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The Secret Fortune of Diana Dors

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The Secret Fortune of Diana Dors

Three decades after her death, British actress and sex symbol Diana Dors lacks the enduring star power of her contemporary, Marilyn Monroe - the American counterpart to whom she was often compared. Monroe is still known far and wide, idolized by young women whose mothers may not have even been born at the time of her 1962 death. She's the subject of biopics and retrospectives, a source of endless fascination in a world where we prick up our ears at any newly discovered behind-the-scenes photo or bit of gossip about her private life. Not so Diana Dors, the British Marilyn Monroe – she didn't maintain the everlasting fame Monroe gained after her death.

But Dors has one thing that Monroe doesn't: a tantalizing mystery following her beyond the grave. According to Dors' son, she left a 2 million-pound fortune – the equivalent of about $6 million in today's dollars – when she died in 1984. But she didn't draw up a clear will, divvying the money up among her three children. Instead, she hid it and left behind a fiendishly challenging cipher intended to reveal its whereabouts. It's a code that has yet to reveal its secrets.

Dors got her start acting in her native England, then crossed the pond for a minor film career in Hollywood. As her ingénue status faded, she matured into a later career that featured cabaret performances, game show appearances and guest turns on chat shows. She offered diet advice, recorded an exercise VHS and starred in a 1981 music video with Adam and the Ants. Her three marriages – one to game show host and Hogan's Heroes star Richard Dawson – yielded three sons as well as never-ending scandal, centered on her penchant for throwing decidedly adult-themed parties. Some remember Dors primarily for those parties, but others are more fascinated with the story that began to unfold shortly before her death.

Mark Dawson, one of Dors' two sons with the Family Feud star, has pursued a life and career in Hollywood, working behind the scenes at TV shows and managing bands. Half a world away from his famous mother, he didn't see her often, until a 1982 Dors-centered episode of This Is Your Life, when the two were brought together for the first time in four years. After the show was filmed, Dors turned her greatest secret over to her son.

What she gave Dawson was a piece of paper, with a line of odd symbols above columns of letters arranged in five-letter strings. She said it was half of a secret code, and her third husband, Alan Lake, held the other half. When the two halves were put together, they'd reveal the location of her fortune. Locations, actually – she had spread the money out in banks across Europe, cleverly hidden from all except the person who cracked the code.

A bemused Dawson accepted his mother's odd note, and when he left England to go home to California, he left her behind for the last time. She died before they could meet again, and her small estate was nothing like the promised fortune - only about 2,000 pounds, or just a few thousand dollars. Lake, devastated by his wife's death and sinking into a deep depression, was in no shape for code breaking, and Dawson didn't pester his stepfather in his time of grief. But then time ran out: Five months after Dors died, Lake killed himself.

No matching code was evident among the belongings of Lake's estate. His son with Dors, Jason Lake, noted that he once saw something among his father's papers that looked like the code held by Dawson, but he had no idea where it ended up after his father's death. The secret that was supposed to have been revealed after Dors' death seems to have gone to the grave with Lake.

In the years since Dors' and Lake's deaths, Dawson consulted with cryptologists to attempt to crack the code. He's made progress: A key to his half of the code was discovered and the code broken, leading to one of Dors' bank statements. But the trail went cold there. If there really is money to be found – which some dispute, thinking it was just a publicity bid on Dors' part – the missing companion code, once held by Lake, may be what reveals its location.

Is the money really out there, earning interest for the past three decades as it languishes in any number of banks? Is Lake's half of the code right under the noses of Dors' loved ones, or was it lost, destroyed or even victim of a mundane fate like the recycling bin? Did the second half of the code exist at all, and is there really a fortune to be found? We may never find out, but Dors' loved ones and fans are bound to keep pursuing the mystery until the last stone is turned.