On the Fearless Peggy Fears

The legendary Broadway figure Peggy Fears (1903-1994) was born on this day.

Originally from New Orleans and later Dallas, Fears was the daughter of a wealthy banker. She was all of 14 when she ran away from home and was cast in her first Broadway show the Bolton-Wodehouse musical Have a Heart (1917). From here she went into the Morris Gest show Midnight Whirl (1919-1920). Next came three Florenz Ziegfeld shows. There are two different stories about how she came to Ziegfeld’s attention. One says she was heard singing at a country club by Ziegfeld star Helen Morgan; another (Fears’ own account) says she bumped into him in his offices (after making a concerted effort to do so). At any rate, he put her in the shows Louie the 14th (1925), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925 and No Foolin’ (1925).

Fears was bisexual. As a young girl she is said to have attempted to elope with a cattle heir named Tom Wharton, and to have dated John Hay “Jock” Whitney. While on the Ziegfeld shows she was the lover of Louise Brooks. In her memoir, Brooks writes of the experience, and of the two of them palling around with W.C. Fields, who always had booze, in his dressing room.

Fears’ last Broadway show strictly as a performer was Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927). In that year she married the real estate millionaire Alfred Cleveland Blumenthal. In the 30s, she and Blumenthal produced several Broadway shows, including the Preston Sturges play Child of Manhattan (1932), the farce Nona (1932), the Oscar HammersteinJerome Kern show Music in the Air (1932-1933), and the play A Divine Moment (1934), in which she also appeared as an actress. This is the last show she produced, and I imagine the date tells the story. We are now in the depths of the Great Depression, when Broadway was in danger of going under for good.

Next she tried her hand at Hollywood. She appears in only one film: The Lottery Lover (1935), with Lew Ayres, Sterling Holloway and Reginald Denny. It was a bit of stunt casting. In the film she plays a night club singer, a star of the Folies Bergere named “Gaby Aimee”. The film was a bit of an outlier for her. A nightclub singer was what she actually was, touring extensively throughout American and Europe for the next few decades.

Fears and Blumenthal separated, divorced and remarried several times, finally splitting up for good in 1950. In the ’50s she purchased land on Fire Island and built the Yacht Club at Fire Island Pines, which she later sold to John B. Whyte in 1966. During the Fire Island years, she was the lover of the radio actress Tedi Thurman (who may be known to some readers from Ed Wood’s 1954 movie Jail Bait). Thurman spoke of their relationship in the 2003 documentary When Ocean Meets Sky.

For more on show history, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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