Martha Stewart: Actress / Singer in Fox movies not dead despite two-year-old reports to the contrary
According to various online reports, including Variety‘s, actress and singer Martha Stewart, a pretty blonde featured in supporting roles in a handful of 20th Century Fox movies of the 1940s, died at age 89 of “natural causes” in Northeast Harbor, Maine – two and a half years ago. Needless to say, that was not the same Martha Stewart hawking “delicious foods” and whatever else on American television.
But the Martha Stewart who died in late February 2012 – if any – was not the Martha Stewart of old Fox movies either. And that’s why I’m republishing this (former) obit, originally posted more than two and a half years ago: March 11, ’12.
Earlier today (Nov. 10, ’14; updated in Feb. 2016), a commenter wrote to Alt Film Guide, claiming that the Martha Stewart featured in Doll Face, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, and In a Lonely Place was very much alive and living in California. (See comments section further below.) According to the commenter, the source for that information was Stewart’s own son, Florida-based singer David Shelley of the David Shelley & Bluestone band.
After reading it, I contacted Shelley via his band’s website and did some extra research on Martha Stewart. Unfortunately, there isn’t much available online.
At least I was able to find one mention of her marriage to David Shelley (Sr.) – date unspecified – in Nils Hanson’s book Lillian Lorraine: The Life and Times of a Ziegfeld Diva, and a 1957 newspaper article announcing David Shelley III’s birth in Santa Monica, California, and featuring a photograph of Martha Stewart holding the baby.
In other words, online information about Martha Stewart having been married to a man named Jonathan Crowne from 1952 to his death in 2004 is completely wrong. I could find no information on Crowne, except via early 21st-century tidbits about Stewart, none of which are sourced.
Update: David Shelley replied to my email explaining that his mother, former actress/singer Martha Stewart, was indeed alive and living in California. Shelley died of cancer at age 57 in Aug. 2015.
See further below a more recent comment by Stewart’s daughter, Colleen Shelley.
And below is a brief overview of Martha Stewart’s film, stage, and television career.
Martha Stewart and June Haver in ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.’
Martha Stewart movies
If online reports are to be believed, the Kentucky-born (as Martha Haworth, on Oct. 7, 1922, in Bardwell), Brooklyn-raised Martha Stewart was discovered while singing at The Stork Club around Christmastime 1944. At one point, she was a vocalist with Glenn Miller’s band and reportedly, as Martha Wayne, also sang with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, later becoming engaged to jazz singer Buddy Stewart (born Albert James Byrne Jr.), whose surname she adopted professionally.
Stewart’s film debut took place in 1945, when she was featured in a supporting role in 20th Century Fox’s musical Doll Face (1945), an adaptation of Gypsy Rose Lee’s semi-autobiographical play The Naked Genius. Joan Blondell starred onstage for producer Michael Todd, but the show ran for only 36 performances.
Vivian Blaine landed the title role in Fox’s Lewis Seiler-directed film version – notable as Carmen Miranda’s first Hollywood vehicle shot in black and white. In fact, co-starring Dennis O’Keefe and Perry Como, Doll Face – in which Stewart breezily sings and dances with Como (see clip further below) – was a mere programmer (a notch above a B movie).
After the relatively minor Doll Face, Martha Stewart was cast in a trio of supporting roles in Fox productions.
- She was one of the women in Benjamin Stoloff’s B romantic drama Johnny Comes Flying Home (1946), featuring Richard Crane as one of three World War II veterans attempting to jump-start a business.
- She replaced a recalcitrant Vivian Blaine in Otto Preminger’s romantic melodrama Daisy Kenyon (1947), starring Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews, and Henry Fonda.
- Replacing a pregnant Celeste Holm, Stewart was featured in Lloyd Bacon’s Technicolor musical I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947), a highly fictionalized biopic of singer/composer Joseph E. Howard, toplining June Haver and, as Howard, Mark Stevens – with singing voice provided by Buddy Clark.
In 1946, Stewart was also to have been cast in another (black-and-white) Fox musical starring Vivian Blaine and Carmen Miranda: If I’m Lucky. However, the film’s screenplay was rewritten and she was dropped from the project.
