“Tell me I’m beautiful, it’s nothing. Tell me I’m intellectual, I know it. Tell me I’m funny, and it’s the greatest compliment in the world.” Dancer, actress, model, and popular icon of “sex appeal” as Catwoman in the Batman television series, Julie Newmar (b. Los Angeles, CA, 16 August 1933) would rather have been known as a comedienne. Magnificently “stacked” at 37-23-37, five feet eleven inches tall, with legs well over a yard long in her bare feet, and looking (as she put it herself) “like a racehorse,” she electrified the Broadway stage in a three-minute appearance as Stupefyin’ Jones in Li’l Abner in 1956. But she could act, too, as was demonstrated by the Tony Award® she won three years later for her hilarious performance (Best Featured Actress in a Play) in The Marriage-Go-Round with Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer.
Julia Chalene Newmeyer was the oldest of three children born to Don and Helen Newmeyer. Her father, a professional football player with the Los Angeles Buccaneers in the twenties, was head of the Physical Education Department at Los Angeles City College; her mother had been a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies. Julie studied classical ballet and piano as a small child. She was acknowledged to be a very bright student, graduating from John Marshall High School in 1951.
After touring Europe for a year with her mother and brother John (now an epidemiologist, author, and Napa Valley winemaker) she returned to Los Angeles to join the L.A. Opera Company as prima ballerina. She also worked at Universal Studios as a staff choreographer while attending classes in philosophy, French, and classical piano at UCLA.
Julie Newmeyer (as she was then known and billed) appeared, for the most part uncredited, in ten motion pictures as a dancer before she went to New York in 1955. Notable among her performances were “The Gilded Girl” (i.e., the girl covered in gold paint) in Serpent of the Nile (1953), the “Dancer-Assassin” in Slaves of Babylon (1953), and “Dorcas” in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954); she also played chorus and bit parts in The Band Wagon (1953), The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).
In 1955 Julie made her New York debut as Vera the ballerina in Silk Stockings with Hildegarde Neff and Don Ameche. The show ran for a satisfying 478 performances, and only a few months after it closed she was strutting her stuff as Stupefyin’ Jones in Li’l Abner. Li’l Abner was even more successful at 693 performances, and that was quickly followed by her triumphal comic performance as Katrin Sveg, the Swedish guest who tried to seduce Charles Boyer in The Marriage-Go-Round. (Although the 1959 film version of Li’l Abner was as near a duplicate of the Broadway show as could be made, with almost every member of the cast in his or her original role, the 1961 film of The Marriage-Go-Round preserves only Julie Newmar’s Tony®-winning performance, with Susan Hayward and James Mason in the principal roles.) Newmar’s only later Broadway appearance was in Once There Was a Russian (1961), a one-performance flop. Later stage work included national tours of Dames at Sea and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off with Joel Grey, and regional performances as Lola in Damn Yankees and Irma in Irma La Douce.
Back in movieland in the sixties, Newmar took on roles in television series that ran from amazon to temptress (often both): an unruly motorcycle-riding heiress (Route 66, 1962), the devil (The Twilight Zone, 1963), an Indian princess (F Troop, 1966), a pregnant space princess (Star Trek, 1967), a double agent posing as a maid (Get Smart, 1968), a cat in human form (Bewitched, 1971), and in the 26-part series My Living Doll (1964–1965), Rhoda the Robot – of necessity a paragon of physical perfection. Her movie roles were similarly diverse: a health addict (For Love or Money, 1963), a vengeful Apache woman (Mackenna’s Gold, 1969), and a Hungarian sexpot (The Maltese Bippy, 1969).
Newmar described how she came to take the recurring part of Catwoman on Batman (1966–68), the television role that made her an icon. She was living in New York; her brother had come down from Harvard for a weekend with five or six of his friends. “We were all sitting around the sofa just chatting away, when the phone rang. … It was this agent or someone in Hollywood, who said, ‘Miss Newmar, would you like to play Catwoman on the Batman series? It starts Monday.’” She had never heard of Batman. “I said, ‘What is this?… they never know what they are doing until yesterday.’ Well, my brother leaped off the sofa, I mean he physically levitated, and said, ‘Batman! That’s the favorite show at Harvard. We all quit our classes and quit our studies and run into the TV room and watch this show.’ I said, “They want me to play Catwoman.’ He said, ‘Do it!’”
Newmar designed and made her own glittery, skin-tight, hip-belted Catwoman costume, which is now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution. Due to her movie commitments, Julie was able to stay with Batman for only two of its three seasons, but the reruns assured that her image was ever-present. “It was so wonderful being on Batman,” she said, “because you could be nasty and mean. In the ’50s women could never – unless you were some B-picture actress – be mean, bad, and nasty. It was so satisfying. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was.”
Playboy Magazine featured her in a pictorial in May 1968. In the early seventies, Julie Newmar appeared in fifteen episodes of Love, American Style; until 1983 she was a one-time guest on fifteen other television series, among them McCloud (1970), Columbo (1973), The Bionic Woman (1976), The Love Boat (1979), CHiPs (1982), Fantasy Island (1983), and Hart to Hart (1983). Her movie career continued with several low-budget films: Love Scenes (1984), Evils of the Night (1985), Deep Space (1988), Cyber-C.H.I.C. (1989), Ghosts Can’t Do It (1989), and Nudity Required (1990).
A testament to her indelible celebrity was the title of the 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Not that the picture had anything to do with Julie Newmar – the story is about three drag queens on a road trip, and the title refers to a signed head-shot. Newmar does make a cameo appearance near the end of the movie.
Brainy Julie Newmar is also an inventor, holding three U.S. patents. Two are for her special “cheek”-shaping pantyhose (“Nudemar”), and one for an “invisible” brassiere. She has also been working in the real estate business since the mid-1980s.
Newmar was married to John Holt Smith, a lawyer, from 1977 to 1984. They had one child, John Jewl Smith, who is deaf and has Down’s Syndrome. In 2008, Newmar was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an incurable neurological disorder that affects balance and ability to walk.
She is an avid community advocate and sometime blogger (julienewmarwrites.com) about social and neighborhood issues. She agitated for a ban on leaf blowers in the City of Los Angeles, arguing that they are unnecessary and too noisy. She also had an issue with her next-door neighbor James Belushi and his noisy air-conditioner: she took out her frustration by throwing an egg at his house, and he retaliated by suing her for four million dollars. The conflict ended amicably in 2006 when it was aired on an episode of Belushi’s sitcom (According to Jim: The Grumpy Guy) in which Julie Newmar co-starred.
– Lucy E. Cross
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection