Our history expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: What became of Stella Stevens, the movie star and pinup queen who was born in Memphis? — G.F., Memphis.
Dear G.F.: I’m surprised that I haven’t received more queries about Stella Stevens, who was once named one of the ten most photographed people in America, and listed at number 27 of the 100 sexiest women of all time. But when I recently asked some of my younger colleagues what they knew about her, they couldn’t come up with much.
Ah, the fleeting nature of fame. Fortunately, the Lauderdales will never have to worry about such matters.
Let me warn you that any story of Stella Stevens may have sections that seem rather vague, because it has always been fashionable for actors and actresses to fiddle with the facts to suit their — or their studios’ — needs. Many biographies, for example, say that Estelle Caro Eggleston — for that is her real name — was born in Hot Coffee, Mississippi. This is simply not true. “Hot Coffee” was a regional nickname for Meridian, Mississippi (supposedly because a popular diner there advertised “Hot Coffee”). But this has nothing to do with anything, for little Estelle — oh, let’s just call her Stella here — was actually born in Yazoo City, Mississippi. She was the only child of Tom and Estelle Eggleston. Yes, that’s right — she had the same name as her mother, which really makes things confusing.
Okay, so when was she born? Well, that depends on what you read. Most sources say 1938, though others insist she was born in 1936, and when she came to Hollywood the studio executives made her change the date so people would think she was younger — as if two years made that much difference.
But I’m jumping ahead here. At the age of 4, Stella moved with her parents to Memphis, where they bought a nice house at 3528 Carrington, near Park and Highland. Her father was an insurance salesman with offices in the Sterick Building. Although I know several people who claim they went to school with her at either Messick or St. Anne’s (both of which would have been near her home), I’m quite certain she attended Sacred Heart School across town, because the Lauderdale Library has yearbooks showing young Stella — still called Estelle Eggleston — in the junior class there. She didn’t graduate from Sacred Heart, though, instead finishing her last year at Memphis Evening School, part of Tech High.
At an early age, the girl showed talent as a performer and appeared in a number of high school plays. How the young star was “discovered” is also subject to debate. The Internet Movie Database website says a producer noticed her while she was modeling the latest fashions at Goldsmith’s. Another story claims that the Memphis Press-Scimitar praised her appearance in Bus Stop, produced at Memphis State College, where she was a student.
At any rate, Stella was drawn to the bright lights of Hollywood, though she first had to deal with some issues in Memphis. At the age of 16, she had married a Memphis electrician, Herman Stephens, but had divorced him just one year later. She changed the spelling of her name to Stevens because, she told reporters, people kept pronouncing it “Steffens,” and she went with Stella because it sounded better than Estelle. Plus, it means “star.”
That marriage produced a child, Andrew, and raising a baby would have been hard while Stella was juggling her budding film career. So — depending on conflicting newspaper accounts (and there were many) — she either: sent Andrew back to Memphis to live with his father, or the father fetched the boy himself, concerned that he was being neglected. Either way, by this time Stella had quickly become such a big star that the newspapers, here and in California, published every tidbit of a drawn-out battle for little Andrew. It finally ended with Stella being awarded custody, though Herman could visit his son on weekends. Andrew Stevens, as you probably know, grew up to be a noted actor himself.
— Henry Hathaway, Hollywood director
Stella’s first big-screen appearance came in 1959, with a bit part in Say One for Me. She must have caught the eye of critics, because the role earned her a Golden Globe as “Most Promising Newcomer.” She had a smaller role in The Blue Angel, filmed the same year. Even so, Stella must have thought her route to stardom wasn’t moving along as quickly as she’d hoped. Then as now, a starlet could jump-start her career with an appearance in Playboy, and Stella was the January 1960 Playmate. I have this copy (among others) in the Lauderdale Library and — after an exhaustive study of the article — must say she made an impressive showing in this fine publication.
Even so, she fretted that this much “exposure” was a mistake, she told reporters later, because as soon as that issue came out, she landed a starring role in the hit comedy Lil’ Abner, and the fickle public couldn’t decide whether this bright young actress was supposed to be a comedienne or a sexpot. She became both, making good use of her “sex kitten with brains” persona, and began to appear in movies and TV episodes that took advantage of her stunning looks and equally fine acting skills. In fact, her breakout role in Lil’ Abner was as the super-sexy Appassionata Von Climax. Oh, and she appeared in Playboy again in 1965 and 1968.
Stella was one of the biggest stars of the 1960s and beyond. Her best-known movie roles include Girls, Girls, Girls with Elvis Presley (1962), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), The Nutty Professor (1963), The Silencers (1966), and the critically acclaimed The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).
In addition to Elvis, she worked with such big names as Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Glenn Ford, Shelly Winters, and Cary Grant. If you’re curious how our two “hometown” stars — Stella and Elvis — got along, you’re bound to be disappointed. She never concealed her dismay at her role in Girls, Girls, Girls, complaining, “I played the girl that gets dumped for the prettier girl,” and refused to watch the movie when it came out. And if she had any good memories of Elvis himself, she kept those to herself. As for Elvis’ opinion of Stella? Well, it’s hard to say, but Peter Guralnick’s 1,300-page, two-volume biography of the King of Rock-and-Roll doesn’t contain a single mention of his co-star.
Younger audiences surely remember Stella in the classic 1972 disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure, where she played Linda Rogo, the hooker with the heart of gold. It was a solid, dramatic role though, true to form, producers made sure to include a memorable scene of Stella climbing up a very high ladder wearing nothing but panties and a t-shirt.
With its obsession on youth, finding jobs in Hollywood grew more challenging as Stella grew older, but throughout the 1980s and ’90s, she landed roles on The Dukes of Hazzard, The Love Boat, Matt Houston, and Newhart. In fact, her filmography on imdb.com lists 60 movie roles and more than 80 television appearances. Along the way, she also found time to direct two movies, The American Heroine (1979) and The Ranch (1989).
In the early 1990s, she came out with a line of fragrances, called “Sexy.” In 1999 she published a novel, Razzle Dazzle, which she described as “a sexy romp through the dazzling decades of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.” Was it autobiographical? Well, maybe. Stella wouldn’t say.
Over the years, she made occasional visits to Memphis to visit her parents, who had moved into a nice home in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood. But those trips became less frequent after her father died in 1991 and her mother passed away in 2002.
These days, Stella lives on a ranch in Washington state, where she raises quarter horses and sells notecards and souvenir photos of herself at various stages in her four-decade career. She keeps up with her fans — and there are many of them — through her website, stellastevens.biz. On that website she has a quote from noted Hollywood director Henry Hathaway, who said, “Stella Stevens was born to be in movies — and to drive men crazy.” In her long and successful career, I’d say she managed to do a good deal of both.