Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boyby Ronald L. Davis
Van Johnson’s dazzling smile, shock of red hair, and suntanned freckled cheeks made him a movie-star icon. Among teenaged girls in the 1940s, he was popularized as the bobbysoxer’s heartthrob.
He won the nation’s heart, too, by appearing in a series of blockbuster war filmsA Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,/i>/i>
Van Johnson’s dazzling smile, shock of red hair, and suntanned freckled cheeks made him a movie-star icon. Among teenaged girls in the 1940s, he was popularized as the bobbysoxer’s heartthrob.
He won the nation’s heart, too, by appearing in a series of blockbuster war filmsA Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Weekend at the Waldorf, and Battleground. Perennially a leading man opposite June Allyson, Esther Williams, Judy Garland, and Janet Leigh, he rose to fame radiating the sunshine image Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chose for him, that of an affable, wholesome boy-next-door. Legions of adoring moviegoers were captivated by this idealized persona that generated huge box-office profits for the studio.
However, Johnson’s off-screen life was not so sunny. His mother had rejected him in childhood, and he lived his adult life dealing with sexual ambivalence. A marriage was arranged with the ex-wife of his best friend, the actor Keenan Wynn. During the waning years of Hollywood’s Golden Age, she and Johnson lived amid the glow of Hollywood’s A-crowd. Yet their private life was charged with tension and conflict.
Although morose and reclusive by nature, Johnson maintained a happy-go-lucky façade, even among co-workers who knew him as a congenial, dedicated professional. Once free of the golden-boy stereotype, he became a respected actor assigned stellar roles in such acclaimed films as State of the Union, Command Decision, The Last Time I Saw Paris, and The Caine Mutiny.
With the demise of the big studios, Johnson returned to the stage, where he had begun his career as a song-and-dance man. After this, he appeared frequently in television shows, performed in nightclubs, and became the legendary darling of older audiences on the dinner playhouse circuit. Johnson (1916-2008) spent his post-Hollywood years living in solitude in New York City.
This solid, thoroughly researched biography traces the career and influence of a favorite star and narrates a fascinating, sometimes troubled life story.
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Most tourists think of Newport, Rhode Island, as a resort community famousfor its mansions, its yacht races, and its tennis tournaments. Butthere is a blue-collar side to the island city, and that is the Newport inwhich Van Johnson grew up. His father was a plumber, and Van spent hisyouth living in a boarding house on Ayrault Street, just a few blocks fromthe ornate castles that line Bellevue Avenue. Van and his father wereyear-round residents of the port city who stayed behind to brave the icyNew England winters after the summer colony had left.
Settled in 1639, Newport benefited from an accessible harbor thatpermitted the town to become a thriving colonial seaport and shipbuildingcenter. Its wharves were tentacles of trade and commerce, and fishermenunloaded their catch on its docks. Mariners lined the waterfront streets ofthe town, waiting to depart as crew members of Newport-based ships. Bythe eighteenth century a merchant aristocracy dominated the city, yet thecommunity was already noted for its artists and craftsmen.
Irish, Italians, Portuguese, and Greeks later came to work in the localtextile mills, to fish, and to farm the adjacent countryside. By the time VanJohnson was born on the eve of America's entry into World War I, Newportcontained enough of a Swedish population to support two Swedishchurches. The community had also become a significant U.S. Navy town,and sailors and their dependents made up a visible component of the city'sthriving population.
Van's father, Charles E. Johnson, hadcome to the United States fromSweden while still a babe in his mother's arms. As a youth in Newport,Charlie Johnson developed into a powerfully built, bull-necked athletewho gave tumbling exhibitions and parallel bar performances for enjoyment.He served as catcher for a YMCA baseball team and at one time wasgymnastic instructor of the Algonquin Club at Emmanuel Church. Raisedin an austere, Calvinistic environment, Charles grew into a tough-minded,pragmatic New Englander who valued thrift over material comfort. Trueto his Swedish heritage, he lived simply and honestly, more given to self-effacementthan to self-assertion. Achievement and success were far lessimportant to Charlie than were privacy, discipline, self-control, and spiritualconviction.
