Tuesday, July 02, 2024

The Mystery of Dana Wilson

(Editor’s note: Randal S. Brandt’s fine work has graced both this blog and Killer Covers before, in posts about the inspiration behind David Dodge’s To Catch a Thief, the 1961 Dodge novel Carambola, and paperback cover artist Robert Stanley. Today, he profiles an obscure American mystery writer named Dana Wilson. “I've uncovered a fascinating story,” he told me in pitching this piece. “Hint: after her second marriage she changed her last name to Broccoli.” “Fascinating” is definitely the adjective to describe the results of his digging.)

Before I tell you this story—a story about the literary mystery surrounding a crime novel with one of the strangest titles of all time and the genealogical research that led to its connection to the original James Bond girl—I must tell you a little bit about myself.

I’m a librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, where I am Head of Cataloging at the Bancroft Library, the university’s primary special collections and rare books library. As the flagship campus of the University of California system, Berkeley has a long tradition of collecting the literature of California and, since 2013, I have also served as the curator of the California Detective Fiction Collection. This means that I get a small budget to acquire titles of crime and mystery fiction that are set in California. A book that I acquired recently for the collection, with a decidedly odd title, made me take on a third role; I had to put on my fedora and play literary detective to solve the surprising mystery of its author, Dana Wilson.

Dana Wilson published exactly one crime novel. That book, Make with the Brains, Pierre, appeared in 1946 under the Julian Messner imprint. The story is narrated by Pierre Bernet, a French “film cutter” who emigrated to Hollywood to escape the Nazi occupation of France and has been unable to secure work for several years. Finding himself in the middle of a romantic triangle—Pierre is desperately in love with Eleanor, an aspiring young actress, but Eleanor is in love with Joe, who also loves Eleanor but is married and refuses to seek a divorce—Pierre gets involved in a blackmail plot that leads to murder.

Bill Pronzini reviewed the book in 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction and opined that, “despite having one of crime fiction’s worst and most misleading titles,” it is “neither a bad nor a whimsical nor a detective novel” but rather “a grim tale of psychological suspense reminiscent of the work of Cornell Woolrich in its incisive examination of a man destroyed by love, hate, and the dark side of his own soul.” He concluded by declaring the tale “a surprising accomplishment in its evocation of the Gallic character, the postwar Hollywood lifestyle, and the elements of human tragedy.” (Pronzini and Muller 1986, 855)

As I began working on the catalogue record for this novel (library cataloguing is essentially recording and describing a library’s holdings in order to provide access to readers and researchers), I kept coming back to a key question: Who is Dana Wilson?

The book itself, including the original dust jacket, was no help at all. There is no author’s biography, photograph, or blurb on this edition. I didn’t even know if Dana was a man or a woman (and apparently Pronzini didn’t either, as the 1001 Midnights entry is gender-neutral), or whether the name was real or a pseudonym. The Library of Congress, usually the authority on matters of book authorship, was no help whatsoever here. In its catalogue, the novel was entered under the simple heading of “Wilson, Dana,” which was linked to a composer and professor of music born in 1946. Nope, definitely not the author of this 1946 novel. The database contained entries for several other similarly named writers, but none were the one I was looking for. Disambiguating authors from one another and identifying them with the works that they produce is called, in library parlance, “authority control” and is a critical component of cataloguing, so I was determined to do something to distinguish Dana Wilson the mystery writer from the other Dana Wilsons. I turned next to another, usually reliable resource: Allen J. Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV bibliography. Alas, Hubin was no help either, as no additional biographical details were included there.

(Left) Dana Wilson in the 1940s.

“Dana Wilson” is a pretty generic name, and I thought that, without any other data points, I would have a hard time closing in on likely authors using genealogical resources available via the Ancestry database, which has provided me with a wealth of information for tracing authors’ identities. I was just about to give up hope of uncovering this mysterious writer’s identity when I looked through the book one more time and noticed that it contained a dedication, “To Stella, Michael, and Lewis.” Family members? Perhaps Stella was the author’s wife, and Michael and Lewis, his sons? Armed with this additional bit of potential information, I decided to give Ancestry a whirl.

