World War II USO singer toured with Third Army, met Patton and Eisenhower
SARASOTA – Betty Lou Vucci was a teenage singer with a big voice, touring New England with a Dayton, Ohio-based orchestra, when she decided to join the USO.
Vucci, who was born in 1925, in Columbus, Ohio, went by Betty Lou Swartz – and was still several years away from adopting the stage name she used as a singer, dancer, actor and in-demand pin-up girl – Linda Lombard.
Organizers with the United Service Organization, the nonprofit founded to help raise the spirits and entertain servicemembers during World War II and better known as the USO, urged the 5-foot-3½-inch brown-eyed singer to perform under the name of Rosalinda.
The now 95-year-old Sarasota resident – her birthday is Nov. 28 – spent about a year as part of a six-member USO troupe that traveled about a year with the Third Army. In the most glamorous times, she met Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and actress/singer/humanitarian Marlene Dietrich, whose second tour with the USO crossed paths with Vucci’s.
Patton made the singer known as Rosalinda an honorary colonel; Eisenhower had a tailor alter her uniform jacket to fit trim around the waist as his did – after she said she liked it – and Dietrich didn’t say much to her at all.
“I spent two afternoons talking with them, both of them,” Vucci recalled. “They had to be nice, naturally, I thought they seemed fatherly.”
It wasn’t all that glamorous. Vucci got seasick on the journey from Boston to Liverpool on the Queen Mary, fainted when she saw Auschwitz after the war, and is still haunted by the fact that two Red Cross volunteers traveling with the troop were killed by German snipers.
“We traveled in a weapons carrier and usually slept on the floor in a sleeping bag or in the barracks,” she recalled. “We were travelling and we went into hospitals.
“One English boy, I was holding his hand and he died while I was holding his hand.”
Most of the shows were performed on a makeshift stage on the back of a truck.
“They made a ramp, and that’s where we’d do our shows,” Vucci said. “Our orchestra was an accordion player and when I sang, ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams,’ the boys would usually cry.”
In addition to the accordion “orchestra,” she traveled with a tap dancer, acrobat, juggler and comedian.
The USO troupe performed one and sometimes two 30- to 45-minute shows a day, ate a lot of beans and K-rations, Vucci recalled, then added she only took one true bath that year, using water from a helmet for sponge baths.
“You always hear the sound of the guns and the drums,” Vucci said.
She fondly recalled a one-week paid vacation in Paris, where, “the French boys put me on their shoulders and marched me down the Champs Elysees.”
Back in the U.S., while still with the USO, she performed shows for the Navy and for the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune – there, she was also “Miss Mennen Skin Bracer,” one of a dozen beauty titles she had earned.
Hollywood instead of Alaska
Vucci’s USO career ended, when she balked at heading to Alaska, where she thought it would be too cold.
Instead, she and another troupe member were on a week’s paid vacation, while deciding their next move.
Columbus, where, after her mother died when she was age 4 and was raised by an aunt, wasn’t really home anymore.
“I didn't have a home; I don’t have a family,” Vucci said. “One of the girls in the show was from a wealthy family, she said, let’s go to Hollywood.”
While in Hollywood, Vucci said she turned down Howard Hughes, because she feared a screen test was also tied to a romp on the casting couch.
“I never played that game,” she said, then later added, “I said, 'You don’t get two jobs for the price of one.'’’
Still, Vucci – Linda Lombard by then – was cast in small roles in several movies and sang in some clubs, including tours as singer in the Folies Bergère at the Tropicana in Las Vegas but eventually moved to the northeast, where there were more singing opportunities.
She toured in nightclubs in Pennsylvania, opening in shows for Danny Kaye and Milton Berle.
She eventually returned to New York and sang at several clubs, including the Latin Quarter, which still operates as “LQ” on Lexington Avenue.
Vucci approached modeling agencies but her height and proportions didn’t work in the fashion world. But she did find success as a Bombshell, pin-up model and made the covers of pulp novels and pre-Playboy glamour magazines.
She was also featured in Esquire Magazine and photos taken in 1949 for Life Magazine by photographer George Silk are still available for sale today – as are several images of her singing and dancing at the Latin Quarter and other clubs, though she does not receive any royalties from image sales.
“Latin Quarter was the club in New York,” Vucci said. “Then when my manager swindled me out of my life's earnings, I became depressed and gave up singing and became an office worker – legal secretary, medical secretary, statistical typist.
"And I found that I enjoyed it because I got the weekend off,” she added. “I always had to work seven nights a week.”
Vucci, who had one marriage annulled and a second husband die in an auto accident, eventually moved to Florida with her husband Joseph Vucci.
The couple, who had no children, first moved to Hallandale with and then Lauderhill before settling into a condominium off of Stickney Point Road 27 years ago.
Joseph Vucci died in 1996 at age 75, after a three-year struggle with ALS.
“I learned how to be a nurse,” she said, including how to use a Hoyer lift and suction machine.
Vucci is proud that she was blessed with “two voices,” a popular singing voice and an operatic one, with a 3½ octave range. Her best song, “Granada,” showed off that range. She once sang on TV with Italian opera star Ezio Pinza.
But for the troops in Europe, in World War II, her best song was the old 1924 Joe Brown standard “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
“When I sang ‘I’ll see you in My Dreams’ the boys would cry,” she said, then wistfully sang the first few lines: “I'll see you in my dreams. And then I'll hold you in my dreams. Someone took you right out of my arms..."
“They’d always cry, the audience.”
Earle Kimel primarily covers south Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be reached at email@example.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Betty Lou Vucci met Patton and Eisenhower while with the USO