Maurice Chevalier once sang for her. She has fought with David Merrick; she has been kissed by Herbert Marshall. On nights when they just didn't feel like facing the lights, she has pushed Lauren Bacall and Maureen Stapleton onto the stage. She has met the duke and duchess of Windsor, Bobby Kennedy, Truman Capote, as she says it, "the best."
By definition, Eloise White is a dresser to the stars, the nimble finger who strips and zips the actress between scenes, the arranger who makes sure that the fox stole is on the right stage chair for the right exit, the dressing-room gendarme who serves the tea and honey and admits the chosen and shoos away the unwanted. White recalls Sarah Marshall, one of her mentors, first describing the job: "When the half-hour call comes you must be quiet, you must not tell the star anything that is not very pleasant, and try not to talk."
White, who is in town working with Stapleton on "The Little Foxes," is anything but quiet. Her presence visually and vocally fills a room. She tells her story in the laughing crackle and sighing darling -filled shorthand of the theater.
Age? She leaves you guessing her late 50s. Years in the business? At least 25, if her memory is right about the year of her first job, "The Reluctant Debutante."
White is sitting by her hotel-apartment window, training an eagle eye on the comings and goings of the understudies. She is an ample woman with an eclectic dress style that might be a bag lady's by circumstance but is hers by choice. She knows she is a grand original and takes dramatic amusement with her insider's knowledge.
Names are wickedly introduced. "The first play, well, I think it was, well, I worked for Tennessee in two of his plays," she says. Most of her associations are embellished by one qualifier -- rich or not rich. As in, "Yes, yes, Herbert Marshall was married to Edna Best, but not at the time. She was married to another very rich man then."
Hers is not the story of someone who desperately wanted a break, someone like playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who once said she would do anything to get into the theater, "even be a dresser." White -- who used to ask her teen-age boyfriends back in Newport News, Va., "Why don't you kiss like Herbert Marshall?" -- says she was very happily working as a housewife in New York, wishing for a big family, occasionally helping her husband with his property management task, when . . .
"I think I was sitting on a stoop one day, just got married, my husband didn't want me to work. A well-dressed white lady came up, we didn't see many white people in our area. I got up, let the lady in, she thought I was so nice, the woman she came to see was sick. She was her cook and [the visitor] needed someone to answer the phone," recalls White.
From that brief job, White met actress Edna Best and started taking care of her daughter, Sarah Marshall. Best then recommended White as a nanny for Stapleton's daughter. "Best told her I was very talented and was going far, and this is as far as I have gotten," she laughs.
That association led to an enviable life in show business. She has worked with Elaine Stritch, who gave her one of White's trademark poodles, then did three plays with Bacall (which earned her a passage in Bacall's autobiography), did "The Gin Game," "Plaze Suite" and "The Gingerbread Lady" with Stapleton, three more plays with Kaye Ballard, and scores of others. Occasionally she has dressed several principals in a single show.
The hardest jobs for a dresser, she says, are the musicals like "Applause."
"We had three girls dressing Bacall. You change stockings this way," she says, bending to demonstrate, her full face absolutely serious. "You open up the tights, the feet this way." She opens her arms into a "V," and continues, "and have the hole there. One girl has to stand here with the dress, holding it. I have to strip her [Bacall] down and the other girl reaches down and pulls up the stockings. She steps in the dress. I have to have sheets all around, then I throw this $2,000 dress there. She gets up and goes back on stage."
Dramatic plays, such as "Foxes," have fewer changes. "I only dress Maureen between acts here. Then I do the pre-setting. The coat she wears I hang on the rack when I first get there," says White. When the pace is slower, she crochets, "reads dirty books" and writes letters. She is also studying Christian Science. "But I like a little champagne and Jack Daniels and they don't believe in that," she adds with a slightly wicked glimmer in her eye.
The backstage crises and conflicts that make legendary gossip are sealed inside White's code of confidence. Her anecdotes are as enticing as taffy and need just as much pulling to get at. She has quit shows. "Oh, I don't want to name them because they were colored, they didn't tip, so I just walked away," says White, whose union requires a minimum of $350 a week. "Plus I usually get a $50-a-week tip."
On Stapleton: "She was very downhearted when she was getting her divorce. I almost had to put her on stage. You have to do that with all of them."
On Bacall: "I wouldn't tell you about our little to-do once," she says and then recalls the same scene Bacall wrote about in her book. "I was fussing for more money and David Merrick wouldn't give it to me. I was working for her, I was going to leave. But she fought for me. I told her Mr. Merrick might have been born rich, but I wasn't. Some people wouldn't work for Bacall, they say she is difficult. One thing about her, I like perfection backstage -- she is."
But what happens when her regular employers, such as Bacall and Stapleton, are both involved in major plays? Did she have a conflict between "Foxes" and "Woman of the Year," which has just opened on Broadway? b"This one I wouldn't take, 'Woman of the Year.' I knew this ['Little Foxes'] was coming up," says White, who reads the trades and listens to the grapevine. She learned "Foxes" would open in Florida, a place she had never been. She had her bags packed before Stapleton called. She loved Florida. She brings out a scrapbook. "That was on the boat that Elizabeth [Taylor] hired, 'The Monkey Business' . . . this is the partying-est show!" she says.
And what happens when a bally-hooed production folds? "Once I had gone to Lord & Taylor and bought some clothes. I got back and the notice was up. I was going to take them back. Maureen said keep them. They still last me. I had a car note, too. I cried that night," she says.
Proximity to the famous is a special perk. "I have met, I have talked to Wallace Simpson, and what's that man she married? He told me I was a very nice lady. I couldn't imagine why his chauffeur hadn't come and carried him outside. So I took him outside. He was liable to get killed on Broadway and 47th Street. He shook my hand twice," says White.
An eyewitness says she is the first at the champagne at many yacht parties and backstage gatherings. "Sometimes I am the only colored woman up there. And I don't look right nor left. But I am so glad when we see a colored person," says White.
"I love to take care of people, I love it. I never wanted to be an actress," she says. "But I would like to have a commercial. Anything. The tea. The coffee. Anything to make that money. cJust so I can get me a car. Miss Stapleton gave me one once. But I need a new one."