Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Juli Lynne and the poodle skirt

A beautiful, exquisitely attired lady of a certain age sat down beside me at a recent concert.  I commented, “You’re wearing a lovely ruana!”  Surprised, she looked at me and replied, “Yes, they are my favorite garments these days.”

Ruanas are a Colombian poncho-style outer garment made for both men and women. A woman’s ruauna is open down the front and often worn with one side tossed over the shoulder.  Her ruana was black, hand-woven with a red border stripe perfectly matching her bright red lips. Digs Collaborator Carol Hopkins whispered in my ear.  “Your seatmate is famous.  Juli Lynne invented the poodle skirt.”  I wasn’t impressed; I’d never heard of a poodle skirt.

We had awhile to wait for the concert to start and I told her about growing up in Colombia and wearing ruanas too.  She told me she’d been a Hollywood entertainer in her youth and later a well-known fashion designer in the United States. My interest was indeed piqued.  When she told me she was born in 1922 I was stunned.

At the end of the concert the audience was invited to sing verses of Silent Night in Spanish and English with the chorus.  Juli Lynne Charlot opened her mouth and soon everyone was accompanying the powerful, soulful, soaring contralto soprano emerging from this tiny nonagenarian.

Several days later we rang Juli Lynne’s doorbell outside a gate on a dirt roadway in the Valley of Atongo, Tepoztlan.  Carol, who has visited the house many times, had not prepared me for the huge, magical garden we entered. It is designed by Ken Drumbolis, one of Mexico’s well-known landscape architects.  I can’t recall being in a private garden with such a large botanical variety.  Juli Lynne’s house was equally unusual.  Every aspect of her life seemed to reflect a life-long aesthetic dedicated to surrounding herself with beauty.

Born Shirley Agin in New York City, Juli Lynne’s father and mother were Russian immigrants who moved to Hollywood and started working in the film industry when she was a toddler. “At 13 I discovered I had a brilliant coloratura voice and began to study opera. It was the only career I truly wanted. Shirley didn’t seem like the name of an opera star so I changed it to Juli Lynne.  At 16 I graduated from Hollywood High School and was chosen to be Miss Hollywood.” Julie Lynne added unabashedly “Obviously, I was a looker.“

It was the end of the depression and then the beginning of WWII.  “I began to sing with various big bands and later to accompany them when they entertained the troops. I performed with Harpo Marx and the Marx Brothers, sang with Xavier Cugat’s Orchestra.  I was a relatively big singing sensation and a good comedian but still continued my studies for the opera with dreams of being a grand interpreter of Mozart.”

At 23, Julie met Philip Charlot who she describes as the great love of her life.  He was a “dashing, cultured, French, British-raised officer in a Royal Navy uniform who’d been everywhere I dreamed of going, read every book I hoped to read.”  Juli accepted his proposal even though it came with a heart-wrenching caveat -- she could no longer perform. “I was married two years before I knew I had a title. I was a viscountess! The war was hard on Philip…” her voice trailed off sadly.  Juli Lynne would discuss him no further.

“After the war I was invited to a big Hollywood Christmas party.  I had nothing to wear but my seamstress mother had extra fabric around and lots of trim.  I made myself a white felt full-circle skirt and sewed decorated felt Christmas trees on it.  I was a huge hit. A pricey Beverly Hills boutique bought and sold twelve of them in days.” 

After Christmas the boutique asked me to make more skirts that weren’t seasonal. The first skirts I designed and made had dachshunds on them.  The male dachshund was chasing the female around the skirt.  It was a story skirt.  The female was a coquette and the male pup was pursuing her with his tongue hanging out. The owner of the boutique loved the skirts but suggested, “Most of my clients have poodles.  The rest is history.

“I did lots of other designs but none ever enjoyed the immense and lasting popularity of the poodle skirt.  I did moths being attracted to flames, spiders in webs (great for Halloween).  The skirts with roses on them were also popular.  At one point I had 50 employees working on production.”

Since interviewing Juli Lynne I’ve asked a number of women about poodle skirts.  While taking a group to visit the Monarch butterflies I asked how many of the women had owned a poodle skirt; every woman raised her hand.  Fifteen-year-old Menolly Pier proudly told me about her new poodle skirt; they are making a comeback. 

I asked Julie Lynne what advice she would give today’s young.  “Make the most of every minute you have; don’t squander your life.”  Surely Ms. Charlot has followed her own sage advice. 

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