The dog fancy has always attracted more than its share of colorful, even outrageous, individuals. Dog shows have their roots in serious livestock competition, but they soon developed elements of glamour and high drama that would naturally appeal to people with a sense of the theatrical. There’s no question that when you show dogs you’re on stage, performing in front of an audience. There’s a lot more to dog shows than that, of course, but certainly this must be one reason that we have so many colorful personalities in dogs. It’s a sort of show business, no question about that.
Nobody in dogs lived a more colorful life than Lina Basquette. To those whose memories go back a couple of decades in dogs her name lives on. She was the most successful handler and breeder of Great Danes ever, but she started out as child actress, starred in Cecil B. De Mille’s last silent film and headlined the Ziegfield Follies on Broadway. She married seven times, once to film studio owner Sam Warner, and was groomed to become a star in Germany before World War II. She rebuffed romantic advances from Hitler and was involved in high-level espionage circles in South America. There were court battles, a fortune lost, child custody fights, suicide attempts and appalling violence — and after all that Lina Basquette found her greatest success, and some say her true calling, as a breeder and handler of show dogs. She did not, like so many celebrities, just dabble in dogs: she made a serious study of breeding and showing, produced homebred Best in Show winners, handled Great Danes that were among the top Working dogs in the U.S. for many years, and placed among the Top Dogs of all breeds several times. She won two Groups at the Garden, became an AKC judge, wrote a popular column in “Kennel Review” and authored several books about her life and her dogs.
It is now almost twenty years since Lina Basquette died. Many dog fanciers still remember her from the 1980s and ‘90s, but few know the full story of her experiences before dogs. Let’s recap her long and remarkable life.
Lina was born in San Mateo, California in 1907. Originally her name was Lena Baskette, but a producer told her early on that “Lena is the name of a cook — Lina is an artiste,” and Basquette just looked better in lights. Her mother was the ultimate pushy stage mother, later blamed for driving Lina’s father to an early grave. Her younger half sister, Marge Champion, became more famous in movies than Lina: she was the original dance model for Disney’s “Snow White” and other animated films, and in the 1950s she and her husband Gower were a legendary dance team in movies and on TV.
Ziegfield Follies and the Warner Brothers
Lina secured her first film contract at age nine and was featured, with her name in the titles, in five Universal silent “featurettes.” Florenz Ziegfield soon snapped her up for his Follies on Broadway, where she was officially dubbed “America’s Prima Ballerina.” Her technique must have been good, because the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova foresaw a great future for Lina as a classical dancer and offered to mentor her, but mother didn’t think there was enough money in ballet and turned down the offer. (Lina said later it broke her heart.)
In 1925 Lina met film producer Sam Warner, co-founder of the Warner Bros. studio. The youngest and, according to many, the smartest and most decent of the brothers, Sam pushed for the novelty of sound film. (It was older brother Harry who once said, famously, “Who the hell wants to hear actors speak?”) The studio’s biggest star in those days was Rin-Tin-Tin, the German Shepherd Dog, which must have appealed to Lina, even then usually surrounded by a few dogs. She married Sam, very much against his brothers’ wishes, had a daughter, Lita, and lived happily until Sam’s sudden death two years later, on the night before his pet project, “The Jazz Singer,” opened and made film history. (Lina says she got Al Jolson the part in the “first full-length talking picture ever.”)
With her husband gone, a widow at 20, Lina lost almost everything: the greater part of her 25% share in the Warners fortune, the guardianship of her child (whom she didn’t see again until she was an adult), even most of her career. Unofficially blacklisted by the Warner family in Hollywood, Lina was rescued by the great director Cecil B. De Mille, who in 1929 chose her for the lead of his last silent film, “The Godless Girl.” Today it’s a footnote in cinematic history and plays as high camp, but the film did well enough in Europe for Lina to establish a following overseas. The next few years included a romance and near-marriage to heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey, and a real marriage to Dempsey’s trainer, Ted Hayes (literally a shot-gun ceremony: he threatened to shoot her if she wouldn’t marry him). She gave birth to a son, Ed, in 1934, but there were continued lawsuits, at least one suicide attempt, hospitalization, and a string of forgettable parts in minor movies.
Since the Warner family made it difficult for Lina to get good parts in Hollywood, help was offered from an unlikely source. The memory of “The Godless Girl” was still fresh in Europe, and Lina was offered a chance to become a star for the UFA studio in Germany, giving rise to one of the most bizarre and potentially damaging episodes in her life. In January 1937, when Lina was in London, she was invited to Germany to discuss a contract. She had been told she was Hitler’s favorite actress, and once he heard she was in the country, Lina was driven in a bulletproof limousine to have dinner at Berchtesgaden.