One of the first results that came up was for the recently released 1950 U.S. Census. The record I found was for a Dana Wilson living in Los Angeles and working as a “screen treatments writer” in the movie industry, which seemed a likely occupation for the author of Make with the Brains, Pierre, given the inside-Hollywood angle of the novel. This Dana was female, aged 26, and listed in the census as “wife,” along with Lewis G. Wilson, as head of the household; the census also listed an 8-year-old son, Michael G. Wilson, and a mother-in-law, Stella Natol. I felt pretty confident that I’d found my Dana. What would be the odds of another family quartet with those names? The only thing that surprised me was Dana’s age. If she was 26 in 1950, that meant she would have been only 22 when her novel was published—and she was the mother of a young child at the time!

My second surprise came when I did another search in Ancestry, this time adding an approximate birth date of 1924 and her maiden name, Natol. I immediately landed on the 2004 death record of “Dana Dorothy Natol Broccoli.” The information there included that she was the widow of American film producer Albert R. Broccoli and the mother of Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli.

Wait. What?

As a longtime fan of the James Bond books and films, I immediately recognized the name Albert R. Broccoli. Broccoli and his partner Harry Saltzman were the producers behind the cinematic adaptations of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Now, my search took a completely different turn.

A Wikipedia page dedicated to Dana Broccoli revealed more information. It said that she was born Dana Natol in New York City on January 3, 1922 (making her the ripe old age of 24 when her novel was published), and met her first husband, Lewis Wilson, when they were both acting students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall. After Dana and Lewis divorced, she married Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli in 1959. When Broccoli and Saltzman formed a holding company to control the licensing and rights to the Bond films, they named it Danjaq S.A., which is a combination of their wives’ first names (Dana Broccoli and Jacqueline Saltzman). After Cubby’s death in 1996, Dana became president of Danjaq and was instrumental in developing the musical theater version of another Ian Fleming work, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. She died at age 82 of cancer on February 29, 2004. Wikipedia also mentioned that Dana had written two novels, Scenario for Murder (1949) and Florinda (1977).

(Right) Scenario for Murder, 1949.

Hubin gives “Scenario for Murder” as the British title of Make with the Brains, Pierre, and the dust jacket of that edition does include an author photograph, depicting an attractive young woman, and a biographical sketch. So that solves the mystery of Dana Wilson.

Or, does it?

Further digging revealed that Dana Wilson Broccoli was a complex woman who led a fascinating life and had a lasting impact on one of the most iconic film series of all time.

It turns out that Dana was actually born Dorothy K. Natoli into an Italian-Irish family in Brooklyn (I haven’t been able to discover what the “K” stands for). Her parents were Giuseppe “Joseph” Natoli and Stella (White) Natoli. Her father was the son of Italian immigrants and a veteran of World War I. Shortly after Dana’s birth, the family name was shortened to Natol, but at the time of her marriage to Lewis Gilbert Wilson on June 7, 1941 (when she was 19 years old), she was still using Dorothy as her first name. The following year their son, Michael, was born in New York.

She likely changed her name to Dana after they moved to Los Angeles to pursue careers in Hollywood. Lewis was first to achieve some level of success. After a couple of bit parts in movies, including one in which he wasn’t even credited, he got his big break. In 1943, Columbia Pictures created the first live-action depiction of the DC Comics superhero Batman in a 15-part serial, and Lewis was cast in the titular role, giving him the distinction of being the first actor ever to portray the Caped Crusader. He then landed several other small parts in various films in 1943 and 1944, but his acting career was put on hold when he enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 27, 1944.

(Above) Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson played Robin and Batman, respectively, in Columbia Pictures’ Batman film serial.

After Dana’s death, several obituaries reported that their long time apart during World War II had led to the failure of Lewis and Dana’s marriage. Later, during an interview, Dana confirmed that the separation was a turning point in their relationship: “Being separated with the war for five years just changed everything. And when my husband returned, we were two entirely different people. It was inevitable that we would divorce.” (Cork 2000)

However, the exact date of their divorce is unknown. In his autobiography Fragments, film director Andre de Toth, a longtime friend of the Broccolis, recalled meeting Dana “in Hollywood, years before she met Cubby,” remembering her as “a budding writer with a promising future, a single parent bringing up a son,” and noting that “in the forties [that] took guts.” (De Toth 1994, 460) However, aside from the fact that they appeared as a family in the 1950 census, there is evidence that their relationship continued at least into the early 1950s, and de Toth got either his timeline or Dana’s marital status wrong. Lewis remarried in 1956.

