How Tommy Dorsey, the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing, Died from a Tragic Accident

Tommy Dorsey was one of the most influential and popular bandleaders of the big band era. He was known for his smooth-toned trombone playing and his sentimental ballads. He had many hits, such as “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”, “Opus One”, “Song of India”, and “I’ll Never Smile Again”. He also collaborated with many famous singers, such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Ella Fitzgerald. He was the younger brother of Jimmy Dorsey, another bandleader and saxophonist, with whom he formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in the 1930s.

However, Tommy Dorsey’s life was cut short by a tragic accident on November 26, 1956. He died a week after his 51st birthday in his Greenwich, Connecticut home. What was the cause of his death? How did it happen? And what was the impact of his death on the music world? In this article, we will explore these questions and more.

The Cause of Death: Asphyxia

According to Dead or Kicking, Tommy Dorsey died from asphyxia, which is a condition where the body does not get enough oxygen. He had begun taking sleeping pills regularly at this time, from which he was so sedated that he died in his sleep from choking after eating a heavy meal.

The medical examiner, Dr. C. Stanley Knapp, ruled that Dorsey’s death was accidental. He said that Dorsey threw up while he slept, and food lodged in his windpipe and lungs. He also said that Dorsey’s vital organs would be sent to the state toxicology laboratory in Hartford, Connecticut, for analysis.

The police who were called to the scene agreed with the medical examiner’s findings. They said there was no evidence of foul play or suicide. They also said that they found an empty bottle of sleeping pills in a bathroom adjoining Dorsey’s bedroom.

The Circumstances: A Troubled Marriage and a Locked Bedroom

Tommy Dorsey’s death occurred in the midst of a troubled marriage and a pending divorce. He had married his third wife, Jane (Janie) New Dorsey, in 1943. She was a former chorus girl and actress who had appeared in some of his films. They had two children together: Catherine Ann and Steve.

However, their marriage was not happy. They had frequent arguments and separations. Jane accused Tommy of being unfaithful, abusive, and alcoholic. She also claimed that he had threatened to kill her several times. She filed for divorce in 1953, but they reconciled later that year. However, they separated again in 1955, and Jane filed for divorce again in 1956.

The divorce case was scheduled to be heard on November 28, 1956, two days after Tommy’s death. Jane had asked for alimony, child support, custody of their children, and half of Tommy’s estate. She also wanted to prevent him from seeing their children.

On the night of his death, Tommy had returned home from a performance at the Statler Hotel in New York City. He had dinner with his children and his booking agent, Vincent Carbone. He then locked himself in his bedroom and did not answer any calls or knocks on the door.

The next morning, Carbone found Tommy’s body on the bed. He called the police and notified Jane, who was staying at a nearby hotel with their children. She rushed to the house and collapsed when she saw her husband’s body.

The Impact: A Legacy of Music and a Family Feud

Tommy Dorsey’s death shocked the music world and his fans. He was one of the most successful and respected bandleaders of his time. He had sold over 110 million records and had won several awards and honors. He had also appeared in several movies and radio and television shows.

His band continued to perform under the direction of trumpeter Lee Castle until 1957. Then it was taken over by trombonist Warren Covington until 1961. After that, it was led by various musicians until it disbanded in 1967.

His brother Jimmy Dorsey also died in 1957 from throat cancer. The two brothers had reconciled shortly before Tommy’s death and had planned to reunite their orchestra.

Tommy Dorsey’s estate was valued at over $4 million at the time of his death. However, it became the subject of a bitter legal battle between Jane Dorsey and Tommy’s children from his previous marriages: Patricia Ann (from his first wife Mildred Kraft) and Thomas Francis III (from his second wife Patricia Dane).

Jane Dorsey claimed that she was entitled to half of Tommy’s estate as his widow. She also said that Tommy had made a new will in 1955 that left everything to her and their children. However, she could not produce the will and said that it had been stolen or destroyed.

Tommy’s children from his previous marriages contested Jane’s claim. They said that Tommy had made a will in 1948 that left everything to them and their mother. They also said that Tommy had never made a new will and that Jane had forged his signature on some documents.

The case went to court in 1958 and lasted for several years. It involved testimonies from witnesses, experts, and family members. It also involved allegations of fraud, forgery, perjury, and conspiracy.

The court eventually ruled in favor of Tommy’s children from his previous marriages. It said that Jane Dorsey had failed to prove that Tommy had made a new will or that he had intended to leave everything to her. It also said that Jane Dorsey had committed fraud and forgery and had tried to influence the witnesses.

Jane Dorsey appealed the decision, but it was upheld by the higher courts. She died in 1994 at the age of 79.

Tommy Dorsey’s legacy lives on through his music and his influence on other musicians. He is remembered as one of the greatest trombonists and bandleaders of all time. He is also remembered as a sentimental gentleman who died from a tragic accident.

Doms Desk

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