Dona Drake was a black actress, singer, and dancer who was famous in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. However, publicly, her fans would not learn of her African ancestry until years later after studio publicity inaccurately claimed that she was born Rita Novella in 1920 in Mexico City, giving the impression that she was of Mexican heritage. In actual fact, she was born November 15, 1914 in Florida to Joseph Westmoreland (of Arkansas) and Novella Smith (of Alabama) and they named her Eunice Westmoreland. U.S Census reports of her family history show her grandparents were one Black couple and one couple that was Black/White. Because of her features and dark curly hair, film makers often cast her when they needed to fill the role of an ethnic character that looked native, gypsy, or middle eastern.
In 1933 she formed a ‘sister-act’ with her friend Rene Villion and they were hired at the Paradise Club on Broadway. This is where she was discovered and she was cast in her first production, Murder at the Vanities.
In the late 30s, she was involved in a famous scandal in regard to the FBI questioning the murder of her boyfriend and known mobster, Louis ‘Pretty’ Amburg.
In the early 40s, she toured in an all-girl orchestra and then moved to Hollywood when she got a contract with Paramount. She appeared in well-known movies such as Road to Morocco (1942), So This Is New York (1948), The Girl from Jones Beach (1949), Beyond the Forest (1949), and had over thirty roles over a twenty year time span.
She used many different stage names over the course of her career. In addition to being called Dona Drake, she was also called Una Velon, Rita Rio and Rita Shaw.
She married fashion designer William Travilla in 1944 and appeared in his fashion shows. She had her first and only child in 1951 and named her Nia Novella Travilla. The couple separated in 1955 but never divorced. Also in the mid-fifties, she retired from film due to her suffering from seizures because she had epilepsy.
On June 20, 1989 Dona died of pneumonia and respiratory failure at the age of 74 in Los Angeles, California.