The death of noted actress and singer Polly Bergen on Sept. 20 brought memories of a talented woman who succeeded in numerous venues and realms – from stage, to television, to Broadway, to even fashion, cosmetics and commercials.
In her younger years before she became famous, she was in numerous places as well traveling the country with her father’s work. And one of those places was Chattanooga.
While her similarly brief time in Knoxville and family connections there have received plenty of attention over the years, her ties to Chattanooga seem to have hardly been documented.
But in a 1951 newspaper interview when she was still a fledgling actress, she said Chattanooga was one of numerous places she lived as her father, William H.
Burgin, traveled the country as a construction engineer.
Other places they lived as she was growing up included Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Atlanta, Kentucky, Kansas City, Baltimore, Phoenix, Nevada and California.
She told the interviewer in the article on file in the Knoxville Public Library that she had attended about 40 different schools, with the most time spent in Richmond, Ind.
She listed Chattanooga second in the article after being born in Knoxville in 1930, so her time in the Scenic City must have been in the early 1930s. The family apparently did not stay in either city long enough to be listed in city directories for Knoxville and Chattanooga during that time, however.
So, the name of her father’s company or where the family lived in East Tennessee during the early years of the Great Depression is apparently lost except maybe to family members.
It is known that, while in Knoxville, the family lived in the Bluegrass community, which was near the current site of Pellissippi Parkway, between Westland and Northshore drives.
Some sources say she was born in a house in the Bluegrass community, while one old article said she was born at Fort Sanders Hospital by the University of Tennessee campus.
Her mother was Lucy Lawhorn Burgin, and Polly’s maternal grandfather, the Rev. J.W. Lawhorn, was a well-known Baptist preacher in Knox and Blount counties. Buried at Grace Cemetery near Northshore Drive in Knoxville, he and his wife, Annie S. Lawhorn, reportedly had 75 other grandchildren besides Polly.
Polly Bergen – originally named Polly Nellie Paulina Burgin after three of her mother’s friends, according to one old article -- reportedly visited a number of her Knoxville area relatives during the summers while growing up.
After using singing to launch her acting career, she eventually developed into a big star by the mid-to-late 1950s.
Her career would include winning an Emmy in 1958 for “The Helen Morgan Story,” starring in “Cape Fear” in 1962, being nominated for a Golden Globe for “The Caretakers” in 1963, being nominated for a Tony for “Follies” in 2001, and being nominated for Emmys in recent decades for “The Winds of War,” “War and Remembrance,” and “Desperate Housewives.”
The latter recognition came roughly 50 years after first being nominated for an Emmy.
She also had a variety show on which her singing father appeared, and she appeared on the “To Tell the Truth” game show and Pepsi-Cola commercials in her earlier years. More recent TV viewers remember her Poligrip denture cream commercials – which she probably smiled about making all the way to the bank.
Ms. Bergen knew where a bank was, as she also was a businesswoman who opened a women’s clothing store in Knoxville in 1959 called the Polly Bergen “4 Seasons” Dress Shop. It was originally located at 6113 Chapman Highway in Knoxville near Colonial Drive and was run by her mother.
During a November 1959 gathering sponsored by Hamilton National Bank and given in her honor at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in downtown Knoxville, she said she might open a chain of stores if that one proved successful. She also planned to offer plenty of input and ideas regarding the business’ operation.
By then her parents were retired and had moved back to Knoxville and lived for a period at 6914 Stone Mill Road near Westland Drive.
A second store was later opened on the main strip in Gatlinburg.
The first store later relocated to 6504 Kingston Pike on Bearden Hill in West Knoxville, where it was in business from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. Today, Fleetwood Photo and Digital is at the address, and Fleetwood official Frank Distefano said his business is in the same building where the dress shop was.
Ms. Bergen also had some other businesses, including a line of cosmetics called “Oil of the Turtle.” Her motivation for that had been that she had problems with dry skin. The line premiered at the Millers in downtown Knoxville on Henley Street.
She also started a line of imitation jewelry because she kept leaving hers in hotel rooms, and she also had a shoe line and wrote books.
The red-headed Ms. Bergen was married and divorced three times and had two adopted children and a stepchild. The first marriage was for five years to fellow Knoxville resident Jerome Courtland. Born Courtland Jourolmon Jr. and a member of a prominent Knoxville family, he enjoyed some moderate success on TV in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Ms. Bergen – who got her start singing hillbilly/country songs and later starred in some early Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies – later married Freddie Fields and converted from being a Southern Baptist to Judaism. Her third husband was Jeffrey Endervelt.
She also made a number of appearances over the years in Knoxville, including in 1989 while being inducted into the East Tennessee Hall of Fame for the Performing Arts at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville. That same day she also attended a reception at a posh Sequoyah Hills home in West Knoxville hosted by Planned Parenthood, one of several liberally focused organizations or causes she supported.
However, according to Mary Helms at the local history department of the Chattanooga Public Library, no record of any public appearances in Chattanooga after she became famous could be found.
But she was one of those like fellow non-natives Hugh Beaumont of “Leave It To Beaver” fame and Jim Nabors of “Gomer Pyle,” who at least spent some time in Chattanooga before becoming famous on the big or little screen.
And perhaps she was also thinking of Chattanooga as well as Knoxville when she stated at her 1989 Hall of Fame induction, “I believe everything that made me what I am came from the people of East Tennessee. They taught me what hard work was all about.”