CD:

Well, it was drama. When I was in junior high school—which it was called in those days in Pasadena—I was the Commissioner of Entertainment for my junior high school. When I graduated from the tenth grade, which is the way the system worked out there at that time, we then went to the Pasadena Junior College [PJC], which was the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. There were nine thousans students. So in 1937 PJC was a very large school in Pasadena. Of course, that was what they called the Lower Division and Upper Division.

After graduation I kept up with the theater and was still doing things at the playhouse from time to time. I graduated from high school in 1939, and by that time, unfortunately, the war was imminent.

LJ:

So you knew that? People were aware of that, do you feel like?

CD:

Well, the defense plants were really revving up. Many of my friends were going to UCLA [The University of California, Los Angeles] or the University of Southern California, but they would also be working in the defense industries at Lockheed Aircraft and Douglas Aircraft, all these different places, which were going full speed, twenty-four hours a day.

I went to work for Lockheed Aircraft and was also in some shows at the Pasadena Playhouse, rather than going on to college. So I was at Lockheed probably a year, give or take, and then decided to enlist in one of the services. I actually went to enlist in 1941, I think it was. No, it would have been in 1942, because Pearl Harbor was December of 1941, and of course, being in California, we were very, very interested in that historic event because of the Japanese connection.

I went to enlist in the first group of Women Marines and was too early for enlistment. I hadn't turned twenty-one yet, and my mother wouldn't sign the papers, so the Marine Corps said, “Try the [U.S.] Navy.”

I went to the navy but they had their quota of WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy]. So they said, “Try the Coast Guard, because we think there might be room there.”

I went there and they said, “Yes, we'd be very interested to have you, but you have to be twenty-one.” So they put me on the list. When I turned twenty-one, I contacted them. That was in the fall of 1942, and about three months later I got orders from Washington to leave for Hunter College, boot camp, in February of 1943.

I had never been out of the State of California, so it was quite an interesting experience going right across the country by train from Los Angeles to Manhattan, in New York City.

I was in boot camp at Hunter College in the Bronx for six weeks, I believe it was in those days. I was in the second group of SPARs [Coast Guard Women's Reserve, from “Sempar Paratus—Always Ready”], and we had in our group the first group of Women Marines, and the WAVES. The WAVES had already been going for a while, but I can't remember whether it was the second or third group of WAVES, but it was a mixed group, which is rather interesting. We had career Marine Corps drill sergeants, and they were not interested in having females in the military. So us little nave girls really had our eyes opened, but it was all so interesting.

When we had to have all our shots, the hospital corps people couldn't believe that I had never had a vaccination nor any shots in my entire life, because my mother just—you know, it was not a religious thing. Some people thought that it was, but it was not. She just didn't want her little darling to have any shots of any kind that might leave a scar.

LJ:

And they didn't require them, I guess, for getting into school those days.

CD:

Well, evidently not. I'm not sure. But as I said, it was very unusual, and the hospital corps couldn't believe that I never had a vaccination. Anyway, after boot camp I signed up for duty in Los Angeles, or in California, actually, but my assignment turned out to be Washington, D.C., U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, which is typical.

LJ:

Yes, right, that's what I've been hearing.

CD:

So I went to D.C., and since we were so new they really didn't have any place to put us, so they billeted us in small hotels around the Capitol, and we worked at headquarters. The Coast Guard was able to lease a former prep school for Annapolis that was not far from Dupont Circle, from headquarters, and so they moved us over there. I had eight roommates. I guess it would have been seven, because we had four double-decker bunks, and so I lived with a very mixed bag of girls. We were all good friends, got along very well, and had a lot of fun.

My job in the transportation department was to type vouchers for incoming ensigns who were coming from different posts and from overseas. It was a deadly dull job. I was so sorry I had ever put on my application that I knew how to type, because I truly felt that I should be in public relations. So I went to the public relations office and spoke to the captain who was in charge, Captain Reed Hill. I told him about my show business experience, my theatrical experience at the playhouse. I said, “I really would like to volunteer, on my own time, to give recruiting lectures to women's groups,” because we did not have our full complement of ten thousand SPARs at that time. He said that would be fine.

I gave several speeches to these different women's groups. Also, through the public relations office there was a radio show. It was a coast-to-coast broadcast once a week on WMAL, the Blue Network, called The Fighting Coast Guard. There was an orchestra from Curtis Bay, Maryland, and they wanted a female voice on this show interviewing whoever might be interesting in Washington that week. They gave me the job, and so I met some fascinating people, including one whom I interviewed, a man who was in the temporary—well, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a temporary reserve. His name was Vernon Duke, and he was a very well-known songwriter. He wrote I Can't Get Started, Taking a Chance on Love, April in Paris, and a number of big, big, tunes. He wrote the music with different lyricists.

