Obituaries : Irene Rich, 96; Star of Early Films, Radio

Times Staff Writer

Irene Rich, a glamorous actress who played Will Rogers' nagging wife in 1930s films and read radio's World War II-era "Dear John" letters, has died of natural causes. She was 96.

Rich, whom Rogers described as his "reel wife," died Friday at her home in the Hope Ranch section of Santa Barbara.

Born Irene Luther in Buffalo, N.Y., her entertainment career spanned silent and sound movies, vaudeville, radio and the theater.

She was a San Francisco real estate agent before she got her first movie job as an extra in Mary Pickford's "Stella Maris" in 1918.

"Extras back then got $3 a day," said her daughter, Frances Rich. "One day the man gave her a check for $3.50 and she said, 'You've given me too much.' He looked her in the eye and told her, 'You're a three-dollar-and-a-half-girl now.' "

Soon, she had graduated to starring roles in silent melodramas, usually portraying mature women of the world, and in short films with Rogers.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, she was playing Rogers' wife in talkies, including "They Had to See Paris," "So This is London" and "Down to Earth."

From 1933 to 1945, she was a popular radio star, reading "Dear John" letters to introduce and close Sunday-night episodes on the Welch's Grape Juice program.

"People were always asking who Dear John was. We played coy and said it was a family secret," said Frances Rich.

The term "Dear John" became soldiers' slang for mail from a lover breaking off a romance.

Later, Rich appeared in 21 Warner Bros. movies--including "Lady Windermere's Fan" in 1925, "Craig's Wife" in 1928 and "The Champ" in 1931. She also performed in several Broadway shows.

She retired from show business after her fourth marriage, to George H. Clifford, in 1950.

She is survived by two daughters, two grandsons and three great-grandchildren.

No services were planned.

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