Samia Gamal and her American love
"I like it from the time I eat my first American hot dog in Cairo," was Samia’s answer to a question, what she thought about America. Very spontaneously, when 27 years old, she married a Texas oil heir – Sheppard King III, and without too much regret and with the same speed, she decided to divorce him in two years. Dear readers, get ready for some turbulent story from the life of one of the biggest raqs sharqi legends.
The beginning of international success
It has all started in 1950. Samia was well-known actor and dancer in Egypt, as she had already worked in cinema industry for nearly a decade, and had a broad experience as a dancer on big stages. She had also travelled to foreign countries, such as UK, France, or Italy. Especially her dance performances in France brought her fame across Europe (later strengthened by her lead role in the French movie Ali Baba and Forty Thieves in 1954). Her performances in Deauville Casino’s in honor of King Farouk, and later in the biggest charity event, held in Monte Carlo, made her famous also across the ocean. American impresario Lou Walters invited her to perform in New York’s Latin Quarter, just based on her popularity in France.
Moving forward into the autumn of 1951, Samia went to Paris. She said it was mainly for fun, but some rumors claim she left Cairo for a while to get over her unsuccessful love affair with Farid Al-Atrash. Indeed, Farid and Samia were a beautiful couple, working on movies together and being loved by their audience. However, their love was never certified by a marriage. It is told that Farid refused to marry Samia, because she was a dancer. It was not suitable for his higher social status, though Samia Gamal later revealed: "In fact, our splitting up was neither my fault nor his fault."
Marrying an “Ugly” American
In Paris, the rollercoaster got up to its top speed. In September 1951, Samia met a red-haired, tall American in a Parisian nightclub. His name was Sheppard King III and he seemed to have possessed a nice fortune. According to the press, they fooled around the whole night in different clubs, until the sun announced a new day. At that moment, Sheppard proposed to Samia. After that, they spent 17 wonderful days together and according to Sheppard: "The last three nights we just stayed at home with a bottle of Scotch and talked." They were officially engaged on 3 October 1951.
The couple felt ecstatic and especially Sheppard briskly announced everything to the press. However, he was not the only one, as his family reacted back. After Sheppard declared his intention to become a Moslem, so he could marry Samia, his sister Pat threw that idea off the table claiming that it was all just a joke. On the other hand, Sheppard’s mother did not find it hilarious at all, and threatened she would disinherit him if he ever dared to marry Samia. Well, Sheppard did not care too much about all this drama and took his sister and wife Gloria to Rome.
Yes, you read it correctly. Sheppard was still married when he and Samia got engaged. Gloria King seemed to have been all right with all this buzz about engagements and religious conversions around her husband, and agreed with divorce. The Kings were photographed together, smiling and toasting to Samia, discussing their divorce, while enjoying several European nightclubs. Samia was in that time in Cairo, working on another movie.
Sheppard did not wait too long with his conversion to Islam and took the name Abdullah. However, Samia didn’t call him Abadullah, or Sheppard. In press, she called him ‘Shep’, while at home "Ugly." De gustibus non est disputandum.
A day before their marriage, the couple visited a fortuneteller – a palm reader. He predicted a happy and successful marriage. What else to say to nearly married couple, right? Well, if he would have known the truth that they would be divorcing in two years, their wedding might not have been that cheerful.
Samia and Sheppard got married on 29 November 1951.
“Don’t call me a belly dancer!”
Samia Gamal started her shows in New York. Later she toured around 15 states and performed in the White Cargo play. Her performance in New York’s Latin Quarter was received well, but not with as much enthusiasm as one would think. She was the main star and her performance was the finale after a very long show. After 2 hours of waiting, the spectators would only see her perform for four minutes. "She’s had such a buildup she couldn’t go over very well even if she was terrific," said one woman from the audience.
At the same time, during her tour, Samia was fighting with press not to call her a belly dancer. She wanted to be acknowledged as an actor in the first place:
Interviewer: "Are you known for your Oriental dancing in Egypt?" Samia: "Is Betty Grable known as dancer? I made 37 movies there so the people think of me more as movie actress."
She desperately opposed to be called a ‘belly dancer’, as she said in the same interview. The term ‘muscle dancer’ made her angry; Samia preferred ‘oriental dance’, ‘oriental art’, or ‘oriental ballet’.