Vernon said to me after the broadcast that he was writing a Coast Guard show which would be a recruiting show, called Tars and Spars. “If this goes through, come out on the audition.” They were going to be recruiting talent from four or five naval districts: Boston, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and one other one. They got the okay to have this show, and I went out on the audition and happened to luck out and got in the show. I bade my roommates a fond farewell and left Washington.

By that time the Coast Guard had taken over the Palm Beach Biltmore Hotel for their SPAR training station, and they decided that was where we would go into rehearsals for the show. I was on the train to Florida, as a matter of fact, with Sid Caesar, who was coming from Sheep's Head Bay, New York. He had been recruited for the show and he and I were on the train, along with two or three others who were going to Florida for rehearsals.

After a few days, everybody had assembled, which included a fifteen-piece orchestra [CD added later: who were all professional musicians in civilian life with big-name bands], and they had all seen sea duty. Everybody in the show had to be legitimately in the Coast Guard. We went into rehearsal in Palm Beach, which was interesting because every time we left the Biltmore Hotel, where we were billeted, as they called it, we would have to request permission to go ashore.

We used to, if I recall, drop our shoes in a hedge, and then change our shoes when we got outside and off the base and switch into more attractive shoes. Then every time we would go back into the Biltmore, we would have to request permission to go aboard and salute the ensign, which is saluting the flag.

LJ:

Even though this is a building?

CD:

Yes. [laughter]

LJ:

Let me ask you this real quick, because I've always wondered, what is a Tar?

CD:

You know, a Tar? That's a good question, because that may go back to World War I. I'm not sure. I haven't been able to find any, what shall I say, reliable explanation or whatever. I think a tar was a slang expression for sailor—

LJ:

Oh, okay.

CD:

—and that they were called tars. And why it would be, I don't know. But that's a good question. I'll have to do research on that. Of course, the SPARs were named for the Coast Guard motto, which is Semper Paratus, Always Ready. Needless to say, we took a lot of joking. [laughter]

LJ:

I bet you did. Well, on that subject, I know there was a slander campaign against the WACs [Women's Army Corps] and something said about the WAVES. Did you ever feel any of that about the Coast Guard?

CD:

No, I didn't. I never had any of that, but that may be because we were never on a base long enough for that harassment or whatever. The only thing that I really recall would be like from the Marine drill sergeants, but that was minor. It wasn't any individual. It was because we were a group of females in the military.

LJ:

Right. It wasn't anything about your character or anything like that.

CD:

No. No. But, now, I know that went on. If it happened, it probably would be on a base someplace where the tour of duty would be with the same people all the time.

LJ:

You said that your mother was hesitant to sign for you. So does that mean she was against you joining?

CD:

Only because being an only child she was afraid that I was getting into something that there was no way out of, and that if I was unhappy, the only way in those days that you could get out of the service would be to become pregnant or to be—I've forgotten what it was called—anyway, a psychiatric thing. They had a term for it, and I can't remember what it was. So that was the only reason she was against it, but I think when I ended up in the show, that she was really quite pleased. [laughs]

LJ:

And your grandparents were okay with it, too?

CD:

I think my grandparents were. They must have been. I can't remember, because, you see, I had been gone for a year, and I guess they must have thought it was all right. I don't think they ever saw the show, but my mother did.

[Tape recorder paused]

LJ:

I have a question here, and it's going to be maybe jumping ahead a little bit and maybe going back a little bit. One of the questions we ask is: what was the hardest thing you had to do physically or emotionally while in the service?

CD:

I think emotionally one of the most difficult things that I did was when I was on duty in Washington. My roommates and I would ride the streetcar out to Walter Reed Hospital, and the casualties were coming in from North Africa at that time. We would go out and visit the boys in the wards. It really opened our eyes as to the “war is hell” saying because we would write letters to whomever they wanted letters written to, and then the next week we'd go out and they'd be dead, or we didn't see them for some reason. It just really brought it home to all of us young girls who had not been subjected to things like that. We would visit with them, and it was very nice when one had never traveled to meet these young men from all different walks of life.

So I think emotionally, that was the saddest experience during my service career, but leading up to that, when I was in Pasadena about to graduate from high school, the cream of the crop, so to speak, of the young men were enlisting in the Navy Air Corps and the Army Air Corps, and when we got into the war they were popped off right in the beginning. One of my friends went down on the Arizona at Pearl Harbor. So all those things really hit home.

LJ:

Going back to that, do you remember where you were when you heard about Pearl Harbor?

CD:

Yes. Four of us—two young men, beaus, I guess, and one of my good friends—I can't remember who they were, but we had been horseback riding. We had driven over to Hollywood, California, to a stable there and had been riding for a few hours. We were on our way to have claret lemonade at a bar, and we saw a sailor and some other service people who were trying to hitch rides. We stopped and asked the sailor where he was going, and he said Long Beach or San Pedro or someplace like that. He said, “Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese.” That was the first we had heard about that.

