MOVIE LEGENDS AND FILM TITANS;
THE TIGERS TRAVILLA KNEW
Quite brazenly, Billy Travilla tussled with TIGERS.
The man best known for costuming sex kitten Marilyn Monroe was also known to have fraternized with fierce felines; some definitely dangerous, others innocuous and demure. In a number of ways, Hollywood certainly could be considered a “Lion’s Den;” and not just because of MGM’s mascot sporting the massive mane.
In the golden days of Hollywood films, the competitive consciousness in the acting arena could be considered comparable to Rome’s ancient coliseum, filled with fearless gladiators and man-eating lions. It was in that very arena where the thumbs up meant the coliseum audience approved of you, and let you live, or a thumbs down meant you were fed to the lions. And in film, a glamorous appearance could make the difference between making you … or breaking you. So in a very real way, in old Hollywood, attractiveness could make the difference between life and death in the movies. Looked at in that light, it is understandable as to why Billy Travilla’s talents and skill yielded so much power.
To Marilyn Monroe, the Oscar-winning designer had the powers of costume catnip, with the ability to skyrocket her visual appeal. In The Seven-Year Itch, (1955) for a comedic scene at the piano with Tom Ewell, Marilyn dons a Travilla gown that is bejeweled to form tiger stripes down the length of her petite body. It is fiercely fetching. 20th Century-Fox loved Billy’s look for Marilyn so much, that this very image is painted across an entire building on the Fox lot.
Billy found the legendary blonde relatively easy to work with. Less easy, were some other Hollywood Titans who were definitely “tigers.” Penning an autobiography, which was never published during his lifetime, Billy titled it, “Tigers I knew.”
In choosing that title, Billy Travilla was referring to a few famous actors he worked with who were legendary for their antics and swagger. “Some of these stars became fast friends,” Billy said, “while others drifted in and out of my life over the course of making a film. Yet they all had one indisputable ingredient in common; they all had an individual glamour, [a] special sort of style.”
The designer was discovered by famed 1940’s actress Anne Sheridan, whom he covered in glamour as well as animal prints. Narrowly escaping being devoured by an acting legend, Billy found out Mae West was a crouching tiger/hidden cougar, when the designer was not yet 20, and she was nearly 50.
Another Travilla “tiger,” Ann Margret was coyly covered by Billy to bring out the beast in man, earning her the title of “sex kitten.” Billy boldly adorned Ava Gardner’s feminine form in animal print in the Fox classic, Snows Of Kilimanjaro, alongside Gregory Peck.
Most notable of Travilla’s stylish “Tigers” was Errol Flynn, whose antics caused Billy to blush bright red … more than once.
“Tiger,” Joan Crawford, was such a fierce force that her tirade in Travilla’s office caused the doorknob to punch a hole in his wall, as she slammed it open in anger. In addition to having the smooth style of maintaining his composure during this diva’s dramatics, Billy found playful, creative ways to display his opinion of Crawford’s aggression. When the scene for her Warner Brothers movie, Flamingo Road, called for him to design a cocktail dress for her character that was “clawing” her way up in society, Billy Travilla designed a clever commentary into the dress. He added claw-shaped cutouts to encircle Crawford’s neckline. Painting her face in the fashion sketch, he excluded a mouth, in that now-famous fashion croquis. It’s quite the visual effect … as well as personal commentary.
But these Hollywood tigers were not the only wild ones Billy worked with. The daring designer also owned truly wild “pets.”
While Billy courted his wife, famed Paramount film star Dona Drake, he would take her to the Los Angeles Zoo, and climb over the fence of the tigers, to go and pet them. Once they married, he bought his wife a baby ocelot shortly after their honeymoon. Billy would add other “cats” to his home menagerie, already occupied by a mischievous monkey and a malicious macaw.
In 1970, Billy bottle-fed his six-week-old Florida Panther, coyly named “Clarence.” By the time that Panther had outgrown the bottle, Clarence, was fully-grown at ten and a half feet long, weighing in at 200 pounds.
Later, Billy got another Panther, which he named “Smitty.” The audacious designer maintained them in a 60-foot long cage built onto the hillside, by his Hollywood Hills house, surrounded by a chain-link fence. Aware of the endangerment, Billy said, “These were dangerous animals, I can tell you. I used to bring Clarence into the house on a choke collar and a six-foot leash and he knew that as long as he was a good boy and behaved himself he could stay in the house for a while. One night he even slept with me on my bed with his head on the pillow and his tail hanging over the end of the bed onto the floor.”
When, during a playful wrestling match, Smitty cracked one of her big fangs, Travilla had to rush her to the vet. Transporting his pet panther there required a precarious and dangerous activity. The designer had to borrow his neighbor’s long black limo to get the 10-ft-long cat into the back seat and attach her chain to the seat belt. Unaccustomed to ferrying panthers to the vet, that limo was more used to carrying Diana Ross and Michael Jackson around town, since Travilla’s generous neighbor was Motown Mogul, Berry Gordy.
After a few brushes with danger, in which he avoided being hurt by the big cats, Travilla found them another home. He later said, “There are not many people who can say they have had the affection of a big cat. But I can assure you that it’s incredible, they really love you.”
Speaking like a true Cat Whisperer, Billy explained how he averted disaster. Describing the rare skills he possessed to tame wild animals, he said, “In order to have an animal of this sort, you have to think as they do. If you think as a person and expect the animal to think as you do, then you are asking for trouble. Thinking like an animal, I [calmed him down] very slowly. A sudden movement might have scared him further,” he explained. “I had to talk to him a long while before he began to purr. Looking back I know how lucky I was, I could have been badly mauled or killed by one stupid mistake.”
In Billy’s world, besides his wild animals, besides Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn and Joan Crawford, the legendary designer worked with enough “tigers” and eccentric personalities to fill a zoo. The catnip effect of Travilla’s glamorous costumes and gracious manner turned most everyone around him into kittens.
So although Billy Travilla brazenly tussled with tigers, film titans and Movie legends; he never had to talk to them very long before they each began to purr.
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 eleventh of a 12-part series of articles by Kimberley Ashley for 2015. Next month see her final article, “Billy Travilla and Marilyn Monroe’s Last Stop; The Bus Stop in Arizona.”