What is known is that it was during the war that Dana turned her hand to novel writing. Following the 1946 hardcover publication of Make with the Brains, Pierre, with its dedication to her mother, son, and husband, two cheap paperback editions appeared in 1948 and 1949, re-titled as Uneasy Virtue. Then, also in 1949, the British hardcover came out, this time re-titled as Scenario for Murder, with its dust jacket author blurb identifying her as a “wife, mother, actress and producer” living “in Hollywood with her actor-producer husband and small son.”

In 1950, Dana Wilson’s Hollywood acting career got started with a bit part in a film noir called Once a Thief starring Cesar Romero and June Havoc. Then, in 1951, Dana won her first (and only) lead role, as the Queen in Wild Women, opposite Lewis, who also had a lead role. If they were still married at the time, and if Lewis had anything to do with Dana taking that part, that truly awful film could very well have provided ample grounds for divorce.

(Left) Dana Wilson starred in 1951’s Wild Women.

Also, in 1951, both Dana and Lewis were cast in Trigger Tales, the half-hour pilot for a Western TV series that was not picked up. Dana had the supporting female role, in which she turned out to be the villain, but Lewis had a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance with barely a word of dialogue (although he did get to show off the stage-fighting skills he’d honed as Batman in a brief but rowdy dustup with the hero, Trigger Saunders). Then, Lewis got another big break when he was cast as a regular in the half-hour TV crime series Craig Kennedy, Criminologist. Although Donald Woods had the title role, Lewis, as newspaper reporter Walt Jameson, and Sydney Mason, playing New York City police Inspector J.J. Burke, shared nearly as much screen time. The series was short-lived, however, airing for one season (1952-1953) of 26 episodes. Dana guest-starred in one of the episodes near the end of the run.

Dana first met Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli in December 1947. Struggling to earn a living in the movie business, Cubby decided to make some extra cash that year by trying his hand at selling Christmas trees on a street corner in the upscale L.A. suburb of Beverly Hills. In his posthumously published memoir, When the Snow Melts (1998), he described the “incredible, memorable coincidence” that occurred during his brief time in that job:
Early one evening, just before Christmas, a stunning-looking lady stopped at my lot to buy a tree. She had her small son with her. She had raven-black hair, large eyes and pale, delicate features. Having chosen a tree, she wondered where she could get a stand for it. I offered to make one for her, nailing a couple of crossed boards together and then pinning the tree to it. We wished each other ‘Happy Christmas’ and she walked away into the night. No reason for me to believe I’d ever see her again. To chic beauties of that class, when you’ve seen one Christmas tree salesman you’ve seen them all. But not in this particular scenario.

For that lady, my lovely Dana, and I were destined to meet again twelve years later. She remembers my selling her that tree on the corner of Wilshire and Doheny. I recall it even more vividly. There are some customers you just cannot forget.
(Broccoli 1998, 84)
The pair re-encountered each other in 1958, at a New Year’s Eve party at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and at least on Cubby’s end, it was love at second sight. Cubby was a widower, his wife Nedra having succumbed to cancer two years earlier, and a single father of two young children. He got Dana’s phone number before the night was out, but they did not get together again until a few months later, again by chance and this time in New York—they were both out with other dates. They made arrangements to meet once more back in Los Angeles, and after a five-week courtship, they were married on June 21, 1959. The wedding was in Las Vegas. Cary Grant was best man, and Dana’s 16-year-old son, Michael, who had spent the night before the wedding on the town with Cubby, was a hungover member of the wedding party. (Broccoli 1998, 140-41) With both her son and fiancé suffering the effects of the stag night, Dana had a chance at a very different future when Cary Grant came to tell her about the situation. “I did a film once,” he said, “where the best man ran off with the bride. How about it?” Dana laughed off the proposition. “As tempting as it may sound, I don’t think it’s going to happen this time.” (Cork 2000; Sellers 2019, 40)

(Right) “Cubby” Broccoli.