One of my Japanese friends—when I had done photographic modeling for a wonderful Japanese photographer in Pasadena who did all the photography for Caltech and whom I had done some fashion modeling for—he told me one day—this was before I had enlisted—he was having to close his business because he was being sent to Salt Lake City to an internment camp.

Interestingly enough, the next time I saw him was when the U.S. Coast Guard show was playing the Strand Theater on Broadway, in Manhattan. My name was on the outside of the theater, and this Japanese chap, my friend, saw my name and came backstage and we had a happy reunion. That was 1944. He had been released from the camp and was working for a photographer in Manhattan. So he and I renewed our friendship, but, you know, it was a little odd walking up Broadway, me in uniform and—

LJ:

And a Japanese man. I bet you got a lot of looks, right? [laughter]

CD:

I can't remember, but another interesting occasion I recall, up the street from our theater where we were playing, Frank Sinatra was singing at the Capital Theater, and he came backstage to see all of us one time between shows. That was in the beginning when he was really slaying all the young girls who were swooning over him.

LJ:

So you met him?

CD:

I didn't really meet him. He just came back with his entourage—I think it was a publicity stunt or something, if I'm not mistaken, but he was pretty cute then, I must say. He would have been about twenty-seven.

LJ:

You being in the entertainment business, I imagine you would have gotten to meet some of these actors anyway, but one thing that does come up in the interview is the people that these ladies have met because of being in the service, like Jimmy Stewart and I think somebody mentioned Victor Mature, who you worked with, and General [Douglas] MacArthur. One lady babysat for his little son when they were in Australia, things like that. Can you think of anybody that you remember or that stands out?

CD:

I had gone to school in Pasadena with Bill Holden, but he was William Beedle, B-e-e-d-l-e. That was his real name. He was in a play, well, actually, I was in two plays with him. One was [Henrik] Ibsen's Peer Gynt, in which he was the narrator, and then a play called Manya[?], which was written by a friend of mine at the age of sixteen or seventeen. Gilmor Brown, who was the director of the Pasadena Community Playhouse, was so taken with this play that he put it in his experimental theater, which was the first theater-in-the-round I had ever seen. That would have been in 1938 or '39. The Play Box, it was called, and it was an all-subscription theater. It was the actors playing to the audience who were one foot away from them. Anyway, Bill Holden was discovered in that play. He played a sixty-five-year-old man. He would have been nineteen, I guess, or twenty, something like that.

LJ:

He must have done a good job with it.

CD:

As a matter of fact, I really don't think it was the role he played. Those were the glamour days of Hollywood. You have to remember that the leading men in those days were very handsome and the women were beautiful, and there was definitely a glamorous aura about Hollywood. All the theaters, little theaters, whatever, were covered by talent scouts from the movie studios. If a scout saw you just standing on the street, for instance—well, like Lana Turner was discovered, you know, in a drugstore. But they were constantly looking for new faces, new talent, and, of course, the Playhouse was very much covered by Hollywood because they turned out such wonderful talented actors, like Robert Preston, Dana Andrews, Eleanor Parker, Vic Mature, Bill, and so on.

Anyway, a talent scout came backstage at a premiere of Manya. I was not acting in the show. I was the script girl, so I was on the production end of it, but this man, whose name I've never forgotten, came up to me and handed me his card. He was from Paramount Pictures, and he saw Bill in the dressing room taking his makeup off. Of course, he had grayed his hair and whatnot. So he said, “Who is that young man?”

I said, “His name is Bill Beedle. He played Marie Curie's father.”

He marched up to Bill Beedle and said, “We would like to see you at Paramount Pictures.” And they signed him to a contract, a stock player contract, for fifty dollars a week. We thought that was just great. [laughter] Paramount named him William Holden and the rest is history.

Anyway, it was, as I said, the [Tournament of Roses] parade. I was in that parade several times when I was growing up, and one year I was walking with the Standard Oil float. It was a perfectly gorgeous float. It had to stop at one point and I was an out-walker, as they called it. Some man, who was sitting in the stands, called out, “What is your telephone number?” And I thought, “Oh, dear.” I was about sixteen years old, and I thought here I am, stuck until the float started moving again. And he said, “I'm from Warner Bros. We'd like to see you there.” And so when I think of today's world and doing this, I mean, anyway, I did. I called out my phone number.

At the end of the line of march, which was five miles or more—we were never paid for this, it was just such an honor be in the Tournament of Roses, but we were given one or two tickets to the Rose Bowl game. At the end of the line of march there would be people waiting to see if they could buy our ticket if we weren't going to the game. So one could make a nice bit of money. Anyway, I told my mother about the man from Warner Bros., and she was not particularly happy about that bit of news.

This person did call, and he said, “We would like to give you a screen test.” So, I went to the studio and went through some training with a drama coach, but at that time, I was not, I guess, all that interested because I just didn't put myself out particularly to put my best foot forward. Maybe I was having too much fun in school or whatever, so nothing came of it.

