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“Show Girl”, a Thousand Islands Classic

Editor’s Note: Kim Lunman, writer and publisher of the an annual, print, magazine, Island Life, wrote Fancy That! And a Book Review… for TI Life in December 2010.

We were introduced to Irene Purcell and her life on Fancy Rock Island, near Rockport, ON. Kim’s story also included Fancy Rock’s current owner, New York author Ward Morehouse III, who, as she wrote, “took on an enviable project in the spring of 2009 – he checked in to more than two dozen of London's grandest hotels for some whirlwind research and the result was the book, London's Grand Hotels Extraordinary People, Extraordinary Service in the World's Cultural Capital.

Now Anthony Mollica II brings us this version of Fancy Rock history, capturing the story of what many think is  a “most interesting vintage boat”. On behalf of our TI Life readers, we thank you Kim and Tony for the history lessons!

The boating culture of the Thousand Islands is filled with many fascinating stories. Show Girl is the name of a pristine vintage launch that was built in the shop of the Hutchinson Brothers Boat Works in 1921. Her special story over the past ninety years is reflected by the name proudly painted on her transom. Today, Grindstone Island is the home port of this beautiful 27 foot launch.

The story begins in the summer of 1920 when the beautiful and talented stage actress, Irene Purcell, became engaged to Ives de Villers, a wealthy and handsome Canadian from Montreal. De Villars was so captivated by Irene that he frequently provided her with lavish gifts. It wasn't long before he proposed marriage and and when she accepted they announced their engagement. During their time together, they often enjoyed touring the Thousand Islands. As a special engagement gift for Irene, de Villars purchased a small island for her on the St. Lawrence River just across from the village of Rockport, Ontario. On the beautiful little island was a charming summer cottage. Irene was thrilled with the unusual gift and decided to purchase a sporty, long deck launch from the Hutchinson Brothers in order to commute to her little island in grand style. She was also responsible for giving the island the name it has to this day, Fancy Rock Island.


As the story unfolds, it was learned that later that summer that the young couple had a major disagreement. De Villers took such offense at Irene's position in their disagreement that while she was away performing on stage, he hired a construction crew to completely dismantle the cottage and remove it from the island. All that was left standing on Fancy Rock Island was the masonry chimney. Needless to say, when she returned to her empty island, their engagement was permanently over.

Irene's stage career continued and she enjoyed enormous success. She was charming, attractive and talented. By 1930 motion picture lookouts encouraged her to bring her talents to Hollywood for film tests. The studios saw great potential in her and she appeared in a number of films. Her films included many actors who would become stars such as Ray Milland, Laurence Olivier, Buster Keaton, Robert Montgomery, Jimmy Durante, and Adolphe Monjou. While performing in films she met Herbert Fisk Johnson, Jr. He was the C.E.O. of the Johnson's Wax and the third Johnson to head the company that had been founded by his great grandfather. The romance that followed would soon lead to their eventual marriage. She left her acting career and relocated in Racine, Wisconsin where the Johnson's Wax company was located. As a special wedding gift, Johnson commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 to design a magnificent fourteen thousand square foot home for them on a farm just outside Racine.

During World War II, Irene and her husband were very active raising money to support the War effort. They attended several special War Bond Benefit Dinners to raise funds. At one of these events that was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, Irene was seated at the same table with Joan Marlowe, a young aspiring actress,. During their conversations that evening, Marlowe talked about how she absolutely loved her recent visit to the Thousand Islands. When Irene heard this, she spoke right up and said, “If you love those islands so much, I have an island that I'll give you.” Joan Marlowe, was caught totally off guard, but composed herself and accepted the offer. For the exchange of one dollar, Marlowe became the owner of Fancy Rock Island. The transaction also included Irene's 27-foot long deck Hutchinson Launch.

Joan Marlowe's husband, Ward Morehouse, was an established and well respected theater critic. His popular column in the New York Sun, “Broadway After Dark,” was highly regarded. Their son, Ward Morehouse III, also became a writer and among the books he wrote was, “The Waldorf-Astoria: America's Gilded Dream,” in which he verifies the credibility of Irene's gift of Fancy Rock Island and the Hutchinson launch to his mother.

The Marlowes, lived in Manhattan, and were able to visit Fancy Rock Island and use the Hutchinson launch for several summers. They also liked to attend the National Motor Boat Show in Manhattan in January. During the 1950 Motor Boat Show, Joan spoke to Ray Rogers who, at the time, was a principal partner at Hutchinson Boat Works. Joan worked out a trade with Rogers where she could swap her Hutchinson launch for a 22-foot Dodge Watercar, a boat that she always admired.

After the deal was made, Rogers used the 27-foot Hutchinson himself for a few seasons until an accidental grounding resulted in some serious hull damage. The damaged boat was sold to Ernie Mance who knew he could handle the repairs. Mance decided to cut off the damaged vee transom and simply install a conventional transom. He also decided to remove most of the attractive long deck and convert the launch to an open fishing boat. After a few seasons he sold the launch to “Frenchie the Barber” who, in turn, sold it to Van's Motor Marine to be operated as one of their rental boats. After a couple years, Van's sold the boat to a doctor from Gananoque who planned to use it as his personal fishing boat.

In 1990 Bill Northup learned that the boat was for sale. He was aware of its interesting history and decided to purchase it to see if he could restore the boat to its original configuration. He determined that it was a bigger project than he anticipated and decided to find a buyer who would appreciate its history and have it restored professionally. He sold the boat to Martin Zonnenberg who had a strong appreciation for classic Hutchinson launches and knew this interesting example deserved to be restored. He even made contact with Joan Marlowe who supplied him original photographs of the launch. The old photos provided Ron Waterson, the professional restorer, with valuable information to guide his work. Zonnenberg's goal was to return the old launch to her original appearance and to give the boat an appropriate name that honored the talented actresses that were the two original owners. The name would be, Show Girl, and the challenging restoration project was a huge success. In 1998 “Show Girl” was selected as the Vintage Boat of the Year at the Alexandria Bay Boat Show. An exciting highlight during the Show was that Joan Marlowe was in Alexandria Bay to see her former boat receive the prestigious award. Today “Show Girl” still appears just like she did ninety years ago and is considered to be one of Thousand Islands most interesting vintage boats.

By Anthony Mollica

Anthony Mollica’s first wrote professionally in his teaching career in communications. Writing for pleasure evolved from his activities with the Antique and Classic Boat Society and the Antique Boat Museum as well as his life-long interest in the history of boat building in American. He has published articles in various marine periodicals including Classic Boating, ACBS Rudder, Gar Wood News, The Antique Boat Museum Gazette Annual, Motor Boating, Lakeland Boating and The Chris-Craft Brass Bell Quarterly. He is also the author of twelve published books, many of which are available in local book stores.  In September 2010, TI Life reviewed Building Chris-Craft: Inside the Factories”.  A book he wrote with Chris Smith, a member of the founding family.   (See Anthony Mollica on our Publications page)

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Parks Honeywell
Comment by: Parks Honeywell ( )
Left at: 8:26 AM Monday, March 5, 2012
As always, both Tony and Martin put their talents to work to reveal the culture and magic of the 1000 Islands.
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 4:03 PM Sunday, May 20, 2012