Imbued with such rigid beliefs, Charles was unfortunate in his choiceof mates. Loretta Johnson, who came from a Pennsylvania Dutch background,was miserable in her marriage to the humorless Swede and in thespartan living quarters he provided. With little more than a housekeeper'schores to keep her busy, Loretta soon became an alcoholic. Tension betweenthe young couple existed from the outset but grew worse whentheir only child, christened Charles Van Dell Johnson, was born at NewportHospital on August 25, 1916.
His birth took place shortly before dawn on a howling, rainy night.The arrival of a son merely added more pressure to his mismatched parents'dismal relationship, and Loretta's discontent and drinking sprees intensified.When Van was three years old, his still-attractive mother abandonedher family and fled to Brooklyn, New York, in pursuit of a livelierexistence. Her son would not see her again until he was a late teenager.Commenting on his parents' divorce years later, Van said, "I was too youngto comprehend it then and today I deliberately don't try." His father didnot believe in airing such private matters and refused to talk about themarital rift.
Van stayed in Newport with his dad, who continued to live in theboardinghouse at 16 Ayrault Street, up the hill from the beach, where hehad lived with Loretta. The two-and-a-half-story structure, with its pitchedroof and clapboard siding, later would be converted into an apartmentbuilding, and Charlie Johnson, who never veered from his belief in plainliving, resided there the rest of his life.
Soon after his mother's departure, Van's paternal grandmother cameto live with her son and his shy three-year-old boy. Van remembered hisgrandmother as a tiny, tidy woman who wore bustling black taffeta dressesand used orange water as a scent on special occasions. She was also an orderlyhousekeeper and a fabulous cook whose Swedish meatballs, yellowcheese, and frosted cookies were beyond comparison. Born in Sweden,Grandma Johnson spoke English with an accent and sometimes revertedto her native tongue when talking to Charlie at home.
Although his grandmother surrounded Van with quiet affection, sheand Charlie were both strict disciplinarians. Young Van was drilled in goodmanners, neatness of appearance, honesty, and respect for older people.As the lad matured, he was expected to take care of his own clothes, instilledwith a keen sense of duty, and taught the importance of productivework. Charles could be severe with his son, and Van respected and admiredas well as feared his father. "There was a rumor around," Charliesaid later, "that I was a strict sourpuss father. I was strict about a fewthings, and one was [Van's] health. I never spanked him in my life. Hewas my buddy ... and all it took was a hard look to straighten him out."
But the austere, unbending climate in which the boy was raised createdan emotional distance between Van and his father. The child learnedat an early age to restrain himself, to bridle his feelings, and not to act onimpulse. Self-discipline, he was taught, meant that displays of joy, sorrow,or anger must be diverted into some less demonstrative behavior. For asensitive, introverted child this led to inhibitions, fundamental insecurity,and repression. Despite the attention he was shown, Van could never becertain that he was loved.
Bessie Boone, a maiden lady in the neighborhood, helped motherthe boy, and Van remembered her supervision as warm and kindly. Yetearly in his life he became skilled at swallowing his emotions and withdrawinginto a hidden world of self-absorption and fantasy. "I've oftenwished my childhood had been a little different," Van said early in his Hollywoodcareer, and "that I had had a mother's guidance like other boys."
Sunday school and church were mandatory for young Van. EverySunday morning the lad waited for Virginia Sullivan, a family friend, topick him up and take him to Newport's old Trinity Church, a landmark intown since 1726. Charles believed in the Scriptures and insisted that hisson know and revere the ways of God. "I learned enough to help mekeep a balance and a sense of values," Van later maintained.
Charlie tried to be a comrade to the boy. One of Van's earliest memorieswas of going for a trolley ride with his father one Sunday afternoonand ending up on the Newport beach, where they shared a picnic lunchfrom a shoe box of food Grandma Johnson had prepared for them. Vanand Charlie sometimes took the ferry to the other side of the bay and fedbroken Necco wafers to the fish from the end of a stone pier. Charlietaught his son to swim, and the two swam together at Quigley's Beach almostthe year around, even when snow covered the ground. "Dad wasone of those guys who'd break ice to go swimming," Van recalled. "Wespent a lot of time at the beach in the summer. In the winter we'd goswimming with nothing on but trunks."