LJ:

You weren't really ready to buckle down yet.

CD:

Right. That's right. If that had come about, I never would have had the experience of being in the service.

LJ:

That's true. Like you did say you were in the movie Tars and Spars after the play, right?

CD:

Yes, after the musical revue that toured the country for just under a year. We played four shows a day, and opened in a new city every week, and traveled in two Pullman cars. We were a group of seventy-five, with a full orchestra. It was a revue that was one musical number after the other. As I perhaps said, Victor Mature was the star. He had been brought from Greenland, where he had been on duty for some months.

Max Liebman was the director. He was a well-known director, because he was the one that launched Danny Kaye's career. He saw Sid Caesar's potential and really, I guess, made him into the big star that he became. Then we had Gower Champion, who was not well known particularly on the West Coast but was on the East Coast. He was a dancer and was brought in from a Broadway show, the name of which escapes me, but Uncle Sam was breathing down his neck, so he had to enlist anyway. So I had the good fortune to end up dancing with him for a year. Then he went on to become very famous. After the war he became the director/choreographer of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, Bye, Bye Birdie, 42nd Street, and a number of big Broadway shows. Also with his wife, Marge, they were Marge and Gower Champion. They were extremely well known in film and nightclubs.

So there was a lot of talent in that show. The women were not professional, the SPARs. I was probably the only SPAR that had any extensive training, but the men, a number of them had been in show business. I know one of them had been in Panama Hattie on Broadway. Bill Skipper was his name, a wonderful dancer, very much in the Gene Kelly type of dancing.

LJ:

These are all Coast Guard men?

CD:

Yes. He was the pharmacist's mate for the show, but he was dancing as well in the show. Then after the war he went on to become the lead male dancer in Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman. He invited me as his guest to see it one night, and that was great fun.

We had some very interesting experiences in that show. When we did have any free time, which was not much, we would entertain in the military hospitals. There was no television in those days, so we would do radio shows. A few of us did one of the first television shows out of Chicago when we were playing in Chicago. It was beamed out, or whatever you would call it, five miles from the city, and the studio was horribly hot. That's the first television show I ever remember being on.

Tars and Spars opened after one month of rehearsals in Palm Beach. We had entertained at parties. We entertained a lot down there, during rehearsals, as we were free entertainment and good publicity for the show. That was why we probably were invited to a number of parties. Our opening night was at the Paramount Theater in Palm Beach, and the proceeds went to the Red Cross. Of course, there was a big navy hospital down there. It was the Breakers Hotel, which is a famous hotel that had been taken over for navy casualties, etcetera.

We actually opened our year's run in Miami, Florida. We traveled up the eastern seaboard and then played New York City, as I said, for two weeks on Broadway. Then we started out across the United States—Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati. I've got the whole list, which goes on and on and on and ended up in California, and then up into the state of Washington and Oregon and into Canada for a run up there.

By then, the war was getting close to ending, so there was no reason to have a recruiting show anymore since they had their quota of ten thousand women by that time. So the decision was made to close it, which was in 1945. Columbia Pictures had bought the title, Tars and Spars, and ten percent of the cast, including Sid Caesar, for a film that they were going to do, not of the original show, but with a story line that had nothing to do with the revue.

LJ:

What's your name in the show, in the movie?

CD:

I didn't have a name, because we were just incidental, really. They selected seven of us SPARs for the film, and seven or ten of the men from the original show and that was it. We were just background, with a few lines thrown in here and there, as that was part of the deal.

It was great fun, because we sat around Hollywood for a while as there was a major film strike on. It lasted for two months or more before they got around to filming. We were invited to these wonderful parties where Hoagy Carmichael would be playing the piano and, you know, it was great fun, because all these people that we had met were there. The chap that produced the film Tars and Spars was a Hollywood producer, and he was in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, so I have an idea that's how this all came about; making this film, actually, was because of him.

The people that didn't stay in Hollywood for the film were sent out on regular duty, including sea duty. Gower Champion was assigned sea duty, and the SPARS went out to different assignments. I thought I was getting out in 1945, because by that time World War II in Europe, VE [Victory in Europe] Day had come about, and it was going to be quite soon, you know, when VJ [Victory in Japan] Day would happen. We thought that we were all going to be discharged from Los Angeles. Again, there was a request from the Treasury Department for the Tars and Spars group to go out on a tour selling victory bonds in the state of Pennsylvania. It was a mini show, so instead of being discharged, I was sent to Philadelphia along with some of the others, and we toured the State of Pennsylvania for one month, in November. Which was not the most charming time of year to be traveling by navy bus, and doing one-night stands, but we sold millions of dollars' of Victory Bonds. So I received a nice citation from the Treasury Department thanking me.

