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Dorris Bowdon, 90; Actress Best Known for 'Grapes of Wrath'

August 12, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Dorris Bowdon, a movie actress best remembered for her role in John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" who left acting after she married that film's screenwriter, has died. She was 90.

Bowdon's death Tuesday at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills was caused by strokes, heart failure and old age, said her daughter-in-law, Fredda Johnson of Los Angeles.

Soon after a talent scout spotted her at Louisiana State University, Bowdon took a train to Hollywood and became a contract player with 20th Century Fox.

Trying to rise above bit parts, she camped out in the office of writer-producer Nunnally Johnson in 1938 until he agreed to see her.

He had no work to offer but she found him to be "the quickest-witted man" she had ever met, she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1999.

Two years later, she married Johnson, who wrote the scripts for 77 films and received Oscar nominations for "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) and "Holy Matrimony" (1943). The ceremony was held in the home of actress Helen Hayes.

After acting in two earlier Ford films, "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Drums Along the Mohawk," both released in 1939, Bowdon was cast as Tom Joad's pregnant sister, Rose of Sharon, in "The Grapes of Wrath," which was based on John Steinbeck's novel and starred Henry Fonda.

"I was so proud of my husband's script," Bowdon told The Times in 2001. "I was doubly pleased when I heard John Steinbeck say to him, 'That's the best script I have ever read.' "

Johnson made a point of telling people he had not helped his wife get the part, she said.

In an oral history she gave to Southern Methodist University in 1981, Bowdon praised Ford's way with actors but said she had been a victim of the director's "Jekyll-Hyde character" when he repeatedly picked on her on the set.

"He'd say, 'Your hair is sloppy, why don't you get it checked before you come out and hold us up?' " the actress recalled. "Then when I was off the set he'd say ... 'Miss Bowdon is holding us up at $15,000 a day.' "

After making "The Moon Is Down" (1943), based on another Steinbeck novel, she dedicated herself to her family.

"She was the strong woman behind the strong man," Fredda Johnson said of her husband Scott's mother. "She made their life normal. My husband didn't realize how famous or prominent his father was until he was living in London when he was about 12 and his best friend explained it to him."

After Nunnally Johnson died in 1977, Bowdon co-edited a book of his letters, which a Newsweek reviewer called "the most entertaining book about life in Hollywood I've read in years."

Dorris Estelle Bowdon was born Dec. 27, 1914, in Coldwater, Miss., to James and Lillian Bowdon.

She was proud that her father was the only doctor in the region who would deliver African American babies.

He died when she was 2, leaving his wife with seven children.

"She was the beauty, and she was determined. That followed her all through her life because she came from a background of nothing," Johnson said of her mother-in-law. "She felt she had to study everything and learn how to do it best. That also went into being a grand hostess."

One guestbook provides a window into the dinner parties she gave in Beverly Hills and London, where the family lived throughout the 1960s. The first entry is "Party for Groucho" on May 10, 1954. The last, Feb. 14, 1959, is for a small dinner for Leslie Caron and the Fondas.

Her soiree for the 1948 opening of "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid," a comedy-fantasy written by Johnson, made the pages of Life magazine.

"The parties were the grandest, the people were the most beautiful, the clothes were the most elegant," Bowdon recalled in the oral history. "It was a courtly time."

In addition to her son, Bowdon is survived by two daughters, Christie Lucero of Coyote Creek, N.M., and Roxana Lonergan of Los Angeles, and four grandchildren.

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