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2024-01-23 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine The Rise and Fall of Gregg Dodge, Palm Beach Socialite for the Ages

The Rise and Fall of Gregg Dodge, Palm Beach Socialite for the Ages

The squandering socialite
BLONDE AMBITION A 29-year-old Gregg Dodge, dripping in jewels and fur on her husband’s dime, at Wimbledon in 1955
Photo by Keystone Press/Alamy Stock Photo

“I spit fire,” the defiant, controversial, and glamorous Gregg Dodge once declared. “I always have and always will.” A former pin-up model, actress, and party girl, Dodge also spit through husbands, money, and countless high-profile lawsuits.

All this drama — not to mention her bottle-blonde locks and heaving cleavage — were a far cry from her humble origins as Dora Mae Fjelstad, a small-town girl from Beloit, Wisconsin. After high school, Dora Mae hightailed it out of the Midwest, determined to reinvent herself. She enrolled in the John Robert Powers modeling school in Manhattan, dyed her tresses platinum, and changed her name to Gregg Sherwood (after the Gregg method of shorthand and Sherwood Drive in Beloit). She soon landed on the cover of Wink, a pre-Playboy “girlie” rag.

While Hollywood stardom alluded her — she peaked playing a showgirl in 1952’s The Merry Widow with Fernando Lamas and Lana Turner — Gregg used her screen siren looks to stay in the limelight, dating Joe DiMaggio and Dean Martin. After a brief marriage to a regular guy named Willy Zebell, she traded up and married Walter Sherwin, a ticket office manager for the New York Yankees. Soon after the wedding, Sherwin was charged with embezzling $43,000 from the team, which he claimed went to buy a home for Gregg’s parents in Beloit. Gregg quickly divorced him in Mexico. Within a year she landed an even bigger fish: Horace E. Dodge Jr., an heir to the Dodge Motor Company in Detroit.

At 52, Horace was almost twice her age and still married to his fourth wife when they started dating. The courtship was not without drama. Horace accused Gregg of stealing four of his expensive cigarette lighters and had her picked up by the police in a Detroit bus station. Theft aside, he divorced his wife and proposed to Gregg. They got married at his mother’s palatial Palm Beach estate, Playa Riente, in 1953. Horace made his new wife sign a prenup stating that she would get a million in a trust if she didn’t leave him. He had no idea how much of a headache she would become.

Now married to a multimillionaire, the new Mrs. Dodge became a fixture on the Palm Beach social circuit, photographed at black-tie parties with Bob Hope and George Hamilton. To play the role of society queen, she spent her husband’s money with wild abandon. Just a year after tying the knot and a few months before the birth of their son, John, the couple was hit with an avalanche of outstanding debts. The Nat Lewis Corp. sued for $125,000 in unpaid bills for two gold baby diaper pins, baby furniture, an electric train set, a diamond ring, and a diamond bracelet. Harry Winston also sued for $176,800 in jewelry. Horace claimed his wife bought much of the loot without his permission. By 1958, her relentless spending had the once-rich couple mired in debt. Horace’s mother, Anna Thompson Dodge, was forced to foreclose on the couple’s Palm Beach house to keep it out of the hands of creditors. This didn’t slow Gregg’s buying rampage. In ’61, she purchased a $21,500 platinum ring, $8,000 gold dinner plates, a $3,500 grand piano, and over $6,000 in clothes. Horace’s annual income was less than $200,000, but his attorney estimated Gregg’s spending exceeded $300,000 a year. He had to borrow $1.5 million from his mother to keep his wife in diamonds and furs. By ’62, Horace had had enough. “She’s a spendthrift. I can’t afford her,” he announced, and filed for divorce. A year later, he died with claims against his estate of $12.3million, but only $718,000 in assets. Gregg was pointedly excluded from his will.

Unwilling to step down from her perch atop Palm Beach society, Gregg sued her 93-year-old mother-in-law for $10 million, claiming Anna interfered in the marriage and turned her husband against her. Though there is no official record, Gregg claimed she won $9 million in an out-of-court settlement.

Like Elizabeth Taylor, Gregg liked to collect jewelry and husbands. At 41, she got hitched to her onetime bodyguard, 29-year-old Daniel Moran, a former NYPD officer with dark hair and matinee idol looks. Money continued to flow through her hands like a sieve. The newlyweds bought a home in Palm Beach just a few doors north of Mar-a-Lago and outfitted it with an expensive security system and two dogs for protection. The dogs ended up causing four lawsuits, one ending in a $10,000 settlement to an upholsterer who said she was badly bitten. Then there were the over-the-top parties she hosted to remain relevant. “I know Palm Beach. It’s a social battlefield,” she told a reporter. “Many people in Palm Beach think they’re social, but they’re just ticket buyers, meeting other ticket buyers. True society in Palm Beach is in the home.”

This went on for 13 years before it all came to a crashing halt. Initially, Gregg’s son John aided her finances, generously sharing the $5.7 million he inherited from his grandmother, Anna. But it wasn’t enough to keep the good times rolling. Gregg, her husband, and John (now 23) filed for bankruptcy in 1978. They were $3.5 million in debt but claimed to only have $330 in cash. The trio tried numerous business ventures to stay afloat, including buying a gold mine in Colombia they couldn’t afford to work and a string of failed apparel stores called the Clothes Horse. “You can’t find a business that they’ve been in that’s been successful,” quipped an acquaintance at the time. Unable to face his finances, Daniel Moran shot himself. Gregg was in the house when he did so.

After her fourth husband’s suicide, life only got tougher for Gregg Dodge. Debt forced her to sell off numerous properties, including an apartment in Manhattan (later owned by John DeLorean); a country house in Windsor, England; a house in the South of France; a 355-foot yacht called Delphine; and an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut (later occupied by Harry and Leona “The Queen of Mean” Hemsley). In 1979, accused of fraudulently obtaining a $75,000 loan from the United States Trust Company while looting more than $350,000 from John’s trust fund, she pleaded guilty to three counts of grand larceny. She was spared prison when John footed her $100,000 bail and asked the judge not to impose a jail term.

Effectively penniless, Gregg wound up in a small apartment in Palm Springs, Florida, far from the black-tie social swirl of Palm Beach and the jewelry shops on Worth Avenue. But her life still had hints of glamour. In 1986, she was featured in a Vanity Fair story titled “The Women of Palm Beach,” written by Dominick Dunne and photographed by Helmut Newton. “Mary Sanford and I used to run this town socially. Nobody gave a party without checking with us first,” she told Dunne. However, she and Sanford, then known as “The Queen of Palm Beach,” were no longer on speaking terms. “Gregg’s not allowed in anyone’s house,” a society maven told Dunne.

Gregg Dodge died in May of 2011 at the age of 87. There was a small graveside burial service at Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery in Royal Palm Beach. No socialites or movie stars attended. A local Wisconsin newspaper wrote a short obituary calling her a former showgirl who had married four times. The title of the article: “From Riches to Rags.”

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