By that time, the film was about to be released in 1946, and I was sent to New York to do some publicity for the film. Captain Reed Hill, in Washington, had said, “Anytime you want to be discharged, let me know.” So I decided it was time to be discharged, because the SPARs were disbanding then. I was discharged in March or April in 1946. So I was in about three years. The first thing I did was go out and buy some civilian clothes. I was so tired of the navy blue. [laughter]

LJ:

I bet. All right, I'm going to change the tape now.

[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]

CD:

Another interesting event that happened when we were filming in Hollywood, when we went to the movies in those days there were short subject fillers before the feature film. The March of Time was one of them, and the narrators had wonderful speaking voices like Lowell Thomas—that doesn't ring a bell with you, I'm sure. You see, all you young ones don't know of these people who had marvelous voices, and it was also a particular style of narration.

So, anyway the studio recorded two records, and they were big records, vinyl, I guess, which must have been the beginning of those LPs. We cut these records in greatest secrecy, and, as I said, they were to be played on the radio across the nation. On VE Day to show how important the Coast Guard's role had been in World War II.

I thought those records had disappeared years ago, because I had moved around a fair amount after the war. I was down in my basement at the house here in Charlottesville one day, and my god, I couldn't believe it. I found those two records, and I was so—you know, I thought, well, this is really something, because these may be the only ones in existence, and I wonder if the archives, Coast Guard archives, would be interested.

So, anyway, I knew a disc jockey here in town with WTJU, the university station, and he came out and took a look at my jazz collection. I had some wonderful records from way back. So I said, “Help yourself to whatever, you see.” He had a collection of four thousand records, and I said, “Some of these you may not have.” By way of thanking me for what I'd done for him, he said, “I'll take these records to the station, because our equipment will be much better than what you've got here.” And he said, “They might not play on a regular record player anyway.” So he took them and cleaned them up and they were not warped, fortunately.

He said, “You know, these are wonderful,” because “All these years later they are playable. If they had been warped, you wouldn't have been able to use them.” He cleaned them with just soap and water, which is something I never knew you could do with records.

I said, “You know, what I'd like to do with these is, if the Coast Guard Headquarters archives would be interested, I'd love to give these to them, but I would like a copy for myself.” So he said that he would be happy to make a tape, which he did. Then I contacted the curator at headquarters and told him about this. He said, “I didn't even know anything like that existed.”

And I said, “Well, these may be the only ones. Who knows?” So he said they would very much like to have them. It was because of sending him those records that I was able to get the print of the film Tars and Spars, which took me, as I mentioned, almost a year to get it, because he was very reluctant to let me have a copy.

I gather the studio film libraries had been sold. Ted Turner bought Metro-Goldwin-Mayer's, for instance, and the curator said they didn't know who owned Columbia Pictures Library. But I said, “You know, obviously a print has been made from the original film, because it was shown nonstop at the fiftieth SPAR reunion.” So, anyway, I said, “I have done this favor for you, sent those records.”

He then said, “Let me think about this. I'll get back to you.”

Six months later, he contacted me and said, “If you will send me a blank tape, I'll have a print made for you, but,” he said, “with the understanding that you never show it commercially, and that you don't make any other prints.”

I said, “You've got my word.” I also told him that I had quite a complete scrapbook of the stage show Tars and Spars, which he wasn't aware of. He hadn't even heard of the show. You see, he was probably too young.

LJ:

He hadn't heard of Tars and Spars?

CD:

No. So, anyway, I said, “I'm not quite ready to part with this scrapbook yet, but is it anything that you might be interested in for the archives?”

And he said, “Yes, definitely.”

So I think I'm about to part with it now, but I don't know whether he's still the curator. It may be somebody else. I'll have to contact headquarters and see if he's still there, because that has been about ten years ago by now, and there may be a different curator. Anyway, it's been very interesting. You know, I look back and think, give or take, I really have had a wonderful life.

LJ:

Yes, sounds like it.

CD:

I feel sorry for people who never had the opportunity to travel or meet the people that I've met because when you get older you have a lot of memories. You see, one doesn't do much when you get older. When you have these things behind you, so to speak, you can really have many happy moments.

[Tape recorder paused]

LJ:

Just to change what we're talking about a little bit, I'm going to ask you what did you think of the Roosevelts?

CD:

As a young person and in the military, he was sort of a father figure for us. We thought he was wonderful, and I remember when he died we shed copious tears. Maybe that was part of our security or something that we felt was no more. No, I think we felt very strongly that he was an important factor in our lives at that time.

LJ:

And Eleanor?

CD:

I don't remember feeling one way or the other particularly about her. Since that time, of course, I have a great deal of admiration for her and what she did, and I think her marriage was not an easy one. As I said, he was very important in our lives, mostly because of us being late teenagers, and because of being in the military.

LJ:

Right. What about [Harry S.] Truman? What did you think when he became president? Were you worried? Were you thinking, “Oh, no, what's going to happen now?”

