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Spies on Film ~
In the Kitchen with Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, and Cybil Shepherd – A Hollywood Cook Shares Some Secrets

By Ronald Payne

Editor’s Note ~

First, I freely admit there’s little “Spywise” in this interview that Ron Payne conducted with Dorothy Holmes, a former “domestic captain” who cooked for Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdonovich, and Cybil Shepherd. It would take less than six degrees of separation to connect Holmes with film espionage – Orson Welles starred in The Third Man and The Stranger, Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Cary Grant tried to lure Holmes away from Hayworth, but there’s really no need to stretch a point.

Instead, after I read this insightful series of memories, I decided to create a new section at this website – “Ron Payne’s Hollywood Files.” This interview, for one, is just too rich to be lost. Not only does Holmes share affectionate anecdotes of Welles, Hayworth, and Shepherd, she describes her times with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Red Foxx, Dinah Shore, Cary Grant, and Don Rickles. Who could ask for more? It’s not often we get such perspectives from someone who went to Hollywood during the times of segregation and ended up giving young starlets advice about getting out of the house.

So, this warm portrait is well worth any movie buff’s time, whether or not you’re into spy movies. We hope you’ll enjoy this conversation with a lively woman who knew Hollywood from the inside for over 50 years.

Dorothy Holmes was one of Hollywood’s best “domestic captains” for top stars in film land such as Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles who relied upon her to get them comfortably through their day. For fifty years, the incomparable Dorothy Holmes, born and reared in Middlesex County, was privy to the private conversations and intimate behaviors of some of the world’s most famous and powerful people.

“I worked in Hollywood for fifty years,” Dorothy Holmes said recently from her current home – far away from Los Angeles – in Locust Hill, Virginia. “When I first left Middlesex, I was a teenager. I went to New Jersey, but my doctor told me I needed to be in a warm, dry climate. So, there was no better place for me than Southern California.”

“I arrived in Hollywood and immediately searched for work. It didn’t take me long to find it. I went to an agency and got a placement, right away,” she says. “It wasn’t long before I was working in mansions in Beverly Hills.”

“I cooked for Orson Welles. Can you imagine what it was like cooking for Orson Welles? Orson Welles was a great genius and he had a large talent – see Citizen Kane or The Third Man – but he also had a big appetite. In the mornings, Orson would come down the stairs, wearing his pajamas, robe and slippers. Smoking his $20 Cuban cigars. He had worked all night on a script – most of the time – and he was hungry. It was not unusual for me to prepare him a couple of big Porterhouse steaks, a dozen eggs, a plate of biscuits and a pot of coffee. Orson Welles could really eat. We would talk.”

“I got to know Orson Welles because he had once been married to the lady who employed me – the film star, Rita Hayworth. Rita Hayworth was more to me than an employer. She was my dear friend, too. I remember the first time I laid eyes on Orson Welles. He showed up at Rita’s house in Beverly Hills wearing a black tuxedo, a large bow-tie and sneakers. Orson Welles had a script under his arm – he seemed to always have a script under his arm – and he was smoking a big, black cigar – and was wearing a full beard for one of his Shakespeare movies. And there was a portable typewriter at his feet. I thought: ‘What a sight.’”

“I will never forget the night Orson Welles almost burned down Rita Hayworth’s Beverly Hills house. Orson was working late and must have fallen asleep, and his cigar caught the waste paper basket on fire. Orson Welles went in and out of her life. He always deeply loved her. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth starred in The Lady from Shanghai after their divorce. Orson starred, wrote and directed the film. He had Rita’s hair bleached blonde for the film where she played a coldhearted seductress and murderer – a person who was as far away from the real Rita as you could get. She enjoyed playing the villainess in that film, even while her personal relationship with Orson disintegrated.”

“Orson Welles, after his divorce from Rita Hayworth, was still in love with her. Orson begged Rita to marry him a second time, but she would look at me with some despair in her eyes and say, “Dorothy, I can’t marry Orson Welles again. He’s gotten so large, he’d crush me. I will always love Orson, but you have to get that man on a diet!’” Dorothy Holmes chuckled. “Orson Welles made several serious attempts at dieting, but it was a torture for him. He used to take Vitamin B-12 shots, administered by his doctor to help him lose weight.”

As for the star of Gilda, Fire Down Below, Blood and Sand, Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Holmes had this to say: “Rita was one of the nicest, sweetest persons in the world. But, there were times when she was also the loneliest person in the world. After she divorced Orson Welles, she married and divorced the billionaire playboy, Aali Khan – and they had a child together. Ali Khan was killed in a race car accident. Something went out of Rita after that.”

“Rita was wonderful, but she had a jealous nature when it came to men. It was a lifelong insecurity, stemming from her childhood. Rita didn’t want other men cutting into her relationships. She feared abandonment most of all. I’d take Rita aside and talk with her, just like a big sister. And, then she’d start to smile. I’d joke with her and tell her to ‘get out of this house and go have some fun, child. This is Beverly Hills – I know you can find somebody to play with, while I’m cleaning your house and preparing your dinner. She’d giggle.”

“Rita Hayworth’s best friend was Dinah Shore, the singer. I loved Dinah, because she had a lovely disposition. Dinah Shore would send a limousine over to Rita’s house and she would be chauffeured to Dinah’s personal racquet club or golf club, wherever Dinah would share a few friendly drinks. Chat. Nice person, Dinah Shore. Dinah Shore could cook the best Southern-style foods you ever tasted. The best fried chicken, black-eyed peas, corn-on-the-cob in Beverly Hills came out of that girl’s kitchen – and Dinah did it all herself.”

