Mon­ica Lewis, a singer and actress, was the voice of a popular se­ries of Chiq­uita ba­nana ads.


The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­

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 her­home 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 letme 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 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-yearold Ms. Lewis reprised her Chia quita 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 Bar­bra Streisand and the Bea­tles 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 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.”


An un­dated photo ofMon­ica Lewis and ac­tor Ron­ald Rea­gan, at Ciro’s restau­rant in Los An­ge­les. Lewis started her ca­reer as a vo­cal­ist with Benny Good­man’s orches­tra and recorded sev­eral jazz hits in the 1940s and ’50s. In 1947, she be­gan singing for Chiq­uita in a se­ries of an­i­mated com­mer­cials.

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