CD:

I remember thinking that I couldn't imagine he was going to be a very good president, but I changed my mind totally about that. I think he was one of the best, and I have enormous admiration for him, for sticking to his guns and really being very much his own man and standing up for what he believed was right.

LJ:

You probably pretty much just answered this, but who were your heroes or heroines in those days?

CD:

Of course, I just was—what shall I say? I'm trying to think of how to put it. I thought that General George Patton was absolutely wonderful. One of my best friends later in my life had been in the Red Cross. I remember her telling me that her group of Red Cross gals had followed Patton across Europe, and the girls had doled out coffee and doughnuts to the boys as they were mopping up Europe. They were right behind him, but I can't remember what his division was. Then, of course, [Dwight D.] Eisenhower. He was very popular with the military.

Also, another thing that I remember was how impressed we all were with D-Day. Tars and Spars was playing a theater in Boston, and I remember before our first performance they announced that there would be one minute of silence in prayer for the military, for D-Day had begun on June 6, 1944.

LJ:

This was after it happened?

CD:

Well, there was a time difference between Europe and the U.S., so, yes, it was already underway.

LJ:

You said you got out of the military in 1946, right?

CD:

Right.

LJ:

So they did not try to keep you in, encourage you to stay in, or even offer you the option of staying in?

CD:

Well, you see, the Coast Guard girls, that whole SPAR complement was phased out with the end of the war. It was some time after that that they reactivated the women. I've forgotten how long it was, but everybody that had been in during wartime had to take their discharge, because there were no more SPARs, per se. Then, as I said, at some point later on they were reactivated.

LJ:

I know that was the case in most of the services, but I know there were some WACs that were able to stay on.

CD:

The WACs were a different setup.

LJ:

Yes.

CD:

The army.

LJ:

Yes, they had already been put in the regular army by 1944.

CD:

Something like that, yes.

LJ:

I mean, they didn't keep many of them, but I know they had that option.

CD:

Right. And I don't know about the WAVES, whether they disbanded and then started up again or not. The Coast Guard, as you probably are well aware, serves under the [U.S.] Navy during wartime; but under the Treasury during peacetime.

LJ:

Oh, no, I didn't know that.

CD:

Yes, it does. That may have made a difference, too.

LJ:

After three years you were ready to go back to civilian life?

CD:

Yes, I was. I thought the time had come, and then also the fact that the war was over, and by then I was twenty-four years old, and I decided it was time to go home to California. When I was discharged in Philadelphia some of my actress friends from the Pasadena Playhouse were living in Greenwich Village in Manhattan and they said, “If you don't want to go out to California right away, move in with us.” They were doing radio and some off-Broadway plays. So I thought, “Well, that sounds like fun.”

Through them I met an interesting group of young men who had been in the Yale Drama School pre-war. So I went around with them in New York and had a wonderful time. One of the group was producing a show on Broadway, and then some of these men went on to become very well known in show business. They began in that Yale Drama School group. I was quite smitten with a young man who had been at Yale and was from Saddle River, New Jersey, I remember that. We had a great time together.

All this group, we were all about the same age, and nobody really knew what they were going to do as a civilian. We hadn't gotten our bearings yet. This would have been in the spring of 1946, and I decided it was time to go back out to California and see my family.

Meanwhile, one of their friends from the Yale Drama School was producing the first professional summer stock theatre in California at Laguna Beach, which was south of Pasadena, between San Diego and Los Angeles. I knew Laguna because of growing up in Southern California. We used to go there for Easter vacations. It was an artist's colony and very beautiful.

I went back to California and on my twenty-fifth birthday I went to the playhouse at Laguna Beach and introduced myself to this friend of my group in New York. He had been a lieutenant in the army, in Special Services, in the South Pacific during World War II. He was in charge of the USO [United Service Organizations] shows and all the celebrities that came through there. Anyway, it turned out that his sister had been a student at the Pasadena Playhouse and I had replaced her in a show. Small world. He and I started going around together. That was in 1946.

I decided that I wanted to live in Manhattan for a while and my Japanese photographer friend had said that if I wanted to try photographic modeling in New York he would take my pictures for my portfolio. So I went back to New York, after the summer season was over, and Bunny Rathbun[?] decided he would go back to New York too, as some of his group from Yale were producing the Broadway musical I mentioned earlier.

LJ:

Now, was this your friend that you'd been seeing in California?

CD:

Yes. Oh, yes, his name was Walter Rathbun, Bunny, as he was known.

Meanwhile I had signed with a modeling agency called Harry Conover. There were two big agencies in New York, the Powers Modeling Agency and Conover. I also saw a lot of my Pasadena Playhouse friends who were doing various things in New York. I never did do anything with Conover. There was so much competition, and I guess I really wasn't competitive enough to be in that game. I had done that in California, some photographic modeling, but it was a different thing back in those days, there. In New York it was very organized and just not for me.

