THE APPLE BLOSSOM QUEEN
Born Norabelle Jean Roth in Wenatchee, Washington State, her father Albert owned a Coca-Cola bottling plant and her mother Gail was a school teacher. She had a younger brother, also called Albert.
Norabelle excelled at school but at the age of 18 she won the title of ‘Apple Blossom Queen’ in Wenatchee.
Her prize was to go to Hollywood to do picture shoots promoting Washington state apples. She was also taken to the Brown Derby restaurant, where all the celebrities used to hang out.
During her photo shoots, she had been spotted by Solly Biaco, Warner Brothers main talent scout, and she was invited for a screen test.
But at the restaurant, she had also been spotted by Louis Shurr, the agent and manager of Bob Hope. He arranged for her to have a screen test with MGM.
She failed the Warner Brothers screen test but was offered a contract by MGM. She was reluctant to accept this as she had her heart set on going to Stanford University, but Shurr persuaded her to sign. He also became her agent. She took the stage name Noreen Roth.
Her first film was the Busby Berkeley musical ‘Girl Crazy’ starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. She was on the cast list as ‘Showgirl’.
She was uncredited in the next few films she appeared in. These included a film starring Spencer Tracey and ‘Bathing Beauty’ starring Esther Williams and Basil Rathbone.
During this period, Noreen met Dr. Lee Siegel, the Medical Officer of Twentieth Century Fox. He was known as the ‘Doctor to the Stars’. They were married in Las Vegas within one month of meeting.
Of her wedding, Noreen said, “I had stories on all the stars. I received lavish gifts from Garbo, Ava Gardener and Joan Crawford. In truth, they were buying my silence, for if I were to talk, I could be more damaging than Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and all the other Hollywood gossip columnists put together”.
Lee and Noreen were to have two sons, Lee Junior and Robert.
Meanwhile, as her film career seemed to be fading, Noreen took up modelling. She worked alongside the then unknown Norma Jean Baker. She was stunned by Norma’s star quality, turning up for photoshoots with a different image each day. And Norma changed her name to ‘Marilyn Monroe’, advising Noreen she also needed a name change.
Noreen’s MGM contract expired in 1944. Although she was out of work, her cause was taken up by Paulette Goddard, who persuaded Paramount to sign her.
Noreen was immediately cast as Betty Devers in the Jean Renoir directed film ‘The Southerners’. Betty was a farmer’s daughter. The farmer was played by J. Carroll Naish, and the film was nominated for 3 Oscars in 1946.
She so loved playing alongside Naish that she changed her stage name to Noreen Nash as a tribute to him, and she remained close friends with Renoir until the end of his life.
A Hollywood paper reported her career resurgence. “Paulette Goddard is sponsoring the career of shapely brunette, blue-eyed and very beautiful Noreen Nash”.
She was also politically active and was prominent in the failed presidential campaign of Democrat, Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
More film opportunities began to come her way. She starred in the B-Movie ‘The Devil on Wheels’, in which she made film history by becoming the first ever actor to appear in a bikini top.
She appeared in ‘The Big Fix’ (about corrupt basketball players), ‘The Checkered Coat’, ‘Assigned to Danger’ and ‘The Tender Years’ as well as many other, mainly B-Movies.
She also began to appear in westerns such as ‘The Red Stallion’.
But her favourite movie that she appeared in was ‘Phantom from Space’ where she played a female scientist who was kidnapped by an alien.
Her TV appearances included ‘Hopalong Cassidy’, ‘The Abbott and Costello Show’ and ’77 Sunset Strip’. She appeared in just one episode of ‘I Love Lucy’, as a tennis club owner.
The most well-known film she appeared in was ‘Giant’, the very last film of James Dean. It also starred Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Noreen played a cameo as actress Lorna Lane, who opens a hotel.
She remembered the conflict on set between Dean and director George Stevens, who clearly hated working with the star actor.
She also remembered Taylor and Hudson having a bet as to which one could seduce James Dean first. “James was troubled but gorgeous – and Elizabeth won the bet”.
Noreen played an unexpected axe murderer in ‘The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold’(1958).
In 1962 her younger son, Robert, persuaded Noreen to retire from acting. She resumed her academic career, going to UCLA where she got a BA in History. She graduated on the very same day that Robert did.
Her brother married the sister of Susan Hart. Susan was so inspired by Noreen that she took up acting herself and went on to have a successful career.
Noreen started writing and in 1980, published her first novel, ‘By Love Fulfilled’, about the sixteenth century physician Vesalius. One more novel followed along with a book about her close friend, the writer Henry Miller.
Her husband Lee died in 1990.
Her mother, Gail Roth, died in 1998 aged 99 years old.
In 2001, Noreen married actor James Whitmore, who had twice been nominated for an Oscar (‘Battleground’ (1950) and ‘Give ‘em Hell, Harry’ (1976). James, in turn, died in 2009.
Both her sons were successful. Lee Junior became a novelist and a professor of religion, whereas Robert was a cardiologist.
In her later years, Noreen was a regular visitor at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Boyle Heights, California.
She also became extremely close friends with her ‘life coach’, Gary Quinn.
She died at her home in Beverly Hills, aged 99, just like her mother.
RIP – Resisting Invading Phantom