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Barbara "Bobo" Rockefeller, 1916 - 2008

Actress married heir to Standard Oil fortune

May 23, 2008|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

Barbara Sears "Bobo" Rockefeller, a coal miner's daughter and one-time actress whose "Cinderella wedding of the century" to millionaire Winthrop Rockefeller in 1948 soon gave way to bitter divorce proceedings, died Monday at her home in Little Rock, Ark. She was 91. A cause of death was not announced.

Born Jievute Paulekiute, she first attracted notice as Miss Lithuania at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. She later was Eva Paul on stage and Barbara Sears on screen.

But her international fame -- a Time cover picture, a portrait by Salvador Dali -- was owed to her marriage to Rockefeller, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, a night clubbing bon vivant and one of America's wealthiest bachelors. Their Florida wedding featured such guests as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The Rockefeller union was promoted as the country's most swoon-worthy tale of romance in years, and seven months later it produced a child, future Arkansas Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller. The elder Rockefeller became a prominent Arkansas philanthropist and served two terms as that state's governor before his death in 1973. Their son died in 2006.

The fairy-tale marriage quickly grew stormy, and the Rockefellers separated in 1950. Barbara Rockefeller complained publicly that her husband, who maintained a reputation as a ladies' man, "humiliated me before the world."

Barbara Rockefeller took her son to live in the Indiana farm community where she spent her high school years. In 1953, the two sides began haggling about a divorce settlement, and her husband moved to Arkansas to qualify for its relaxed divorce law.

She declared her intent to fight any "cheap mail-order divorce," adding, "I intend to be a Mrs. Rockefeller until the day I die."

While her husband was still in Arkansas, she showed up unannounced at his 15-room apartment in New York and began living there with their son.

In 1954, Winthrop Rockefeller made what amounted to a record divorce settlement of $2 million in cash and $3.5 million in trust funds for her and their son. Barbara Rockefeller soon left her ex-husband's apartment and moved into a lavish six-story brownstone on the Upper East Side. She divided her time between New York and Paris, where she also owned a flat. She entertained often but shunned media attention.

She was born in Noblestown, Pa., on Sept. 6, 1916, to Lithuanian immigrants. After her parents' divorce, she grew up with her mother near the Chicago stockyards and later in Lowell, Ind.

Inspired by her World's Fair appearance, she decamped to New York in 1936 intending to become a stage actress. She was a dress model and in her free time scoured Manhattan's libraries to enhance her cultural knowledge.

"I affected long cigarette holders and turbans which concealed my slicked-back hair," she once said of this phase of her life. "My dressy frocks were black."

As Eva Paul, she won minor stage roles, and in 1940 she went through Boston in a touring production of "Tobacco Road," based on Erskine Caldwell's novel about Georgia sharecroppers. She met Richard Sears Jr., scion of a prominent mercantile family, at a Christmas Eve singalong in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood. He nicknamed her Bobo, and they married the next year.

While he was away during World War II, she went to Hollywood and won minor roles in two Fuzzy Knight westerns, "Bad Men of the Border" and "Code of the Lawless," both in 1945.

She was described by various Hollywood figures of the day as delightful and difficult, fond of spending time dancing at nightclubs and socializing with the Jock Whitneys and other society figures.

She met Winthrop Rockefeller through the Whitneys, and she was officially divorced from Sears in 1947. A few years later, she told the Chicago Tribune her impression of the Rockefellers had been colored by old Sears money.

"As a matter of fact," she said, "I was surprised to find the Rockefellers were included in the social register. The Sears family considered them merchants."

Survivors include eight grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

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