While working on a series of Op-Art profiles of 100-year-old people for the New York Times, it struck me that looking at the life of one centenarian could be a window onto the entire 20th Century – the details of one person experiencing the twists and turns of history. I started doing some research and met Doris Eaton Travis, who was 99 at the time. Doris had danced in the Ziegfeld Follies, Florenz Ziegfeld’s Broadway spectaculars, and was the oldest living Follies girl. And she was still dancing on Broadway.
In 1918, Doris, 5' 2" with blue-eyes, was the youngest dancer in the Follies. She changed her name to skirt child protective services and performed with Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Bert Williams, and Fannie Brice. She hammed it up with Babe Ruth in publicity stunts. She left the Follies at 16 to star in silent pictures. She made a film in Egypt (an unknown named Alfred Hitchcock designed the intertitles) and moved to Hollywood. During the Depression she taught social dance in Detroit, where she scandalized Henry Ford with her rendition of the rumba. She wrote a newspaper column and hosted a television program. At 45, she married an inventor. Together they raised turkeys and raced horses.
When I told Doris I wanted to write a book about her life, she said, “That’s very ambitious of you, honey.” I didn’t think a conventional biography could capture the fantastic panorama of Doris’s life. So I turned to a combination of drawings, photo-collages, and handwritten text. Doris gave me access to her diaries, photographs, press clippings, boxes of dancing slippers and silk dresses for the images that make up Century Girl.
This past spring Doris Eaton Travis, 106, flew to New York to perform on Broadway and do a book signing at Barnes & Noble. Two weeks later she passed away peacefully at her home in Detroit.
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