Friday, May 4, 2018

A Matter of Historical Record: Miss Jeff Donnell - the film and television star from Windham by Walter Lunt

When the subject of famous people from Windham, Maine is raised, one usually thinks of John A. Andrew (The Windham Eagle – April 28, 2017). But, in addition, there’s Jean Marie Donnell (known as Jeff) who was born in South Windham in 1921, studied theater at Leland Powers and Yale School of Drama, went on to Hollywood and the rest (as we say) is a matter of historical record. 
Donnell’s mother, Mildred, was a local school teacher. Her father, Howard Donnell, was the first
Jean Marie (Jeff) Donnell
superintendent of the Maine Reformatory and County Farm for Men (now the Maine Correctional Center) where Jean Marie spent her early childhood years.  

As a young girl, she became a devoted fan of the Sunday comics – her favorite strip was Mutt and Jeff, from which she gave herself the nickname “Jeff.” This name stuck throughout her Hollywood career. To avoid gender confusion, the movie studios billed her as Miss Jeff Donnell.

In 1940, Donnell married Bill Anderson, her drama teacher from the Leland Powers School. Together they opened a playhouse in New Hampshire where, almost immediately, Donnell was discovered by a talent scout from Columbia Pictures. She and Bill moved to Los Angeles where she landed a supporting role in the 1942 war-ear film “My Sister Eileen”. It was the first of over 125 film and television roles in a career that would span five decades. 

The mid to late 40s brought several more “unchallenging ‘B’ movie escapist parts” including “Doughboys in Ireland” (1943), “A Thousand and One Nights” (1945) and a series of musical westerns featuring Ken Curtis (later known as “Gunsmoke’s”  Festus).

Jeff Donnell with Tony Curtis
Donnell’s unpretentious charm usually landed her roles as the bubbly girl-next-door or the supportive, obliging friend of a leading lady. One notable exception was a dramatic role in which she co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in the 1950 classic “In a Lonely Place”, a murder mystery with a surprise ending. Still, despite the occasional leading role, she found it impossible to break away from “B” movie parts. 

Donnell and her first husband divorced in 1953. They had two children - one son, Michael, and a daughter, Sarah Jane. She would marry and divorce three more times, one to rising film star Aldo Ray.

In the early 50s, she made a successful move to television where she played several comedy and dramatic parts. She would play mostly supporting roles in dozens of shows into the 1980s, including the wife on the “George Gobel Show”, “Dr. Kildare” and “The Partridge Family”. In 1979, she played Aunt May Parker in the TV movie “The Amazing Spider-Man” (a part, one can only assume, she must have relished, given it was based on a comic character).

Continued opportunities in motion pictures mingled with Donnell’s television career. Over the next two decades she would play along side such luminaries as Audie Murphey, Van Johnson, Jane Wyman, Lucille Ball, and in 1957 a key role with Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in the critically acclaimed “Sweet Smell of Success”. According to Donnell’s IMDb biography, “. . . her role was cut extensively, including a big romantic scene with Curtis that might have reignited her movie career.”
The Mutt and Jeff comic series Donnell loved

Donnell’s last role was on the daytime soap opera “General Hospital” where she played the Quartermain’s housekeeper, Stella Fields, from 1979 until her death in 1988. Suffering from Addison’s disease and other illnesses in her later years, Donnell succumbed to a heart attack at age 66. Her sudden disappearance from the daytime drama was explained away by having her character win the lottery and moving away.

Throughout her career, Donnell lent her fame and fortune to political causes. A staunch conservative, she attended Republican National Conventions and fundraisers. She was active in the campaigns of Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. 

In an interview late in her career, Donnell was asked about her success and fame. The remarkable and illustrious lady from South Windham, Maine observed, “I wasn’t the pretty type and I certainly wasn’t glamorous, so I always felt fortunate to be acting. My first concern was for my family, so I never developed a driving ambition. I just consider myself a very lucky person.”

Donnell’s remains were cremated and the ashes scattered at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

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