July 16 marks what would have been Hollywood icon Ginger Rogers’ 100th birthday. To celebrate, two local living legends are planning a “100th Year Jubilee” photo exhibition honoring the 1941 Academy Award-winner and her mother Lela Rogers, a talented woman in her own right, having been a newspaper reporter, movie producer, scriptwriter, mentor to Ginger, a “true lady,” and one of the first women to join the U.S. Marine Corps.
I recently had the great pleasure of spending an afternoon with photographer Helen Montgomery-Drysdale and her cousin Dayna Carroll at their coastal Del Mar home and studio. If the upcoming exhibition is anything like our time together, it is sure to be utterly fascinating, personal, and filled with heart.
“We wanted to do something for our favorite person and make it work lovely,” explains Carroll, as she passionately paints a larger-than-life picture of Ginger, who, together with Lela, was instrumental in both Carroll and Montgomery-Drysdale’s lives. A class of 1948 graduate of The Bishop’s School, Montgomery-Drysdale served as director of advertising and PR for La Jolla Playhouse between stints in New York City. It was a meeting in La Jolla that would start the beginning of a lifelong friendship. The story goes that Ginger and Lela had been staying at La Valencia Hotel, and Montgomery-Drysdale was sent to photograph Ginger on assignment. As she addressed Mrs. Rogers, Lela quickly said, “Call me Lela.” “But I wasn’t raised to do that,” Montgomery-Drysdale recalls saying, to which Lela quickly responded, “Then call me Auntie Lela” — which she still does today as she affectionately shares stories about the mother-daughter duo.
Over the last half century, Montgomery-Drysdale has photographed countless stars (Louis Armstrong, Carol Channing, Ella Fitzgerald), as well as places around the world, from the Great Wall to Corsica. But Ginger clearly occupies a special place in Montgomery-Drysdale’s heart, whose eyes well up as she recounts time spent playing tennis and swimming at Ginger’s Beverly Hills home, and at her Oregon ranch. “She had the bluest eyes you ever saw,” Montgomery-Drysdale describes. “She never had to show her belly button to get attention,” Carroll jokes about the less-than-classy styles too many race track attendees don these days. As the only person allowed to photograph Ginger’s Beverly Hills home, Montgomery-Drysdale says the star was “immaculate — a size four” who cherished her fans, kept every letter ever written to her, and “kept everything in place.”
Montgomery-Drysale is committed to the art of black and white photography (and never uses digital). Carroll estimates that the exhibition will showcase more than 50 photos of Ginger and Lela — “many of which have never been seen before, and all of which are simply gorgeous.” An opening reception is set for 6-9pm on Saturday, July 16, at Artistspace at Southfair on Jimmy Durante. The exhibit will run through mid-September, and Montgomery-Drysdale and Carroll will happily meet attendees at any time. (858/755-6923) MIA STEFANKO