Eli M. Oboler Library
Department of Special Collections and University Archives
A Brief Biography of Edward Manson Stevenson (1906-1968)
By Trent Clegg
Edward Manson Stevenson was born in Pocatello, Idaho at his family's residence on the 13th of May 1906 to Mr. Andrew B. Stevenson (1865 - 1919), then superintendent of the Idaho Division of the Oregon Shortline Railroad, and Mrs. Jeannie Dolly Uhland Stevenson (d. 1951). Although Edward was the only child of the couple, his mother, a widow until her marriage to Mr. Stevenson, already had two sons from a previous marriage, Thomas Harper Uhland and Frank A. Uhland.
Edward lived in Pocatello, attending the St. Joseph School and Pocatello High School, until 1922, when he moved to Hollywood to gain relief from a chronic respiratory ailment. He finished his schooling at Hollywood High School. While still in school, his neighbor, Lova Klenowsky, a cousin to screen sensation Gloria Swanson, became aware of his artistic abilities and introduced him to André Andreive (1886 - 1966), better known as "André-Ani", world famous fashion designer. From that moment onward, Edward was swept into the Hollywood fashion and design community.
Stevenson's first job in the industry was as a sketch artist for Norma Talmadge Productions realizing the design ideas of others. He was also, however, allowed to create some designs of his own, some of which were included in the company's productions of the time, most notably The White Moth with Barbara La Marr.
The next year, 1925, Stevenson worked as assistant to André-Ani at MGM, designing for Greta Garbo. Following that assignment was a two-year-long stint at Fox designing for the likes of Janet Gaynor and Alma Rubens. Finally, in 1928 through the influence of another Fox actress, Louise Fazenda, Stevenson landed his first big contract as a designer with First National, quickly becoming the head of the department. His reign there was brief, however, as the studio was purchased by Warner Bros. in 1930, and although things seemed well initially, Stevenson left when his contract expired, upset over his lack of screen credit to the point of a lawsuit.
Between 1931 and 1935, Stevenson found work in a variety of places, designing for Hal Roach Studios, as well as Columbia Pictures, also setting up his own shop, called Blakely House which designed street clothes for the stars and those who admired them. In 1935, Stevenson started working as assistant to Bernard Newman at RKO. When Newman couldn't handle the pressure of designing for Hollywood, he went back to New York to design at Bergdorf's, recommending that Stevenson be promoted into the top spot. Thus began one of the longest associations in Stevenson's career. From 1936 to 1950, Stevenson helmed the costume department of RKO, designing for such films as Gunga Din, Love Affair with Irene Dunne, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Sinbad the Sailor, The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, It's a Wonderful Life, Cheaper by the Dozen, and The Mudlark. Although he would occasionally return to RKO until 1956, Howard Hughes' management was distasteful to Stevenson and he sought work elsewhere when his contract expired in 1950.
1950 was a watershed year in another respect. His work on that year's The Mudlark with Irene Dunne, as well as on 20 Century Fox's David and Bathsheba, landed him his first Oscar nominations, for Black and White Costume Design and Color Costume Design respectively. He lost in both categories, but after thirty-six years of solid and often brilliant work in the industry, he was finally getting the recognition from his peers that had long eluded him.
Sources disagree about the year, but between 1951 and 1953, Stevenson underwent cataract surgery. Although he had to work with magnifying devices from then on, it took him out of the game only briefly, for in 1954, he was called to work again by Lucille Ball, a former 'B' movie actress who had worked with Stevenson in the heyday of RKO and now was revolutionizing the infant world of television with her sitcom, I Love Lucy. From that year to the end of his life, the designer worked for The First Lady of Television, exclusively so from 1960 onward. In fact, it was for work on a Lucille Ball film, The Facts of Life (1960), that Stevenson finally won his solitary Academy Award, for Black and White Costume Design, in tandem with his colleague and competitor, Edith Head.
Television was an enjoyable challenge for Stevenson and he did some of his most imaginative work during this period. Ms. Ball reciprocated 'Eddie's' devotion until the day he died of a coronary, 2 December 1968, fittingly while shopping for fabric on La Cienega Boulevard.
Edward Stevenson was an innovator: designing for the first two-strip Technicolor musicals, taking part in the creation of a unique relationship between Hollywood designers and New York retail shops, helping the television world's costume departments get on their feet. He was also, by all accounts, a quiet man of good humor who touched the lives of those around him, most often for the better.