This man of 52 years, a year younger than my mother, was tall, elegant and handsome. I was struck by his statuesque, yet graceful presence. I was even more impressed with his warm and gentle demeanor, very unlike the many roles he played as the King of Horror. This man was Vincent Price. And I was a very enchanted young lady! ...finally getting to meet the famous man who had captured my mother's heart (many years before) but not her hand in marriage. He had fallen deeply in love with her, and it was very obvious that his feelings hadn't changed. It was also obvious that she still adored him but felt secure in her decision not to marry him. Even though they both grew up in the very finest cultured environment of St. Louis society and experienced a thrilling romance together, my mother had a strong sense of standards that were passed on down to her from her family.
Marrying into the life of the theatre was considered too unpredictable and unstable. This was definitely a mind-over-heart situation. Knowing my mom and her ways, I was never surprised that she said no. And she definitely made a fantastic choice in my wonderful dad who treated her beautifully and provided for her well in taking over his father's well-established publishing business. But I was always in awe over how she could do it - turn him down and pull it off and still keep up and be friends with him!
At the time that Vince proposed to her in January '35, he had just been cast in a prominent role as Prince Albert in "Victoria Regina" in London. He was very involved in extensive research, studying and preparing for his role. That following May, his premier performance brought raving reviews and launched Vincent Price into stardom. Not long after, he went on to play the role on Broadway opposite Helen Hayes. The stage was set, and "Uncle Vinny", as he let me call him, had his feet solid on it. A solid footing that was to step him into a solid career. Would it have been a solid life for my mother? Who knows? She met Dad, and that was solid enough for her.
I'll never forget that night when I met this marvelous man. Mother had told me all about him and, of course, I'd seen him in the movies. I even made up a fun pun as a slogan to my friends, "Mom ended up marrying Daddy, and that's why I'm so priceless!" I was active in drama at school and was infatuated with acting. So, on that special night, I was not only exhilarated to meet Vincent but also to talk with him about his profession. Which we did. In the letter of March 3rd that he had written Mother from Los Angeles after his trip here, he summed up the event perfectly:
Many thanks for sending me the clips – and for being the same beautiful, delightful, luscious you! Show that to Pete – good for husbands.
I loved meeting Irene – she’s a dear and I hope she either does it, the theatre, or gets it out of her system – anyway she can only learn from it how better to communicate with her fellow men --
All Love to you all.
I also remember on that eventful evening of meeting Vincent Price that he proudly showed me a picture of his two-year-old daughter, Victoria. She looked just like him! I kept thinking...I wonder who her mother is and what it was like living in their world in California.
In January 2000, a friend and I had our little late Christmas exchange. She brought me the newly released biography, Vincent Price, by his daughter, Victoria. Needless to say, I clutched this biographical treasure with glee! When the timing became just right - I plunged into Vincent Price with excitement and great curiosity! I wondered if Victoria ever knew about my mother. And if she did not, while Vincent was living, I wondered if she had discovered anything about it later during her research for the book.
There I was, sitting on the family room sofa ever intently devouring Victoria's every word with extreme trepidation as my eyes arrived upon page 59 of chapter nine. By golly, there it was! She devoted the whole page to "The Mysterious Dottie"! Well, it's probably a good thing that I was alone in the house at the time because I immediately burst into, not only talking out loud, but jumping up and down and squealing with joy - not to mention dancing around the room! My two sweet dogs looked at me as if to say, "Hey, Mom - have you lost it?"
She writes about what a significant development this was in Vincent's life. She quotes from his letters to his parents talking about his intense feelings for Dottie - "I love her, and more than anyone I've ever met" . . . "She has all those qualities of dignity and poise which my three womenfolk have brought me up to look for - you, Mommy, Hat and Lol . He tells them about the ring he sent her, "a lovely jewel, while not expensive, does have great brilliance." She also mentions about the gag photo she found of Vincent (which is reproduced in the book) and the note attached to it saying that it was for his fiancée. He agreed to have one photo taken for commercial purposes, thereby saving expense. A month later, the photo appeared three times life size in Piccadilly Circus as an ad for deodorant.
But then, Victoria talks about how nothing else was known regarding the mysterious Dottie, where she came from, who she was, or what happened to her ... or whether or not Dottie accepted or refused the ring. The only hint was in a letter he wrote to his family two months after he proposed in which he states that he was very upset about something.
Needless to mention, I could hardly wait to contact Victoria! When I discovered that her phone in Santa Fe was unpublished, I decided to write to her - care of her publisher. Then, a few days later, I got a lucky break. I was at a ladies' luncheon sharing my fun news about "The Mysterious Dottie". One of the ladies, Anne McAlpin, told me she knew who could give me Victoria's private number! Lo and behold, several months before, during her book tour, Victoria had visited our alma mater, Mary Institute/Country Day (where Vincent and Mother graduated), for a quick lecture/book-signing event while she was here for a major bookstore signing. Anne suggested I contact the administrator who organized the school event. Good heavens! She was here in St. Louis promoting her book and I didn't know?! How did I miss it? My head was in a spin. Then reality returned.
