Confidential Facts About Dona Drake, The Star With A Secret

February 20, 2024 | Byron Fast

Confidential Facts About Dona Drake, The Star With A Secret


Dona Drake’s entire life was a lie. Keeping her secret was so stressful, it sent her to an early grave. 


1. She Had A Secret

Dona Drake was a gifted and fiery triple threat of the 1940s and 50s. But behind her elegant stage alias lay more than just an ordinary name that studio heads wanted audiences to forget. After all, most Hollywood starlets of the time changed their names. Dona Drake was different, and it killed her.  

Dona Drake - supporting actress - 1943John Irving, Flickr

2. She Was "Exotic"

When Dona Drake signed on with Paramount Pictures as a young woman, they released her personal history for the press. According to their biography, she was born in Mexico City to parents who worked in the restaurant industry. But it later came out that this was a pack of lies. 

Dona Drake in Kansas City Confidential - 1952Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

3. Her Parents Lied

The truth is that Dona Drake was born "Eunice Westmoreland" in Jacksonville, Florida on November 15, 1914. But then came the explosive detail. Her parents, Joseph and Novella, weren't Mexican at all, but Black. Despite this, various census takings list them as all kinds of races. The reason for all this uncertainty was tragic.

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side and talking with other man - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

4. It Wasn’t Fair

You see, back in those days, Jacksonville was a segregated city. This meant that the government and law enforcement kept Black and white people apart. It was clearly not a good place to raise children, and the Westmorelands soon moved to Philadelphia in search of a better life.

This is where it all began to change for the future Dona Drake. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side - from The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)Producers-Actors Corporation, The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)

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5. She Stood Out

In Philadelphia, her father got a job at a chili parlor, but there were five Westmoreland children to feed and life was tough. Then her mom and dad noticed one thing. There was something that made Drake stand out from the other kids: Her incredible musical talents. 

Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, her mother had a crazy idea. It would involve another move and a huge risk.

Screenshot of Dona Drake dancing and looking at side - from The Bandits of Corsica (1953)Global, The Bandits of Corsica (1953) 

6. Her Life Got Uprooted

It wasn't just that Drake had vocal talent; she was also becoming incredibly gorgeous. Her mother, certain that her daughter had star power—whatever her race—determined to move to New York City and see if Drake could start a singing career. 

Since another waitress at the restaurant, Renee Villion, also had dreams of stardom, Drake and her mother brought the girl along for the ride. That said, they may have had ulterior motives. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake smiling and looking at side - from Sweet Shoe (1938)Nu-Atlas Productions, Sweet Shoe (1938)

7. She Passed

Once in New York, Drake and Villion started a "sister act". There may have been a sly reason for this. Since Drake was Black and Villion wasn’t, the act may have helped the light-skinned and light-eyed Drake to pass as white, or else "only" Latina, which helped the two book more acts. 

Indeed, they soon got their first jobs. It was just that one of them was very notorious. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake singing and looking at side - from Rita Rio and Her Orchestra (1939)Warner Bros., Rita Rio and Her Orchestra (1939)

8. She Bared It All

While she was grinding it out at the Paradise cabaret, the infamous producer Earl Carroll saw Drake on stage and hired her for his next musical review, Murder at the Vanities. In the show, Carroll pulled his signature move and made Drake wear some of the skimpiest costumes in showbiz. 

Even so, she had something else she could show off. 

Portrait of Earl Carroll looking at camera - 1924National Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia Commons

9. She Had A Secret Weapon

Because Drake could play instruments like the piano and the saxophone, she came off as much more than just a scantily-clad chorus girl. And there was something more. Drake had a not-so hidden weapon: She had rhythm. One critic noticed that Drake’s wiggling torso kept the beat of the music better than even the conductor did. 

Drake loved performing, but eventually the musical review had to close...and another part of her life was coming to an end. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake singing and dancing - from Strike Me Pink (1936)Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Strike Me Pink (1936)

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10. She Made A Difficult Decision 

Right after Drake wrapped Murder at the Vanities, her partner Rene Villion announced she was quitting show business and getting married. And while Drake was okay going solo, there was another big problem. In her "sister" act, she had been passing, and now she had a huge decision to make. 

