Who was Eddie Dowling? Niece shares memories of local legend

Who was Eddie Dowling? Niece shares memories of local legend

Bea Whitman, of Cumberland, holds up a photo of her uncle Eddie Dowling and his wife Rae. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

LINCOLN – A stretch of Route 146 in Lincoln bears the name “Eddie Dowling Highway,” while a shopping center in North Smithfield is called “Dowling Village,” but who in the world was Eddie Dowling?

To most, Dowling was a small-town boy from Lincoln who made it big as an actor, screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, director, producer, songwriter and composer.

To Cumberland resident Bea Whitman, he was simply her Uncle Eddie.

“The first time I realized he was famous was the ribbon-cutting on the highway,” Whitman recalls, when in the 1960s a portion of the highway running parallel to Old Louisquisset Pike was ceremoniously named after her great-uncle.

Items from Whitman’s collection of memorabilia tell the story of his career, which propelled him from his small home in Lincoln to Broadway stardom.

Dowling was born Joseph Nelson Goucher in December of 1889, the 14th of 17 children born to his French-Canadian father and Irish mother. Professionally, he feared his surname was “too French, and would keep him from working with people who were not,” Whitman said, and he instead adopted his mother’s maiden name, Dowling.

Whitman’s grandmother was Dowling’s youngest sister.

“They were born in the little red house at the corner of Harris and Louisquisset,” she said of the home that’s still there today. “My grandma called it the chicken coop.”

“They always had a very, very close bond,” Whitman said. “And he always took the time to come home. Some of my fondest childhood memories were listening to my grandmother sit and sing my uncle’s songs to us.”

Asked for her earliest memory of her Uncle Eddie, she said it was his singing.

“He’d stand in the kitchen and he’d belt out a tune,” she said, admitting, “I never personally thought he had a great voice, but who am I to judge … but my grandmother would sing along with him and that was a wonderful thing. That always kept us going.”

Her uncle, in her words, “always sang. Even as a kid, he sang on the sidewalks of Woonsocket for pennies.”

He was self-educated after grade 3, and took a job at age 11 on the Fall River Line as a cabin boy, later serving the same role on the Muaretania and Lusitania.

“The Lusitania was his first big thing. My grandma would say, ‘he went off and sang on the ship,” Whitman said.

Then, Dowling joined the boys’ choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He made his Broadway debut in 1919 in “The Velvet Lady,” the same year he danced in the “Ziegfeld Follies,” where he met his wife-to-be, Rae Dooley.

Whitman fondly recalls her Aunt Rae, who taught her how to cartwheel.

“She was very acrobatic. She would be flipping cartwheels out on the lawn well into her 70s. I always thought that was the greatest thing,” she said.

Dowling went on to produce a number of musicals and plays, to direct Shakespeare’s Richard II, and made his debut as a dramatic actor in 1938.

He became close friends with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he met through New York Gov. Al Smith, stepping away from the theater for a short time to work on Roosevelt’s presidential campaign.

In an interview, Dowling once said, “When Mr. Roosevelt won the election in 1932, I was to have the patronage of Rhode Island. I thought of going into politics, but my mother, God bless her soul, said: ‘Eddie, don’t get mixed up in that stuff!’”

“He was very, very political,” Whitman said, “… but we never discussed politics in the house.”

When Dowling’s mother died, the White House sent a wreath and a military flyover for her burial.

Dowling and his wife Rae Dooley had two children together, Maxine and John.

“They visited home often,” Whitman said. “He never forgot his family. He was extremely wealthy for that time and helped all of his nephews and nieces buy land and build houses. He never, ever forgot where he came from.”

She suspects he died close to penniless.

In 1941, Dowling sent a limousine to fetch his mother and bring her to The Biltmore for one of his shows. His sister accompanied them, and they dined on buffalo blue china.

When Dowling’s mother died, The Biltmore sent out service for 12, the original buffalo blue china they had dined on, to his youngest sister. That set now belongs to Whitman.

Whitman said she tries to keep her uncle’s memory alive. She’s always looking for memorabilia commemorating Dowling’s career. Her collection includes original playbills, sheet music and contracts bearing Dowling’s signature.

She also has the original sign for the Eddie Dowling Highway from the day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He had stored it at her grandmother’s home after the dedication.

“My grandma, being the youngest of 17, talked about all of her brothers and sisters, but she glowed when she talked about Uncle Eddie. As far as she was concerned, he was the cat’s meow … there was no one more famous, more popular than him in her eyes,” Whitman said.

“She knew every word to every song. Before she died in her 90s, she’d sit there singing his songs, fall asleep in the middle, wake up and finish the song where she left off.”

Above all else, Whitman remembers her Uncle Eddie, who died in 1976 at age 86, as a “loving, family man.”

“Everything he did, he brought back to Lincoln, back to Cumberland. You’d never know he was a millionaire. But if you needed a quarter, he’d give you a dollar.”

“Everything he did came from the heart,” she said.

- Editor’s note: Our “In the know” feature explains things you pass by every day. Send tips on something you want to know more about to ethan@valleybreeze.com.

Eddie Dowling