Obituary: Diana Lewis

Dick Vosburgh
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:16

Diana Lewis had two careers: one as an actress in some dozen mainly unremarkable films, and a longer, more successful career as the wife, for over 40 years, of William Powell, the suave Nick Charles of the Thin Man films.

Diana Lewis's parents were vaudeville performers who endlessly toured America, producing four children along the way, and putting each one into the act as soon as possible. After the death of vaudeville, Diana was attending Fairfax High School in west Hollywood when her brother, J.C. Lewis Jnr, cast her in The Shim Sham Revue, a local show he had written and co-produced.

Her singing and dancing attracted the attention of Paramount Pictures, and she was cast in the W.C. Fields classic It's a Gift (1935). She appeared in one of its funniest scenes: while poor Fields tried to sleep on his front porch, the maddening Miss Dunk (Lewis) carried on a loud, repetitious early- morning colloquy with her mother (Josephine Whitten) over whether she should buy ipecac or syrup of squills.

For Warner Bros Lewis made fleeting appearances in He Couldn't Say No (1937), Golddiggers of Paris and Men Are Such Fools (both 1938). After a small role in Columbia's First Offenders (1939), she was spotted by an MGM talent scout singing with her sister Maxine at Gordon's Cafe in Hollywood, and signed by the studio that boasted "more stars than there are in heaven".

Shortly afterwards, William Powell, still mourning the death of his fiancee Jean Harlow two years earlier, looked out of his window and saw a beautiful girl in his swimming pool. Thinking he was away, Metro's publicity department were using it as the setting for photographs of their latest starlet, Diana Lewis. Powell introduced himself, and within six weeks they were married.

Hollywood was sure it wouldn't last; it was Powell's third marriage, he was 47, and his bride was 21. They proved to be as successful a husband- and-wife team as Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles.

The first image in Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940) was the new face of Diana Lewis, seen on the cover of a magazine, above the words "Daphne Fowler - Deb of the Year". So smitten with the photograph was the teenage Andy (Mickey Rooney) that he lied to his schoolmates that she was a close friend. The rest of the film concerned his frenzied attempts to meet Daphne and prove he wasn't lying. "Darling," Powell told Lewis after the premiere, "you got everything out of that role that could be gotten. You neither overplayed nor underplayed it. But I'll tell you frankly, it will never make you a star."

Neither did roles in Eddie Cantor's lachrymose Forty Little Mothers (1940), nor the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy travesty of Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet (also 1940). In the Marx Brothers romp Go West (1941), John Carroll and Lewis embodied the usual dreary romantic subplot as a kind of rawhide Romeo and Juliet. Lewis's "Terry, this is wrong. You're a Turner and I'm a Wilson; you should hate me and I should hate you!" sums it all up.

She demonstrated a convincing Georgia accent as a terrified Southern belle in the Red Skelton comedy-thriller Whistling in Dixie (1942), and managed to seem more believably cast than Lana Turner, who played her fellow sociology student in the gangster melodrama Johnny Eager (1942). After appearing as an over- sensitive nurse on wartime Bataan in the all-female Cry Havoc (1943), Lewis retired from the screen, stating, "I've been in show business all my life, but my marriage is more important to me than anything else."

Powell had invested wisely, and, after playing the world-weary ship's medical officer in the film Mister Roberts (1955), he too retired. The Powells led a leisurely life in their Palm Springs home; he played golf and looked after his investments, she learned to paint, and became one of the desert community's most charming hostesses. A year before her husband died at 92, Lewis told a friend, "I love him more now than the day I married him."

Diana Lewis, actress: born Asbury Park, New Jersey 18 September 1915; married 1940 William Powell (died 1984); died Palm Springs, California 18 January 1997.

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