She could come out as Black, or continue on this path. Well, in the name of her burgeoning career, she continued to live a lie. It would soon be the least of her worries. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake performing on stage - from Rita Rio and Her Orchestra (1939)Warner Bros., Rita Rio and Her Orchestra (1939)

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11. She Met A Scary Guy 

While Drake struck out alone, she continued working in nightclubs. Now, in these clubs there were both savory and unsavory characters lurking about. One character firmly in the second group was Russian mobster Louis “Pretty” Amberg, who was infamous for stabbing Milton Berle with a fork after the comedian insulted him on stage. 

This was one scary individual, and Drake's next choices were scarier. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side - from The Bandits of Corsica (1953)Global, The Bandits of Corsica (1953)

12. She Liked Bad Boys

Dona Drake knew she could have any man in the room, but she decided Amberg was the one for her. The two began dating, and her new boyfriend was very generous with gifts and attention. Drake just had to stay on the right side of that nasty temper—and stay away from forks. 

In the midst of this, Drake got an offer to be in the movie Strike Me Pinkwhich was filming in California. She said goodbye to Amberg and off she went. Little did Drake know, she’d never see him alive again. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side and talking - from Rita Rio and Her Orchestra (1939)Warner Bros., Rita Rio and Her Orchestra (1939)

13. She Took On Another Alias 

It was around the time of Strike Me Pink that Drake began truly leaning into her "Latin" backstory. She even took up the name "Rita Rio" at this time to really cinch the deal. Ironically, Strike Me Pink was about a gang of fictional mobsters, all while Drake's boyfriend was living the reality on the mean streets of New York City.

But Drake about to learn that reality was much more ruthless than any Hollywood movie. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking up - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

14. She Got A Mysterious Phone Call 

As Drake got her foot in Hollywood, eventually it became clear that no one had heard a peep from Amberg in quite some time. Drake was still in Hollywood, so she had no idea what he was up to. Then, about a month after his disappearance, Drake got a chilling phone call. 

It was from the FBI, and they wanted to know all about her relationship with Louis Amberg. Their reason was jaw-dropping. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side - from The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)Producers-Actors Corporation, The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)

15. Her Lover Met A Dark End

The FBI had called her up to inform her that Louis Amberg had perished under very suspicious circumstances: Someone had removed his clothes, tied him up, and then put him in a car that they lit on fire. The Feds also called Drake to ask if she had any information about his death. Her reply was another lie.  

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side - from The Bandits of Corsica (1953)Global, The Bandits of Corsica (1953)

16. She Didn’t Know HIm

Likely terrified, Drake insisted to the FBI that she barely knew Amberg, and had known him only by the name "Mr Cohen". She went deeper. When they asked about his job, Drake said she had no idea where his money came from. She only knew that he was always a gentleman, and their shared hobby was riding horses in Central Park.

It was an award-winning performance, and the FBI apparently bought it. Meanwhile, Drake was now committed to a web of lies. One that would only get more complex. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake in blue dress looking at front - from Princess of the Nile (1954)Panoramic Productions, Princess of the Nile (1954)

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17. She Had Star Power

After Strike Me Pink, Drake returned to New York City and began working in yet another nightclub. This time, however, was different. The place had a nightly show, and when the boss called in sick one day, Drake stepped in as MC. She was a thundering success and took on the job full-time.

Next came a ridiculous-sounding offer that Drake couldn't refuse. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake in black dress looking at side - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

18. They Needed A Leader

Around this time, someone had the brilliant idea of starting up an all-girl, all-white orchestra. Because of her immense talent, Drake’s name came up as the leader. She jumped at the opportunity, and decided to keep her Hollywood name “Rita Rio” for the stint. 

So, now we have a Black woman, pretending to be Latina, heading an all-white orchestra. “Rita Rio and The Rhythm Girls” toured the country and was a huge hit. Of course, maintaining the lie of being a Latin woman was taking Drake’s stress level to the limit. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake dancing and singing on stage - from Sweet Shoe (1938)Nu-Atlas Productions, Sweet Shoe (1938)

19. She Did Anything To Keep Up The Ruse

While Drake was Rita Rio, people would expect her to speak Spanish. She went to great lengths to keep up her ruse. She somehow managed to secretly learn the language and even to convincingly roll her Rs, and "Rita Rio and the Rhythm Girls" continued on apace. 

Eventually, Drake's work with the orchestra landed her back in Hollywood. While there, she had a fateful meeting with an old friend.

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side - from The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)Producers-Actors Corporation, The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)

20. She Had Friends In High Places

As luck would have it, Drake’s friend Dorothy Lamour—whom she had met while they were both grinding it out in New York—had become famous in the interim as the “sarong girl” of movies. Doing her friend a solid, Lamour was going to use her experience to help Drake get a role. And not just any role. 

