By chance, and good fortune, one recent billowy afternoon at Stonington Point, on the benches near the Josh Piver Memorial, I happened upon a fellow named Robert Palm, to whom I’d long owed a great debt and had never met.
Palm, born and raised in Hartford, once a reporter for the old Hartford Times and recently settled in Stonington, became a writer and producer for television who was most notably involved with the venerable “Law & Order” TV franchise. But he first made his name for me with a lengthy piece he wrote decades ago for Connecticut Magazine. It was called “Falling Star” and told the anguished story of a woman named Dorothy Comingore, a Hollywood actress with a starring role in one of the all-time celebrated films who lived her last years at Lord’s Point, the seaside community in Stonington.
She portrayed Susan Alexander, naïve mistress and brassy wife of Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Welles, in Welles’ 1941 classic film, “Citizen Kane.”
However, the role that figured most in Palm’s story, and led to Comingore’s fateful arrival one stormy winter evening in 1957 at Lord’s Point, was being deemed an “unfriendly” witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, and consequently being blacklisted, losing her career in films and eventually custody of her two children, as well as what she still possessed of her well-being.
Once in Stonington, and finding comfort and care with a fellow named John Crowe, who ran a small general store and soda fountain at Lord’s Point, she spent her last 15 years in relative happiness. She was 58 when she died of cancer in 1971.
I said I owed Palm a debt because, like him, I was intrigued by her story
when I became aware of it, and wrote about her for several publications, but not this one. Meeting Palm
the other week, and with the summer bustle returning to Lord’s Point, I take license to tell it here.
Another film, by the way, figures prominently in her story. It is “Guilty by Suspicion,” from 1991, and starring Robert DeNiro. Patricia Wettig plays an actress named Dorothy Nolan, based on Comingore’s life. In the film, Nolan is driven to suicide by the emotional distress of the blacklist. Not Comingore’s fate, but as American film historian Joseph McBride wrote in his 2006 book “What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career”: “Comingore was perhaps the most tragic figure among Welles’ associates affected by the blacklist.
“ … Comingore took the Fifth Amendment before HUAC and was blacklisted.
Her children were taken away from her in a bitter custody battle with Collins (Richard Collins, her first husband and a producer of TV’s “Bonanza”) in which she was accused of being an alcoholic and a Communist, and she was picked up on a prostitution charge some believe was a setup because of her political activities. She never acted again ….”
As I wrote in 2010 for the Stonington Historical Society, one night in the winter of 1957 a couple, seeking shelter from brutish weather, arrived at the Sea Village, a restaurant and inn on Hancox Street in Stonington Borough.
Also there that night was John Crowe, who ran a small store called the Crowe’s Nest, a few miles up the road toward Mystic at Lord’s Point.
Crowe invited the couple to stay with him in his apartment above the store on Hopkins Street. However, Crowe didn’t like the way the man was treating the woman, and managed to send him packing. The woman stayed, and remained with Crowe for the rest of her life.
Dorothy Comingore was born Margaret Louise Comingore in 1913 in Los Angeles. She grew up in Oakland and studied philosophy at Berkeley.
Her early years and politics were influenced by her father, a union organizer. In his Connecticut Magazine profile, Palm wrote: “Drifting up the West Coast, she picked apricots with migrant farm workers, jerked soda in Oregon, put in time on a few assembly lines. She called those factories sweatshops; by her late teens, she was in her first angry flush of radicalism that would stay with her until she died.”
She lived for a spell in Taos, N.M., then returned to California and began acting in a local theater in Carmel, where she was
“discovered” by Charlie Chaplin.
They were linked romantically, but she always denied there was anything between them but friendship and respect. She won a few bit parts, including one in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and by luck and good timing tested for the role of Susan Alexander in “Citizen Kane.”
Welles liked her. She later had roles in “The Hairy Ape” and “Big Night,” but by then was divorced and drinking. She remarried, was the mother of two children and a known agitator for actors’ rights and better roles for women. She ended up being called by HUAC, and vented her outrage at being asked to name names and reveal her political leanings with sass and bravura, and a refusal to comply.
She was blacklisted, harassed by the government and her by then two ex-husbands, lost her children and was committed, at age 40, to a mental hospital for treatment of alcoholism.
She also was reportedly beaten.
The road from California to Stonington is unclear, but once here, and with Crowe, she was content. She was arthritic and physically worn but she was still the actress, delighted to dress up and make entrances, and speak her mind. She and Crowe married in 1962. As Crowe said, not unsympathetically, two years before he died in 1990 at age 76, “She brought everything on herself with just her mouth ... She was a character. She was just like me.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.