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Erle Jolson Krasna, 81; Widow of Legendary Singer and of Producer

January 14, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Erle Jolson Krasna, an occasional actress who was the influential widow of both singer Al Jolson and Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer Norman Krasna, has died. She was 81.

Krasna died Sunday of cancer at her Century City home.

Widowed by Jolson's death in 1950, she retained control over his recordings after marrying Krasna a year later. Jolson, whose signature song was "My Mammy," became a superstar in the first "talkie," "The Jazz Singer" of 1927.

Krasna was portrayed by actress Barbara Hale in the 1949 "Jolson Sings Again," a sequel to the better-received 1946 biopic "The Jolson Story." When Jolson's remarkable life in entertainment was revisited in the 1999 stage musical, Krasna attended its premiere at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium before it ventured to Broadway as "Jolson & Co."

The former Erle Chenault Galbraith, born Dec. 1, 1922, in Little Rock, Ark., was an X-ray technician at the Army and Navy General Hospital in Hot Springs, Ark., when she met Jolson, known for his tours to entertain troops. The singer, 36 years her senior, suggested that, pretty as she was, she should try Hollywood.

The young woman signed a contract with Columbia, then went on to 20th Century Fox when Columbia declined to pick up her option. She had a few small roles showcasing her beauty, including one in a Phil Silvers comedy, but never earned major recognition.

On March 24, 1945, she married Jolson in Quartzsite, Ariz., becoming his fourth wife. Upon his death five years later from a heart attack in San Francisco, after a tour to entertain soldiers in the Korean War, she also became his widow. At age 28, she was in control of nearly half of his $4-million estate and, more important, his musical legacy.

The couple had adopted a son and named him after Jolson, who was born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania. Young Asa, also called Albert Jolson Jr., has been known most of his life as "Jolie."

The youthful widow met Krasna, 13 years her senior, the summer after Jolson's death and just after the writer's five-day engagement to actress Betty Hutton had ended. The couple married Dec. 7, 1951.

Norman Krasna, originally a New York journalist and playwright, had won an Academy Award in 1943 for his script to "Princess O'Rourke" starring Olivia de Havilland and was nominated for Oscars for three other screenplays -- "The Richest Girl in the World" in 1934, Fritz Lang's "Fury" in 1936 and "The Devil and Miss Jones" in 1941.

By the time he married Erle Jolson, he was also a producer and executive helping to run RKO.

The Krasnas later spent 20 years as residents of Switzerland. He died in 1984.

In addition to Jolie, Krasna is survived by three children from her marriage to Norman Krasna, Beth, Emily and David; and three grandchildren.

A service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday at All Saints Episcopal Church, 504 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills.

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