Portrait of Actress Dorothy Lamour - 1945Studio Publicity, Wikimedia Commons

21. She Nabbed An Exotic Role

Lamour wanted Drake to work alongside her as another "sarong girl," meaning Drake would play an "exotic" woman who (naturally) wears a sarong and welcomes American men to her country—and usually her bed. Drake did just that beside Lamour in Aloma of the South Seas. 

It was a turning point in more ways than one. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking up and smiling - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

22. They Gave Her A Backstory

When Drake got the part, the studio Paramount Pictures must have known they had something special on their hands, because they immediately launched into marketing her as the next "It" girl. If you'll remember, it was Paramount who dialed up her "Latin" roots, creating the story of Drake being from restaurant-working parents in Mexico City.

It's not clear if the studio knew she was Black and merely covered it up further, or if Drake duped them as well. But her transformation didn't stop there. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake dancing on stage - from Sweet Shoe (1938)Nu-Atlas Productions, Sweet Shoe (1938)

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23. She Was Baptized Again

Paramount was in the business of making stars, and they thought Drake needed an entirely new name. They gave her a latin first name, “Dona” (pronounced dough-na), and the rather non-latin surname "Drake”. When she appeared in Aloma of the South Seas, it was under this moniker.

Drake was hoping that her second try at Hollywood would be a success. Boy, was she in for a surprise. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake smiling - from Louisiana Purchase (1941)Paramount, Louisiana Purchase (1941)

24. She Made A Good Impression 

No one saw it coming, but Aloma of The South Seas was actually a huge hit and even received two Academy Award nominations. It opened up an important door for Drake. Her next role with Paramount was in Louisiana Purchase, which starred the hit-maker Bob Hope.

Hope's reaction to her was more than she could have dreamed.

Portrait of Bob Hope looking at camera - 1986Allan warrenderivative work: Beao, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Starred In A Famous Franchise 

Reportedly, Hope became ga-ga over Drake, and insisted on having her in his next film. This film happened to be the latest instalment, Road to Morocco, of his extremely popular "Road to..." movies with Bing Crosby. Moreover, the third co-star was none other than Drake's pal Dorothy Lamour. Which was good, because Drake had to get very cozy on set. 

Bing Crosby looking at sideSenseiAlan, Flickr

26. She Had A Scandalous Kiss

In Road to Morocco, Drake shares a passionate kiss with Hope. This was a big deal, as it was the first on-film affectionate kiss involving an interracial couple—though not in the way Hollywood thought. Drake, who the public thought was Latin, was playing an Arab woman...but of course, Drake was actually Black.

In any case, now that she had a popular film franchise under her belt, Drake set herself on a different path entirely.

Screenshot of Dona Drake smiling at camera - from Sweet Shoe (1938)Nu-Atlas Productions, Sweet Shoe (1938)

27. The Boys Went Wild For Her

For WWII, Drake did her part for the military by doing pin-up work for both Yank and The Army Weekly magazines. Around the same time, she received a dubious award from a fraternity. A group at Georgia’s Emory College voted her “the girl they’d like to have in the backseat of a car, without gas and no ration book”.

Drake was turning heads with her looks, but that didn't mean she was happy.

Screenshot of Dona Drake smiling at camera - from Strike Me Pink (1936)Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Strike Me Pink (1936)

28. She Wanted More

After her stint with heavy-hitters like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Drake was certain she was on the path to fame—and she began getting impatient to hit the big leagues. As she complained of her time on Road to Morocco, "you can’t make a screen career out of combing [Dorothy] Lamour’s hair or chasing Bob Hope in one picture after another". 

Unfortunately, there was something stopping her.

Screenshot of Dona Drake wearing a hat and looking at side - from The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)Producers-Actors Corporation, The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)

29. She Made An Embarrassing Confession

Drake could certainly light up a screen, but she had a horrible Achilles heel. Namely, audiences complained that, especially for an up-and-coming Hollywood star, she couldn’t actually act. Even worse, Drake agreed with them: She admitted she had no acting talent. She just had a better idea.

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side with upset face - from Rita Rio And Her Orchestra (1939)Warner Bros., Rita Rio and Her Orchestra (1939)

30. She Knew What Worked

Drake hadn't clawed her way into Hollywood and hid her entire identity without some serious smarts, and she claimed that it didn't matter if she was a good actor. Instead, as she put it, "The secret of screen success is largely a matter of a good part and a good director. He’s the guy who holds your fate in his hands".

