By Sabrina Messenger
Sgt Lela E. Leibrand “Mackey” Rogers
A Real “Hollywood” Marine!
It’s a well know fact that all women Marine recruits go through basic training at Parris Island, SC and not MCRD San Diego, but there is at least one verifiable case of a woman who was literally a “Hollywood” Marine! Private Lela Leibrand (and several other surnames as you’ll see later in this article) had an exceptionally interesting personal life and career both in and out of the Marine Corps.
Lela Emogen Owens was born on Christmas Day, 1891 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Even her birth reads as though it came straight from an adventure film! Legend has it that her mother was in a barn and went into labor as she was fending off a bear. She loved regaling people at Hollywood parties with that story.
The Owens family travelled around for a time before finally settling in Kansas City where Lela attended public school for eight years. She then left school and signed up for a stenographer’s course in a business school.
On her 19th birthday in 1909, Lela gave herself a Christmas gift. She married for the first time. Her husband was an electrical engineer named William Eddins McMath. About a year and a half later, she also gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Virginia who would later in life become known as the famous actress/dancer Ginger Rogers.
Yet, ‘mama’ Lela was not content with settling for the stable but decidedly dull life of an engineer’s wife. A very creative and talented woman, Lela had big dreams and ambitions of her own. In 1911, not long after Ginger’s birth, Lela divorced her husband, fought for full custody of Ginger, and moved to Independence, Missouri to become a newspaper reporter.
By 1916, Lela was in Hollywood writing movie scripts under the name Lela Leibrand. Most of those movies are maintained within the collection of “Turner Movie Classics.“
When World War I began, Lela answered her nation’s call. In fact, Lela was one of the First TEN Women to enlist into the US Marine Corps! Her journalism skills served her well. She was attached to the Marine Corps Publicity Bureau. During her enlistment, Private Leibrand contributed articles for publication to the Recruiters’ Bulletin, The Marine’s Magazine, and Leatherneck newspaper (now magazine). One of her more notable Leatherneck articles was published in January 1919 issue. It was entitled “Fair Marine tells of flight in Hydroplane.” In the article she reassures skittish people of the safety and “fun” in air travel. This is several years prior to Amelia Earhart’s famous exploits.
Not all of her work was glamorous. When Lela was promoted to Sergeant, she was also charged with the task of putting together newsreels which showed rather gruesome footage of the fighting in Europe. She also made the first military training film, entitled “All in a Day’s Work.” Lela’s accomplishments are noted in the book Women Marines In World War I by Linda J. Hewitt.
After Sgt Leibrand was discharged from the Corps, she moved to New York and pursued a career in filmmaking at Fox Studios. In 1920, she remarried to a John Rogers. Eventually she returned to Hollywood.
From 1938 to 1945, Lela worked as assistant to Charles Kerner, vice president in charge of production at RKO studios. Rogers was also put in charge of the studio’s new talent…and new talent she did indeed find…in the form of her teenaged daughter!
Lela, like the true NCO she was, was not content to just leave everything to the studio bosses. She oversaw every aspect of Ginger’s career from sewing her costumes, writing songs for her vaudeville shows, to campaigning for a private dressing room, to keeping the studio wolves at bay (shades of her own mom fighting the bear on her birth?). Now whenever one hears the famous Ginger Roger’s phrase “women can do the same thing as men, except they do it backwards and in high heels”, perhaps they’ll think of the woman who taught Ginger Rogers how to do just that…and realize how we female Marines pretty much do the same thing (in combat boots or corafram pumps)!
Although the 1970s era Marine Corps type of “Image Development” training courses didn’t exist during Lela’s enlistment, it’s pretty clear that Lela Rogers understood the importance of such things, both in the military and in civilian life. Lela’s Marine Corps training (along with her staunch Christian Science beliefs) were beneficial in helping to make Ginger an internationally renowned glamorous and sophisticated star who still maintained a genuine wholesome image.
Unlike other celebrities and their infamous “stage mothers”, Ginger and Lela had a very warm and close relationship throughout their lives… as family members as well as being business partners. In 1942, Lela stepped in front of the camera and played Ginger’s mother in the classic comedy, The Major and the Minor about a woman’s adventures trying to get home to Iowa from New York. During her tenure at RKO Lela ran the RKO Studios Workshop, and became a ‘starmaker’ for others including Betty Grable, Joan Fontaine, Harriet Hilliard, Eve Arden, Ann Miller and Lucille Ball. Lela took an especial interest in “Lucy’s” career as they were also related on her mother’s side. Later, Lela would use those “Hollywood Marine” skills to manage Ginger’s ranch in Shady Cove, a small farming community northeast of Medford, Oregon.
Among her other accomplishments, Lela Rogers was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. A patriotic American who had no tolerance for totalitarianism, she also testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.
View footage of her stirring testimony.
Lela died in Los Angeles in 1977. She is buried at Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, California. Her grave is next to her daughter Ginger who died in 1995.
Book: Women Marines In World War I by Linda J. Hewitt
We are Marines!: World War I to the Present By Linda Cates Lacy
Wikipedia entry for Ginger Rogers
Video of Mrs. Rogers testifying before the House Un-American Activities committee
Article by Michael “Major Pain” Parlor Brown