The brain child of Bette Davies and John Garfield, The Hollywood canteen served up wartime escapism with more than a dollop of movie magic.
Opening in 1942, the canteen only served serviceman, but that’s not what made the canteen so special….see it was entirely staffed by Hollywoods entertainment elite. Rita Hayworth dished up pie, Shirley Temple worked behind the bar, Betty Grable waitressed and Marlene Dietrich washed dishes. It was a movie bought to life, players and all.
The incredible impact it made in cheering up the troops can not be denied…but the Hollywood Canteen couldn’t run on star power alone. With 3 million servicemen pouring through it’s doors (and those men getting through at least 30,000 gallons of punch a month!) there just weren’t enough celebrities to both make films and wash mountains of dishes.
So the canteen hired a small army of junior hostesses. Beautiful young women who dreamed of making it big in Hollywood, they jumped at the chance to both help the war effort and potentially get plucked from obscurity.
Now working for the canteen was a big deal! Sure you didn’t get paid, sure most of your work was cleaning up, serving and being made to dance…but you guys…there was a film about The Hollywood Canteen, stars and studio big wigs dotted it’s halls and to work there was a chance to be someone; if just for one night.
But, once hired, The junior hostesses had to play by a whole bunch of rules! They had to maintain their looks, they weren’t to even think about stepping on the floor with a hair out of place. They must dress appropriately and act appropriately at all times. And most importantly…they had to be good girls – so no going home with the servicemen!
Good food, good girls and good clean all American fun…
What could possibly go wrong?
Oil Heiress, Georgette moved to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. So naturally, like scores of other budding starlets, she snagged a job as a junior hostess at The Hollywood Canteen.
Georgette was immediately a very popular hostess: charismatic and beautiful, her dance card was full. But the good times didn’t last. On the night of 11 October 1944, Georgette finished up another shift as a junior hostess, hopped in her car and headed home.
The next morning, her cleaner found Georgettes body face down in her bath tub. She’d been raped and strangled.
There was no sign of a break in, no sign of a struggle, nothing of value had been stolen; though Georgette did have some bruising, the killer had left no other trace. The last anyone ever heard of Georgette was a scream:
‘You’re killing me’
(Note: By the way, if you ever hear something like this, please be a babe and call the police immediately)
To this day, Georgettes murderer remains unfound….. But don’t worry, that’s not the end, of course not…the internet exists! So there are looooooots of theories
Some arm chair theorists believe Georgette was a victim of the Black Dahlia murderer…but the evidence on that one is pretty shaky (like HH Holmes is Jack the Ripper shaky…) So we’re just gonna discount that right now.
Where does that leave us? Well…it all points back to one place:According to her friends and weirdly also her Dad’s secretary, Georgette dated some of the men she had met whilst at work in The Hollywood Canteen; though she always did so under a shroud of secrecy, keen not to be shown breaking Canteen rules.
When going out with these men, Georgette insisted on footing the bill (after all she was an heiress and they weren’t making the big bucks in the army!) her good will didn’t end there. If she saw a soldier looking lost, she’d offer him a lift. If she saw someone counting their pennies at a sandwich counter, she’d pay for their meal.
Basically, Georgette was a good egg and through The Hollywood Canteen she soon amassed a whole network of soldiers she helped, dated and befriended.
The night of her death was no different, with Georgette meeting two very different servicemen. The first was an overbearing young solider. He followed Georgette around during her shift at The Hollywood Canteen, insisting she dance with him. Even when she obliged he continued to cut in on her work all night, arguing he needed anouther dance.
By the end of her shift, Georgette managed to shake the arse hole off and hopped in her car. That’s when she met serviceman 2; he seemed lost so Georgette pulled over and offered him a lift.
The man later reported that she seemed skittish and scared during the drive. This guy wasn’t the only one who thought Georgette seemed scared; earlier that night she begged a fellow junior hostess to sleep over, but refused to say why.
So what happened? Well, investigators thought it likely that Georgette knew her killer. With most of the men in her life from The Hollywood Canteen, perhaps someone followed her home? Maybe an ex came back to town or she’d been arranging an after work secret date.
Georgettes case remains open, but with any leads long gone, it’s very unlikely this Hollywood mystery will ever be solved.
Ok, that was all the bleak.
Let’s end things on a more positive note, with the story of one of Georgettes fellow Junior Hostesses:
In 1942, Florida suffered a nasty Jitterbug injury (yes, apparently that was a thing in the 40s). Whilst jitterbugging with a marine, she was thrown across the room, landing on her spine and leaving her bedridden and unable to take on work for a month.
Flordia felt that that the Canteen hadn’t looked out for her wellbeing. The floor had been slippery and during the unfortunate jitterbug she called for help, but nobody came… and so she was going to sue their sorry arses for $17,250!
Flordia took the stand and explained that she was iky (if you’re not hip to jive, that means: ‘I don’t like to do jive dancing’) , saying:
‘Jitterbugging is a very peculiar dance. Personally I don’t like it. It reminds me of the jungle antics of natives.’
Once she’d finished throwing in some casual racism, Florida went on to explain that when the Marine asked her to Jitterbug she had refused, instead standing stock still.
The Marine apparently took this is a firm ‘yes’ and threw Florida around the room, finally propelling her into an almighty (and soon to be catastrophic) spin, from which there was no coming back.
Fellow Hollywood Canteen worker, Luise Walker, backed Florida up and explained that in a spin like that, no dancer could have controlled her landing.
The Hollywood Canteen were having none of this and actually bought in a ‘jive expert’, Connie Roberts, to demonstrate how safe jitterbugging was. Connie had a partner throw her across the court in a dangerous spin to prove how much control a woman had in the landing:Despite dancing evidence, the judge sided with Florida, mainly on the grounds that after everything he had seen, he felt that jitterbugging was a:
‘weird dance of obscure origins’
Florida was awarded $8170 (which in todays money isn’t enough to buy a house –damn you economy! – but is enough to have a lot of fun with…or I don’t know, invest wisely or whatever)
Case finished, Florida went outside the court to meet the press, where she pulled this amazing face:
This was really interesting where can I find out more? Well, theres a great book on The Hollywood Canteen called (get ready for the worlds longest title): ‘The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced With the Most Beautiful Girls in the World’
If you’re after something shorter I suggest checking out amazing podcast, You Must Remember This, it’s all about Hollywood History and is one of my favourite things.
Theres a great episode on the canteen called: ‘Star Wars Episode 1: Bette Davis and The Hollywood Canteen.’ (this is actually part of a series called Star Wars, looking at how Hollywood dealt with WW2, its great, go binge listen!)