Once more unto the bleach
Stephen Griffin talks blonde ambition with Shar Daws, whose new book casts a fair-minded eye over five 1950s bombshells
18 September, 2020 — By Stephen Griffin
Jean Harlow, left, and Diana Dors; below: author Shar Daws
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
So wrote Raymond Chandler, who knew a thing or two about femme fatales, in Farewell, My Lovely. And his view of fair-haired specimens of the fair sex is far from unique. So why were blondes – particularly those who came courtesy of a bottle – often perceived as fast, dangerous and sexy? Was it a disguise to hide a mousy personality?
“No, quite the reverse. It’s an attention thing,” says Shar Daws, whose book, Bombshells: Five Women Who Set The Fifties On Fire, deals with five prime examples of the sassy blonde: Tinseltown’s Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe plus our own Diana Dors and Ruth Ellis. “The culture that they had to fight against amazes me,” she says. “In the 50s women were primarily seen as homemakers, carers, bringing up children… but these women bucked the trend.”
The debut author is clearly steeped in 50s culture: she’s co-organised Marilyn Monroe Memorial events in LA and manages online vintage boutique Retro Daisy. And now comes the book.
Jayne Mansfield, left, and Marilyn Monroe
It was Harlow who first lit the bombshell fuse. While working as a movie extra she realised that a nimbus of platinum locks was a sure-fire scene stealer. Monroe and Mansfield later adopted a similar look, followed by Dors – the blonde leading the blonde.
It’s interesting to note that none of the book’s subjects were natural blondes – Harlow’s claim that she was is Hollywood hype. Although none were dumb blondes, they were for the most part extremely unlucky. And arguably the unluckiest of all was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, Ruth Ellis.
Shar offers a succinct and sympathetic account of Ellis’s story. How and why she shot dead her lover David Blakely at the Magdala pub in Hampstead in 1955 has been covered countless times in documentaries and feature films, but Shar is particularly good on the more intimate details of her incarceration in Holloway.
It transpires Ellis not only died in prison, she dyed. Her regular hairdresser, Shack’s of Shaftesbury Avenue, were permitted to furnish her with the necessary chemicals and instructions to bleach her silvering hair in her cell. The warders were pleasantly surprised by Ellis’s delicate, fragile beauty, her slight five-foot frame and her polite cheerfulness, a demeanour totally at odds with her brassy public reputation. Shar argues that a jury for whom peroxide meant homicide may have treated Ellis more sympathetically had she presented them with the real her. In the event they found her guilty after just 12 minutes.
Shar is unstinting in her admiration for Ellis. “She didn’t try to get out of it,” she says. “She squared her shoulders and accepted it. And that takes a lot of guts.”
Not a movie star, Ellis is the book’s odd woman out. “I’ve been asked why Ruth Ellis is in the book but she was a really iconic 1950s woman. She wanted what the others had… but she made a few really bad choices and in one moment of madness she did something that changed her life forever. So you’ve got the archetypal bad blonde.”
She believes Britain’s class system did little to help Ellis’s case. “If you dyed your hair you were a bit of a tart but if you were a natural blonde you were angelic and a really good person. If you dyed your hair you were a brazen hussy. And that was Ruth Ellis’s problem. But it worked for Diana Dors, who took on that whole American thing.”
Indeed, Dors was touted as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, an epithet she grew to detest. The two shared many similarities but, observes Shar: “As she got older Diana took on character roles that I don’t think Marilyn could have done.”
There’s also an interesting cross pollination of the British subjects. An aspiring actress, Ellis had a bit part in a Dors film, a comedy called Lady Godiva Rides Again. Whether the two met and talked is open to conjecture – Dors would certainly have found Ellis excellent research for her later role as a condemned woman in Yield to the Night, a film erroneously perceived as being based on Ellis’s story.
However, Dors later spoke of meeting Ellis’s executioner, the hangman Albert Pierrepoint, who took it upon himself to undress Ellis’s corpse. She wasn’t keen. “I could see the man loved his work,” she wrote, “although within me there lurked a nasty feeling about Albert’s real reason for his profession.”
Although none of her subjects’ lives ended well, Shar doesn’t see them as victims. “They had tragedies in their lives but they were all strong, hardworking women… including Ruth. I think she was a really hardworking woman to achieve what she did. She lived a glamorous life, even though she wasn’t able to take it to the level she wanted.”
• Bombshells: Five Women Who Set The Fifties On Fire. By Shar Daws, The History Press, £16.99.