Rebecca Devereux Dorsey, a well-known chanteuse whose ancestry on Long Island dates to pre-Revolutionary War times, began her entertainment career in Manhattan like so many: acting classes, constant auditions, a mix of rejection and success, and waiting tables to make ends meet. But as she scored enough bit parts in television and movies to make a living, came a realization that she should home in on what she loved most -- singing.
"She could sing a song and it was effortless and unique, the subtlety and the nuance," said her husband, Paul Shavelson, a television producer. "It was just what she was supposed to do. When you're lucky enough, you find your calling. Rebecca was a pure artist."
Dorsey, a longtime Sea Cliff resident who took her singing act of ballads and standards to venues as varied as Windows on the World and the Glen Cove Mansion, died Sept. 14 at her home from ovarian cancer. Famously coy about her age, her family declined to disclose how old she was, and said it was a closely guarded secret that not even her children knew.
"She was always beautiful, beautifully dressed; her hair was magnificent," said her mother, Glorian Devereux Dorsey, a retired communications executive, of Shelter Island. "And she just looked the diva part."
Rebecca Dorsey was born in Baltimore, and graduated from the Garrison Forest School, a private girls school. Growing up, she spent her summers on Shelter Island in a home on several acres of farmland called the Duvall Homestead, which her family has maintained since the Revolutionary War.
The Shelter Island summer tradition continued into adulthood, with Dorsey bringing her own children -- daughter, Aria Shavelson, 20, and son, Mercer Shavelson, 12 -- to the historic property.
A dancer since age 3, Dorsey graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in dance and then studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris.
She then moved to Manhattan to study acting, and landed parts on several soaps, including "All My Children," and in such movies as "Wall Street" and "Working Girl."
She developed a singing repertoire of more than 500 songs and could sing in three languages. On a 15-year wedding anniversary trip to Paris, she and her husband dined at a Brazilian restaurant on the Left Bank and late into the evening, the bartender began strumming a guitar.
"Whatever he played, she started singing," Paul Shavelson said. She sang in Portuguese and spoke in French, dazzling patrons.
"When she confessed we were from New York, it was hysterical," he said. "There was disbelief."
In addition to her husband, children and mother, Dorsey is survived by her father Dr. James Henderson Dorsey of St. Augustine, Fla.; her brother James H. Dorsey of Jupiter, Fla.; and her sister Deborah Blue of Seattle.
A late November memorial is being organized at the Sea Cliff Municipal Beach, where she started a summer concert series more than a decade ago.