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June Allyson, sweetheart actress of the '40s #x0026;; '50s, dies

American GIs in World War II would pin up photos of Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, but June Allyson was the girl they wanted to come home to.

Allyson played the "perfect wife" of James Stewart, Van Johnson and other movie heroes, but when she died Saturday at her home in Ojai it was with David Ashrow, her real-life husband of nearly 30 years, at her side. She was 88.

She died of pulmonary respiratory failure and acute bronchitis after a long illness, said her daughter, Pamela Allyson Powell.

"I had the most wonderful last meeting with June at her house. ... We were such dear friends. I will miss her," said lifelong friend and fellow actress Esther Williams.

With typical wonderment, Allyson expressed surprise in a 1986 interview that she had ever become a movie star:

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"I have big teeth. I lisp. My eyes disappear when I smile. My voice is funny. I don't sing like Judy Garland. I don't dance like Cyd Charisse. But women identify with me. And while men desire Cyd Charisse, they'd take me home to meet Mom."

Allyson's real life belied the sunshiny image she presented in films of the '40s and '50s. As she revealed in her 1982 autobiography, she had an alcoholic father and was raised by a single mother in the Bronx. Her "ideal marriage" to actor-director Dick Powell was beset with frustrations.

After Powell's cancer death in 1963, she battled breakdowns, alcoholism and a disastrous second marriage. She credited her recovery to Ashrow, her third husband, a children's dentist who became a nutrition expert.

Born Eleanor Geisman on Oct. 7, 1917, Ella was 6 when her alcoholic father left. Her mother worked as a telephone operator and restaurant cashier. At 8, the girl was bicycling when a dead tree branch fell on her. Several bones were broken and doctors said she would never walk again. Months of physical therapy helped her to defy that prognosis.

"After the accident and the extensive therapy, we were desperate," Allyson wrote in her autobiography. "Sometimes mother would not eat dinner, and I'd ask her why. She would say she wasn't hungry, but later I realized there was only enough food for one."

After graduating from a wheelchair to crutches to braces, Ella was inspired by Ginger Rogers' dancing with Fred Astaire. Fully recovered, she tried out for a chorus job in a Broadway show, "Sing out the News." The choreographer gave her a job and a new name: Allyson, a family name, and June, for the month.

After her film career ended in the late '50s, Allyson starred on television as hostess and occasional star of "The Dupont Show with June Allyson." The anthology series lasted two seasons. In later years the actress appeared on TV shows such as "Love Boat" and "Murder, She Wrote."

For the last 20 years, Allyson represented the Kimberly-Clark Corp. in commercials for Depends and championed the importance of research in urological and gynecological diseases in seniors.

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The company established the June Allyson Foundation in honor of her work.

In 1988, she was appointed by President Reagan to the federal Council on Aging.

A private family memorial will be held in Ojai. A day of remembrance will be scheduled in the fall, her daughter said.

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