The “Real” Mrs. William Travilla – Dona Drake

Jacksonville Florida 1910

In 1944, Travilla met and married starlet Dona Drake, who at the time was more famous than he was having been in the entertainment industry for eleven years under several different names.  Dona Drake, born Eunice Westmoreland, on November 5, 1914 to Joseph and Novella Westmoreland in Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville was a major port on the East Coast shipping lanes and due to it’s balmy weather, a vacation destination for Northerners seeking to escape the cold winters.

From 1907 until 1918, it also thirty permanent film studios. Known as “The Winter Film Capital of the World” and where Oliver Hardy got his start and until politicians, plus other factors forced the film makers to California, was a leading industry in the city. Life was good for most of Jacksonville’s residents, but not for the Westmorelands, as segregation was strictly enforced and though Dona claimed Latin heritage throughout her personal and professional career, Eunice Westmoreland was negro. Referred to as such in both 1920 and 1930 census records. Both parents were interchangeably referred to as negro and mulatto in the early 1900 censuses. 

 Rita's first film and pictured on the title lobby card.By 1930, Eunice’s family has relocated to Philadelphia with her father working in a chili parlor and her older brother enrolled in college. Eunice helped at the restaurant, but soon quit to pursue her life long dream of singing and dancing. By 1933 she had moved to New York City with her mother and another waitress named Rene Villion. Changing her name to Una, she and Rene formed a “sister act” and the pair found work at the Paradise Club on Broadway. Earl Carroll spotted her on stage one night and cast her in his production of Murder at The Vanities. When that ended, the girls toured until Rene left to get married and Una continued solo, performing in packaged tours headed by Rudy Vallee and Harry Richman.  Returning to New York City, Una began dating a local Brooklyn mobster named “Pretty” Amburg. In October of 1934, Amburg’s nude body was found in the trunk of a burning car. At the time, Una was in Hollywood, with a new name, Rita Rio, and filming her first movie, Strike Me Pink with Eddie Cantor.

Rita returning to New York from California in January 1935

Rita came back to New York and got a a job at the N.T.Grantlund Hollywood Restaurant. Filling in for the owner one night, Rita did so well as the mistress of ceremonies that she was given the position full-time. And when someone came up with the idea of forming a girl’s band as an advertising promotion, Rita was the natural choice as it’s conductor. And what started out as a gimmick, turned into a very successful career. Rita Rio and her NBC All-Girl Orchestra was comprised of twelve talented young women gathered from around the world, including several from University Sororities and a couple from Europe. After a three month stint on the NBC Radio Network, the group began a nationwide bus tour performing it’s “fine dance rhythms and its entertaining specialties and clever singing and dancing numbers of Rita Rio” appearing at Atlantic City’s famed Steel Pier and opposite Kay Kyser in Chicago before finding themselves in Hollywood where the girls filmed a series of musical shorts called “soundies”, which where the original MTV videos created for theaters.

1935 Advertisment featuring Rita.

1937 Advertisement featuring Rita Rio.

Though the material is rather hokey, Rita’s talents are blatantly obvious performing such songs as “Feed the Kitty” and a duet with then unknown actor Alan Ladd. She also appeared in very small roles in three films before in early 1940 again taking the act on the road with actresses Marie Wilson and Toby Wing, plus Earl Carroll Vanities Girl Faith Bacon joining the “all-girl”, “all-glamour” Hollywood “Oomph” with Rita Rio, the “Mistress of Modern Melody” and her Rythym in Scales” Review. they again traveled across the United States, making numerous appearances for the Infantile Paralysis Fund and Tuberculosis campaign.

By the time Rita returned to Hollywood she was Rita Novella (her mother’s first name), then later becomes Rita Shaw when she screen tested twice for Paramount’s Aloma of the South Seas, as Dorothy Lamour’s sarong-wearing best friend. Lamour knew Rita from New York City and recommended her to the film’s producer, Buddy De Silva. Upon signing her to contract, the studio changes her name to Dona (pronounced as in “Don’ ya want a drink?) Drake and begins the big publicity build-up for it’s newest starlet. Newspaper articles and mentions in the gossip columns soon spread her photograph and statistics across the country. According to Paramount, she was 5 feet tall, weighed 90 pounds, was 20 years old (actually 26), had blue-green eyes, chestnut hair, and was of half-Mexican and a quarter each Irish and French.

As with Fredi Washington in 1934’s Imitation of Life and several other Black females who skin tones and facial features enabled them to “pass” for white such as Lena Horne, Dona would have to deny her family heritage to succeed in the entertainment industry because at the time and for many years after, the studios felt the movie going public wouldn’t accept (and unfortunately they were correct) an attractive black actress, no matter how talented, in any role but that of a servant or comedic side-kick. Certainly not as the romantic lead opposite a white actor, even Hollywood knew the rest of the country paid it’s salaries.