Reporter: "That was a real belly dance, wasn’t it?” Samia: "Please – an oriental dance, remember?”
One of the writers of the White Cargo program came up with an unusual idea how to name the dance style, describing a historical fight: "…Fitz knocked out Corbett with a severe blow to the midriff. Was the punch called a ‘belly punch’? Not at all. It was called ‘solar plexus punch’. So maybe Samia is a ‘solar plexus dancer’."
What a lovely idea, dancers, right?
“I am not going to hang out of a window!”
In April 1953 Samia flew from Texas to Cairo, leaving an unsuspecting husband behind. She wanted to visit her family and stay for a month. However, on 17 May she announced publicly her plan to divorce Sheppard. The reasons are a bit obscured. According to several articles and press photos, she said the reason was "because of all the things you did to me". However, we might never know what she meant.
It might have been connected to the fact that her life in the US was very different, and probably quite boring, compared to the busy, buoyant and energetic life in Cairo. She claimed she was "not going to hang out of a window” anymore. And finally, according to the press, some of the money she earned in US went to the account of Sheppard, without it being sent to Samia. The proud independent star was now legally and financially subordinate to her American husband.
The announcement in the press came out of the blue to Sheppard. "That is ridiculous!" he reacted and declared flying to Cairo. "I got a wire from her when she arrived in Cairo. She said she missed me and wished I were there. I can’t understand something like this." However, Samia promptly reacted through the press: "But I cabled back: ‘Much better you don’t come. I am not going back with you. You know very well what you did to me since our marriage.’"
Despite Samia’s wishes, Sheppard arrived in Cairo on 25 May. As one of the press photos shows, the couple went through an argument, ending with a public announcement that the couple would be getting back together. However, no sooner had Sheppard returned to the US than Samia was doubting again: "About the divorce – I will make up my mind in four or five months."
Her mind was made up, and the couple proceeded to divorce in the last months of 1953. During the US divorce testimony, Sheppard claimed that Samia loved champagne and drank it until 4 and 5 a.m. "After that she got irritable and hit me over the head with her shoe when we got into arguments." What was the reaction of Samia to these accusations? None, she was not present at the court.
Although he was going through a divorce, Sheppard got quickly back on track. Do you remember that he was still married when he proposed to Samia? This became his pattern. Not yet divorced to Samia, he was already arm in arm with another popular dancer in the US – the Turkish dancer Nejla Ates. According to Sheppard, the reason for his divorce from Samia was to wed Nejla. Eventually, the engagement with Nejla lasted only about 5 weeks. Nejla declared that the relationship "blew up because of his silly behavior.” As we see, Sheppard was again accused of improper behavior by his partner, but again put the blame squarely on the woman. He claimed his reason to break up with Nejla was her temperament and her difficulty to remember his name.
Sheppard didn’t need to mourn his failed relationship for too long. While he was still engaged to Nejla, he had already managed to propose to 19-year-old Helen Fiske Smith (Miss Washington 1953).
On 7 December 1953, Samia and Sheppard were finally divorced.
Aftermaths of the failed American dream
Those few years Samia spent in a marriage with Sheppard had some consequences. It seems she completely removed that American episode from her life, as she doesn’t mention Sheppard in most of her later interviews. And especially, she didn’t marry for whole 9 years, before she married Roshdy Abaza in 1962. We may elaborate why it took her so long to get married, but again, we will never know. Was the experience from the marriage that awful so she became more careful whom to marry? Was her broken heart from unfulfilled love with Farid behind the escapade marriage with Sheppard? I will admit it is tempting to think that the break up with Farid led Samia quickly and spontaneously to the arms of Sheppard. Understandably, after the hurricane American marriage it might have been difficult to engage again. Well, I cannot draw any conclusion, but what is obvious is that Farid and Samia held each other closely in their hearts. It seems Farid was her Habib El Omr.
References and sources:
LIFE magazine, Oct 1951
Pittsburg Post Gazette, Dec 1953
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 18 May 1953
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 28 Jun 1953
St. Petersburg Times, 4 Nov 1951
The Robesonian, 22 Jan 1952
The Victoria Advocate, 18 Oct 1953
Interview with Samia Gamal about Farid Al Atrash
Press Photos from the Bellydance Museum Golden Era collection