Dona Drake was born Eunice Westmoreland in Miami, Florida, in 1914 to Joseph Andrew Westmoreland of Arkansas and his wife, Novella Smith of Alabama. She was one of their five children. Entering show business in the 1930s, she used the names Una Velon, Rita Rio and Rita Shaw. She settled on the stage name Dona Drake in the early 1940s. Studio publicity during her heyday incorrectly stated that Drake was of Mexican origin and was born Rita Novella. (Novella was actually her mother’s first name.) U.S Census reports of her family history show her grandparents were one Black couple and one couple that was Black/White. Because of her features and dark curly hair, film makers often cast her when they needed to fill the role of an ethnic character that looked native, gypsy, or middle eastern. . She is perhaps best known for playing the American Indian maid of Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest. She also appeared as an Arab girl opposite Bob Hope in Road to Morocco in 1942. In 1944 she appeared in a B-movie titled Hot Rhythm as one of the leading characters, a big band singer. This movie featured Irene Ryan (Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies) as the ditsy secretary. She had a notable “non-ethnic” role as the second female lead in the 1949 comedy The Girl from Jones Beach, playing opposite Eddie Bracken. The year before she gave a memorable comic performance as the fortune hunting sister in So This Is New York. In the early 1940s, Dona Drake toured with an all-girl orchestra called “The Girl Friends” throughout the United States. Fellow actresses Marie Wilson, Toby Wing, and Faith Bacon were also part of the orchestra.
In 1936, Drake was questioned by the FBI about the murder of her then-boyfriend and known mobster, Louis Amberg. She claimed to only know him as “Mr. Cohen” and had no idea what he did for a living. Dona Drake married fashion designer William Travilla August 19, 1944. They were married until her death and had one daughter, Nia (b. August 16, 1951 – d. October 1, 2002). William Travilla appeared on the 24 March 1960 episode of “You Bet Your Life”, hosted by Groucho Marx; he introduced his elegantly-dressed wife, Dona, to the audience. Dona Drake died in Los Angeles, California on June 20, 1989 at the age of 74 of pneumonia and respiratory failure. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea.
- November, 15, 1914
- Miami, Florida
- June, 20, 1989
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- pneumonia and respiratory failure