Canyon’s Model Citizens (Part 1 of 2)

With Steve Canyon Volume 7 now on sale, Dean and I were reflecting on what a chock-full package this book proved to be. Previously-unreprinted Canyon strips! A detailed examination of the TV show based on the strip, thanks in large part to John Ellis, the impresario responsible for making the series available on DVD! A nifty “progression” feature showing one of Steve’s action poses evolving from pencil rough to finished inks! A photo of Caniff with then-Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon! Coverage — with pictures and a first-hand account — of Milt and Bunny’s 1960 trip to the Far East! And an extensive look at the development of the “Pipa Island/Red Cross” story, including a page of photos showcasing Caniff with two models, Loree Thomas and Gen Melia.

Milt’s use of models was a tried-and-true practice by the time of the Red Cross adventure, of course. Extending all the way back to his Terry and the Pirates days, with Nedra Harrison as the original model for the Dragon Lady and Kay Stearns serving as the flesh-and-blood April Kane, Caniff knew working with models helped inject verisimilitude into his artwork, while photos of those sessions helped promote his comic strips when included as part of magazine and newspaper publicity articles.

Over three hundred eight-by-ten glossies were shot during Caniff’s session with models Melia and Thomas. We looked at many, many pictures featuring the two ladies in order to select five for publication, and seeing that quintet of of photos again made me wonder when I sat down this week with my copy of Canyon Volume 7: “What else could we learn about Gen and Loree?”

As it turns out, a fair amount …

Roughly a year after portraying Xenia “Whitey” Barker for Caniff, blonde Gen Melia found romance that connected her to Old Hollywood. “The Voice of Broadway,” syndicated gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, printed news of a pending wedding in her May 12, 1961 column:

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Warner LeRoy’s father, Mervyn, directed 1931’s Little Caesar and, after landing at MGM as a producer, green-lighted The Wizard of Oz for that studio; mother Doris was the offspring of Harry Warner, the founder of Warner Bros. Mervyn and Doris had been divorced for almost twenty years by the time Warner and Gen announced their engagement. Mervyn remarried actress Katherine “Kitty” Spiegel in 1946, while shortly after her divorce from Mervyn became final, Doris quickly married director Charles Vidor, perhaps best known for helming A Farewell to Arms in 1957. Doris has a run of bad luck that included an incident at that wedding reception, as reported in this wire service tidbit:

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Note the misspelling of Gen’s first name!

For his part, Warner had early success in the theater and a director and producer. His controversial play Between Two Thieves caused some easily-offended members of the audience to walk out of the show in protest; at one showing a pair from the audience interrupted the performance to try to argue with the actors! Yet it was as a businessman and restaurateur where Warner found his greatest successes: he owned three prime New York locations: The Russian Tea Room, Maxwell’s Plum, and most famous of them all, Tavern on the Green.

Two years after walking down the aisle, Gen and Warner had their only child, Bridget, but even a young daughter could not cement a union buffeted by the stresses and strains of Manhattan’s high society. The couple eventually divorced and each remarried. As Gen Walton, Milton Caniff’s one-time model fell out of the spotlight for the rest of her life, but after years circulating among the “beautiful people,” a lower-profile lifestyle may have been a pleasantly comfortable fit.

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 Steve Canyon aficionados have now met Loree Thomas when she played the part of Alice Santa Fe, one of the long line of ladies who had a crush on America’s favorite bird-colonel, only to have him be oblivious to their feelings. By 1965 Loree was living in Long Beach, New York. She palled about with one Ginger Crossman, with the two gals visiting Ginger’s parents at their summer home in upscale Kennebunk, Maine. While researching this article, I found these two national ads for the same slimming program:

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When we compare the Loree in these 1968-69 ads to the Loree in Caniff’s Red Cross photos, it seems highly unlikely they are the same person, given [A] their physical differences (which seem significant, even given the changes the passage of a decade can bring) and [B] the fact that “our” Loree would have already been married with two children by the time of her shoot with Milton. Still, what are the odds two women would have a name as unusual as “Loree Thomas?” Certainly it could be a coincidence, but here’s a conjecture to mull: what if the slimming-ad Loree is the mother of the “Alice Santa Fe” Loree? TV-personality Loree would have been in an excellent position to assist her daughter’s ambitions  — she might even have been acquainted with Caniff and used that connection to line up the Red Cross gig for teen-aged Loree.

This is all speculation, it’s true. Still — as we’ll see after the Christmas holiday, when Part Two of this series appears — Milton Caniff was definitely willing to use teenaged models …

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