Frances Langford Dies At 92; Singer Cheered Troops During WWII

On USO tours, Frances Langford often followed Bob Hope with her signature song,
On USO tours, Frances Langford often followed Bob Hope with her signature song, "I'm in the Mood for Love." She also starred with Don Ameche in the radio comedy "The Bickersons." (1943 Photo By Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Wistful-voiced singer Frances Langford, 92, who died of congestive heart failure July 11 at her home in Jensen Beach, Fla., brought a warm vocal caress to millions of servicemen during her extensive USO tours with Bop Hope during World War II.

As the "Sweetheart of the Fighting Fronts," Ms. Langford undertook some of the most dangerous morale-boosting work of the war as she trouped alongside Hope, guitarist Tony Romano and comedian Jerry Colonna.

"I saw six planes shot down in one raid outside Bizerte" in Tunisia, she once said enthusiastically. She had other close encounters on long tours through Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.

Over a fogged-in runway in Alaska, she was happy for the chance to use a parachute. She was disappointed when a dozen searchlights made the leap unnecessary. "I guess I'm crazy, but I've always wanted to do that," she later said.

She was often in earshot of enemy night bombing and, on occasion, tumbled into culverts as German planes strafed the bumpy roads to field hospitals.

She said of one jeep driver: "He stopped and we jumped, and I jumped right on top of Bob Hope. He said, 'Oh, I'm hit,' and I said, 'You're not hit, get up from there.' "

Following Hope's one-liners, Ms. Langford would launch into her theme song, "I'm in the Mood for Love," or other pieces freighted with memories of the home front.

Watching the men, sometimes groups of only four or five when she performed at the front lines, she later said, "I knew they were going home in their minds."

Although known for a voice that made servicemen pant, Ms. Langford said she found more enjoyment in playing the shrewish wife of Don Ameche on the long-running radio comedy "The Bickersons."

As John and Blanche Bickerson, they played an endlessly squabbling couple -- he a snoring bore, she a spendthrift nag.

With such a nasty part, she said, "I got all that bad temper out of my system."

Julia Frances Langford was born April 4, 1913, in Citrus County, Fla. With operatic ambitions as a child, she sometimes sang at high school assemblies accompanied by her mother, a concert pianist.

After a botched tonsillectomy -- the doctor's knife slipped -- "my voice dropped down from an opera singer to a blues singer," she later said. "I was real happy with it when it changed."

She began singing on a radio show sponsored by a cigar magnate, whose friendship with the crooner Rudy Vallee led to an important audition. Vallee gave her a booking on his radio program, and the teenage "Southern songstress," as she was billed, sang with his band, the Connecticut Yankees.

She performed on Broadway in a short-lived production called "Here Goes the Bride" (1931), a musical vehicle for the misbegotten vaudevillians Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, and sang a Johnny Green-Edward Heyman torch song called "Hello, My Lover, Goodbye."

A singing appearance at a birthday party for Cole Porter -- later her California neighbor -- brought her a screen test offer. She sang "I'm in the Mood for Love" in her feature film debut, "Every Night at Eight" (1935), with George Raft and Alice Faye.

She made a string of minor appearances in featherweight musicals, with such notable exceptions as Porter's "Born to Dance" (1936) with James Stewart and Eleanor Powell; "Too Many Girls" (1940) with music by Richard Rodgers; and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942) with James Cagney.

Her World War II efforts kicked off when she appeared on Hope's "Pepsodent Show" in 1941 and the host decided to hold the program at March Field near Los Angeles.

The response was enthusiastic, and even more so with every base and outpost they visited. She recalled being lulled to sleep one night by a G.I. outside her tent who sang "I'm in the Mood for Love."

With changing musical tastes, she began singing in small nightclubs in the 1950s but had few financial worries. She invested early in Florida real estate with her first husband, actor Jon Hall, whom she divorced.

She was later courted by Ralph Evinrude, who headed a company that developed the outboard motor for pleasure-boaters. Their interests were compatible; she once boasted of catching a 419-pound marlin. They married in 1955, settled in Florida and opened the Polynesian-themed Frances Langford Outrigger Resort in Jensen Beach, about 100 miles north of Miami.

She reteamed with Hope in the mid-1960s on a USO tour during the Vietnam War but otherwise enjoyed a sumptuous retirement with Evinrude until his death in 1986. She later married Harold Stuart, a lawyer and Getty Oil official, her only immediate survivor.

They were frequently in transit on her 110-foot yacht, the Chanticleer, where she displayed autographed pictures of entertainers, former presidents and Winston Churchill.

Losing her sight and with little regard for violent and profane movies, she once said the last time she went to a theater was to see "Patton" (1970), and only because she knew the general during World War II.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company