March 14, 1904 – May 11, 2010
Doris as a young play actress
In response to my letter, Ms. Eaton sent me a copy of her book accompanied with a note. She was 105 at the time.
The note read:
I’ve enclosed a copy of my book which will provide you with many stories and pictures.
I attribute my long life to always having a goal and being able to adapt to changes. I’ve also been supported throughout my life with the study of Christian Science.
Doris Eaton Travis
After reading The Days We Danced, it is clear what Ms. Travis means by adaptability to change. Doris and her siblings began acting in local plays and quickly moved to larger venues. She joined the Ziegfeld follies in 1918 at 14 years old (they were lead to believe she was 16) where her sister Mary was already a star. Throughout her career she appeared in many plays and even sang “Singin’ in the Rain’. She also had the opportunity to appear in a silent film.
As movies became more and more popular, vaudeville acts were slowly being replaced. Many talented women had a difficult time transitioning to film once they aged out and vaudeville lost its popularity.
While Doris struggled to pay her bills and fewer and fewer jobs became available, she came upon the chance to teach at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. She eventually owned many of the studio franchises throughout Michigan. This venture provided her with many years of joy and a steady paycheck’s worth of independence. Unfortunately, this too eventually led to hardships as the company went bankrupt and Doris did her best to salvage what was left.
She knew Babe Ruth!
While it seems like Ms. Eaton had already lived two lifetimes, she had more change in store. Doris and her husband moved to Norman, Oklahoma and owned a horse ranch. For real. This turned out to be pretty successful for them. Living in a college town, home of the University of Oklahoma, she decided her 70’s would be an excellent time to pursue her college education. And really, who wouldn’t think that?
Now don’t think she gave up dancing. She taught friends to dance in Norman and they began having extravagant show parties. And in 1997 at 93 years old, she and 4 other Ziegfeld Folly girls were invited to the reopening of the New Amsterdam Theater. Doris Eaton Travis was the only one still able to dance. Such appearances continued including benefits performances, such as the Easter Bonnet AIDS benefit (below).
Dancing on Broadway in 2001
When Doris mentions adaptability to changes in her letter she wasn’t kidding. When you live as long as she had you don’t have a choice but to continually change. The great thing is that she clearly was not afraid to remake herself over and over.
Let’s not forget her mention of the other ‘secret’ to her incredible long life. The Christian Scientice Church is a denomination founded by Mary Baker Eddy, following her major work Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures which is drawn from the Christian Bible. Christian Scientists believe in prayer for healing over medical practices, but church members are free to choose in such circumstances. They are well known for avoiding modern medical care.
Doris’ lifelong love of dancing could have attributed to her on-going mental capacity. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, dancing is the only physical activity that decreases the incidence of dementia. Living a long life without the onset of dementia is what is makes Doris so spectacular.
Having only skimmed the surface of her extraordinary life, I would recommend reading The Days We Danced if you are interested in learning more about the Eaton family and Doris Eaton Travis herself.
Travis, Doris E. The Days We Danced: The Story of My Theatrical Family from Florenz Ziegfeld to Arthur Murray and Beyond. Marquand Books. Seattle. 2003
Verghese, J., R.B. Lipton, M.J. Katz, et al. Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly. New England Journal of Medicine. 2003; 348; 25; 2508-2516
Full disclosure. I am a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and people that obtain a degree there are a little bit better than everyone else. (This has not been studied yet, unfortunately).