The problem was, parts and directors aren't the only things about acting...and she was about to lose the most crucial element of all.

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side with her arms on hips - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

31. They Dropped Her 

"Dona Drake" was partly a creation of Paramount Pictures, and in the end they were not kind to their invention. Eventually, her popularity waned, and when that happened the studio heartlessly dropped her. Their final offer to their “fiery latina star” was a role in the low-budget Hot Rhythm

Still, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake wearing white hat and smiling - from Rita Rio And Her Orchestra (1939)Warner Bros., Rita Rio and Her Orchestra (1939)

32. She Jumped Into Love

On the set of Hot Rhythm, Drake met a man named Billy Travilla, who worked in costume design. It was the beginning of a wild roller coasterAfter dating for just 10 days, the impulsive pair decided they were already ready to become husband and wife. But once more, Drake's past was coming back to haunt her. 

Costume designer William Travilla - 1965Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

33. She Was In A Terrifying Position

Drake and Travilla walked down the aisle on August 19, 1944 in an informal and tiny ceremony. The moment she said "I do," Drake also broke the law—It was illegal for interracial couples to marry at the time. She was now playing a more dangerous game than ever, and it's possible even her new husband didn't know about her true parentage. 

Besides that, Drake had some money problems now that she was no longer with Paramount. But here's where she showed her true worth. 

Designer William Travilla - looking at side and smilingJohn Irving, Flickr

34. She Didn’t Need A Studio

To her surprise, Drake found that she didn’t need Paramount to get roles. In 1948, she received an offer for the second lead female role in the satirical comedy So This Is New York. The producer, Stanley Kramer, was a rising star who would go on to make the classic High Noon

Everything was set for a successful movie that would send Drake's career soaring. Sadly, what happened was something altogether different. 

Publicity photo of Stanley Kramer - 1955studio, Wikimedia Commons

35. She Made A Huge Flop

To say that So This is New York did poorly with critics and audiences would be an understatement. The audience was vicious. At a preview screening, one audience member said that the film belonged in a toilet. Although years later Martin Scorsese would proudly screen So This is New York at the Tribeca Film Festiva, that wouldn’t help Drake now. 

She’d appeared in a failure, and the doors of Hollywood would soon be slamming her face. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake wearing white coat and talking - from Sweet Shoe (1938)Nu-Atlas Productions, Sweet Shoe (1938)

36. She Was In The Next Big Thing

Drake wiped her feet of So This is New York and focused on her next project, Beyond the Forest. There were two reasons for excitement about this film. First, she’d be playing opposite Academy Award winner Bette Davis. And second, super-powered director King Vidor was heading the film.

Drake hoped this would be the hit her career so desperately needed. She just hadn't counted on the reality. 

Photo of Bette Davis in the 1949 film Beyond the Forest.Warner Bros. Studio, Wikimedia Commons

37. Bette Davis Hated Her Film

The first thing you need to know about Beyond the Forest was that Davis really didn't want to make it. She apparently hated the script about a bored, cheating housewife and was constantly trying to get herself out of her contract. This on-set drama didn't help make Beyond the Forest into a success, and Drake once again found herself attached to a failure. 

Life at the Travilla household must have been feeling pretty grim. Except it wasn’t, and for a surprising reason. 

Portrait of Bette Davis looking at camera.Dennis Amith, Flickr

38. Her Husband Showed Her Up 

While Drake was clearly getting nowhere near the podium at the Oscars, her husband was. He got the chance to work on the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Adventures of Don Juan and won an Academy Award for his costume work. With her husband’s success, at least they’d have food on the table. 

Sadly, fate would soon be serving up another problem. One all the money in the world couldn’t solve. 

Actor Errol Flynn at Los Angeles' Union Airport - 1941Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

39. She Couldn't Win

After yet another critical failure, The Girl From Jones Beach, Drake noticed a decline in her health. Her husband thought it might be the stress of being an actor. I’d say another contributing factor was the stress of concealing your ethnic identity from everyone you know.

It wasn’t long before this stress turned into something much more serious.

Eddie Bracken, and Dona Drake on the set of BJ Alias, Flickr

40. She Got A Double Whammy

Eventually, doctors diagnosed Drake with a form of epilepsy. And another surprise was on the wayAround this time, Drake discovered that she was pregnant. For a Black woman passing as Latina, no amount of Drake's mothering instincts could likely wipe away the anxiety about what her baby might reveal about her past. 

