TRAVILLA’S VALLEY OF THE DOLLS;
A GALLERY OF GLAMOUR, SIXTIES STYLE
Not every “doll” is cute and innocent. And sometimes because of them, ‘the worst is yet to come’.
In the case of author Jacqueline Susann’s novel, “The Valley of the Dolls,” those “dolls” were both dangerous and destructive. Anyone who has seen the 1967 film version of her run-away-best-seller knows that “dolls” were the nickname for a nasty narcotic, in pill form. A sobering, but strange sobriquet for something that had such damaging effects; these “dolls” were not so “cute.” The devastating results, were experienced by all three of Susann’s film-characters: Neely O’Hara played by Patty Duke; Jennifer North portrayed sensitively by Sharon Tate; and even the once “straight-laced” lead character, Anne Welles, played by Barbara Perkins.
But the man 20th Century-Fox assigned to design their costumes would take a heavy subject and make it lighter, using his ability to create beauty … the Legendary Billy Travilla. Jacqueline Susann specifically requested the brilliant designer to work on her film. Although best known for his iconic, sexy designs for his friend, Marilyn Monroe; Billy would raise a lowbrow subject to new heights of style. The veteran designer did so with innocent looks that belied the dark nature of drug-addiction and gave the appearance of baby-doll-like ‘innocence;’ at least outwardly.
Although designing professional costumes since the age of 16, Billy received his first film credit in his early twenties. For Valley of the Dolls, his 97th film, the costume maestro designed 130 costume changes. He created these show-stoppers with a studio “budget’ of $150,000. And along the way, he developed designs that would come to showcase a gorgeous gallery of “quintessential sixties” style; with layers of lettuce-edged ruffles, fabulous flounces, mini’s, maxi’s and maximum ‘moxy.’
Billy enjoyed designing for all the beautiful famed women of this film, including Lee Grant and Susan Hayward, as well as author Jacqueline Susann (for her “walk-on” role as a reporter).
The designer felt paternal affection for Patty Duke, and dressed her in the mini-skirts of the day. But the actress Billy Travilla really took to heart was the beautiful blonde, Sharon Tate. When asked about his favorite actress-client years later, Billy said genuinely, “One of the most beautiful, sweetest and nicest actresses I had the pleasure of working with, and getting to know, was Sharon Tate.”
Veteran actress, Susan Hayward ultimately starred as the character of Helen Lawson, an over-the-hill Broadway actress with claws. Hollywood’s legendary MGM star, Judy Garland, was famously first cast in that coveted role. Placing Judy in that particular story line became a case of “Life imitating art; and art imitating life.” The woman the world knew as the little girl from The Wizard of Oz, with the once-doll-like face in a blue pinafore, found the films subject matter too close for comfort. In what is now a legendary anecdote from the Hollywood history books, Judy Garland was fired from The Valley of the Dolls after only a few days worth of filming. This was necessary, due to the fact that the severely insecure star would not leave her dressing room to come onto the set. Judy often left cast, crew and executives waiting for sometimes a 7-hour-stretch, preferring to hole up, drinking and listening to the recorded sounds of Sinatra in her room. Billy Travilla felt deep compassion for Judy during that time, as she wept on his shoulder repeatedly.
Billy’s kindheartedness for Judy extended to his fashions for the star; even though her debacle cost him a lot of money, first professionally, then personally.
For the famous wig-pulling catfight scene between Neely O’Hara and Helen Lawson, Billy Travilla designed what has now become an iconic costume. He designed a massively-hand-beaded pantsuit, with thousands of hand-sewn beads and sequins strewn across a soft sheer silk. Costing $5,000 to produce, it is an amazing work of hand-made-art. This is precisely why it was on display at the Hollywood Costume exhibit in London as well as Phoenix, at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2014.
In 1967, even the New York Times reported on this Valley of the Dolls garment debacle, stating, “…$5,000 was thrown away on another beaded [costume] to be worn by Judy Garland. [They were] discarded when Susan Hayward replaced her. Judy’s outfits totaled $17,000, but since none of these would fit Susan, Travilla made four others [for Hayward] at a cost of $20,400. The difference in cost” the Times stated, “was due to the element involving overtime for fitters, beaders, and embroiderers.”
What the press did not know was that Judy had tearfully beseeched Billy, calling him continually, for those four outfits, once she was fired. After gently explaining to Judy repeatedly that they were not his possessions to give to her, they belonged to Fox studio; Billy’s caring nature took over. Although it is a mystery as to what happened to the costumes Fox made for Judy that did not fit Susan Hayward; Billy Travilla had all four of his expensive designs produced at his own cost, at his Travilla label factory where he manufactured his ready-to-wear.
There was lots of on-set drama surrounding the making of that film. But Billy Travilla was unusually adept at looking at the bright side of life. Having made the best of things, once again things ultimately fell dark in his life.
Within a small window of time so many people who had been involved with that film died. Travilla was deeply impacted. “It’s kind of frightening,” he said at the time, “It’s like a bad-luck film.”
Both the films producer as well as director, Mark Robson, died shortly after filming; Billy’s beloved friend Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the now-infamous Charles Manson; Judy Garland died; and even author Jacqueline Susann passed away.
Even the “studio system” that had been in place for the whole of his life, died, when all Hollywood studios killed the in-house costume departments. They made every designer, formerly all employees, independent contractors. Travilla, understandably, fell into a deep and dark depression and began to lose his will to create.
In a few years, the legendary designer closed down his business and pulled up stakes. Forsaking film work, he moved to Spain, where he spent long days “combing” the beach rather than styling the stars. Mana del Mar, Spain, was a city that helped him heal his broken heart.
But, thankfully, Billy had something in common with The Valley of the Dolls main character, Ann Welles. After some time away from Hollywood during this dark period of history, Travilla got his emotional bearings, and returned to America. The designer resumed his raison d’etre of “Glamour” in Hollywood. And although he did not yet know it, for his career, ‘the best was yet to come.’
So, while not everything called a “doll” is cute and innocent, and not every chapter of Life is easy; in the end what matters is a “triumph of a higher will.” For Oscar-winning Billy Travilla, the best really was yet to come.
To see the collections of KAHC and more photos of Travilla and Marilyn Monroe visit her FB Page KAHC/ Website / About.me
[This article is the ninth of a 12-part series of articles by Kimberley Ashley for 2015. Next month see her article, “Film Drama Meets Fashion Design; There’s No Business Like Marilyn Monroe’s Show Business.”
Stay tuned for her upcoming articles on Billy Travilla and his design muse Marilyn Monroe.]