After “Aloma”, Dona appeared in Louisana Purchase, and then in the 1942 Bob Hope/Bing Crosby classic Road to Morocco. along with numerous appearances in the many of the Hollywood gossip columns published across the nations thanks to the studio’s publicity build-up. Drake performed in Hollywood nite-clubs between film assignments, as well as helping the War effort, boosting soldier moral by appearing on the covers of such publications as Yank, and The Army Weekly
She was also named by Alpha Epslon Pi of Georgia’s Emory College as “the girl they’d like to have in the back seat of a car, without gas and no ration book.” In 1943, after only two more film appearances and soon after a column blurb of Drake writing and starring in a film about an all-girls orchestra, Paramount dropped her contract in the summer and Dona found herself a free-agent in a company town. But that didn’t bother her as “It was wonderful at first. I thought I was on my way to becoming a film actress. But you can’t make a screen career out of combing Lamour’s hair or chasing Bob Hope in one picture after another. When I would tell this to Mr. De Sylva, who was always very nice to me, he would tell me just to be patient, that my turn was coming.”
~Dona Drake
As for the rumblings that Dona was not an actress she simply stated “Of course I’m not an actress. but other studios thought I was worth borrowing for good parts and made an offer for me, all of which Paramount turned down. You know perfectly well that you don’t have to be an actress to go over in pictures. Among girls my age, how many are there on the screen who can act? The secret of of screen success is largely a matter of a good part and a good director. He’s the guy who holds your fate in his hands. Even Bette Davis can go sour without a good director, while one who knows his business can make most any average girl look as if she really had talent.” ~Dona Drake


 It was while she was filming 1944’s Hot Rhythm at Monogram Pictures that friend Joan Blondell introduced her to William Travilla. It was a very quick romance as ten days later on August 19, 1944, they married at Santa Monica City Hall. The bride was dressed in a plaid cotton shirt, a pair of Levis, a bandanna headdress, with an orchid corsage supplied by her fiance’.
Though Travilla joked that “my wife turned down a $5000 a week contract in Las Vegas because now she had a husband to support her.”*,  Dona continued her career, through the marriage. Of course, they were ethnic or secondary roles with John Wayne and Claudette Colbert in Without Reservations, and Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest, as her exotic heritage  was still “the truth”, but for a more important reason now – Interracial marriage was not only frowned upon, but illegal in most of the United States at the time, and e”liberal” Hollywood could not escape the clutches of bigotry and ignorance. Even the announcement in the newspapers led off with how Drake had kept the marriage a secret for almost a month. Definitely the more famous of the pair, Dona’s name usually led the mentions in the press with “Dona Drake and William Travilla seen dining at…” or  “Dainty Dona “The Girl from Jones Beach” Drake has had to give up clearing her hillside homesite of poison oak, to which, for some strange reason, she is not allergic at all. But her husband, Designer Billy Travilla is. He had to hide his face in bandages for two weeks after Dona kissed him on the forehead and patted him on the cheeks.”

Also revealed to Travilla was that Dona suffered from a mild form of epilepsy and later surfaced emotional difficulties that Travilla later described diplomatically “She was one of those actresses who found it hard to come home and step out of the character she’d been playing all day.”However, some joy came into the couples life, when daughter Nia Novella was born in August 1951, three days before the couples seventh wedding anniversary. Even with a daughter, Dona continued to work, appearing in several films and an episode of  television’s Superman with her final screen appearance in Princess of the Nile, for which her husband designed her costumes. After four appearances on television, in 1955, Dona Drake retired from the entertainment industry for good. 
The couple separated in 1956, but never divorced. Travilla moved out, but returned for extended periods of time, or at least kept up the appearance as the press reported on the loving family with both he and Dona appearing on an episode of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. In a 1960 article, Drake the menagerie of animals they’d collected from Travilla’s many trips abroad stating “Wish I’d studied veterinary medicine as a kid. He started bringing back birds from his Mexican alligator hunts and soon filled two aviaries with about 100 finches, cockatoos and fantails. I finally begged him to collect the kind of birds that don’t lay eggs. And he got the hint.” Dona continued. “We also had four turtles and a succession of ocelots and a rhesus monkey when I said enough. Now there’s only an old alley cat named Tom, a poodle named Tequila and another monkey, Mike at Travilla’s office.”
Dona appeared in many of Travilla’s fashion shows as the perfect example of Travilla’s skill at designing for women of all shapes and sizes, but her emotional problems had gotten to the point, that by 1967, she sent Nia to live with her father. The late seventies saw her health begin to falter and after one final appearance as herself at the 1986 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, on June 20, 1989, Dona D. Travilla passed away at 74 from pneumonia and respiratory failure.
*Information Courtesy of Travilla Style

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