Drake nervously counted the days off until her baby was due.

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking sad at side - from The Bandits of Corsica (1953).Global, The Bandits of Corsica (1953)

41. She Was An Inspiration 

In 1951, Drake gave birth to Nia Travilla, and luckily no one had any questions regarding the baby's skin color. Drake then took time off to play mother before getting back to work. Her next project was the film noir Kansas City Confidential. Although her role was small, Drake was finally in a hit film. 

If there was a competition between Drake and her husband, surely she’d won this round. Well, the gloves would come off for round number two. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake smiling and looking at side - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

42. She Had Stiff Competition 

See, Drake's husband Travilla was now working almost exclusively with none other than Marilyn Monroe. He made costumes for her for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch. And in case you’re wondering, he absolutely did make that famous cocktail dress that wafts up on the subway grate. 

Surely, Drake had nothing but happiness for Travilla’s huge success. But Hollywood couples have a history of being competitive, and things were starting to get tense.

Photo of Marilyn Monroe while filming The Seven Year Itch on the streets of New YorkChristi Caller, Wikimedia Commons

43. She Struggled With Her Marriage 

It wasn't just that Drake was putting up with her husband’s career, which was very clearly outperforming her own. Now he was getting cozy with superstar Marilyn Monroe, who was one of the most alluring and seductive women in Hollywood. But to top things off, her husband had one annoying hobby, and it was making their homelife unbearable. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking down upset - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

44. Her Husband Was A Collector

Drake’s husband didn’t bring keychains or T-shirts back as souvenirs from a trip...Travilla brought home live animals. They were mostly birds, but there were a lot of them. There were fantails, cockatoos, and finches, and in the end they totalled close to 100. Drake wasn't happy, and it all pointed to disaster. 

White Moluccan Cockatoocuatrok77, Flickr

45. She Was Under Strain

Maybe it was his career taking off, or maybe it was all those birds, but for whatever reason, in 1956 Drake's fairy tale came to an end. She and Travilla made the decision to separate. Nonetheless, they agreed that it was essential to stay on good terms for the sake of their daughter Nia, and they stayed legally married. 

This was going to be hard work. It was about to get even harder.

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side and talking with man - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

46. She Was Lost

In 1960, four years after their separation, Travilla appeared on Groucho Marx’s game show You Bet Your Life. On the show, Travilla brings out Drake to show off one of his dresses. Throughout, Drake seems quite uncomfortable and, when Marx asks her what films she’s been in, she looks lost. 

Things didn't seem OK for Drake. They certainly weren't.

Screenshot of Dona Drake and William Travilla - from You Bet Your Life - 1960FilmCraft Productions, You Bet Your Life (TV Series)

47. It Was Too Much For Her 

By the late 1960s, Drake seemed to be unraveling. She was barely working, plus she had her epilepsy and the stress of keeping her big secret. It all became too much for her. She reluctantly made a huge, drastic decision. Citing mental health issues, she gave up her rights to her daughter, and gave the girl to her husband. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side - from You Bet Your Life (1960)FilmCraft Productions, You Bet Your Life (TV Series)

48. She Did One Last Thing 

Over the next decades, Drake receded almost entirely from view, and her rare public appearance in the 1986 Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade would be her last. On June 20, 1989, she passed due to respiratory failure and pneumonia. But the question remains: was her fame worth the lie? 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking up - from Kansas City Confidential (1952)Edward Small Productions, Kansas City Confidential (1952)

49. She Had Her Reasons 

To understand why Drake chose to hide her true self, we have to look at life back then. As noted above, interracial marriages were not legal, and even interracial friendships were frowned upon. Then there was Drake's career. Black women were still only getting parts as maids, cooks, and comedic sidekicks. 

Drake was bursting full of ambition, and she just saw a world of prejudice. There was, however, some major fallout for her decision to hide her true self. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake looking at side - from The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)Producers-Actors Corporation, The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949)

50. She Paid A Steep Price 

Because Drake was so successful at hiding her history, we actually don’t know much about her parents. We can imagine their frustration at seeing their daughter accomplish so much, but having to hide their pride. There were also things like her wedding, the birth of her child, and even film premieres that her parents—if they attended at all—had to play a clandestine role in.

Drake’s fame certainly came at a high price. 

Screenshot of Dona Drake wearing crown and looking sad - from Louisiana Purchase (1941)Paramount, Louisiana Purchase (1941)


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