Charlie had a passion for good music, and through his influenceVan developed an interest in the classics. On Saturdays, Charlie tried toleave work early enough to listen to the opera on radio, and he made anote of all the symphony broadcasts for the week. Van often sat with hisdad and drank Moxie, New England's equivalent of the South's Dr. Pepper,while they listened together to the broadcasts.
But much of the boy's early years was spent alone, and he passedendless hours entertaining himself in the backyard. The house on AyraultStreet was set close to the street, but there was a good-sized yard in back,and it became Van's haven. Years later, even though he thought of hisboyhood as routine and unhappy, he would remember the smell of lilacsaround the old house with fondness. Much of his childhood he claimedhe could not recall. "I'm kind of soft about things I remember," Van told areporter in 1945.
When he entered Cranston-Calvert Grammar School, Van made goodgrades but was considered a daydreamer by those who taught him. MissKing, Van's first-grade teacher, convinced the boy that it would be a greatadventure to learn his letters since after a while he would be able to readexciting books about faraway places. "I think I must have been very fortunatein my teachers," Van said as an adult, "because they made me interestedin what I was supposed to learn." But the redheaded, freckle-facedkid was bashful with girls and very much a loner. Neighbors rememberedVan walking by himself though the leafy streets from school, wearing aknitted woolen cap to keep his head warm in the sharp salt air characteristicof Newport's winters.
For a special outing Charlie took Van to Providence one day to see acircus, driving through a storm in an old Ford to get there. Van wouldnever forget the excitement of watching trapeze artists, a tightrope walker,a man shot from a cannon, and a pretty blond riding a horse barebackaround the ring and jumping through hoops of fire. The excursion madehim deride that he wanted to be in show business, preferably as a tightropewalker or a trapeze artist.
The lonely youth began doing odd jobs after schoolshoveling snow,carrying out ashes, mowing lawns, delivering groceries, selling magazinesubscriptions. "It wasn't that I loved work so much," Van said later, "butthat I loved possessions more. Dad had one rule: I could have what Iwanted if I earned the price of it myself." Van already was substitutingpossessions for affection and barricading himself behind a wall of defenses.
He bought a trapeze and rings, suspended them from a large treelimb in the backyard, and practiced on them for hours. Eventually Van,Betty Meikle, who lived across the street from the Johnsons, and a boywho lived next door to Betty put together an act. "We would work onthat trapeze almost daily," the neighbor boy recalled. "Van was an inveteratecircus buff. He, Betty, and I would practice some of the acts that hehad seen." Van eventually became quite daring. When the three childrenstaged an exhibition in a neighbor's barn, Van strung a wire from the topof the loft to the ground, where he placed an old mattress. With a leatherband attached to a pulley around his head and under his chin, he performeda stunt billed as the "Sensational Slide for Life." Sticking out botharms, Van slid down the wire to the ground. "It's a wonder I didn't breakmy damned neck!" he reflected later.
When Van discovered silent movies, his interest in the world of entertainmentbroadened. Galloping Fish (1924) with Louise Fazenda andChester Conklin was the first picture he remembered seeing, but he laughedso hard at the comedy that he made himself sick and had to be takenfrom the theater. He subsequently spent most of his Saturday afternoonsand any evening he could get away from his studies at the movies. "Timeswhen things weren't going so well, I'd buy a ticket to a picture show,"Van recalled. He started reading fan magazines and cut out his favoritestars' pictures and pinned them to the walls of his room. "Van was stage-struckand had his room completely plastered with cutouts from magazinesof Greta Garbo, his idol," a classmate remembered. Charles Johnsonwould walk into his son's room and say, "Must you clutter up the placelike this?" but Van found delight in a mystical world he secretly longed tojoin. "I'd go home [from the theater] thinking how grand it must be tomake other people feel good," he said, "but I didn't expect to get a chanceto do it."
