Designer ‘Irene,’ raised in Baker, wowed Hollywood

Irene

Irene Lentz, who was raised in Baker and went on to be one of the most successful clothing and costume designers in Hollywood history, is shown here in the 1940s, at MGM.

She was the fabulous Baker, Mont., girl who had built “Irene” into a quality trademark.

This fabled designer of magical gowns for the movies once led such a charmed career that she was known simple by her first name: Irene.

Census records validate her birthplace as Brookings, S.D., in 1901, though myriad publications such as Cosmopolitan complicated matters with faulty statements such as this one, made in October 1943: “For this woman who sets styles for two continents was born plain Irene Lentz on a ranch in Montana.”

Twice Oscar-nominated for costume decoration and revered for her luxurious dresses, gowns and day skirts, Lentz undoubtedly came to Baker with her family at a young age and she was part of the fourth class to receive diplomas from Baker High School.

The Lentz Brothers, Emil F., Irene’s father, and his brother, Edward O., are listed in the 1910 Rosebud County directory as owners of a general merchandise store. When Baker High School’s first declamatory contest was held in the opera house, Lentz was listed as a participant, and that same month, October 1915, another newspaper clipping identified her as a pupil in the piano class of Miss Pearl Young and as part of recitals at the Congregational church.

Her name also appears in The Fallonite on Oct. 22, 1915, where she was identified as a soloist in the Rally Day exercises and program at the M.E. Sunday school. On April 15, 1916, the same paper listed Lentz as part of the Baker High School Oratorical Contest, performing “Piano Solo” and “Betty Simkin’s Man.”

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Seemingly a natural-born performer, she also entertained members of the Laki Club in their homes and performed vocal and instrumental numbers at suppers in the Congregational church basement and for the 10 children who graduated from the Baker grade school. The July 23, 1915, edition of the Baker Sentinel contained this frivolous, yet adorable nugget of information: “Misses Jeannette Price and Irene Lentz accompanied Mr. Price to Glendive on Tuesday and came back in a new Ford.”

In 1917, Irene Lentz excelled on the school debate team and played guard on the Baker High School girls’ basketball team, “picturesque in duotone stockings,” according to one newspaper. She also sang in the Easter program in the Methodist Sunday school. It was also reported that her father was part of an executive committee named by Gov. Sam Stewart urging Montana communities to encourage the planting of home gardens, which was “received with enthusiasm by Baker citizens.”

In April 1917, young Irene was recorded in public audits as being paid “14.97” for “comparing Carter county records” and then “16.65” for similar duties in October. Her father, E.F. Lentz, was paid “166.65” for salary county clerk obligations. In November 1917, she and friend Beatrice Dougherty performed as a piano duet as part of a Red Cross fundraiser that brought in $43.60.

Work

Courtesy Bess True collection

Irene hard at work, 1944.

In addition to her schooling, Irene was part of the Literary Society and debate team. According to the April 4, 1918, issue of the Fallon County Times, “Miss Irene Lentz was awarded the second prize,” in the Declamatory Contest held at Baker High School. Her subject was “The Soul of a Violin,” and her second-place prize was a handsome ring. The Lentz Orchestra is listed in the program as supplying the musical entertainment of the night.

She was one of the four graduating students to be part of the fourth class to receive diplomas at Baker High School and was involved in the entertainment at the commencement, held in the Lake Theatre on May 22, 1919. The Baker Sentinel noted:

“While the class was small, only four graduating this year, it is one the city and school may well be proud of. The war was the cause of the small class as several boys who were Seniors tendered their services to Uncle Sam and-joined the colors.”

Planning to be a concert pianist, Irene traveled to California and enrolled in the music class at the University of Southern California, where she also dabbled in acting. In September 1923, The Baker Sentinel noted that Lentz would be supporting leading comedian Ben Turpin in a two-reel farce, “Ten Dollars or Ten Days.”

“Miss Irene Lentz, a former Baker girl, is making a name for herself in the Mack Sennett Film Company and is under the direction of Del Lord appearing in a new two reel comedy,” the paper reported.

In 1923, when Lake Theatre advertised “Tailor Made Man,” the ad noted that the all-star cast featured “one of our home girls, Irene Lentz, as the leading lady with Charles Ray.”

She spent time in Los Angeles in 1925, working as a movie extra along with designer Walter Plunkett. Around this time, her college roommate, with ambitions to be a designer of women’s clothes, planned a night course at a Los Angeles designing school, but was too shy to go alone and persuaded Irene to accompanying her. After the first lesson, Irene decided she wanted to design clothes.

Shortly after completing the course she opened a dress shop on the U.S.C. campus. Iinexpensive numbers were her specialty: top price, $29.50.

Her designs caught the attention of the “Hollywood crowd.” One result was her marriage to F. Richard Jones, a silent-film director, who financed her in a chic shop in Hollywood. But not long into their marriage, Jones died of tuberculosis, and she closed the shop and went to Europe alone.

There she studied her trade and became the rare designer who could sow, pin and cut and, if she had to, turn out any garment single-handed.

Glam

Courtesy of Bess True collection

Irene designed glamorous clothes and could be quite glamorous herself, as this undated photo attests.

