Dorothy Dell was an ill-fated actress whose star had just begun to rise in the early 1930’s when she died tragically in an automobile accident at the age of nineteen.
Dell was born Dorothy Dell Goff to Elbert and Lillan Goff on January 30, 1915 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. When Dell was thirteen months old she won the most beautiful baby in Hattiesburg beauty contest. She moved with her family to New Orleans, Louisiana, at age thirteen, where she attended the Sophie Wright High School for girls. In 1930 at the age of fifteen, Dell won the Miss New Orleans title, beating out seventy-four other contestants, including a pre-fame Dorothy Lamour, who would win the title the following year. The two would become the best of friends. Initially desiring to become a singer, Dell was discovered by composer Wesley Lord, and soon signed a radio contract. Dell received her first major press exposure later the same year when she won the Galveston, Texas International Pageant of Pulchritude with the judges and press declaring her “Miss Universe”. With this positive publicity Dell established a successful vaudeville act. After working on the vaudeville circuit for thirty-two weeks, she moved to New York in 1931. One night, Dell was singing at a benefit when she was heard by Florenz Ziegfeld who arranged for her to appear on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies. Dell followed this success with a role in the production of “Tattle Tales” in 1933.
Dell moved to Hollywood in December 1933 and was signed to a long term contract by Paramount Pictures. Initially contracted for bit parts, Dell won her first film role over such established stars as Mae Clarke and Isabel Jewell, making her Paramount debut in 1934 in “Wharf Angel” with Victor McLaglen. The film was a success and the reviews for Dell were favorable. Paramount began to consider Dell as a potential star and in her next film she had a substantial role in the Shirley Temple film “Little Miss Marker” (1934) which also starred Adolphe Menjou and Charles Bickford. She then starred in “Shoot the Works” (1934) and her rendition of the ballad “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming” in the film became a hit record and led to comparisons with Mae West. With her star on the rise, Paramount scheduled her to reunite with Shirley Temple and opposite Gary Cooper in “Now and Forever” (1934) in what was to have been Dell’s first major starring role as a romantic lead. It was not to be as fate tragically interceded.
On June 8, 1934, Dell went on a car ride to Pasadena with 38-year-old Dr. Carl Wagner, because he insisted that she take some time for relaxation between retakes of “Shoot the Works”, and to meet his mother, whom he wanted to show “how sweet a little movie star can be.” After meeting his mother, they went to an all-night party at an inn in Altadena, California. Afterward they were going back to Pasadena when the car left the highway, hit a telephone pole, bounced off a palm tree and hit a boulder. Dell was killed instantly. She was only nineteen years old. Wagner died six hours later in a hospital.
News of Dell’s unexpected death devastated six year old Shirley Temple, causing production of “Now and Forever” (1934) to be temporarily suspended until Shirley could overcome her grief enough to work. Dell’s role in the film was given to Carole Lombard and provided Lombard with one of her earliest significant successes.
Dell’s good friend Dorothy Lamour later credited Dell as the person responsible for the beginning of her own film career.
According to The Pittsburgh Press news release on June 9, 1934 entitled “Death Dogged Dorothy Dell”, Dell, during her life, had several encounters with near-death experiences. As a child, she narrowly escaped death when being attacked by a dog. The dog was killed by her father to save Dell’s life. In 1931, while at the Follies, she was invited to board a yacht for a party of Harry Richman. She declined, and the girl who took her place, died in an explosion on board. A few weeks later, she was critically injured following a car accident, and she was hospitalized for two months. Furthermore, she fell ill with influenza shortly after and broke a leg during a Follies performance.
Dorothy Dell was interred in Metairie Cemetery, in New Orleans, Louisiana.