Monday, September 24, 2012

Ethel Dale’s ‘Most Perfectly Formed Legs’

It’s not often that a person is the focus of a sculptor’s attention. In the mid-1920s, a North Country woman found herself in just that position. The sculptor’s name was Pompeo Coppini, a noted artist who won several awards and whose works were featured from coast to coast. Many of his 128 principal creations are prominent in the state of Texas, including The Spirit of Sacrifice, the large monument at the Alamo, honoring those who died within the fort’s walls. It has been viewed by millions.

Coppini sculpted many historical figures of great accomplishment, including Robert E. Lee, Woodrow Wilson, Stonewall Jackson, Sam Houston, and George Washington. Add to that list Mrs. Ethel Dale, chosen as a sculpture subject for her great achievement in the field of … well, doing nothing.

Mrs. Dale’s family was living in Ticonderoga when she was born in 1895 as Cecille Dukett, daughter of Clayton and Lena Dukett. (The spelling of the family name in the media varied: most common were Ducat and Dukett.) A few years later, they moved to Crown Point.

When she was six, Cecille was badly burned by hot grease that splashed on her face and hands. Had the wounds left permanent scars, her life story would have been markedly different.

As it was, Cecille grew up to be a very attractive young lady. Around 1913, the family moved to Dayton, Ohio, where, in late 1914, terrible tragedy struck. Lena Dukett became very ill after multiple surgeries, and in early October, she died of pneumonia in a Toledo hospital. By year’s end, Clayton had also died.

Their son Lee was by then a young man of 17. Cecille, 21, with no other ties to Ohio, used her looks and talent to secure work with a traveling show. For several years, “Ethel” toured the country as a performer.

Around 1920, she married New York restaurateur Edward Dale and found steady work on Broadway. For four years, Ethel was part of the Ziegfeld Follies, appearing with many big stars of the day, including Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, and W.C. Fields.

Performing as a Ziegfeld Girl was as good as gold on a job resume, and at the height of the Roaring ’20s, Ethel found subsequent fame in Earl Carroll’s Vanities, a very racy Broadway girly show that was infamous for lots of nudity―and of course proved hugely popular. She also appeared in George White’s Scandals, a Ziegfeld-type show that launched the careers of many of Hollywood’s most famous stars.

In 1926, at age 32, Ethel Dale was at the top her game, having appeared as a showgirl for many years in the top theater productions of the decade. Her beauty was well known, as were her great legs, which presented an unusual opportunity.

The American Hosiery Association decided to sponsor a contest to find the girl with the most beautiful legs in America. The competition’s parameters were later expanded, and according to the Miami News, “20,000 girls from 16 states and three other countries were entered.”

In June the announcement was made: the panel of judges―an executive from the National Hosiery and Underwear Association, two professional photographers, and two artists―concluded that Ethel Dale had “the most perfectly formed legs of any girl in America.”

On the roof of the famed Hotel McAlpin at Herald Square, complete with radio coverage high above the streets of Broadway, Ethel received a $500 cash prize and a silver cup. The biggest prize of all, certainly, was the accompanying fame and attention, further boosting her career.

As she prepared to travel with the latest Vanities cast, Ethel was announced as the replacement in the role played by Dorothy Knapp, who had been regularly billed as the world’s most beautiful girl.

But with all the attention focused on the contest winner, more was to come. It was announced that Ethel’s perfect legs would be preserved for posterity as the model for hosiery makers. The remarkable skills of sculptor Pompe Coppini were called upon to make a cast of Ethel’s legs and produce multiple identical reproductions for distribution.

As for the secret to her great legs and healthy body, Ethel said she kept “regular hours” and limited her intake of starches and fats. Most important of all, she followed the advice offered by the great Flo Ziegfeld, who, when he hired her years earlier, warned her against dancing and exercising her legs, which might diminish their obvious perfection.

Thus, the key to maintaining the country’s most famous limbs, which led to winning the prestigious contest, was to do nothing―except avoid exercise! And that’s how a renowned sculptor of America’s famous and accomplished citizens ended up sculpting Ethel Dale’s lovely legs. We can only guess that it was more fun than carving a bust of Woodrow Wilson.

Photos: Ethel Dale with sculptor Pompe Coppini removing the plaster cast of her legs; the Cenotaph at the Alamo, one of Coppini’s most famous works.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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