Famous Women of Rockhaven Sanitarium – Peggy Fears
Rockhaven Sanitarium today stands as a monument to powerful and dynamic women. As a successful business run by powerful women, it attracted powerful women as patients. Besides the businesswomen and academics who spent their last years at Rockhaven, a number of show business ladies were patients as well. One of Rockhaven’s most interesting and controversial entertainment personalities was Broadway star Peggy Fears.
Fears began her career in 1919, when at 16 she began to audition as a singer for Broadway musicals. By 1925 she had performed in 10 Broadway productions. The beautiful young woman joined the famous Ziegfeld Follies, fantastic Broadway productions that mixed the best of vaudeville with the celebration of female beauty inspired by the French Folies Bergere. As a Follies Girl she co-starred with many names we still recognize today such as Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Paulette Goddard, Louise Brooks and Billie Burke (who also became a Rockhaven resident at the end of her life).
In 1927 the talented Fears branched out into production of Broadway shows with her new husband Alfred Blumenthal. As partners they produced several successful Broadway plays and became millionaires. Fears lived a lavish lifestyle, at one point owning five Rolls-Royce autos, and living in a penthouse in Manhattan. Fears and Blumenthal had a stormy relationship ending in divorce, and Fears continued her career solo as a nightclub entertainer.
In the ’50s, Fears built a famous nightclub and hotel on Fire Island near New York, the Fire Island Pines “Botel” (a playful reference to the many yachts that would moor at the hotel). It became a popular destination for Broadway and movie stars such as Jerome Robbins, Steven Sondheim, Tennessee Williams, Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe. Fears’ development of the hotel as a resort for the young and talented of New York forged the way for Fire Island’s later reputation as an upper-end locale for the gay community.
Fears’s private life was wild and sexually adventurous. Although she was married for several years to Blumenthal, she was chiefly a lesbian, or at least bi-sexual, with a preference to the company of women. She was charming, beautiful and popular, a true “party girl” of the roaring ’20s. She carried on a long on-again-off-again relationship with the famous actress and co-Zeigfeld star Louise Brooks, and participated in some scandalous orgies involving Charlie Chaplin.
The love of her life though was the sultry and stunning Tedi Thurman. Thurman was a model and radio star and was the famous “weather girl” on the Jack Paar Tonight Show. Tedi became romantically involved with the much older Peggy Fears’ at the Fire Island Pines Botel, and they carried on a 40-year relationship that was often described as stormy and loud.
As Peggy Fears aged, dementia took hold of her once sharp mind. Perhaps in the ’80s (not sure on dates here) she became a resident of Rockhaven Sanitarium. It’s said that long-time lover Tedi Thurman, now living with a partner in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, continued to visit the older Peggy, roaring up for visits on her motorcycle. Peggy retained her charm and poise into her senior years, and we’re told that the staff at Rockhaven enjoyed dressing up the cute and diminutive Peggy “like a little doll.”
But there was a sad and poignant side to Peggy’s last years. Peggy’s dementia had robbed her of her ability to speak. The nurses would play old records for her that featured her once beautiful voice. In a brief moment of lucidity, Peggy would regain control of her memory and her vocal chords, just long enough to squeak out “That’s me!”
Peggy Fears died in 1994 at the age of 91. A wooden plaque was engraved with her name to join other names in Rockhaven’s memorial rose garden, each plaque staked in the ground before a dedicated rose bush. Sadly, the rose plant for Peggy is neglected, gnarled and bare. But as the Friends of Rockhaven perform their monthly cleanup and gardening sessions, no doubt someone will take on a special task, and coax Peggy Fears’ rose bush into blooming once again.