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For Seniors : Rhonda Fleming Now Star of Real-Life Drama Aiding Cancer Patients

Once upon a time there were two sisters.

One was beautiful, like her fashion-model mother. One wasn’t.

One had the life of an international movie star, with leading men like Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. The other was a housewife in Sacramento.

They had one thing in common: the spirit to go on with life, no matter what the obstacles. One died in the struggle. The other dedicates the rest of her life to the memory of her sister, so that others do not have to go through their nightmare.

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Rhonda Fleming knew that her sister, Beverly, had a rare form of ovarian cancer. She was living with it for over a decade and seemed to be doing well. Then there was the phone call and Fleming remembers the voice on the other end. It didn’t sound confident anymore.

“Her husband had died six months before,” she said. “Her children were scattered all over the country. Our mother had just died. There was just the two of us. I was always the brat she had to take with her when we were kids. And here she was, the older sister, asking me what she should do about having surgery.”

What happened next is classic Rhonda Fleming. Never mind that she knew nothing about cancer, cancer surgery or the facilities and professionals who could help. She sat down at the telephone and 12 hours later--at the urging of her husband, Ted Mann--she finally got up.

“I felt a thousand pounds on my shoulders,” she said. “Who to call? So I called everyone. I just dived in.”

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There were other things going through her mind, too. It was always Beverly who called her and gave her strength. It was Beverly she knelt with and prayed with when she lost everything in a bad marriage.

“I was 49, had nothing,” she said. “I was part of the studio system, which was like a protective family. That was over, too, and now I was unprotected. I was wiped out. My sister said to me: ‘Where’s your backbone?’ It turned out that it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I finally woke up. . . . My sister would have killed for me and now I had to keep her alive,” she said.

There was nothing in Rhonda Fleming’s life to prepare her for taking care of her sister.

The first half of her life was a fairy tale. She was discovered by a talent scout on her way to Beverly Hills High School. She had a certain presence--maybe it was her height--that exuded confidence.

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In truth, she was about as naive as many other teen-agers in pre-World War II America. She had received no acting lessons. And in spite of being scared to death, she went on.

“I was cast as a nymphomaniac in ‘Spellbound,’ with Ingrid Bergman,” she said. “I didn’t even know what a nymphomaniac was. My mother and I had to look it up in the dictionary.”

When Technicolor was invented, Fleming, with her red hair and sparkling blue eyes, was an immediate sensation. She was known as the “Technicolor queen” of Paramount Studios.

After 40 motion pictures, a mid-life debut on Broadway in Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women,” and assorted television parts, she is now starring in her own production: the newly opened Rhonda Fleming Mann Resource Center for Women With Cancer, at UCLA.

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“I’m not out to push me anymore,” she said. “These centers are in existence because, even though we had the best medical care, we had no psychological support. No one to turn to for the spiritual (support). No environment that was pleasant to be in while she suffered so. There wasn’t even a curtain in the examining room to hide personal things like your wig, or a prosthesis.”

The plaque at the reception area reads, “Beverly Louis Engle 1918-1990,” with a quote from her sister: “Make it a place of hope.”

And that’s what Fleming did. She chose the colors--mauve and pale green--the paintings, the furniture. Professionals in every area of psychological and social care, including death and the dying, are either on staff or on call.

Besides the center, there is also the “Insights Into Cancer” lecture series, where leading professionals make presentations to help women and their families live with and learn about cancer as well as get timely information.

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“Rhonda had a vision and we implement her vision,” said Anne Coscarelli, director of the center. “She worked out her grief by helping others. She’s here every week giving and getting hugs. Our center’s work is inspired by her words: ‘My prescription for all women with cancer is caring, compassion, communication and commitment.’ ”

The center is located at 200 UCLA Medical Plaza, Suite 502. There is no charge for women receiving cancer care from faculty and staff at UCLA. For more information, call: (310) 794 6644.


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