Monica Lewis, a singer who worked alongside Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman, acted in films and, for many years, was the voice of a popular series of animated commercials for Chiquita bananas, died June 12 at her home in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 93.
Her publicist, Alan Eichler, confirmed the death. He said the cause was undetermined.
Ms. Lewis, a versatile performer with dimpled good looks, began her career as a jazz singer in her teens. She appeared at New York’s Stork Club and on radio before auditioning to replace Peggy Lee in Goodman’s band in 1943.
“There were 300 girls there,” she recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “My knees were shaking. He stopped most of them after four bars. He let me sing the whole song. He said, ‘Okay, kid, come back at 7:30 tonight.’ You couldn’t get a better start.”
Ms. Lewis made dozens of records in the 1940s and ‘50s, some of which became top sellers. She sang with Sinatra on the “The Chesterfield Hour,” appeared on magazine covers and made one of the first recordings of “Put the Blame on Mame,” which became famous from the 1946 film “Gilda” with Rita Hayworth.
She had hit records with “But Not for Me,” “The House I Live In,” “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” “Autumn Leaves” and “I Wish You Love” and appeared in nightclubs with her accompanist Ellis Larkins, a jazz pianist who later worked with Ella Fitzgerald.
Ms. Lewis introduced newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan to her brother, Marlo Lewis, who became the producer for Sullivan’s first television show, “Toast of the Town.” Ms. Lewis was a guest on the program’s 1948 premiere, along with the comedy team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.
In 1950, she moved to Hollywood, where MGM considered her a potential Lana Turner in waiting. She appeared in several films, including “Excuse My Dust” (1951) with Red Skelton, “Affair With a Stranger” (1953) and “Everything I Have Is Yours” (1952) in which she sang the theme song.
At the peak of her fame, Ms. Lewis went on a USO tour during the Korean War. At one point in the early 1950s, she was reportedly receiving 3,000 letters a week from servicemen.
Along the way, Ms. Lewis had romances with actors Kirk Douglas and Ronald Reagan. In her 2011 memoir, “Hollywood Through My Eyes,” she said Reagan — who was a Democrat at the time — asked her to marry him. She turned him down.
“We had a great time,” she said in a 2013 interview with the online Smashing Interviews magazine. “But I had met somebody else . . . [and] it could mean only that I wasn’t really in love with Ronnie, so I broke it off.”
In 1947, Ms. Lewis began singing for Chiquita in a series of animated commercials shown in movie theaters. The jingle, sung over a Latin beat, became numbingly familiar to moviegoers: “I’m Chiquita banana, and I’ve come to say, bananas have to ripen in a certain way, and when they’re flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you.”
Ms. Lewis made scores of commercials for Chiquita, many with imaginative comic subplots and recipes, all of which Ms. Lewis had to sing in rhythm: “Add some banana slices, just about two cups of spices, and you pour it in like this and let it set until you’re sure it’s firmly molded.”
In a 2007 segment on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show, an 85-year-old Ms. Lewis reprised her Chiquita role, complete with a steamy interlude with a comedian playing a reporter.
Despite her long and varied career, Ms. Lewis recognized that more people probably heard her singing about bananas than in any other context.
“It lasted 14 years,” she said in 2013, “and paid my rent for a long time.”
She was born May Lewis in Chicago on May 5, 1922. Her father was a symphonic conductor and composer; her mother was an opera singer. Her family moved to New York when she was 11, and by 17 she was singing nightly in clubs as Monica Lewis.
Her first marriage, to record producer Bob Thiele, ended in divorce.
In 1956, she married movie executive Jennings Lang, who later gave her small roles in several films he produced, including “Earthquake” (1974), “Airport 77” (1977) and “The Concorde . . . Airport ’79” (1979).
She and her husband often entertained at their Beverly Hills estate. Their son, Rocky Lang, a writer and producer, wrote in a memoir that he once woke up to find the Beatles and Barbra Streisand eating cookies and drinking milk in their kitchen.
Jennings Lang died in 1996. In addition to their son, survivors include Lang’s son, whom Ms. Lewis adopted, Los Angeles jazz pianist Mike Lang; and three grandchildren.
In the 1980s, Ms. Lewis resumed her singing career, recording several new albums. In recent years, she developed a large following on Facebook and sometimes regaled audiences at golden-age-of-Hollywood events. Earlier this year, she recalled her friendship with Hollywood glamour girl Ava Gardner, who explained why she always went for the desserts at the studio commissary.
“Monica, if you can’t have it all,” she said, “at least have a bite of something you love.”