Shortly after her return to California, she was asked to head the ultra-swank, custom design shop at Bullock’s-Wilshire. The Irene Salon opened at 9000 Sunset Blvd. and her designs in the 1930s were hailed as “California Fresh” in the press. It was reputed to be the first boutique committed to a single designer inside a major American store.

She began dressing some of Hollywood’s biggest female stars in 1933, and, credited only as “Irene,” she began working for United Artists and Columbia Pictures.

Irene amassed a following among the wealthy wives of studio execs, including MGM chief Louis B. Mayer’s daughters Irene and Edith. Then one day in 1942, Mayer offered her the job as head of MGM’s costume department, replacing the famed Adrian (Connecticut-born Adrian Adolph Greenberg), who was leaving to start his own fashion line.

“I thought maybe he wanted me to design wardrobe for some pictures,” Lentz once said.

According to one magazine, the move established her reign “as the West’s most sought-after designer.”

According to another contemporary fashion magazine, during this period Irene’s “frugal Montana background proved something as a handicap.” She could never look customers in the eye and tell them the elevated price, so she hired “a stooge” to follow her around on opening day and “answer the embarrassing questions about price.”

In 1947, another group of about 25 stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, provided half the capital for Lentz to leave MGM studio to set up her own enterprise. With the stores’ financing she made clothes exclusively for them to sell under her “Irene” brand name.

Meanwhile, Irene went on to marry screenwriter Elliot Gibbons, brother of MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons, and Irene’s mother worked in a wardrobe department of the studio in Hollywood. Irene had learned to shoot in Montana and was apparently a fairly good hunter. She and her husband often joined the Gables on hunting trips. And their house was said to be “one of the show places of California.”

According to most accounts, however, their marriage was unhappy and stressful, and when her husband departed on hunting to trips to Africa or other excursions, she moved into an apartment, attended by her most faithful companion, Michael, her husband’s Irish setter.

Lentz’s permanent claim to history is that she costumed Hollywood’s Golden Age stars for the big screen, including scandalously clad Lana Turner “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” in 1946.

She also dressed them in real life, boasting a celebrity clientele that would come to include Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Carole Lombard. Lentz was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White, for “B.F.’s Daughter” (1948) and Best Costume Design, Color, for “Midnight Lace” (1960). The final film she worked on appeared in theaters in 1963.

On Nov. 15, 1962, a few weeks before her 62nd birthday, under an assumed name, Irene checked herself into Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel. She went to her room and downed two pints of vodka. She purportedly “slashed her wrists” and then leapt out an 11th-floor bathroom window. She landed on a suspension awning and her body was discovered later that night.

A suicide note read: “I’m sorry. This is the best way. Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all, Irene.”

She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale with first husband, F. Richard Jones.

A few weeks before her death, Irene had allegedly confided in her friend, actress Doris Day, that “she had been in love with Gary Cooper” and he was “the only man she had ever loved.” (Cooper had succumbed to cancer the year before.)

Day recalled that she got the feeling that she was first person with whom Irene had shared this information.

“Thinking about it now,” she wrote in “Doris Day: Her Own Story,” “I cannot honestly say whether Irene’s love was one-sided or whether she and Cooper had actually had or were having an affair.”

In her 1998 book, “Cooper’s Women,” author Jane Ellen Wayne wrote that Cooper and Irene would “become involved in a relationship” that continued over the years. It’s plausible that their affair was real, considering that Cooper had a powerful hold on the many women he came to know and love, and even those he left behind. (Some have theorized that it’s unlikely that Irene killed herself over Cooper, because, they’ve claimed, she was a lover of Marlene Dietrich’s.)

Although she had earned large sums of money, at the time of her death she was broke and in ill-health. In the book “Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank,” Barbara Sinatra wrote that one night, toward the end of her life, Irene fell asleep with an electric blanket covering her head and woke up with her face paralyzed.

“I don’t know much about the private Irene,” said fashion designer Edith Head in an interview in the late 1970s. “She was not a happy woman. … I know she liked hunting and guns and the great outdoors. Deduce from that what you will.”

In a 1983 article in the Seattle Times, the author writes of the designer, “Irene reads like a Greek tragedy.” “She had an unhappy marriage, a bad drinking problem, there were rumors of a romance with Gary Cooper that fell apart, and she never felt that the fashion press appreciated her.”

In the October 1937 Cosmopolitan, there is a two-page article on “Irene” of Hollywood, which stated that Irene “was born on a Fallon county homestead” and received her education in Baker.

That same article also summed up, in a few words, just how large and how unusual were the achievements of Irene Lentz, the girl from Baker, Mont.:

“Irene, at thirty-five, is responsible for every costume in every film produced by the largest moving picture company in the world (MGM). So far as her studio is concerned, Irene has no last name. Very few people get along like that. I can think of only two who did — Topsy and Cleopatra.”

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of numerous articles and several books, including “Warrior in the Ring: A Life of Native American Boxer Marvin Camel,” and “Rasta in the Ring: A Life of Rastafarian Boxer Livingstone Bramble,” and “Warriors on the Ice: Hockey’s Toughest Talk.” He may be reached at dambrosiobrian@hotmail.com

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