By that time, Walter and I decided we would be married. So that was in 1948. We were married in the spring of 1948 in California. He was going to produce a season of professional summer stock in Santa Barbara, California, which we went into immediately after we were married in May. He had lined up Hollywood people who were stars, so to speak. Roddy McDowell was one who was a big name back then, and George Balanchine's first wife, Tamara Geva, and others who were well known in those days.

After we were married and had produced the summer theater, we moved south to Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley, and Walter went to work for Universal Studios. A great friend of his family's was head of the portrait gallery, photography, and publicity for Universal.

By that time, unfortunately, my husband was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, seven months after we were married. We had built a house in Bel Air, California, but it was not a happy time, because the lifespan of people with Hodgkin's was four and a half years maximum. He and I never really talked about it, but he was a very intelligent chap so he knew there was something desperately wrong. He was in and out of the hospital many times during that period. He knew that he wanted to move to Laguna Beach, so we sold our house in Bel Air and built a house in Laguna Beach, and then he died in 1952. So I was a young widow of thirty-one years old.

We had skied in Aspen, Colorado, two or three times, and I liked Aspen enormously. It's a totally different place today than it was back in those days. I was about to sign a lease on a place in Aspen to live there, maybe for the rest of my life, when a cousin of my husband's asked me if I would come back to Manhattan and help her out with the rent, because she was a stewardess for TWA and she flew the New York-Paris run. Her roommate had gotten married and she needed a roommate to help carry the expenses. So I went back and stayed with her and never did get back to Aspen until years later.

Anyway, on her vacation we flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and had a marvelous time, needless to say, being two unattached young women. Then also I had an entree with a former actress who had opened a shop of Caribbean fashions. She had said, “If you ever decide to stay in San Juan, let me know, because I'd love to have you come to work for me.” So I thought, “Well, Puerto Rico, you know, it's awfully pretty down here. It isn't too different from Southern California,” more tropical, of course. Then I went back to New York and decided that San Juan was for me. I had my mother and stepfather rent my house at Laguna Beach and cleared up my affairs as best I could, and moved to San Juan five or six months later. That was in 1954.

In 1955 I met my second husband, who just died three years ago. I met him down there in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and we were married in the Episcopal cathedral in 1956.

LJ:

This is Mr. Davis?

CD:

Yes, Horace Davis from Charlottesville, Virginia.

LJ:

Why was he down in Puerto Rico?

CD:

He was in the Foreign Service, and he had an assignment covering the French islands as he spoke French fluently. Also, we were called continentals in Puerto Rico in those days. Anyone from the states, since the Puerto Ricans are Americans, in order to differentiate, were referred to as continentals.

Puerto Rico was a very different place in that period, because the young women from the good families were still chaperoned. There were many young male executives who were in San Juan with stateside companies because the government gave a very good tax break and that's why so many companies were opening down there. So, needless to say, my timing was just right, because these executives knew that when they dated a continental woman that we weren't immediately looking at marriage, whereas in the Latin culture it was quite a different thing.

Anyway, that's when I met my husband, because I was working sporadically for Martha Sleeper at her shop in Old San Juan. I told her I didn't want a daily, nine-to-five type job. That if I wanted to go to the Virgin Islands or someplace that I didn't really want to be tied down. So she said, “Just come and work whenever you want to.”

When we decided to be married, Martha was my matron of honor and Horace's brother, Walpole Davis, was best man. We were in Puerto Rico as a married couple for a year and then he was assigned to Washington, D.C. So we were in Washington for four and a half years.

His brother was career Foreign Service and had an assignment coming up in Paris for three years and one in London for a year, so we knew we were going to be stuck in the United States, because their mother, who had never remarried after divorcing her husband, had suffered a stroke, unfortunately, and the two brothers agreed that one or the other would stay in the United States as long as she survived. So she lived for ten years in her house that she built back in the twenties in Charlottesville. My husband and I came to Charlottesville every weekend for four years, and then we went abroad for a year and just bummed around Europe and had a marvelous time, needless to say.

By that time his brother was going to Paris, so we decided we would just move to Charlottesville ahead of schedule. My husband resigned from the government and we came here in 1963 when we came back from Europe. That's when he founded and owned Blue Ridge Travel for twenty-five years and we just lived a very nice life here in Charlottesville.

LJ:

Wow, sounds very glamorous.

CD:

Well, it was really. It was a very interesting experience, because, in the first place, Charlottesville in those days was so totally different from what I had ever known, since I was from Southern California, which is very alien to Charlottesville and the way of life here, and then also I had lived in Manhattan. To come to this really quite sleepy town where the university had only between six and seven thousand students, and all of them wore coats and ties, which, you know, in Southern California they wore loafers and sweaters, much more casual. Then, of course, the University of Virginia in itself architecturally is so beautiful. But it was really quite a sleepy southern town in the late fifties.