That Las Vegas ceremony was the start of a stunning second act for Dana Wilson. “I married Cubby,” she recalled, “and my life changed completely. I left my home in California. I left my country. I left my friends. I left everything that was familiar to me … But I followed Cubby [to London] and I trusted him, and I knew he was going to make everything all right.” (Cork 2000)

Dana immediately threw herself into her new role. She had always hoped to have a large family and insisted on formally adopting Cubby’s two children, Tony and Tina. On June 18, 1960, Dana gave birth to a daughter, Barbara Dana Broccoli, and, as Cubby wrote, “now [the] family was complete.” (Broccoli 1998, 147)

It was at about this time that Cubby met Harry Saltzman. Cubby had long wanted to film Fleming’s James Bond novels, but had never been able to secure the option. Saltzman had the option, which was about to expire, but could not convince anyone to finance him. Cubby had the connections in Hollywood to get the project off the ground and the pair entered into a partnership. They inked a deal with United Artists for $1 million on June 21, 1961 (Cubby and Dana’s second wedding anniversary), and the rest is movie history. (Broccoli 1998, 151-153)

Although Dana’s name never appears in the credits of any Bond film, she was an active behind-the-scenes partner to her husband and her fingerprints are all over the series:
When Cubby and Harry were casting the lead role in Dr. No, they became interested in a young Scotsman with limited screen credits named Sean Connery. There are many versions of how Connery came to the producers’ attention, but it is generally accepted that the key to him getting the part lay with Dana Broccoli. (Pfeiffer and Lisa 1993, 14, 42, 55) Cubby thought he had terrific potential, but was unsure that he had the requisite sex appeal to play James Bond. So he asked Dana to take a look at the only footage he had available of Connery, the 1959 Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People. “Dana’s reaction,” Cubby recalled, “was immediate: ‘That’s our Bond!’” (Broccoli 1998, 165; Duncan 2015, 33) Dana confirmed this story: “I was just knocked out by [Connery]. I thought he was just incredible.” (Cork 2000; Field and Chowdhury 2015, 60)

As a writer herself, Dana contributed to several scripts, making practical, informed, and helpful suggestions. As they struggled to put together a script for The Spy Who Loved Me (14 writers had tried and failed to come up with a coherent story), Cubby and Dana, themselves, “sat and talked for hours, with Dana scribbling ideas down on paper” and “rewrote the whole story.” When they presented their new screenplay to director Lewis Gilbert, he “said it was the first time a producer had come to him with a storyline that worked.” (Duncan 2015, 262) Barbara Broccoli later claimed that “all the major decisions [Cubby] made he discussed with her. It was a real partnership.” (Sellers 2019, 114; Cork 2000)

(Above) Maryam d'Abo, Timothy Dalton, Barbara Broccoli, Albert R. Broccoli, Dana Broccoli, and John Glen attend an event celebrating the release of the Bond film The Living Daylights (1987).

Dana often functioned as an unofficial casting director. In For Your Eyes Only, she recommended Topol for his role and gave final approval on casting Julian Glover. (Field and Chowdhury 2015, 328-29) She “was absolutely convinced from the start that [Timothy Dalton] would make a first-class Bond” and pressed Cubby to cast him as Roger Moore’s successor; and she helped convince Dalton to accept the role. (Broccoli 1998, 280-81) Many of the actresses in the series remember that she was part of the casting process and had some influence in how the women were portrayed. (d’Abo and Cork 2003, 174)

She provided unswerving support and expert advice to Cubby during his legal battles with Harry Saltzman. The breakup of the Broccoli-Saltzman partnership in 1975 was marked by accusations, lawsuits, and hard feelings. Michael Wilson, who had spent the previous two years at a prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm, came to London to help on the legal side, and Cubby credited Dana with giving him the strength to see it through: “But for Dana’s fantastic resources and devotion, I might have thrown in the towel. As it was, we took on the battle of a lifetime—and won.” (Broccoli 1998, 231)

On December 5, 1976, Dana christened the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios, which had been constructed specially for the filming of The Spy Who Loved Me, by breaking a bottle of champagne over the conning tower of the American submarine. (Owen and Burford 2000, 119)

At the 1982 Oscars ceremony, the Academy bestowed its highest honor, the Irving G. Thalberg Award, on Cubby Broccoli. Roger Moore, who was in the middle of his long run portraying James Bond, was tasked with making the presentation. As Moore remembered, Cubby and Dana “were terrified that I would make light of the situation and say something silly.” Consequently, during rehearsals, “Dana sat right at the front of the auditorium to ensure I stuck to the script. I did indeed stick to the script, and Cubby accepted his award with great pride and modesty.” (Moore 2008, 244-45)

Following Cubby’s death in 1996, Dana assumed the leadership of Danjaq and oversaw the transition of production duties to her children, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who are still running the operation today.
Curiously, aside from that brief mention of the British title, Scenario for Murder, on Dana’s Wikipedia page, none of the sources that I uncovered refer in any way to Make with the Brains, Pierre. In 1977, Dana returned to fiction writing, penning Florinda, a historical novel set in 8th-century Spain, which was apparently inspired while scouting locations for the Bond series. Even the dust jacket copy of that book claims that it was her first novel. And, unlike Pierre, Florinda at least merits a mention in Cubby’s autobiography. Dana, herself, adapted the novel into a musical that had a modestly successful run in Los Angeles in 1995 and was revived as La Cava, which played in London’s West End in 2000-2001.

