ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) - Through the decades much has been made of Marilyn Monroe’s beauty. Dr. LeRoy Nisson, however, was only interested in her chompers.
“Marilyn had the most beautiful set of teeth,” said the 94-year-old retired dentist who counted the starlet among his patients.
Originally from Washington City, the future dentist to the stars inherited a southern California celebrity dental practice early in his career. Clark Gable and Howard Hughes were also among his patients. Now retired in St. George, he has outlived almost all of them.
Among his many memories of Monroe was a time when she asked him to make her teeth whiter - a request extended from the director of her movie at the time. Nisson thought it was nonsense.
“Yours are the best set of teeth I’ve ever seen,” he remembered telling her. “Go back and tell that to your director.”
A room in the basement of Nisson’s St. George home is filled with photos of his celebrity patients, many of them signed with messages to the dentist. He and his wife, Janice, call it their “Hollywood Room.”
Nisson says Monroe wasn’t even his most beautiful celebrity patient. That title goes to the actress Olivia de Havilland, one of the few still alive today at age 98.
“She was a good-looking girl,” Nisson said of de Havilland, who appeared in “Gone With The Wind.” ”I think she was better looking than Marilyn.”
Janice didn’t meet most of her husband’s celebrity patients. Nisson enjoyed a friendship with these celebrities but didn’t tout his connections to them. Even now, their photos are in a small room in the basement, not displayed prominently where the Nissons have entertained guests through the years.
But Janice did get to know the actress Ginger Rogers, who became a lifelong friend of the Nissons and even traveled to St. George in 1974 at their request to serve as grand marshal of the Dixie College Homecoming Parade.
“She flew out from New York,” Janice said. “When we put her back on the plane in Las Vegas, she said, ‘You know, Roy, I did this just for you.’”
His office’s proximity to the southern California film industry was only part of the reason for the celebrity clientele. The other reason was a case of being in the right place at the right time and having the right qualifications, Nisson said.
He had a rural upbringing in Washington City at a time when the word “city” could hardly be applied to the agriculture-based town. They didn’t have indoor plumbing or air conditioning. He remembered moving his bed outside at night to sleep better during the hot summers.
Eventually they did get the “blessing” of running water in their home.
“You didn’t have to run to the bathroom out behind the corral,” he said.
After graduating from Dixie High School he went on to Dixie Junior College, where he became reacquainted with his future wife, Janice. She was dating another man at the time, but her boyfriend was eventually called to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I’m grateful for missionary work because they sent him on a mission,” Nisson said with a sly smile.
Young Roy - as he is known to family and friends - and Janice eventually married, and he went on to Brigham Young University and eventually the School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California. Following graduation in 1946 he became an instructor at USC in operative dentistry.
In 1950 he joined the United States Air Force and served as a dentist at Edwards Air Force Base, eventually attaining the rank of major. While serving at Edwards he had the opportunity to become acquainted with the test pilots there, including Chuck Yeager, who had broken the sound barrier only a few years earlier.
After his tenure in the Air Force, Nisson began looking for a place in southern California to open a private practice. While traveling through the greater Los Angeles area, Nisson came across a medical building with a Dr. George Hollenback listed among its occupants. Hollenback was widely known for his dental research and technical advancements in the field - the equivalent of a celebrity among his fellow dentists.
So Nisson took a chance. He parked the car, entered the office and nervously asked if he could meet Hollenback. An assistant granted his request.
“He spent two hours with me,” Nisson says.
While he treasured those two hours, he didn’t realize how they would later soon change his life.
After the meeting Hollenback decided to do some different kind of research and checked up on Nisson. After discovering the Utah-born dentist had received USC’s award for “Excellence in Operative Techniques,” he knew he had found an heir to his practice, which had collected many celebrity clients because of his notoriety.
“He said, ‘I’m retiring and I’d like to give you the practice,’” Nisson remembers.
That practice included close ties to Howard Hughes, who was so impressed with Hollenback’s work in metals that he had put his engineers at the dentist’s disposal and later financed a research laboratory named for Hollenback. As a result, Nisson inherited many patients with ties to Hughes, including his wife Jean Peters and other actresses Hughes championed, like Faith Domergue.
While Nisson was tending to the teeth of Gloria Swanson and Joan Bennett, his wife had a different type of special clientele. In addition to raising their five kids, the Nissons were known for taking in troubled children who needed a little help in life. Dozens of young people would live with them, some staying for weeks and others for years as Janice cared for them.
While her husband may have worked up close and personal with some of the most famous beautiful women in the world, the real star is in his life was clear.
Referring to college pageant photo of his wife, he said: “That’s better than Marilyn Monroe, isn’t it?”
Information from: The Spectrum, https://www.thespectrum.com
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