He wrote letters to Hollywood stars asking them for pictures and exchangedfan magazines with the girl next door. Whenever either of themfinished an issue, he or she placed the magazine in the kitchen window tosignal readiness to swap. The two children went to shows together, and itbecame clear to his schoolmates that Van had a desire to turn himselfinto a performer. By the time he was eight years old Dottie Sullivan, RitaMcCarthy, and Van were putting on shows in the Johnson's backyard forthe neighbors, charging a penny for admission. Charlie would snort, "Van,the only stage you'll ever be on will be a [house] painter's stage." But therebuff fell on deaf ears. Entertaining people brought the boy the attentionhe so desperately needed.
As much as Van liked to show off, he was too shy to try out forschool plays. The only serious encouragement he received for his ambitionto entertain came from Professor Crosby, the Johnsons' landlord, who livedin an apartment upstairs with his cheery wife. But Van pretended a greatdeal as a boy, so much so in his daily routine that his lonely life was lacedwith make-believe. "Every day in every way I acted," he later admitted.
At age twelve Van suffered another emotional blow when his grandmotherdied. Without her sweetness and old-country decorum, the Johnsonhousehold turned empty. Distressed and numbed by her passing, Vanwithdrew into himself all the more. For a time he appeared inarticulate,puzzled, clearly mourning the loss of a vital component in his personalsecurity. He suddenly had more responsibilities heaped on his shoulders,and there was less time for play. "My father and I did the cooking and Iguess we weren't the best of cooks," Van said later. "When Mrs. Crosbybrought us down some of her baked beans it was a big treat."
Aside from Saturday-night shopping trips and infrequent light momentstogether, father and son grew increasingly estranged. Laughter betweenthem seemed uncomfortable, and they often spent evenings togetherwith no exchange of words. Whereas Van reveled in glamour andlined his walls with movie-star pictures, Charles remained a staunch believerin physical culture and had a dozen pictures of his hero, BernarrMacfadden, scattered about. Johnson decreed that he and his son shouldkeep to a daily routine of exercises and follow a healthful diet. As Van becamemore the dreamer, his father's lack of ambition and simple existencebothered the boy. Charles was content merely to make a living andoften warned his son that happiness did not come from chasing dollars orfame. Having enough to eat, a roof over his head, a pile of books, music,the sea, and a few friends was enough for Charles Johnson.
A short distance from the Johnsons' house on Ayrault Street werethe palatial summer homes of the big spenders of the late nineteenth centurytheBreakers and Marble House, both owned by the Vanderbilts;Chateau-Sur-Mer, designed by popular architect Richard M. Hunt; andthe Breakwater, more commonly known as Lippitt's Castle. Van grew upwatching the summer crowds that filled the boardwalks, the excursionsteamers that brought visitors to Newport for a day, and the frivolity, clambakes, and spending that took place along the beaches. As Van would remember,the wealthier summer people "came in floating chiffon andwhite flannel with the good weather and departed all tweeded up withthe bad." He heard about the fabled dinners and the brilliant balls insidethe mansions, the exclusive debuts and social weddings of the gilded-agearistocracy, and glimpsed the blue bloods who owned cabanas on Bailey'sBeach, reputedly the most fashionable strip of sand in America. Althoughadolescent Van Johnson was not privy to the horse shows, the high teas,the concerts, and the backgammon games that the moneyed set enjoyed,he became aware that there was more to life than the restrictive parameterslaid down by his father.
Resentment set in. As a successful adult Van could barely enduremention of either of his parents, and he vowed that he hated his father. Ifasked about his boyhood, he would usually make a face and decline comment.When his stepson, Ned Wynn, asked him about Charles, Van simplyreplied, "Horrible man, an awful man." About his mother he wouldsay nothing. Van had little capacity as a child to understand his parents'unhappiness, and as an adolescent he failed to realize the extent of his father'sunspoken feeling of rejection that Loretta had deserted them.
During Van's years at John Clarke Middle School, the boy attendedwhatever stage plays came to Newport and found them a welcome escape.At the Casino Theater he saw Ruth Chatterton and Alice Brady in dramas,gaping down in ecstasy from the top gallery. An old showboat still tied upperiodically at the town's wharf and, as Van later told a writer for Photoplay,the leading fan magazine, "where it docked, I docked, too." Once ortwice his father took him to Boston to have dinner and see a show, butVan's obsession with show business was mainly an irritant to Charles,and he expected his son to outgrow it.
