Lee Wiley continues to fascinate us. Her husky voice, her physical beauty, the legends of her personality, her sexuality. But she now exists purely as a disembodied sound, a beautifully posed still picture. How many people saw and heard her in her prime, or at the 1972 Newport concert that was her last public appearance?
HERE is an astonishing rarity — not known to exist before now — a minute of Lee Wiley and Jess Stacy on film. In high definition, no less:
This brief collection of film clips (originally silent) is given to all of us through the immense generosity of Josh Rushton, son of bass saxophonist, clarinetist, and motorcyclist Joe Rushton.
The film was taken in California in 1943 — before Lee and Jess embarked on their unhappy marriage and brief musical partnership. The other couple is Joe and Priscilla Rushton. Josh told me, “The bookend shots of just Wiley and Stacy are probably from around June 1943 in San Francisco, and the ones with my mom and dad are probably from October 1943 on the roof of a Hollywood hotel near the penthouse exit.”
This is the only film footage discovered so far of Lee — who looks lovely and slightly plump, her hair dark, resembling the actress Patricia Clarkson. If there are skilled lip-readers in the JAZZ LIVES audience, they can decipher the dialogue for us. And if there are readers skilled in couples counseling, they can certainly say something about the Wiley – Stacy union through the couple’s gestures and body language. Jess looks and acts like a man smitten; Lee seems much more intrigued by the camera, although if they had been happily married for decades, we would interpret this film more optimistically. (The parking sign needs no explication but makes me nostalgic for 1943.)
For the camera, Lee and Jess enact flirtation, playful happiness, and romance, although the enactment soured quickly. But I would be thrilled to see that couple coming down the sidewalk to me. Jess remained a handsome fellow but never looked better than he does here. And Lee, simply walking or swaying back and forth, shows why she captured hearts without singing a syllable of Gershwin or Robison.
We have still got a crush on her!
(Note: the sardonic soundtrack, Lee singing the E.Y. Harburg – Harold Arlen DOWN WITH LOVE, is a contemporary addition to the silent home movie. The rueful comment at the end comes from Deane Kincaide, who knew the couple well.)