Lina remembers the meeting in detail in her memoirs: “I was annoyed with myself for not finding Hitler utterly repulsive… The mustache and that funny slicked-down hair weren’t my style — but those damned eyes!” Hitler reminded her that he had written a fan letter after seeing “The Godless Girl,” but in 1930 not many Americans knew who Hitler was. (Lina certainly didn’t.) The plan now was to make Lina into a great star of German film, and although Lina, as she said, “needed a job” and would have been happy to thumb her nose at Hollywood at that point, the possible repercussions suddenly hit her: “I thought, Jesus Christ — Hitler and Sam Warner’s widow! What a scandal. I was terrified.”
In her guest room, Lina found a framed photo of Hitler with a Wire Fox Terrier in his lap. “I thought, ‘The son of a bitch loves animals, he can’t be all bad.’ Of course, some of history’s biggest bastards loved animals; they’d cry over a dead horse while they sliced people’s heads off. But I didn’t think about that then.” After dinner, while Hitler kept telling her she was even more beautiful than her photographs, Lina and Hitler walked in the gardens, and it was there, once he had dismissed his bodyguards, that he “pounced” on her, she said. She resisted, at first politely, then forcefully, at one point employing her knee. The Führer let out a shout of pain, the guards reappeared, Hitler bellowed a command and Lina froze, certain she was going to be killed on the spot. She was out of Germany by the next day, and, as she said, “I was lucky to be deported in one piece.”
When she told the story to The “New Yorker” magazine in 1989, more than 50 years later, the writer addressed the question of how true it could be. Nobody was alive to corroborate or refute her statements, but the “general precision” of Lina’s memory made it difficult to discount them. As her sister, Marge Champion, said, “Lina has total recall. Except, of course, it’s her own recall.” And it’s important to note that this was before the war, when America was still divided about Hitler, before a Final Solution, and before “all the horror stories” came out. And the most likely reason she wasn’t killed on the spot was that her meeting with Hitler took place in early 1937, not late 1939: he was at that point not yet prepared to liquidate a well-known American actress.
For both professional and personal reasons, Lina kept the experience in Germany secret during and after the war, never attempting to exploit it and afraid of the reaction if people found out. And regardless of whom she was dealing with, she says, “I really was a bitch. If I weren’t eighty-one, I’d still be a bitch. Now I’m just a dear sweet old lady. I was just going to tease him, and there’s nothing I hate more than a tease.”
A Spy Intrigue in South America
Lina went back to Hollywood, married and divorced again, worked in minor films and toured in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. On the boat going back to the U.S. from Capetown via Rio de Janeiro she fell in love with a Japanese-Manchurian engineer who called himself Kuri Hurichi. He put up Lina and her son in luxury at the Copacabana, but Lina soon discovered that Hurichi was in fact not an engineer, but a high-level intelligence officer with a goal to prevent war between Japan and America. When Hurichi was ordered back to Japan he left Lina a set o documents to be turned over to American intelligence in the event of his death. Instead of risking execution upon his return, Hurichi chose a traditional suicide on the way back to Japan. Lita transmitted the documents as promised, was warned to get out of South America immediately, and arrived back in the U.S. shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sometime during the South American interlude, there was also an affair with the exiled crown prince of Albania, who gave her emeralds, and a meeting with a still very young Eva Peron, “just a little cantina girl then, really.”
Lina’s last film in Hollywood, a tawdry murder mystery in 1943, was made even more lurid by newspaper headlines that she was raped and beaten unconscious by a G.I. in California. Lina recovered, but the soldier was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Saved by the Dogs
It was at this low point in her life that the dogs literally “rescued” Lina Basquette. She once said that many get reformed through religion, but she was reformed through her dogs. She had always loved animals, and the memory of Sam Warner’s big black Great Dane, Fritz, lingered. He had been imported from Germany during a business trip; the dog reportedly hated everybody else but loved Lina. Later there was a Wire Fox Terrier, Jinx, and several other dogs, but she did not forget the Great Dane.
In 1948, Lina moved back to New York, married Warner Gilmore, and began to attend Westminster at Madison Square Garden. She was hit hard by the “dog craze” and used what was left of her settlement money from the long-drawn-out suit with the Warners to purchase a place in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. This was where she founded Honey Hollow kennels. She worked hard: as she said, she became “a slave” to her Great Danes, studied pedigrees and breed history day and night, and the kennel grew to house, at its peak, as many as sixty dogs.
The success of the Honey Hollow breeding program was undeniable. In less than ten years Lina had finished at least a couple of dozen champions, and before she quit, Honey Hollow had bred over a hundred Great Dane champions. Some were bred by Lina but owned by others, such as the brindle Ch. Honey Hollow That’s Jim Again, shown by Harry Sangster on the West Coast for the owner, the Craig Oil Company in Long Beach, Calif. The first of Lina’s great stars that she showed herself was the fawn Ch. Honey Hollow Stormy Rudio, whom she handled to a place among the Top 10 Working dogs in the U.S. for three years in a row, in 1957, 1958 and 1959, with a Group win at Westminster in 1959 as the high spot.
