Dorothy “Dottie” Ponedel left Chicago for Hollywood in 1920 with acting dreams and found some success with small parts in silent Westerns. But it was her talent with a makeup brush that made Ponedel a star — and a close confidante to iconic actresses including Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Judy Garland.
Ponedel’s gift was for contouring and highlighting — she is credited with creating the screen siren image — and by the early 1930s, her skills earned her a position at Paramount. For 1931’s Dishonored, director Josef von Sternberg instructed Ponedel to give Dietrich “ ‘the works — give everybody something to talk about,’ ” writes Ponedel in her memoir, About Face.
“I did things around the eye, changed her hairline, and made a full, lush mouth. I added a subtle white line down the center of the nose which brought the nose up. … I shaded the face when I wanted to get that hollow look. Then I would take the pillows of my fingers, dip them in my rouge, and go over the skin of the face just where I wanted the pink color to come out.”
The effect was revolutionary: “Every makeup artist in our industry wanted to know what I had done.”
Major stars insisted on Ponedel in their contracts, and she “made quite a niche in the affections of all who come in contact with her,” reported THR in 1934.
But the all-male Make-Up Artists Local 76 objected to Ponedel’s inclusion because she was a woman. It was West and Dietrich who successfully advocated for her, with West saying, “No stranger is going to pat this puss.”
Ponedel met Garland on 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis; the two became best friends and collaborated on 10 more MGM pictures.
Ponedel died in 1979 after a battle with multiple sclerosis.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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