WHAT SHE DID
Arlene Francis (born Arline Francis Kazanjian - she's Armenian!) was an actress, witty intellectual and style icon of the mid-century era. Born in Boston, Miss Francis grew up in NYC, where she remained until her son moved her to a San Francisco-area nursing home in 1995 (more on him later)
Miss Francis was an incredibly diverse talent. She appeared in 25 Broadway plays, and became a well-known NYC radio personality. She hosted a number of programs, including a mid-day chat show on WOR that ran from 1946 to 1984.
Miss Francis also appeared in several movies, debuting in 1932's Murders in the Rue Morgue in which she played a prostitute (that's some casting that defines the word "stretch"!) menaced by Bela Lugosi. She also appeared in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three as James Cagney's wife, and in The Thrill of It All with Doris Day and James Garner.
However, her most recognizable contribution to entertainment was as the enormously intelligent and hilariously witty panelist on What's My Line? She was a regular on the show from its 2nd-ever broadcast in 1950 until it ended in 1967, whereupon she became a regular on the syndicated version from 1968 til 1975.
WHY SHE'S A DAME
That's easy to answer. Miss Francis combined beauty, style, intellect and an amazing sense of humor in one neat package. While WML? co-panelist Dorothy Kilgallen was a notoriously cut-throat competitor who took the game seriously, Miss Francis was seemingly more laid-back about the entire thing, which made her victories look effortless. Her clothes were always perfect and glamorous without being "in your face" and she is remembered fondly for a lovely diamond heart necklace she always wore (a first anniversary gift from her husband, Martin Gabel, it was snatched by a mugger while she was exiting a tax in the 80s):
Miss Francis is a personal icon for me. When I was a child watching re-runs of the original WML?, I thought everyone in NYC must look like Miss Francis or Miss Kilgallen or Kitty Carlisle Hart. You can imagine the disappointment at my first NYC theatre experience, when absolutely no one looked remotely like any of them! Cut-offs and flip-flops instead of beautiful dresses like this gorgeous Scaasi worn by Miss Francis:
Miss Francis was married twice; her second husband was Martin Gabel:
Gabel was frequently a panelist on WML? and was an erudite and charming contributor. He was an actor (who frequently played heavies) and was also a director and producer.
They have one son - Peter Gabel - who is a law academic and author (he bears a remarkable resemblance, I think, to his father):
Peter graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. from Harvard College (where he was an editor of "The Lampoon") in 1968, and Magna Cum Laude with a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1972,and has been a law professor at New College of California's nationally praised public-interest law school for 30 years, and currently sits on the Board of Trustees, and served as President for 20 years. Peter and his parents were extremely close and Peter was at Arlene's side when she died at the age of 93 from Alzheimer's disease and cancer.
Peter made a few appearances on WML? - he was very good at fooling his parents:
Miss Francis was a class act in every way, and every time I go into NYC, I dress, dammit - in her honor.