“Toward the end of Rita Hayworth’s life, people thought Rita was drinking, heavily, but she had Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t alcohol. Rita was slurring her speech and forgetting things and behaving a little differently, and strangers thought she was on the bottle. She wasn’t. She had what President Reagan had. People didn’t know what it was. There was no Alzheimer’s Awareness then. Old people were believed to simply have hardening of the arteries. And younger people like Rita were perceived to be drunk. It was a real tragedy.”

“Rita was on the plane going to London and there was a misunderstanding. It was Alzheimer’s. It certainly makes me sad when I think about it. I miss Rita Hayworth. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think about that child. Rita Hayworth gave me this beautiful radio you see here. Rita Hayworth was one of the most generous people in the world. Her daughter, fathered by Ali Khan, was totally devoted to Rita. She was Rita’s caregiver in her last years. That girl really loved her mother. She protected her, right up until the end.”

Dorothy Holmes reflects quietly. “I have heard many theories about how one gets Alzheimer’s. I don’t think the doctors really know how people get it. I told Rita to stop using that hair dye all the time. Her hair was tinted red for Technicolor in the 1940s and she never stopped dying it that way. She was really RITA CANSINO. Hayworth was her movie-stage name. Rita’s real hair color was black. I told her to stay away from hair dye. I know that hair dye is bad for you. It’s bound to get inside you, one way or the other. I don’t care what the experts say.”

“For the record, I did not live at Rita Hayworth’s home. I came into work each day. I had my own home in North Hollywood. One of my brothers also lived in Hollywood.”

Dorothy Holmes held up an autographed picture of Cybil Shepherd. “After Rita Hayworth died, I worked for the director, Peter Bogdonovich, who directed Cybil Shepherd, his then companion, in The Last Picture Show and The Portrait of a Lady. They were a nice couple. I loved working for them, too. Cybil Shepherd is a lot of fun. She’s from the south. Memphis, Tennessee, just like Dinah Shore.”

“People do not realize how hard and difficult it is to be a movie star. Most people, the average American, thinks it’s just glamour and parties and having fun. It’s a lot of that, too, but it’s mostly hard, grinding work. Long hours. Lots of tension because of extensive schedules. You don’t get on the top in Hollywood by being lazy.”

“When Cybil Shepherd worked on her television series, the one with BRUCE WILLIS – Moonlighting – that girl would come home each night totally exhausted. I would run warm water in the tub for her. Fix her something to eat.”

“I first met Peter Bogdonovich at Rita Hayworth’s house. Peter Bogdonovich was Orson Welles’ protegee. Orson helped Peter get established in Hollywood. Orson Welles loved Peter Bogdonovich like his own son. I think Peter thought of Orson as his mentor and spiritual father. It was sad for Peter and everyone else when Orson Welles died. Orson Welles was only 70 years old. His heart gave out. He was at his typewriter, working on his last movie script, The Cradle Will Rock.”

Of the actor, Telly Savalas, Dorothy Holmes said: “I was fond of him. I’d see Telly at parties, or in the streets, and he’d give me money if he learned I was intending to vacation in Las Vegas. Telly Savalas liked to gamble. He was a high roller. He was a tough guy in his movies like The Dirty Dozen and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I liked him best on television in Kojak. In real life, Telly Savalas was a gentleman. He lived, with his last wife, in a penthouse above the Universal-Sheraton at Universal City Studios. He died of prostate cancer.”

“As a younger man, during his army experience, Telly Savalas was stationed in Virginia. He had a bad automobile accident in Virginia. He was very nice to me – and, actually knew the county I was from – Middlesex – as he had driven through it on his return trips to Norfolk.”

“I also knew Red Foxx, before Sanford and Son. when he was still a stand-up comedian. A lot of racy stuff in his act. I was also a friend of Sammy Davis, Jr. Sammy Davis, who was a member of Frank Sinatra’s ‘RAT PACK,’ went to our church. Sammy Davis was a nice guy. Of course, I knew Frank Sinatra from Rita Hayworth’s parties. Frank and I kidded each other a lot over the years.”

“I knew Cary Grant, quite well. He must have been the handsomest and most elegant man in the world. Cary Grant wanted me to work for him at his house in Palm Springs. I turned him down. I did not want to leave Rita Hayworth.”

Of the comedian, Don Rickles, Dorothy Holmes says, “When Don Rickles first started out, he was poor. Life was not easy. I worked for Don Rickles. It took Don Rickles a long time to catch on, his humor was so different. Don Rickles’ brother used to fill his refrigerator with steaks to keep the family fed. Don Rickles was still honing his act. All those insults Don Rickles uses in his act are just that, child – an act. It took Frank Sinatra a long while to get used to Don Rickles. But once Frank got the hang of it – Don Rickles’ offbeat humor – Sinatra and Rickles were pals for life.”

“I didn’t always think Don Rickles’ jokes were funny, and I told him so once. Rickles didn’t get upset. Don Rickles and I got along fine.”

Dorothy Holmes today is considered a Middlesex County, Virginia, hero, according to her friends and neighbors. An African-American who left home at a young age and made something of herself in Hollywood, against overwhelming odds. “I did my job and I treated people the way I would want them to treat me,” she says. “There are always a few scoundrels out there, a few bad apples. But, basically, most people, regardless of their race or color or religion, are decent. You just have to give people a chance, sometimes.”

She says one of her favorite people, the late singer Nat King Cole, “told me this more than once, when I was feeling low or full of self-doubt. He told me to look at the positive side in all things. I miss him.”

For other articles by Ronald Payne, check out The James Bond Files, also posted at this website.

We also hope you enjoy the Ron Payne Hollywood Files, available in the Spies on Film section here at Spywise.net.