Post-Fox movies: Film noir classic ‘In a Lonely Place’
No longer at Fox by the end of 1947, Martha Stewart supported Donald O’Connor and Olga San Juan in Jack Hively’s comedy Are You with It? (1948) at Universal; Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford, and Dorothy Malone in Henry Levin’s crime drama Convicted (1950) at Columbia; and Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in Nicholas Ray’s film noir In a Lonely Place (1950), also at Columbia.
In a Lonely Place features what is probably Stewart’s best-remembered performance: the nightclub hat-check girl who is found murdered. Did temperamental (possibly mentally unbalanced) Hollywood screenwriter Bogart do it?
Curiously, In a Lonely Place didn’t lead to bigger and better things. Stewart’s film career came to a halt after another supporting role, in Paramount’s 1952 B musical Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick, directed by Claude Binyon, and starring Alan Young and Dinah Shore.
According to the IMDb, Stewart, who was only 29 when she retired from films, would have one more movie credit: Maury Dexter’s minor youth-oriented comedy musical Surf Party (1964), with Bobby Vinton and Patricia Morrow.
Broadway and TV work
On Broadway in late 1946, Martha Stewart played the young female lead in the unsuccessful musical comedy Park Avenue, written by George S. Kaufman and Nunnally Johnson (from Johnson’s short story “Holy Matrimony”), and with music by Arthur Schwartz and Ira Gershwin.
The story revolved around a young couple (Stewart, Ray McDonald) who, in an environment where divorce is endemic, get second thoughts about their upcoming marriage. The Park Avenue cast also included David Wayne and Mary Wickes, but the musical is chiefly notable for featuring Ira Gershwin’s last compositions for a Broadway show.
In the early ’50s, Martha Stewart and fellow former Fox contract player Vivian Blaine crossed paths once again. Stewart was Blaine’s replacement in another Broadway musical – Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling’s major hit Guys and Dolls – when the original cast moved on to London.
And on television, in 1953 Martha Stewart temporarily replaced none other than the London-bound Vivian Blaine in the variety series Those Two. As found on the IMDb, she also guested in a handful of other variety shows of the ’50s (Cavalcade of Stars, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Red Skelton Hour), and landed supporting roles in a couple of TV series in the early ’60s (Our Man Higgins, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) before retiring from show business.
According to online sources – and this is dubious information – Stewart, a Christian Science convert, then worked as a school librarian for nearly four decades. (Update: This information is inaccurate. Stewart is a Catholic and was never a librarian. See Colleen Shelley’s comment below.)
Martha Stewart marriages
Martha Stewart’s first husband, in the mid-’40s, was alcoholic comedian Joe E. Lewis, portrayed by Frank Sinatra in the highly romanticized Charles Vidor-directed 1957 biopic The Joker Is Wild, co-starring Jeanne Crain. In the film, Mitzi Gaynor played Stewart.
Actor-writer George O’Hanlon was Stewart’s second husband. O’Hanlon appeared in dozens of “So You…” comedy shorts in the ’40s and ’50s, and decades later provided the voice of George Jetson in Joseph Barbera and William Hanna’s 1990 animated feature Jetsons: The Movie, opposite voice actors Mel Blanc, Penny Singleton (formerly of Columbia’s Blondie B movie series), and Tiffany.
Things get tricky when it comes to Martha Stewart’s third husband. As per the IMDb and dozens of online sources, her third marriage was to the aforementioned Jonathan Crowne. Actually, in 1952 – the year her film career ended – Stewart married David Shelley, stepson of songwriter and Capital Records co-founder Buddy G. DeSylva.
Shelley and his mother, Marie Wallace DeSylva, inherited most of DeSylva’s estate after his death in 1950 at age 55, despite the fact that, as found in Lillian Lorraine: The Life and Times of a Ziegfeld Diva, DeSylva had refused to “formally adopt David and treat him as his son.”
Martha Stewart and David Shelley would remain married until his death in 1982.
Death notice a prank?
Once again, actress-singer Martha Stewart is alive and well at age 92, and living in the Los Angeles area. Now, what about the 2012 death notice? Was it a mistake? Or a prank?
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that TV personality Martha Stewart does have a large estate in Sea Harbor, in Maine’s Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island area, where Northeast Harbor is also located.
