The Celebrity Collector
Lee Meriwether Collects Depression Glass
in the Miss America Style.

By Ken Hall

There's something poetic about a former Miss America who becomes a collector of something in the Miss America pattern. Such is the case with Lee Meriwether -- Miss America 1955 and an actor best known for her role on TV's "Barnaby Jones," as Catwoman in the original "Batman" movie and in a recurring role on the soap "All My Children." She has about 20 pieces of Depression Glass.

"I was browsing in this interesting little antiques store in Howell, Michigan, where my husband (the actor Marshall Borden) grew up," Meriwether said from her home in Los Angeles. "A pink plate caught my eye, which I picked up and studied before flipping it over. On the reverse side, there was a sticker that said 'Miss America Depression.' I couldn't imagine what in the world that could mean."

She asked the shopkeeper, who explained that Meriwether was holding a piece of Depression Glass in the Miss America pattern, characterized by a hobnail-type geometric design. The Hocking Company introduced Miss America in 1933 and manufactured it in seven colors for five years. The pattern has 36 pieces and is different from other patterns of the period. All of Lee's pieces are pink.

For those unfamiliar with or vague about Depression Glass (as Lee was that day in Michigan!), a little explanation is in order. Depression Glass refers to colored transparent glassware made in America from the early 1920s through the end of World War II. It's so-named because the Great Depression comprised the bulk of that era. But the glass was produced both before and after Meriwether's Miss America pattern was one of many styles made by a stream of companies, many of which fizzled out during the Great Depression, never to return. That's probably why Depression Glass died out -- no one made it after the war. But during its heyday, it was enormously popular. Often, it was used as a promotional giveaway at movie houses and in soap or cereal boxes.

With the purchase of that one pink plate, Lee was hooked. She had found a collectible that spoke her name and was quite pretty, too. She studied up on Depression Glass with her daughter Kyle, who soon began a collection of Depression Glass teacups. They learned that the key to a desirable piece of Depression Glass has as much to do with condition as color, pattern and style.

"It's getting harder to find pieces without any chips, cracks or marks," Lee lamented. "I think that's why they're getting so expensive. There's a lot out there, but so much of it is damaged. And any imperfections will ruin the value." She added she finds most of what she buys at flea markets, boutiques and antiques shops. "I'm a little leery of eBay," she added. "I like to touch what I buy."

Meriwether's collection includes tumblers (picked up for her by her brother Don, who lives in Lodi, Calif., and keeps an eye peeled for buys); a cake plate; serving pieces; cream and sugar compote; cups and saucers; and a candle-holder that can be turned upside down and used as a champagne glass. Each piece is clear, pale pink. "I just love that color," she said. "It's so light and pretty."

Lee offhandedly mentioned she also has some pieces in the 'Thistle' pattern, but she wasn't sure if they were even Depression Glass. A little research revealed that they indeed are. Thistle was introduced in 1929 by MacBeth-Evans, which eventually became part of Corning Glass Works. It was produced for only two years, in four colors, with seven pieces in the set. It had a floral design.

Meriwether's collection is proudly displayed in an old curved glass hutch made of mahogany. She bought the piece about 40 years ago while going door-to-door for the March of Dimes. "I had Kyle in the stroller with me and I was just going around the neighborhood, collecting money," she remembered, "and this one woman had this lovely house with price tags on all the furnishings."

Lee was astounded. So much of what was in that house was so beautiful, and it was all for sale! "The hutch is what really grabbed me, though," she said. "It has five tiers of glass shelves and the wood is this wonderful, dark mahogany. The lady said I could have it for $150. I told her to hold it for me while I went and got the money. I also bought an adorable old cash register for $15."

Meriwether figures she'll be able to add to her glass collection when she goes on the road starting Dec. 10, co-starring in the 20th Anniversary All-Star Tour of the play "Nunsense," with Kaye Ballard, Georgia Engel, Mimi Hines and Darlene Love. "We'll be playing eight shows a week for 22 weeks," she said. "Each week we'll be in a new city. I'm going to get in as much antiquing as I can."

Lee Meriwether was born in Los Angeles and spent her early years there and in Phoenix. As she was about to enter the fifth grade, her father was transferred to San Francisco and that's where she finished her education. At George Washington High School (where singer Johnny Mathis was a classmate) she got her first taste of acting and made the decision to pursue dramatic arts.

At City College of San Francisco, Meriwether majored in Theatre Arts and Radio/TV. On a lark, a fraternity nominated her for the Miss San Francisco pageant which, to her complete shock, she won. "I never would have entered on my own," she said. She went on to win Miss California, but almost didn't compete for Miss America at all when her father suddenly and unexpectedly died.

"I felt as though my whole world had dropped out from under me," she said, "but my mother reminded me of how proud my father was that I had won the state title and how eager he was to have me compete for the crown. Not to mention the scholarships!" Meriwether credits her mother for being an ongoing source of inspiration and support in her life, both personally and professionally.

After her year's reign as Miss America, Meriwether joined TV's "The Today Show" as the program's first women's editor. She also studied acting under Lee Strasburg and took lessons in dance, singing and fencing. Her first dramatic TV role was in "The Philco Television Playhouse," with Mary Astor. Then a movie part, in "The 4-D Man," starring Robert Lansing. Stage work soon followed.

Her most memorable film role is that of Catwoman in the original "Batman" movie. She also played Andy Griffith's wife in "Angel in My Pocket" and Rock Hudson's wife in "The Undefeated." In live theatre (her first love), she has appeared in "Spoon River Anthology" (with Betty Garrett), "Aesop in Central Park" (with Richard Dreyfuss) and "Ladies of Hanover Towers" (with Carroll O'Connor).

Lee met her husband Marshall in San Antonio in 1983, where the two were starring in a production of "Angel Street." Over the next several years, they found themselves working side by side frequently -- in "The Lion in Winter" and "Alone Together." Along the way they fell in love and in 1986 they got married -- in San Francisco, while performing one of Marshall's plays, "The Artful Lodgers."

Meriwether has two daughters from a previous marriage: the aforementioned Kyle, who made Lee a grandmother almost ten years ago when she gave birth to Ryan Isabella Oldham in late 1993; and Lesley, a professional stuntwoman who has doubled for stars such as Sigourney Weaver. She's also in the just-released film "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," starring Sean Connery.

Over the next several months, Meriwether will be rehearsing and getting into shape for what will be a grueling 22 weeks in "Nunsense." She will be performing six days out of seven, with two performances on two of those six days. The only day off is for travel from city to city. "I knew all this going into the project," she said with a laugh. "I said yes without a thought. I love acting that much."

Fans of Lee Meriwether may write to the star at ABC Television, c/o "All My Children," 320 West 66th Street, New York, NY 10023.

2003

Lee co-starred with Buddy Ebsen in the hit TV series "Barnaby Jones." Ebsen recently died at age 95.

 

Lee bought this antique display cabinet while going door-to-door for the March of Dimes years ago.

 

The Miss America pattern is
characterized by a hobnail-type geometric design.

 

Lee would never have found fame if friends at college hadn't nominated her for Miss San Francisco.

 

Lee served as Miss San Francisco and Miss California before being crowned Miss AmerIca in 1955.

 

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