Jan Sterling, Broadway and Hollywood Actress, Dies

Obituaries   Jan Sterling, Broadway and Hollywood Actress, Dies
Jan Sterling, who replaced Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn in the Broadway production of Born Yesterday and was featured in the New York premiere of Noël Coward's Present Laughter, died in Los Angeles on March 28. She was in her early '80s.
Jan Sterling in The November People
Jan Sterling in The November People

Born Yesterday was the stage breakthrough for the blonde native New Yorker, who was born into a society family as Jane Sterling Adriance. Some sources list her birth as April 3, 1921, others as April 3, 1923 (she was a descendent of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams).

Soon after playing Billie, she was in Hollywood. Thin and pretty in a brassy way, with platinum hair and hardened, knowing eyes, she played a succession of dizzy blondes and hard-boiled film noir dames. Her debut film was "Johnny Belinda."

Her most famous role was that of Lorraine Minosa, a cynical observer of the media circus Kirk Douglas cooks up around a man trapped in a cave, in Billy Wilder's 1951 satire "Ace in the Hole." "I don't go to church," said her character in a defining utterance. "Kneeling bags my nylons." The film was reviled by critics as a repellent picture of human nature when it came out and was later released as "The Big Carnival." Only in later years did it come to be regarded as a film noir classic and one of Wilder's best.

In 1954, she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "The High and The Mighty." Other films include "Caged," "Flesh and Fury," "The Human Jungle," "The Harder They Fall" and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."

Educated in England at Fay Compton's school, she played dozens of roles in summer stock. She made her Broadway debut in 1938 in Bachelor Born under the name Jane Sterling. She followed that up with When We Are Married and Grey Farm before she landed the role in Born Yesterday. She also played Billie Dawn on tour in Chicago. She was so good in the play that, according to the Internet Movie Database, she tested for the film version and was for a time in competition with Holliday for the role. In Coward's Present Laughter, she played Daphne Stillington. Other Broadway roles included Two Blind Mice; Small War on Murray Hill; The Perfect Setup; One for the Asking; a 1969 revival of The Front Page, in which she replaced Peggy Cass as Mollie Malloy; and The November People, a flop from 1978.

In 1962, Ms. Sterling made her singing debut in a tour of the musical Silk Stockings.

She was married to actor John Merivale from 1941 to 1948, and film star Paul Douglas—he co-star in Born Yesterday—from 1950 to 1959, his death. Her career slowed considerably after Douglas' death, though she still made the occasional film and television appearance. Later, she was the longtime companion of actor Sam Wanamaker.

She is predeceased by her son with Douglas, Adams Douglas.

"I adored Hollywood because I'd always wanted to be a movie star," said Ms. Sterling, assessing her precocious career. "Maybe in some funny Freudian way, it was my way of getting more attention than my baby sister, who was pretty with curly hair. We all have drives we don't completely understand."

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