The Fabulous Baker Girl: The Life of Irene Lentz

She was the fabulous Baker girl who built “Irene” into a quality trademark.

This fabled designer of magical gowns for the movies once led such a charmed career that she was minimally known by her first name: Irene.

Census records validate her birthplace as Brookings, South Dakota, in 1901, though myriad publications complicated matters with faulty statements, such as this one made in October 1943: “For this woman who sets styles for two continents was born plain Irene Lentz on a ranch in Montana.”

Twice Oscar-nominated for costume decoration and revered for her luxurious dresses, gowns and day skirts, Lentz undoubtedly came to Baker with her family at a young age and was no doubt part of the fourth class to receive diplomas from Baker High School.

Irene Lentz in 1942.

The Lentz brothers, Emil F., Irene’s father, and his brother, Edward O., are listed in the 1910 Rosebud County directory as owners of a general merchandise store. When Baker High School’s first declamatory contest was held in the opera house, Lentz is listed as a participant, and that very same month, October 1915, a newspaper clipping identified her as a pupil in the piano class of Miss Pearl Young and as part of recitals at the congregational church.

Her name also appears in the Oct. 22, 1915, The Fallonite as a soloist in the Rally Day exercises and program at the M.E. Sunday school and in the April 15, 1916, edition of that same paper, Lentz is listed in the Baker High School Oratorical Contest, performing “Piano Solo” and “Betty Simkin’s Man.” A seemingly natural-born performer, she also entertained members of the Laki Club in their homes and performed vocal and instrumental numbers at suppers in the church basement and for the 10 children who graduated from the Baker graded school.

The Baker Sentinel contained this frivolous, yet adorable nugget of information on July 23, 1915: “Misses Jeannette Price and Irene Lentz accompanied Mr. Price to Glendive on Tuesday and came back in a new Ford.”

Young Irene
In 1917, Lentz exceled on the school debate team and even played guard on the Baker High School girls’ basketball team – “picturesque in duotone stockings,” according to one newspaper.

In April 1917, Lentz was recorded in public audits as being paid and allowed $14.97 for “comparing Carter County records” and then $16.65 for similar job duties in the month of October. In November, she and a friend performed a piano duet as part of a Red Cross fundraiser, which earned $43.60.

Baker High School commencement
In addition to her schooling, Lentz was part of the Literary Society and debate team. According to the April 4, 1918, issue of the Fallon County Times, “Miss Irene Lentz was awarded the second prize,” in the Declamatory Contest held at Baker High School. Second prize was a handsome ring and her subject was “The Soul of a Violin.” The paper noted, “Miss Lentz was fine and it was hard for many present to tell whether she … would capture first place.” The Lentz orchestra is listed in the program as supplying the musical entertainment of the night.

She was one of four students to receive a diploma at the fourth-annual Baker High School commencement. Lentz was involved in the commencement entertainment in 1919.

The Baker Sentinel noted: “While the class was small, only four graduating this year, it is one the city and school may well be proud of. The war was the cause of the small class as several boys who were seniors tendered their services to Uncle Sam and joined the colors.”

The large auditorium “was packed to the doors.” The reverend from the Methodist church gave the invocation, which was followed by “Miss Irene Lentz with the Salutatory and Presentation of Memorial.”

A move to California
Planning to be a concert pianist, Lentz traveled to California and enrolled in the music class at the University of Southern California, where she also dabbled as an actress.

In September 1923, The Baker Sentinel noted that Lentz would be supporting leading comedian Ben Turpin in a fast two reel farce, to be known as “Ten Dollars Or Ten Days.”

“Miss Irene Lentz, a former Baker girl, is making a name for herself in the Mack Sennett Film Company and is under the direction of Del Lord appearing in a new two reel comedy.”

In 1923, when Baker’s Lake Theatre advertised “A Tailor Made Man,” the ad noted that the all-star cast featured “one of our home girls, Irene Lentz, as the leading lady with Charles Ray.”

She spent time in Los Angeles in 1925 working as a movie extra. Around this time, her college roommate, with ambitions to be a designer of women’s clothes, planned a night course at a Los Angeles designing school, but was too shy to go alone and persuaded Lentz into accompanying her. After the first lesson, Lentz decided to design clothes.

Shortly after completing the course she opened a dress shop on the USC campus. Inexpensive numbers were her specialty, with the top price being $29.50.

Her designs caught the attention of the “Hollywood crowd,” including silent-film director F. Richard Jones. Lentz and Jones were married, and he financed her chic shop in Hollywood. Lentz was married to her husband for 11 months before he died of tuberculosis at age 37. Lentz closed the shop and went to Europe.

While in Europe she studied her trade and became a rare designer who could sew, pin, cut and, if she had to, turn out any garment single-handed.

