A long-time friend and colleague of Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis figured into the multi-faceted life of the journalist-television-radio personality as a co-panelist on What's My Line?
But her story begins far from twinkling New York City studios, in Turkey, under the Ottoman Empire. Tyrannical head of the empire, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, instituted Pan-Islamism as a state ideology toward the end of the 19th century. As part of this campaign, he mounted a brutal, protracted massacre of Armenians, a Christian minority in the region.
During this genocide, Arlene's paternal grandparents were cruelly murdered. At that time, her father was in Paris, and when he learned of the death of his mother and father, he fled to the United States. He found sanctuary in Boston, bringing in some money as a portrait photographer. He married Leah Davis, and on Oct. 20, 1907, Leah gave birth to Arline Francis Kazanjian, who we would later cherish as Arlene Francis. Arlene grew up mostly in New York City, where so much of her career would be based.
Like Kilgallen, Francis was a vivacious, confident college student who wasted no time pursuing her career goals. She appeared in the Broadway play La Gringa at just 21.
In 1932, she played a small part (that of a hooker) in the Bela Lugosi film Murders in the Rue Morgue.
From there, it was a spate of Broadway performances in productions of The Body Beautiful, Horse Eats Hat, The Women, Angel Island, and All That Glitters.
Beginning at the end of the 30's, she continued Broadway work, but also worked steadily as a radio actress, before hosting her own show. She followed in the footsteps of big Broadway stars by appearing on well-written radio drama programs such as The Cavalcade of America, The Columbia Workshop, The Mercury Theatre, and The Campbell Playhouse.
In 1940, Arlene joined the cast of the long-running soap opera Betty and Bob. It was in 1942, though, that her radio career took a turn that would make her a household name. She began hosting the game show Blind Date, a forerunner of popular television shows like The Dating Game, and The Love Connection.
The format of this show might sound slightly comical today, or at least would be played up for maximum intrigue if aired today. It aimed to pair up--not ordinary couples--but furloughed servicemen and professional women. They would talk via telephones on either side of a partition. A recording of the show reveals Francis to sound slightly jittery and awkward, yet still somehow charming, with an attractive, sparkling voice.
She later hosted the television version of the show.
Speaking of game shows that flourished on both radio and TV, we come to What's My Line? Arlene appeared on the show's second episode and continued as a regular for the show's entire run.
She and Kilgallen were reportedly close, and one interesting detail about the night of Kilgallen's death comes from Francis. Arlene says that after the performance of Dorothy's fateful last episode of WML? she didn't kiss Arlene on the cheek when saying goodnight--a first for that omission.
During the time Francis was on What's My Line?, she was also on My Show of Shows and Blind Date, which meant that every network carried an Arlene Francis program. A few years later, she would again turn to radio for one of her life's major projects, one that probably doesn't get enough recognition: The Arlene Francis Show. This was a one-hour interview show on which she garnered celebrity guests. No flash in the pan, it ran from 1961 til 1990.
Arlene was twice married, once to Paramount Pictures staffer Neil Agnew, and the second time to producer-actor Martin Gabel. Near the close of her long, full life, she began a battle with Alzheimer's Disease, succumbing on May 31, 2001, at the age of 93.
She's remembered as a sharp wit, a pioneer among women broadcasters, and a versatile radio and television personality.