In the starry eyes of many young women, Rudy Vallee was truly dreamy.
The New England bandleader, recording artist, radio host and movie actor rose to fame in the late 1920s, becoming one of the first teen idols in pop music as he sang through a megaphone and greeted crowds with a hearty “Heigh-ho, everybody!”
Suavely attired in a spiffy tuxedo, Vallee drove the girls wild with his distinctive crooning, blue-gray eyes and wavy, golden hair. He was the subject of a million fantasies when he sang such hits as I’m Just a Vagabond Lover, If I Had a Girl Like You, A Little Kiss Each Morning and Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.
As countless women dreamed of dating the twice-divorced Vallee, a former Wayne County farm girl frantically tried to distance herself from him in 1937.
“There’s nothing between me and Rudy Vallee,” brunette Valene Woodward, 26, told reporters about rumors to the contrary. “It’s terrible, it’s wicked, it’s ridiculous! Why, I met Rudy only once casually, at a party in Miami.
“I haven’t seen him since and he hasn’t seen me and he wouldn’t even recognize me if he did. I must have some terrible enemies to spread stories like that.”
Speculation that Woodward was engaged to marry Vallee created a national media frenzy with newspapers printing front-page photos of the supposedly happy couple.
Admittedly, “Valene Vallee” did have a nice ring to it.
Born in 1911, Hazel Valene Woodward was the daughter of John and Myrtle Woodward of East Union Township. She and her sister, Florence, grew up on the family’s 91-acre farm about five miles east of Wooster along the Lincoln Highway. Hazel attended Apple Creek schools, sang in the choir at East Union Lutheran Church and worked a desk job at the Bechtel Hotel in Wooster in her early 20s.
After a couple of years, she jettisoned her first name, moved to sunny Florida and landed a job as a cashier at the Fleetwood Hotel in Miami.
Rudy Vallee, who was booked to perform his NBC show at the Vanderbilt Hotel in Miami, was introduced to the beautiful Ohioan at an after-concert party. Something must have clicked.
Several months later, reporters and photographers descended on Wayne County.
“You can’t look at a man these days without people talking about marriage,” mother Myrtle Woodward told the Akron Times-Press. “Why, Valene was home just last week. She didn’t say anything to me about love and romance with that radio fellow. I’d know it first if there was anything to it.”
She did say that her daughter mentioned “how nice Mr. Vallee had been to her.”
Vallee called Valene from Boston and invited her to see him. He even paid for her airplane flight from Miami.
Harvey Bechtel, proprietor of the Bechtel Hotel, was more forthcoming about his friend and former employee.
“You bet there is something to that rumor,” he said. “She told me all about her invitation to the Vallee home in Boston. She was so tickled she flew there by plane. And what’s more, she thinks Rudy is a fine fellow. She likes his family, too.”
Bechtel said Vallee would be lucky to land a sweetheart like Woodward.
“She is not only beautiful but she has class and is capable and efficient,” he said. “I think this romance business looks very favorable. And Rudy couldn’t do better. He is getting a fine girl.”
When asked for a comment, Vallee demurred, saying he and Woodward were “just friends.”
Woodward feared she would have a nervous breakdown if the national attention continued.
“I’ve suffered the tortures of Hades,” she told a reporter.
She also was horrified that articles kept listing her hometown as Apple Creek instead of East Union.
“I’ve never lived there in my life,” she insisted.
Woodward lamented that her big-city friends jokingly called her “Oak Orchard,” “Oak Beach” and other nicknames after the newspapers mentioned Apple Creek.
She particularly felt bad for her parents, who were upset with the idea of her betrothal to Vallee, a worldly man 10 years her senior.
“It’s too stupid,” she fretted. “It is getting so a girl cannot go out to dinner with a man without becoming engaged to him.”
Woodward wore dark sunglasses and looked like a movie star when she flew into Akron Municipal Airport in June 1937. She was annoyed to find reporters and photographers waiting for her.
“As she stepped from the plane, a tricky white sweater accentuated her voluptuous figure,” Beacon Journal reporter Helen Waterhouse reported. “High-heeled blue open-toed shoes finished off a pair of shapely legs. She also wore a polka-dot suit and a perky white hat.
“When she saw the reporters, she screamed and scampered madly across Shorty Fulton’s hedgerows and around the airport apron, attempting to avoid them.”
She scolded pal Harvey Bechtel, who was there to give her a ride, for tipping off reporters about the visit.
“Sure, I’m a sweet girl, but I don’t know Mr. Vallee,” she told a reporter before being whisked away to her parents.
Rumors quieted that summer. Reporters stopped pestering farmers. Woodward’s name gradually disappeared from gossip columns.
A year later, Vallee complained that living in the limelight was tiring. If he took action against tabloids, he was accused of seeking publicity. If he punched a reporter in the nose, he was accused of being a bully. Most of the time, it was better to keep his mouth shut, he said.
“An editor of a certain tabloid came to the home of a girl who happens to be a loyal friend of mine and offered to pay her handsomely if she would turn over letters I had written to her,” he told New York reporter Jane Dixon. “He even tried to inveigle her into suing me for breach of promise, promising to provide one of the cleverest lawyers in the game.
“I have the affidavits of both the girl and her mother as to what happened on that visit, but I have not used them. I am holding them in case that tab goes too far.”
In 1942, Valene Woodward went to work as a cashier at the Mayflower Hotel in Akron. She had moved closer to home to be near her ailing father. Her tabloid past followed her, but she had finally come to grips with it.
“I’ve grown up, you see,” she told the Beacon Journal. “But I’ll always think that Rudy is one swell guy. And we will always be friends.”
Decades later, Rudy Vallee confessed to having romantic liaisons with nearly 150 women, living up to his nickname as “The Vagabond Lover.” In 1986, he died of throat cancer at age 84 in North Hollywood, leaving behind his fourth wife, Eleanor, who he married in 1949.
In 1993, an 82-year-old woman named Hazel V. Woodward passed away at Shady Lawn Nursing Home in Dalton. The retired business manager for several hotels was single and didn’t have any children.
Once the subject of national gossip, Valene finally found the obscurity that she desired.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.