I should add that, apart from the usual hoaxes announcing the weekly deaths of Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, and Betty White, erroneous reports of celebrity deaths – besides those of Mark Twain and Martha Stewart – include premature obituaries for Jaclyn Smith, Lena Horne, Dwayne Johnson, Gabriel García Márquez, Ernest Hemingway, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Downfall actress Corinna Harfouch, and one of this year’s Honorary Oscar recipients, Maureen O’Hara.
Additionally, Gloria Stuart was killed off by a small newspaper in the ’80s, about a decade before she – unlike Leonardo DiCaprio – survived James Cameron’s sinking of the Titanic; while minor late 1920s actress Eva von Berne (featured in John Gilbert’s Masks of the Devil) had her death reportedly taking place in 1930 – an error propagated by early 21st-century online sources – even though she went on to live another seven decades, dying at age 100 in November 2010.
A particularly egregious case was CNN’s 2003 snafu, which featured premature obits for the likes of Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney, Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, and Pope John Paul II.
‘Martha Stewart: Actress / singer not dead’ notes
 At various times, Michael Todd was Joan Blondell’s, Evelyn Keyes’, and Elizabeth Taylor’s husband. He also produced the 1956 Best Picture Academy Award winner Around the World in 80 Days.
 Not including the black-and-white release Four Jills and a Jeep, in which Carmen Miranda has a cameo as herself.
Both Miranda and Vivian Blaine were gone from Fox the year after Doll Face was released.
‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now’ lawsuit
Just as curiously, after I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now was released, composer Harold Orlob sued both Fox and Joseph E. Howard, claiming that he (Orlob) had actually written the song “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” for the 1909 Broadway musical The Prince of To-Night. The suit would later be settled, with Orlob receiving credit for the song.
‘Park Avenue’ vs. Holy Matrimony’
 Despite having Nunnally Johnson in common, Park Avenue and John M. Stahl’s 1943 movie Holy Matrimony, starring Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields, came from different sources.
Written and produced by Johnson, Stahl’s film is based on Arnold Bennett’s novel Buried Alive, previously filmed as His Double Life, with Roland Young and Lillian Gish.
For his efforts as a screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award.
‘Guys and Dolls’
 In the highly successful 1955 MGM film version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Vivian Blaine was the only original Broadway cast member to reprise her role.
Robert Alda, Isabel Bigley, and Sam Levene were replaced by, respectively, Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, and Frank Sinatra.
Buddy G. DeSylva
 Buddy G. DeSylva frequently worked with lyricist Lew Brown and composer Ray Henderson. Their partnership was depicted in Michael Curtiz’s 1956 make-believe biopic The Best Things in Life Are Free, starring Gordon MacRae as DeSylva, Dan Dailey as Henderson, and Ernest Borgnine as Brown. Their songs included “Follow Thru,” “Good News,” “Sonny Boy,” and “Birth of the Blues.”
DeSylva was nominated for an Academy Award for the song “Wishing,” from Leo McCarey’s 1939 romantic comedy-melodrama Love Affair, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. He lost to Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg for “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz.
At Fox in various producing capacities in the mid-’30s (the Shirley Temple movies Poor Little Rich Girl, Stowaway, etc.), DeSylva later moved on to RKO (the Ginger Rogers comedy Bachelor Mother), and then to Paramount, where he became involved in the production of several dozen movies, among them the following:
- Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.
- Sidney Lanfield’s My Favorite Blonde (1942), with Bob Hope and Madeleine Carroll.
- Mark Sandrich’s So Proudly We Hail! (1943), with Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake.
- Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson.
DeSylva, Johnny Mercer, and Glenn Wallichs co-founded Capital Records in 1942.
‘Martha Stewart: Actress / singer not dead’: Other sources
The information about Martha Stewart being dropped from If I’m Lucky is found in Colin Briggs’ Vivian Blaine article “The Cherry Blonde” in Classic Images. In his piece, Briggs writes that in I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, Stewart succeeds in “getting away from the nasty side of the woman by giving the character [of Lulu Madison]* a Mae West comedic slant.”
Another key source for this Martha Stewart article was tcm.com, which features film information found in the AFI catalog.
Variety‘s Martha Stewart obit, dated March 5, ’12, can be found here (via web.archive.org, as some time in 2015 Variety removed the article from its website).
* Lulu Madison was a fictional character loosely inspired on Joseph E. Howard’s wife and fellow composer/vaudeville entertainer Ida Emerson.
Perry Como and Martha Stewart Doll Face publicity shot: 20th Century Fox.