LJ:

I bet it was a bit culture shock.

CD:

It really was.

LJ:

But you didn't mind doing it?

CD:

Well, no. If I had lived closer to town and was not a housewife, so to speak, I probably would have gotten involved maybe with the theater at the University of Virginia or, you know, something similar. I would always support it, yes, and still do very definitely, the performing arts, but I'm not actually involved with any one group.

The arts in those days, one must remember, was not what it is today. There's really a lot going on in the theater here in comparison to what it was in the early sixties. I couldn't believe at the University of Virginia that the arts were so low down on the totem pole. It's taken a long time to get it where it's beginning now to show some hope for getting to where it should be.

It's really been a very interesting life knowing these friends who were my husband's friends that he grew up with and to still be friends from the time we were in our thirties until now when we're in our eighties, that type of thing, to go through all these different phases of life. So I feel quite blessed to be living in Charlottesville when you look around at the rest of the world today.

LJ:

I agree with that. Well, back to your time in the service. Many consider women in the service in World War II to be pioneers. Do you feel that way? Do you feel you were a pioneer?

CD:

I never really thought about that. I don't know whether the word “pioneer” would be correct because, you know, there were women in World War I. Of course to a lesser degree. However, I suppose we would be called that when you think of the number of women who were in the service during World War II.

As I said, what was very unique and may never happen again was the way the country pulled together when it was absolutely necessary and were more than willing to go without things because we had gasoline rationing, of course, and coupon books for meat and sugar and, I think, butter. I'm not sure about butter. Yes, I think that was rationed, too, because I remember when I was in the service, we also got ration books, which, of course, we didn't need. When we were in Hollywood making the film, Alfred Drake, who was the star of the film Tars and Spars and had been on Broadway in Oklahoma!, very well known in the theater, his wife and he were living in an apartment in Hollywood, and we used to give the Alfred Drakes our coupon books so that they could get more meat, etcetera.

It was sad to see your friends who had such potential not surviving the war, and it was so hard on the parents. I know I remember a beau of mine that I had when I was thirteen years old or something like that, who was a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. I remember reading in the paper before I went in the service, so I would have been either nineteen or twenty. He was a few years older and had enlisted in the Army Air Corps. I saw on the front page of the newspaper that he had gone down on a plane with a well-known writer at the time, Eric Knight. This friend of mine was killed, and he was an only child, and his parents, I don't think, ever recovered from that. So that was really one of the first things that happened to me tragic-wise, so to speak.

LJ:

That may be one of the reasons that you feel like you joined or just to see the world faster. Did you have that feeling? Did the posters influence you any?

CD:

Oh, the “Uncle Sam Needs You,” that sort of thing?

LJ:

Yes, the Coast Guard posters, the WAVE posters? The “Free a Man to Fight.” Did you feel like you were freeing a man to fight?

CD:

Oh, yes, that definitely was part of it. Also, I think, working in the defense plant contributed to the patriotic feeling. As I said, everybody was swept up in doing what they could. Even my mother went to work at Lockheed Aircraft along with a number of other people of different ages. It was pretty exciting. During our lunch break the test pilots would often be testing the P-38s, and we'd stand out there and watch those beautiful planes just as they were about to be sent abroad to go into.

LJ:

Actually, as far as women being in the service, some people connect that to the beginning of the women's liberation movement. Do you see any connection there?

CD:

Oh, yes, I think so, definitely, not as much the service perhaps, but I think when women, when their husbands went off to war or whatever, went to work en masse in these different industries, I think that was when the really big “kicking over the traces,” began and they found that it was very nice to be earning their own money and being liberated, in a way. So I would say, yes, that probably was, you know, one of the major, if not the major, change.

LJ:

Yes, I agree with that. So you haven't had any children?

CD:

No.

LJ:

Would you encourage a young person to join today the Coast Guard or the military in some way because of your experience?

CD:

Absolutely, without equivocation. I think it's really too bad that every young person doesn't have the opportunity to have some of the—well, the training. In the first place, the military offers so much more today than during my day. I think that any young person who is pondering as to what they want to do or not do or whatever, to go in the service, it's absolutely thumbs-up. You take your chances on what you're going to do, but still, hey, that's what it's all about, you know, taking a chance.

LJ:

Well, I'm going to ask you one last question, and then we'll wrap it up, because I know we've probably gone longer than what I said. So, how do you feel about women in combat positions?

CD:

I think why not? Absolutely.

LJ:

I agree with that.

CD:

Good.

LJ:

Well, we appreciate it so much. This has been so fascinating, and the school thanks you and I thank you. You will get a tape back really soon, and then you will get a transcript where you can go through and make sure it reflects everything you meant to say or maybe if we misspelled something. So, okay, I'm going to turn this off.

CD:

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

LJ:

Oh, good, I'm glad.

[End of interview]