For almost two decades, Monica Lewis was a certified pop music and pop culture phenomenon — the rhapsodic vocal essence of the Jazz Age. She was the idealized, wholesomely sexy sound and image of apple-pie America, lending a melodious voice of hope to thousands of U.S. troops through two of the 20th century’s greatest wars. She was the magazine cover girl with the mile-wide smile and the ad world’s Most Wanted with the million-dollar legs. On the screen, she supported legendary Hollywood actors with her sass, brass, song and dance while posing a blonde, bodacious threat to fellow MGM Studios performer Lana Turner. On the airwaves, she was a Top Banana — singing her way into TV and radio history as the oh-so-a-peelin’ cartoon persona of the venerable Chiquita Banana brand.
Monica’s course toward classic song styling was set as a child. She was the youngest of three children born to musical parents: her father, Leon, was a symphonic composer and pianist, and her mother, Jessica, sang with the Chicago Opera Company. After the Great Depression forced the Lewis clan to relocate from Chicago to New York City, there was no shortage of sibling rivalry: Monica’s sister, Bobbe, established herself as an accomplished concert pianist, while her brother, Marlo, co-created Ed Sullivan’s landmark television show, TOAST OF THE TOWN (later renamed THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW).
Having studied voice with her mother since a mere toddler, Monica quit junior college at 17 to work as a vocalist on THE GLOOM DODGERS, a popular radio wake-up program on New York’s WHN. This and other early airwaves successes led to her debut at Manhattan’s legendary Stork Club and subsequent discovery by the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, whose imprimatur hastened her ascent as a vocalist/co-host on nationally broadcast programs including BEAT THE BAND, THE CHESTERFIELD HOUR: MUSIC THAT SATISFIES and THE REVERE CAMERA SHOW. Monica quickly became one of the country’s highest-flying songbirds, working with record labels such as Signature, Decca and Capitol to create timeless hits like “Autumn Leaves,” “Fools Rush In,” “I Wish You Love” and “A Tree in the Meadow.” She was the first to record “Put the Blame on Mame.”
Along a route that took her to famed music venues, on-air programs and movie studios from New York to Los Angeles and back again, Monica made numerous TV appearances. These included Ed Sullivan’s very first broadcast in 1948 and variety shows hosted by the likes of Bob Hope, Danny Thomas and the comedy duo of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, with whom she first appeared at New York’s Copacabana nightclub.
Records and television led to movies, and in 1950 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios signed Monica to an exclusive multimedia contract. She was groomed in true MGM style—given singing and romantic roles in such films as INSIDE STRAIGHT with Barry Sullivan, THE STRIP with Mickey Rooney and EXCUSE MY DUST with Red Skelton. She also sang the title song and performed in the Marge and Gower Champion musical EVERYTHING I HAVE IS YOURS. Additional appearances followed in AFFAIR WITH A STRANGER, starring Victor Mature and Jean Simmons, and THE D.I. with Jack Webb.
Monica eagerly volunteered her talent for the war effort, becoming the darling of U.S. servicemen worldwide through the war bond drive, military radio broadcasts and a 1951 tour of South Korea with celebrated entertainer Danny Kaye. Back at home she delighted the masses as a chart-topping jukebox chanteuse and Burlington Mills hosiery’s “Miss Leg-O-Genic.” Glamorous gams aside, she was the advertising world’s favorite face: Piel’s Light Beer, Camel Cigarettes and General Electric were among the many major companies that pitched their products with Monica’s visage. Her commercial work culminated with her 14 years as the tuneful voice of the animated “Miss Chiquita” for the famed banana brand.
From an insecure kid who could sing her heart out, and did, Monica matured into a woman of the world—eventually moving her music career to the back burner to begin a new life as Mrs. Jennings Lang. When she married this colorful and innovative MCA/Universal Studios production executive in 1956, she not only became his partner but the mother of his children: Michael, a jazz pianist, and Robert, an attorney. Monica and Jennings had a third child together, Rocky Lang, now a noted Hollywood screenwriter, director, producer and author whose credits include the 2010 novel, THE BIG NASTY.
Monica herself became a supporting player in her husband’s blockbuster Universal movies, including CHARLEY VARRICK, AIRPORT ’77, THE CONCORDE—AIRPORT ’79 and the Top 100 box-office hit EARTHQUAKE. Her stunt-filled performance as a heroic secretary in the latter picture is one of the disaster film genre’s most memorable turns.
Although she exchanged the rigors of a touring girl singer for the challenges of motherhood and running an executive household in the 1960s and 1970s, Monica never stopped performing. After appearing in countless television shows (NIGHT GALLERY, IRONSIDE, FALCON CREST and REMINGTON STEELE, to name a few) and the aforementioned feature films, she managed—following her husband’s devastating stroke in 1983—to make a triumphant 1987 comeback as a melodist at Hollywood’s famous Cinegrill.
Many of Monica’s 1940s-50s hits recently have been reissued on CD. One year after her husband’s death in 1996, Equinox released her marvelous spousal tribute CD, WHY DID I CHOSE YOU?, featuring 16 newly recorded standards. Her popularity has remained unflagging overseas, where her recordings have been pressed and retailed continuously for the past two decades. A lifelong philanthropist, Monica has in recent years contributed to a number of causes, including the American Diabetes Association.
Monica’s forthcoming photographic memoir, HOLLYWOOD THROUGH MY EYES, with a foreword by Grammy-award-winning composer Lalo Schifrin, documents the heyday of radio, television and the nightclub scene as well as Monica’s personal and professional evolution during the halcyon years of live entertainment. Packed with witty anecdotes, celebrity dish and show business history, the book chronicles one performer’s rise from Depression-era Chicago through the proving ground of live broadcast and the chic Manhattan club circuit, and, finally, to the privileged, powerfully moneyed and politically-charged environs of Beverly Hills.
An indelible icon of entertainment’s early years, Monica Lewis is proof that a great voice—and a vivacious spirit—can survive the ages.