The Irene Salon
Shortly after her return to California she was asked to head the ultra-swank, custom design shop at Bullocks Wilshire. The Irene Salon opened at 9000 Sunset Blvd. and her designs in the 1930s were hailed as “California Fresh” in the press. It was reputed to be the first boutique committed to a single designer inside a major U.S. store.

She began dressing some of Hollywood’s biggest female stars in 1933, and, credited only as “Irene,” she began working for United Artists and Columbia Pictures.

Lentz amassed a following among the wealthy wives of studio executives, including MGM chief Louis B. Mayer’s daughters Irene and Edith. In 1942, Mayer offered her a job as the head of MGM’s costume department, replacing the famed Adrian (Connecticut-born Adrian Adolph Greenberg), who was leaving to start his own fashion line.

“I thought maybe he wanted me to design wardrobe for some pictures,” Lentz once said.

One magazine touted her “as the West’s most sought after designer.”

Another fashion magazine wrote that during this period Lentz’s “frugal Montana background proved something as a handicap.” She could never look customers in the eye and tell them the elevated price so she hired “a stooge” to follow her around on opening day and “answer the embarrassing questions about price.”

In 1947, group of about 25 stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, provided half the capital for Lentz to leave MGM studio to set up her own enterprise. With the stores’ financing she made clothes exclusively for them to sell under her “Irene” brand name.

At this time, a widowed Lentz remarried screenwriter Elliot Gibbons, brother of MGM art director Cedric Gibbons.

According to most accounts, their marriage was unhappy and after he left she moved into an apartment with her most faithful companion being Michael, her husband’s Irish setter.

Golden age designer
Lentz’s permanent claim to history is that she costumed Hollywood’s Golden Age stars for the big screen, including a scandalously-clad Lana Turner in 1946’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” She also dressed them in real life and boasted a celebrity clientele that would come to include Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Carole Lombard. Lentz was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White for “B.F.’s Daughter” (1948) and Best Costume Design, Color for “Midnight Lace” (1960).

On Nov. 15, 1962, a few weeks prior to her 62nd birthday, under an assumed name, Lentz checked herself into Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel. She went to her room and downed two pints of vodka. She purportedly “slashed her wrists” and then jumped out of an 11th-floor window. She landed on a suspension awning and her body was discovered later that night. A suicide note read: “I’m sorry. This is the best way. Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all, Irene.”

She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, with first husband, F. Richard Jones.

A few weeks before her death, Lentz had allegedly confided in her friend, actress Doris Day, that “she had been in love with Gary Cooper” and he was “the only man she had ever loved.” (Cooper had succumbed to cancer the year before.)

“Thinking about it now,” Day wrote in “Doris Day Her Own Story,” “I cannot honestly say whether Irene’s love was one-sided or whether she and Cooper had actually had or were having an affair.”

In her 1998 book “Cooper’s Women,” author Jane Ellen Wayne wrote that Cooper and Lentz would “become involved in a relationship” that continued over the years. It’s plausible that their affair was real, considering that Cooper had a powerful clutch over the many women he came to know and love, and even those he left behind. (Some have theorized that it’s entirely unlikely that Lentz killed herself over Cooper, because, they’ve claimed, she Marlene Dietrich were lovers.)

Although she had earned large sums of money, she was busted financially, and in ill-health. In the book “Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank,” Barbara Sinatra wrote that one night, toward the end of her life, Lentz fell asleep with an electric blanket covering her head and woke up with her face paralyzed.

“I don’t know much about the private Irene,” said fashion designer Edith Head in an interview in the late 1970s. “She was not a happy woman … I know she liked hunting and guns and the great outdoors. Deduce from that what you will.”

In a 1983 article in the Seattle Times, the author writes of the designer, “Irene reads like a Greek tragedy. … She had an unhappy marriage, a bad drinking problem, there were rumors of a romance with Gary Cooper that fell apart, and she never felt that the fashion press appreciated her.”

In the October 1937 Cosmopolitan, there is an article on “Irene” of Hollywood, which stated that Lentz “was born on a Fallon County homestead” and received her education in Baker.

Perhaps it’s that very issue of Cosmopolitan that perfectly figures out the status and the glory and the important achievement of the former Irene Lentz, daughter of Emil Lentz, one time county clerk and also county treasurer in Baker.

“Irene, at 35, is responsible for every costume in every film produced by the largest moving picture company in the world (MGM). So far as her studio is concerned, Irene has no last name. Very few people get along like that. I can think of only two who did – Topsy and Cleopatra.” M55

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of numerous articles and several books, including “Warrior in the Ring: A Life of Native American Boxer Marvin Camel,” and “Rasta in the Ring: A Life of Rastafarian Boxer Livingstone Bramble,” and “Warriors on the Ice: Hockey’s Toughest Talk.” He may be reached at dambrosiobrian@hotmail.com.

No comments yet.

Add a comment