Jeanne Martin, a model and Orange Bowl queen who became the wife of singer and actor Dean Martin during the height of his fame, died Wednesday after a battle with cancer at her Beverly Hills home, her family announced. She was 89.
After marrying Dean Martin in 1949, the pair were one of Hollywood’s most photographed couples. Matriarch of their large family, she gave birth to three of Dean’s children while raising four more from his previous marriage. Their breakup in 1969 caused nearly as much distress to Martin’s fans as his professional split with partner Jerry Lewis had in 1956.
“Dean’s viewers knew he was a good husband and father and the booze-and-broads jokes were just part of the act,” wrote Lee Hale in the 2000 book Backstage at the Dean Martin Show, having served as musical director for the NBC program.
Born Dorothy Jean Biegger on March 27, 1927, in Coral Gables, Fla., she went by Jeanne when she began modeling in Miami. She was voted Orange Bowl queen in 1947. A year later, she came to the Beachcomber Club in Miami to see a New Year’s Eve show starring Martin and Lewis.
Jeanne maintained she had never heard of either entertainer until that night. She told author Nick Tosches for a 1992 biography of Dean Martin that upon seeing him on stage, “We locked eyes and I knew. We just fell madly in love.”
A week after Martin was granted a divorce from first wife Betty McDonald, he and 22-year-old Jeanne Biegger wed on Sept. 1, 1949, at the Beverly Hills home of Herman Hover, owner of famed Hollywood nightclub Ciro’s. Lewis was best man.
She was “the best thing (next to me) that ever happened to Dean,” wrote Lewis in a 2005 memoir, Dean & Me.
For 20 years, they were viewed as one of Hollywood’s happiest couples until on Dec. 10, 1969, Jeanne issued a statement that they were parting ways.
The divorce wasn’t finalized until 1972. Dean Martin was wed once more, to Catherine Hawn, a hair-salon receptionist, and legally adopted her daughter, Sasha, but that union ended in 1976. Jeanne Martin never remarried.
The pair became reacquainted in 1987 when one of their sons, actor Dean Paul Martin, was killed at 35 while piloting a military jet. Jeanne and Dean remained on good terms until his death from respiratory failure on Christmas Day 1995.
Eldest daughter Claudia Martin died of breast cancer in 2001.
Their youngest son, musician Ricci Martin, died on Aug. 3.
She is survived by son Craig Martin; daughters Gail Martin Downey, Deana Martin Griffeth and Gina Martin Romano; and 11 grandchildren. Funeral services will be private.