When Van enrolled himself in Dorothy Gladding's dancing school,his father was appalled. Odd jobs provided the three dollars a month theboy needed for dance lessons, and he soon showed a talent for tap, adagio,soft-shoe, and ballroom dancing. "I decided I wanted to be one of thosepeople up there entertaining people," Van said. But every time he mentionedthat he wanted to hoof for a living, his father winced and madesome sarcastic remark, and the gulf between the two appeared to widen.
Every Thursday afternoon at five o'clock Van's dance class performedin a vaudeville show. "That's where I smelled my first greasepaint," thefuture movie star said. Before long, Van was performing with an amateurgroup at the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, the Knights of Columbus, churchsocialsany place that requested free entertainment. He had soon workedup a song-and-dance routine, with a straw hat and a cane like Broadway'sJack Donohue, performed in front of a line of girls. The act proved a bighit in the annual variety show at the Colonial Theater, Newport's principalvaudeville house. Van loved the attention he received and, in hismind, he showed enough promise that his career path was set. "I knew Ihad to get out of that small town," Van told a Hollywood reporter.
The unhappy lad somehow found time to take violin lessons, for heplayed in the orchestra at Rogers High School during his last three yearsthere. The student ensemble performed for weekly assemblies under thedirection of math teacher Louis Chase, whose daughter, Priscilla, playedthe piano. Van sat in the violin section next to his fellow trapeze participantfrom grammar-school days. Young Johnson was also in the DramaticSociety during his freshman year, and while he tried out for play afterplay in high school, he never got a part. "I chewed up plenty of scenery atthe tryouts," Van said, "but I could never make the grade." After repeatedreadings, the teacher in charge of school plays told him most emphatically,"You'll never make an actor."
Over six feet tall and nicknamed "Red," Van was miserable duringhis first two years of high school. His freckles caused him endless embarrassment,and the gangly youth appeared uncoordinated and unmanly.His was the innocent countenance that doting matrons often dub a "sweetchild." Van felt the isolation. "I guess I always knew I was different," helater said. Hollywood fan magazines would make him out to have been afootball and basketball player in Newport, but such was not the case. Vanpursued a less academic, commercial course in high school, and his gradesin bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand were nothing to brag about. Heshowed no interest in going to college, although his father talked idlyabout his son's attending Brown University in nearby Providence and studyinglaw. Painting was the only class that Van truly enjoyed in high school,and the skills he discovered there would serve him well in his later life.
But Van was never part of the elite crowd during his early highschool years. He did not date, and he was clearly a maladjusted boy. Hefound relief by losing himself in the fantasies he observed on the stage andscreen. The neighborhood movie house, the Bijou, became Van's haunt,and he hunkered in a seat in the musty theater hour after hour, entrancedby the beautiful people and fanciful stories that illuminated thedarkness. "I sat through a picture two or three or four times," said Van. "Iused to look around the audience, and I'd see the faces of people I knewvery well, but they didn't look at all the same." Girls who were plain anduninteresting at school, men who were crabby and cranky on the streets,and women who looked tired and overworked when Van noticed themsitting on their front porches looked happier and more alive in the movietheater. "I could almost feel how they had forgotten their own lives andtroubles and maybe the narrowness of existence," Van said, "how for awhile they were carried out of themselves and could live so much more,so many more lives."
The boy decided that he had to be one of the people he watched onthe screen. He wanted to make other people happy, and in his fancy heenvisioned an escape from his own stifled condition. He had no notion ofhow to achieve such ends, how difficult a life in show business would be,for he knew little of anything beyond Newport. Yet a craving for fameand fortune was planted in his imagination as he became curious aboutthe exciting life he imagined outside the island he came to view as hisprison.
Excerpted from Van Johnson by Ronald L. Davis. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Ronald L. Davis is the author of Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, John Ford: Hollywood’s Old Master, and Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne. He is professor emeritus of history at Southern Methodist University.
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