The Big Stink

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Actress Rochelle Hudson (left, pictured in a still from the 1940 movie, The Island of Doomed Men) raised a ruckus in 1935 when she made comments to national media that her hometown of Claremore had a foul odor. Photo courtesy John Wooley.
Actress Rochelle Hudson (left, pictured in a still from the 1940 movie, The Island of Doomed Men) raised a ruckus in 1935 when she made comments to national media that her hometown of Claremore had a foul odor. Photo courtesy John Wooley.

This month marks the 99th anniversary of the birth of an Oklahoma actress who may not be one of our state’s best-remembered film stars, but who, for a brief and intense moment exactly 80 years ago, grabbed international headlines with what was perceived as a crude and disparaging remark about her hometown of Claremore.

Interestingly enough, Rochelle Hudson, born on March 6, 1916, wasn’t even from Claremore, although many thought she was. Also, historians and others who know about Claremore in the 1930s would say she had a pretty good basis for her alleged comments.

But let’s not get ahead of the story.

The incident occurred a couple of weeks after Hudson’s 19th birthday (although some sources list her age as 18 at the time). By then, the striking Oklahoma City native was already a film veteran whose substantial list of credits included director William Wellman’s bare-knuckled Depression drama Wild Boys of the Road and the Mae West vehicle She Done Him Wrong (both from 1933), as well as ingénue roles in a pair of films starring fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers, Dr. Bull (1933) and Judge Priest (1934). A third Rogers film featuring Hudson, Life Begins at 40, was due to be released in April 1935, the month after Hudson’s faux pas. Sadly, Rogers died in the infamous plane crash with his friend and fellow Oklahoman, Wiley Post, four months later.

Eight decades down the road, it’s hard to imagine the height of Will Rogers’ fame. Not only was he one of the top newspaper columnists, humorists and radio stars in the world, he was also a huge box-office attraction, coming in as the No. 1 moneymaking movie star during that golden Hollywood year of 1934. In his movies, broadcasts, columns and personal appearances, he often found ways of acknowledging his hometown of Claremore, the county seat of Rogers County (named after Rogers’ father, a prominent Cherokee senator, judge and rancher).

 I received a mountain of mail, half of it condemning me and half patting me on the back for saying what I thought about my hometown.

Rogers’ internationally known connection with Claremore goes a long way toward accounting for its mischaracterization as Hudson’s hometown. After Hudson appeared in Dr. Bull, Rogers reportedly took a liking to the young actress, and his studio, 20th Century Fox, subsequently signed her to a new contract and put her in another couple of Rogers movies.

In those days of invented biographies and fan-magazine fictions presented as fact, studios did what they deemed necessary to make their contract players intriguing, and moving Hudson’s birthplace 150 miles northeast to capitalize on her connection with the biggest box-office draw in the country was well within the accepted boundaries of press agentry. The connection wasn’t entirely bogus; Hudson had family, including grandparents, in Claremore, and she’d visited the town often, but it was certainly strengthened for publicity’s sake.

The Tinseltown columnists did their part to cement this little deception. In the Jan. 9, 1934, installment of his syndicated column “Hollywood Gossip,” Dan Thomas wrote, “In Hollywood, nobody would even dream of comparing Will Rogers and Rochelle Hudson. But in Claremore, Okla., hometown of both, they are placed on about the same high plane.”

Of course, that wasn’t exactly true, and it certainly wasn’t the case after March 23, 1934, when the news wires suddenly erupted with reports of remarks Hudson had made during a publicity tour in New York City. Depending on which source you read, she either said, “I think my home town stinks,” “The city of Claremore stinks,” or, most damningly, “Claremore stinks. They have radium water there, and it stinks also. In fact, all small towns stink.”

Reports indicate that the statement, in one or other of the forms above, made headlines in New York itself. And the statement – considered far more vulgar in 1935 than it would be today – reverberated all across the country.

“You’d think I had uttered blasphemy,” she told Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in an interview released to newspapers for publication on Oct. 10, 1963, nearly 30 years after the fact.

“The studio was on the phone for me to come home before I said anything else. I received a mountain of mail, half of it condemning me and half patting me on the back for saying what I thought about my hometown.”

There weren’t a lot of back pats coming from Claremore. In fact, the people of Claremore seemed eager to make Hudson’s non-residency in the town a matter of public record.

“Claremore, Will Rogers’ home town, acknowledges him proudly,” began an unattributed United Press International story running on March 24, 1935, “but as for Rochelle Hudson, youthful film actress who told New York interviewers the town ‘stinks’ – the old-timers say she never lived here. Even her kinfolk say so…

“John Goddard, Miss Hudson’s uncle, a real estate man here, said ‘Rochelle never lived in Claremore.’ W.C. Kates, publisher of the Claremore Daily Progress, said he had been here forty years and never heard of Miss Hudson until a film company [undoubtedly 20th Century Fox] began sending out publicity to the effect that she was from Claremore.

“‘Will Rogers sort of pushed her along and now she’s pushing us in the face,’ said Mayor J.M. Davis.”

Lost in all of this was the good reason for Hudson’s comment. At the time, Claremore was famed for its mineral waters, said to have curative powers. People came from all over the world to bathe in them, hoping for relief from various ailments. Next to the city’s most famous son, the waters were what the Rogers County town was most famous for – and all of those “radium baths” gave the town a distinct and memorable odor.

Still, Hudson knew she’d blundered – and, more to the point, so did 20th Century Fox. The day after Hudson’s comments ran, the Associated Press released a story indicating her deep sense of penitence – whether real, studio-ordered or a bit of both.

“Rochelle Hudson,” it began, “the budding movie star from Oklahoma who went to New York for a taste of sophistication, apologized today to Claremore, erstwhile home of herself and Will Rogers, the comedian, emphatically denying she ever used such a horrid word as ‘stinking’ to describe it.

“This is the import of a letter received here today from Mrs. Mae Hudson, mother of Rochelle, who explained:

“‘Rochelle was talking about the radium water in Claremore. We were all chatting about it and explaining the wells and the odor. Imagine our surprise when we read that headline.’”

The piece ended snidely, noting that Hudson was “on her way back to Hollywood now, ending her short search for sophistication.”

Hudson herself told another wire-service writer at the time, “Apparently, I was in Claremore before the wells were capped. Before they put caps on them you could smell the odor all over town.”

Rogers himself also stepped up for Hudson, “asserting,” according to an April 3, 1935 AP story, “he did not believe Miss Hudson had said anything uncomplimentary to Claremore.”

Noting Hudson’s gaffe in his Whatever Became of . . . ? Vol. III (Ace Star, 1970), film historian Richard Lamparski wrote, “Women’s clubs threatened to ban her films and the studio was beside itself.”

But the controversy eventually blew over, and Hudson went on to a long career in movies and TV, continuing to act until a few years before her 1972 death at age 55. She was, in fact, in the midst of a small comeback in 1963, when Bob Thomas talked to her for the story quoted above. And in the course of the interview, Thomas wrote, he felt compelled “to ask her one question.”

“Yes,” she answered. “It still stinks.”

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