Becoming A Professional Handler
Other great homebred winners followed: Ch. Honey Hollow Golden Donner and Ch. Honey Hollow Broadway Jim, both bred and shown by Lina, were among the Top 10 in the Working group in 1962 and 1965, respectively. Their show careers were sponsored by helpful owners, and it must have been around this time that Lina realized how her talent for making her charges look good in the ring could be turned into a profession. For the next two decades Lina was among the country’s top professional handlers, winning with other breeds as well (Old English Sheepdogs, Dobermans, Pembroke Wels Corgis, etc.), but always with the focus on her beloved Great Danes.
Lina was famous for whenever possible showing just one single top winner. This paid off handsomely: among her charges were such Great Dane winners as Ch. Big Kim of Bella Dane (No. 7 All Breeds in 1969), Ch. Leslie’s Thumper V Barnhardt (No. 6 All Breeds in 1971), Ch. Heidere’s Kolyer Kimbayh (No. 5 All Breeds in 1972, No. 3 All Breeds in 1973), and Ch. Heather of Braeside (a Top Ten Working Dog in 1976). Finally, there was Lina’s last great star, perhaps the most beloved of them all, Ch. C & B’s Special-K Gribbin, who first appeared in the top Great Dane rankings in 1981, remained among the Top 10 Working Dogs for the next three years, took the Working group at Westminster in 1983, and won her last couple of Best in Shows in 1985. Lina was quoted as saying, “Special-K, when she was living with me — I swear to God, that dog knew every word that came out of my mouth and every mood I was in. We were a marvellous team in the ring because of that rapport. She responded perfectly to my showmanship.”
And what a showmanship that was! Lina was chosen All Breed Handler of the Year in the “Kennel Review” awards in both 1971 and 1973. In “The New Yorker” interview, author Barry Paris describes Lina’s handling style: “The secret of that showmanship was a lifetime in entertainment — the performer’s sense of audience and the dancer’s unerring grace, which she demanded of her dogs no less than of herself.” Over her career, it is estimated that Lina won well over 125 all-breed Best in Shows with Great Danes (and this at a time when there were barely half as many dog shows as today), 500 Working groups, and over a thousand Breeds.
It’s worth noting, too, how competitive the Working group was in those days. This was before the Herding breeds were split off from the Working group, and in the early 1970s the list of the Top 10 dogs of all breeds frequently contained three or four from the Working group.
The Final Achievement: Judging!
By 1975 Lina had closed the kennels, and when Special-K retired from the show ring Lina embarked on her final new adventure. In 1988, when she was already in her 80s, Lina was approved to judge the entire Working group, Junior Showmanship and Best in Show. This was apparently achieved without most of the preliminaries that are considered necessary for such an elevated status today. How would someone like Lina have fared today, one wonders? The thought of Lina Basquette submitting to tests and interviews with an AKC Executive Field Representative frankly boggles the mind.
Lina’s judging career was not long, but it was brilliant. She judged twice at Westminster: somehow, long before her 1988 regular judging approval, she had officiated there in 1970, and then again in 1991. Not surprisingly, whenever she judged over the next few years she invariably drew a crowd of onlookers. She knew what was expected of her and never disappointed her fans, invariably putting on a show that made it clear even to those spectators who had no idea what her background was that they were watching a true performer.
It was also at this time that Lina’s now almost forgotten film career was rediscovered. She was invited to special screenings of “The Godless Girl” and her other movies, and she was interviewed, feted and treated like the true star she really was. (Her interview in “The New Yorker” marks only the second time that a dog person, as far as I know, was given this signal honor. An earlier interview had been devoted to Anne Rogers Clark in the 1960s.) A single print of “The Noose”, a 1927 melodrama for which she stole the lead part from Barbara Stanwyck, was discovered in an Eastern Europe film archive and flown to New York for a special viewing. And there was Frank Capra’s 1928 “The Younger Generation,” where Lina had the female lead agains Jean Hersholt and Ricardo Cortez. When seeing these early films for the first time in sixty-something years, Lina, typically, was both intrigued and amused by her youthful self. Her comments ranged from, “Boy, was I gorgeous!” and “She’s a tough little broad, isn’t she?” to “Watch out for the over-acting”…
Lina Basquette died on September 30, 1994. We have had many dramatic personalities in the dog world, both before and after her time, but I am quite sure we’ve never had anyone with a background as colorful, and few have equaled her success in the dog show world.
Special thanks to Ruth Crumb for providing a copy of The New Yorker interview with Lina Basquette.