A direct descendant of Union General Philip Henry Sheridan, Clara Lou Sheridan—the youngest of her mechanic father and homemaker mother’s five children—was born February 21, 1915, in Denton, Texas.
After completing Denton Junior High School, Sheridan enrolled in North Texas State Teachers College where she studied art, but eventually found her calling in the drama department.
In 1932, Paramount Pictures held a contest, a publicity stunt for the studio’s upcoming film Search for Beauty. Sheridan—her sister Kitty had signed her up—was one of 30 selected for a Hollywood screen test, which resulted in 10 seconds of fame in the movie and a six-month contract paying $50 a week.
Not particularly fulfilling, the remainder of the contract included appearances in plays staged for studio executives. One of those plays, The Milky Way, started her Hollywood star climbing, but it was suggested that Clara Lou Sheridan perform under a name that fit better on a marquee. She adopted her character’s name, becoming Ann Sheridan.
Her movie career was sporadic. Her relationship with Paramount ended in 1935. She made one film with Universal before landing at Warner Brothers working opposite the likes of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces.
In 1939, another movie studio publicity stunt—this time by Warner Brothers—earned her a nickname that stuck. The studio’s motivation for the contest was gossip columnist Walter Winchell’s comment that Sheridan had “umph,” after seeing Angels with Dirty Faces. Warner Brothers assembled a team of judges charged with finding America’s “Oomph Girl.”
Though her competitors were beauties—Carole Lombard and Hedy Lamarr among them—the judges declared Sheridan the winner of the contest. The title made her a favorite pinup, but didn’t sit well with the actress who said the nickname was the sound an “old man makes when bending to tie his shoes.”
During her years with Warner Brothers, she toured with the USO to entertain GIs overseas. During a stop in China, she impressed one pilot, signing his plane in chalk rather than the “short snorter bill” he’d offered.
Another China stop brought her the ultimate compliment from the men of the 491st Bombardment Squadron, 341st Bombardment Group. Technical Sergeant Francis E. Strotman was charged with painting Sheridan’s likeness on a B-25, using house paint and a frayed rope on a stick for a brush, according to a recounting his son, retired Air Force Master Sergeant Tony Strotman, posted on ArmyAirForces.com.
“I had no photo of Ann Sheridan, but I knew she was a sexy red head and my paint job emphasized that hair. … As the jeep passed by … there she was, in all her glory—an unkempt dishwater blonde,” the senior Strotman remembered.
As Sheridan approached the 1950s, she shifted her artistic efforts to television, appearing in the daytime soap opera Another World, before landing a role on the 1966 CBS sitcom Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats, though she didn’t finish the first season of the show after a diagnosis of esophageal cancer that claimed her life January 21, 1967.
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.