NEW  YORK TIMES - April 25, 1988

Irene Rich, Silent-Screen Actress And Radio Personality, Dies at 96


LEAD: Irene Rich, the urbane star of scores of silent films of the 1920's and a popular radio personality of the 30's, died of heart failure Friday at her home in Hope Ranch, Calif., outside Santa Barbara. She was 96 years old.

Irene Rich, the urbane star of scores of silent films of the 1920's and a popular radio personality of the 30's, died of heart failure Friday at her home in Hope Ranch, Calif., outside Santa Barbara. She was 96 years old.

With chiseled features, aristocratic bearing and a trim figure accented by smart gowns and coiffeurs, she was for more than two decades a role model for millions of American women.

She entered the movies as an extra in 1918, and once estimated that she had made more than 60 pictures. In seven, she was the upwardly striving wife of the humorist Will Rogers.

For more than a decade a national radio audience regularly tuned to her dramatic series, ''Dear John.'' For the Benefit of Grapes

Her sponsor was Welch's grape juice, and in succeeding years, her svelte image became indelibly linked with the product, which she winningly touted as the key to being slender. Welch's said she had increased sales by 638 percent, and she told an interviewer that the sponsor was ''frank enough to say that I have brought him so much business that it has just saved his shirt - I think it's kind of swell.''

The actress was born Irene Luther in Buffalo on Oct. 13, 1891, the daughter of William and Mabel Luther, who later moved to the isolated mining town of Stites, Idaho.

When her parents decided to send her to boarding school, she eloped at the age of 17. The marriage, to Elvo Deffenbaugh, produced a daughter, Frances, and ended in divorce in two years. She married Maj. Charles Rich of the Army, with whom she had a daughter, Jane. The couple were divorced four years later, and the 24-year-old Miss Rich began supporting herself and her two daughters by successfully selling real estate in San Francisco.

She went to Hollywood in 1918, became an extra in silent films and was soon playing leading roles with such actors as Dustin and William Farnum, Lon Chaney, Clive Brook, Ronald Colman and Lewis Stone.

Miss Rich later dismissed her screen image as ''the doormat in an endless series of domestic films,'' but she skillfully played a number of challenging roles, including a worldly Edwardian in the 1925 screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde's ''Lady Windermere's Fan.'' She was also the screen's first ''Craig's Wife,'' the antiseptic shrew who tormented Warner Baxter in the 1928 silent film of George Kelly's benchmark play. Portrayed Mothers in the 30's

Her comedies with Will Rogers included ''Jes' Call Me Jim'' (1920), ''They Had to See Paris'' (1929) and ''Down to Earth'' (1932).

By the 30's, Miss Rich invariably portrayed mothers, as in ''The Champ'' (1931), with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery, and ''That Certain Age'' (1938), with Deanna Durbin. Her later occasional film appearances included supporting roles in two 1948 epics, ''Fort Apache,'' directed by John Ford, and ''Joan of Arc,'' starring Ingrid Bergman.

In vaudeville, Miss Rich did nearly 5,000 performances in a dramatic sketch called ''Ask the Wife.'' On Broadway, Miss Rich was the nation's first female President, deftly cueing one-liners for the madcap comic Bobby Clark in the long-running musical ''As the Girls Go'' in 1948-50. Retired in 1950

The actress also had a talent for business. In the 30's and 40's she owned and operated a 300-acre stock farm outside Los Angeles, producing food, feed, poultry and livestock. Every phase of the enterprise showed a profit. In World War II, she served as a lieutenant in the Women's Ambulance and Defense Corps.

In early 1950, when ''As the Girls Go'' was about to end its Broadway run, Miss Rich was married to George Henry Clifford, a businessman, and announced her retirement. Mr. Clifford died in 1959.

In reviewing ''As the Girls Go,'' Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote that ''Miss Rich is a lady who presides over the whole rumpus with warmth, charm and good manners, and the show has the good taste to respect her quality.''

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




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