(Left) The 1977 novel Florinda, with cover art by Robert McGinnis.

Nothing in my previous experience in identifying crime writers and expanding on their biographies had prepared me for what I would find when I went looking for Dana Wilson, the author of an obscure 1940s Hollywood mystery novel. I found a young woman who carved out a career for herself in Hollywood, as both a writer and an actor, who turned her talents to psychological suspense fiction and made her way as a single mother. Then, in her stunning second act, she became one of the architects of the most famous and successful film franchise in history. Not only did Dana Natol Wilson Broccoli live twice, she was the original Bond girl.

Broccoli, Albert R., with Donald Zec. 1998. When the Snow Melts: The Autobiography of Cubby Broccoli. London: Boxtree.

Cork, John, dir. 2000. “Cubby Broccoli: The Man Behind Bond.” Diamonds Are Forever, Blu-ray Disc. Directed by Guy Hamilton. Beverly Hills, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc., 2012.

d’Abo, Maryam, and John Cork. 2003. Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

De Toth, Andre. 1994. Fragments: Portraits from the Inside. London: Faber and Faber.

Field, Matthew, and Ajay Chowdhury. 2015. Some Kind of Hero, 007: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films. Gloucestershire: The History Press.

Duncan, Paul, ed. 2015. The James Bond Archives. Cologne: Taschen.

Moore, Roger, with Gareth Owen. 2008. My Word Is My Bond: A Memoir. New York: Collins.

Owen, Gareth, and Brian Burford. 2000. The Pinewood Story: The Authorised History of the World’s Most Famous Film Studio. London: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd.

Pfeiffer, Lee, and Philip Lisa. 1993. The Films of Sean Connery. New York: Carol Publishing Group.

Pronzini, Bill, and Marcia Muller. 1986. 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. New York: Arbor House.

Sellers, Robert. 2019. When Harry Met Cubby: The Story of the James Bond Producers. Gloucestershire: The History Press.

Release date: July 16, 1943
Trailer on YouTube: https://youtu.be/dyXp-8ZZkbg?si=HZ-hgukOpnDfgLMd (other trailers available)
Full film on Tubi: https://tubitv.com/movies/636895/batman>

Once a Thief (1950)
Release date: July 7, 1950
Full film on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/once-a-thief

Wild Women, aka Bowanga, Bowanga: White Sirens of Africa (1951)
Release date: September 23, 1951
Clip on YouTube: https://youtu.be/hCdORg973bU?si=WEDvkkm4D6Hz-5Au (featuring Dana Wilson as the Queen and Lewis Wilson as the “strong white man”)
Full film on Plex: https://watch.plex.tv/movie/wild-women
Full film on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/BowangaBowangaA.k.a.WildWomen

“Gun Blazers,” episode of Trigger Tales (1951)
Full film on YouTube: https://youtu.be/MPOJL-KfQv0?si=B-GGn40biOyDhzXo (fight scene starts at 13:45)

“The Golden Dagger,” S1, E24, Craig Kennedy, Criminologist (1952)
This episode is not available, but several others, all prominently featuring Lewis Wilson, can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLY0ESviuN3DqTvOjrHh6uSE-OiE80_iy1

READ MORE:Inside the Family Behind the James Bond Empire,” by Cari Beauchamp (Town & Country).


Mark Coggins said...

Bravo, Randal! Tremendous research!

HonoluLou said...

This was truly fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Great research here - I learned a lot. I am very familiar with Dana's son, Michael Wilson, who is an exceptional photography collector. Lots of creativity in this family.

Janet Rudolph said...

What an amazing article. Great research, Randal. The unraveling of the 'mystery' of her life is fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing with all of us!

Bill Selnes said...

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Truly loved this article!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! I love “old Hollywood “ history.