The Lady in the Portrait

Willie Jane Frost

Film aficionados will readily recall a masterful early example of Film Noir, 1944’s classic “Laura”. A suspenseful dark romance, it opens with a street-smart detective, Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews) finding himself fixated by a portrait of a wealthy, beautiful young lady, Laura Hunt, who has mysteriously disappeared (superbly essayed by Gene Tierney), and foul play is suspected. Although they have never met, McPherson finds himself enamored of the lady in the portrait, falling hard for the missing Laura. After numerous twists and turns, peppered with attempted murder, Laura’s cad of a fiancée, a venomous poison-pen news columnist and a cast of characters (each with their own agenda), all ends well. McPherson and the very-much-alive Laura fall in love and all is right in the world. Fade to black.

A similar, teasingly enigmatic portrait of a beautiful lady, by renowned artist Denman Fink, hangs in the Coral Gables Museum. Done in 1943, it captures the imagination of those who have seen it since it was first displayed publicly in 2016, an important component of an exhibition of Fink’s work. The auburn-haired young lady looks directly at the viewer – poised, self-assured and confident. Dressed in an exquisite sky-blue evening gown, an imposing bracelet of diamonds and pearls twinkling at her wrist, and a white fox fur casually resting on the back of her chair, she is elegant and comfortable in her privileged world. Who was this self-assured beauty, and how was she connected to Coral Gables?

Her name was Willie Jane (“Cherie”) Frost. A true Daughter of Dixie, she was born in Alabama on September 3, 1912 into old family wealth and pedigree on both sides – populated with bankers and newspaper tycoons and their gracious, privileged wives.  Frost’s father, William Alexander Frost, Jr., a Tennessean born in 1883, and her mother, Norma Ward, born in Selma, Alabama, in 1885, wed in 1907 before a sizable contingent of Tennessee’s Old Guard. They were wed for less than six years when Stewart died suddenly in Baltimore in 1913, leaving Nora a widow with two small children. Norma and her two daughters went to live with her parents, the prominent William and Sara Ward, in Selma.

Following the expected schooling for someone with her pedigree through high school, Frost attended the venerable Judson College, an all-female institute, where she divided her time between sculpting and voice study, continuing with these subjects at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, where she received her B.F.A. degree. Frost became a member of the Fellowship of Pennsylvania Fine Arts, was a loyal member of Tri Delta Sorority and of the American Association of University Women. Frost continued to hone her sculpting (studying with several prominent sculptors), with pieces being exhibited in New York and Philadelphia. At the end of December 1940, her work was being displayed at the Miami Beach Public Library & Art Center.

Frost and her mother had made numerous visits to Coral Gables over the years before deciding to make Coral Gables their permanent home in 1940, purchasing a spacious residence at 3407 Toledo Street. Frost was also an accomplished equestrienne, a passion since childhood. She had several of her eight horses transported from Alabama, and promptly won the amateur championship at the annual Miami Horse Show and figured prominently at the annual Tampa Horse Show in February 1941.

As the thoroughbreds obviously could not be housed on Toledo, by the end of 1941 Frost and her mother were spending a good part of their time at their “place in the country”, a 20-acre compound on the corner of Miller Road and Hope Avenue. By January 1942, while the place was still in the “frontier stage”, they had completed stables for the horses, which had been housed nearby – erected so quickly it was built almost over the heads of the horses”. Grounds had been cleared, a charged wire fence enclosed the property and plans called for a small house, to be surrounded by fruit trees and vegetable gardens, the latter another passion of Frost.

In 1943, still the socialite, Frost commissioned Denman Fink to paint her portrait, which was justifiably acclaimed, and while she continued to ride in shows, continued to sculpt and remained active in the social world, her life was relatively a quiet one…until February 1950, when all hell broke loose, and Frost found her photo and titillating headlines in newspapers from coast to coast.

“BLONDE ALMOST WRECKS PLAINE IN AIRBORNE ‘LOVE RIOT’”, “GAY BLOND PUTS PILOT IN A SPIN”, “FLYER BATTLES KISSING BLONDE 3,000 FEET IN AIR” AND “TWO FLIERS FIGHT OFF LOVE-MAD BLONDE, LAND PLANE” are just a sampling of the headlines that burned up the AP and UP wires across the county on February 18th, and the headlines didn’t disappoint.

Described as a tempestuous 37-year-old platinum blonde, Frost, who was identified as a voice student and sculptress, a resident of Coral Gables, Los Angeles and Selma, had arrived from California at New York’s LaGuardia Airport shortly before 2 AM on February 17th. Frost was well dressed and seemed completely normal, although most anxious to get to Palm Beach, stating she had to get to the bedside of a sick girlfriend as soon as possible. She hastily arranged with a charter company and boarded the small plane, piloted by K.H. Dubanovich, and co-piloted by T.O. Sallee. Seated in the plane directly behind the cockpit, Frost slept for most of the way, through a brief stop in Washington, DC and headed toward Palm Beach when, just 15 miles south of Washington, Frost awoke – and the berserk blonde was hysterical.

Kicking the back of Sallee’s seat, Frost reached around his neck, pulled him backwards and started kissing him madly. When she started kicking at the windows, he managed to get into the rear seat, attempting to hold down the kicking and struggling woman. She repeatedly asked Sallee, whom she had never met before if he loved her. Hoping to calm her down, he replied “Madly…”  and resorted to kissing her. That would calm her for a minute or so before she was back at it, wilder than ever, throwing herself around the plane, attempting to open the windows, trying to grab the steering wheel and open the door. Sallee, afraid that her wild lunges would throw the plane out of control, threw himself on the floor, covered his head with his hands and allowed him to pound on him while she kicked and screamed, “No you don’t love me!” Realizing they were in real danger of crashing, the Pilot Dubanovich, turned the plane around and radioed Washington Airport “Have malfunctioning passenger aboard. Have police and ambulance standing by. Am going to land”. It had been a surreal 15 minutes when the plane touched down in D.C. at 4:55 AM.

As the pilot and co-pilot jumped out of the plane, police rushed aboard and carried her off, still fighting, to a squad car and headed to a hospital in Alexandria for observation. Attendants refused to discuss her condition.

As news of the bizarre incident reached Coral Gables and Selma, neighbors said she came from a quiet family and had never shown such tendencies in the past. In Selma, Frost’s brother-in-law, who asked not to be identified, said that Frost’s mother was wealthy, and that Frost was a well-known sculptress and horsewoman, adding “It’s lucky that there was a co-pilot in that plane because she’s a very strong young lady”.  Mrs. Frost was reported on her way from Selma to Washington, while Frost was transferred to George Washington University Hospital. By late in the day, Norma Frost was at her daughter’s bedside.

And then, just as quickly as the headlines blared for 24 hours, they ceased. For all intents and purposes, it was pretty much the last heard of her. Norma Frost died in 1970 and was buried at Live Oak Cemetery in Selma. Five years later, Willie Mae Frost followed her. In addition to her name and dates of birth and death, the imposing full-length granite tabletop tombstone, read “’Cherie’” To Her Mother, As A Wild Flower, Artistic, Opinionated, Uncomplaining, A Loner.”

And that, dear readers, is the Lady In the Portrait.

By John Allen

Volume One; Number One

October 2018