April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

He was bald and clearly drunk. “Ann Sothern, you are so very wunnerful,” he slurred to the star of TV’s Private Secretary (1953-57), The Ann Sothern Show (1958-61) and, later, 1965’s My Mother the Car as she dined at Idaho’s Sun Valley Lodge in 1960. “Will you sign my head?” With the same wisecracking good humor she displayed as one of TV’s earliest spunky career gals, Sothern grabbed a pen and started scribbling. “She could have read him the riot act,” says her daughter, designer Tisha Sterling, 56. “But she was gracious and amusing. She took it in stride.”

In her 50-year career, the strong-minded North Dakota native, who died at 92 of heart failure at her Ketchum, Idaho, home March 15, covered plenty of ground: Ziegfeld dancer, Broadway ingenue and the star of 10 MGM Maisie movies, in which she played a tough, good-hearted Jill-of-all-trades. (Midway through the series Sothern, who, like her good friend Lucille Ball, felt perpetually undervalued in Hollywood, wanted out. No, studio head Louis B. Mayer told her. “Your movies pay for our mistakes.”) Coming out of virtual retirement in Ketchum, where she had been wintering since the ’40s, the twice-divorced star donned a red wig to play opposite Bette Davis and Lillian Gish in 1987’s The Whales of August. Though forced to use a cane after breaking her back in a 1974 stage accident, “she was sharp, sassy and funny,” says Whales producer Mike Kaplan of Sothern, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role. “Ann had incredible strength and willpower.”

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