Interestingly enough, at the same time that Victoria Price was here promoting her new book, I was enwrapped in promoting my new book, A-Maze-in' St. Louis. With all of the whirlwind details of the publishing, marketing and interviewing and my own book-signing at another major book store, I was completely focused and somehow didn't get the word.
But after a brief disappointment in not having met her, I realized that maybe it could turn out to be even more intriguing this way. The mystery of "The Mysterious Dottie." And I was about to make a phone call, a call that would unravel a mystery.
On January 28, 2000, I picked up my portable phone to call Vincent's daughter, Victoria. Although I didn't expect her to come on the line, I felt jubilant over the sheer fact that I was making a connection - be it probably on an answering machine. My fingers pushed the buttons with a zing that fired through me. One ring. I thought, "What if?" And then the second ring... and then - pop - "Hello" - I heard a nice, relaxed voice. "Victoria?" I asked. "Yes," she said. "Hi," I chimed, I'm Irene Leland in St. Louis, Missouri." I then explained about how I had received her phone number. "I have some information that I think you might find interesting. Do you have a minute?"..."Yes, I do!" . . . "Oh great, well firstly, I want to say that I think it's wonderful that you wrote this biography about your dad. I started reading it the other day, and ... are you sitting down?" "No," she said, "should I?" An amused lilt in our voices correlated. . . "Well, you might want to" . . .I went on ... "I got to page 59 all about Mysterious Dottie, and I started bouncing up and down! . .I know who the Mysterious Dottie is!" . . . "Oh, my gosh, you do? Who?" she bubbled! I'll never forget that next moment. I proclaimed, "She's my mother."
An electrifying force charged through the rest of the conversation! I told her the main ingredients that I knew. Yes, Vincent was crazy in love with Mom. And Mom simply adored him. They graduated from high school the same year at sister/brother schools. The ring he sent her was an exquisite huge golden sapphire, and it arrived baked inside a cake! He was in London. She was in Paris. Yes, she accepted the ring and she saved it. From what I remember, he insisted that she keep it. She later had the stone reset as a pin and gave it to me when I made my debut. Mother, at some point, said no to marriage due to the mindset at the time that life in the theatre was "shaky". Mom never mentioned details, but it seems that there was a brief "on hold" period of time before she gave him her final answer. But they stayed in touch through the years, and whenever Vinny would come to St. Louis, Dottie would invite him to come over for cocktails or dinner.
I told Victoria about the fabulous photo of Mom and Vinny that I took of them in 1978 when he and his third wife, Coral, came to dinner at Mom's and her second husband, Bob's house (my father had passed away in 1975). I said I'd make a photocopy to send her along with one of Mom when she made her debut in 1930. This was from an original portrait that truly depicts what a classic beauty my mother was. Both my father and Vinny used to say how much she looked like Carol Lombard, the actress.
At one point, as I was talking with her, I exclaimed that I was in my family room looking up on the cedar wall at a framed painting that Vincent had made and given to Mom. I described it, and she said, "Oh my gosh, that sounds like the cottage in Ontario!"
We chatted a bit about what things we were doing in our own lives. What fun it was that we were both writers. We exchanged addresses and I gave her my phone number. (I, by the way, did go on and pursue acting - not on stage, but in TV and radio commercials and industrial films. The last time I saw Vinny, he was telling me how he had just started doing TV commercials for Creamette pasta and how very different, even difficult, it was from his usual mode of acting. He was pleased that I had discovered a fun career and he admired my doing so.)
The Mysterious Dottie. Well, she's not so mysterious any more. Now Vincent's daughter has an answer to the mystique. And on that special page of her book, Victoria provided information that I had not known. Yet there are still many hidden secrets that we both don't know, many aspects about their friendship and romance that are obscure. But happily, the unfolded mystery brought two women together in a phone call. After that call, I couldn't help but think what is so obviously distinct and yet so eerie. If Dottie had married Vinny, Victoria and I would not be here!
What's even more eerie and symbolic is a fact of the aftermath. On October 9, 1993, Mom, along with my stepfather, Bob, was murdered by the yardman in their home. Besides being a major story here in St. Louis, it really shook up the fine community in which they lived, where there had not been a killing in 40 years. Vincent was contacted by friends here, and I was told that he was absolutely devastated. Sixteen days later, Vincent Price died from cancer.
Backstage at St. Louis's famous Fox Theatre, following a performance of
Diversions and Delights in 1978. Irene Leland and her former husband are
shown with a casual VP. Below is a recently-discovered photo from the same evening, with
Vincent, Dottie, and her second husband, Robert.