It has been said that the records of singer and actress Julie London were purchased for their provocative, full-color cover photographs as frequently as they were for the music contained in their grooves. During the 1950s and ’60s, her piercing blue eyes, strawberry blonde hair, and shapely figure were used to sell the world an image of cool sexuality.The contrast between image and reality, the public and the private, is at the heart of Julie London’s story. Through years of research; extensive interviews with family, friends, and musical associates; and access to rarely seen or heard archival material, author Michael Owen reveals the impact of her image on the direction of her career and how it influenced the choices she made, including the ultimate decision to walk away from performing.Go Slow follows Julie London’s life and career through its many stages: her transformation from 1940s movie starlet to coolly defiant singer of the classic torch ballad “Cry Me a River” of the ’50s, and her journey from Las Vegas hotel entertainer during the rock ’n’ roll revolution of the ’60s to the no-nonsense nurse of the ’70s hit television series Emergency!
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About the Author
Michael Owen is a writer, archivist, and researcher. A historian of popular music and culture, he is the consulting archivist to the estate of the songwriter Ira Gershwin, for which he is currently completing a scholarly, annotated book of Ira Gershwin’s 1928 travel journal as part of the Gershwin Critical Edition project. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and their cat.
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The Life of Julie London
By Michael Owen
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Michael R. Owen
All rights reserved.
God Bless the Child
I was kind of a wallflower ... too moodily mature for my age.
— Julie London, TV Guide, July 15, 1961
Before there was Julie London, there was Nancy Gayle Peck. Born amid the economic prosperity of the 1920s, her fortunes would change as a child of the devastating Great Depression that followed.
Her story begins in Stockton, California, a bustling city of more than forty thousand along the San Joaquin River, a major trade route that brought the agricultural products of the state's fertile Central Valley to its economic and trade center in San Francisco. The band at a local vaudeville performance was playing "It Had to Be You," a popular romantic ballad. In the audience that day was a twenty-five-year-old California-born salesman named Jack Peck and twenty-year-old Josephine "Jo" Taylor, originally from Indiana but a recent arrival — with her mother and stepfather — from Arkansas. The pair locked eyes across the crowded room, quickly bonded over their shared love of music, and fell in love. On November 14, 1925, the couple was married by a Stockton justice of the peace and began their new life together.
* * *
The first Pecks arrived on the shores of Virginia from England in the eighteenth century. Some drifted north in search of arable land, settling and tilling the soil in the northeastern section of what became the state of Ohio. A descendant of one of these adventurous souls was Jack Peck's grandfather Sedley, a man "quick to take advantage of all offered opportunities." When gold was discovered in California in the late 1840s, Sedley became a wagon master, leading arduous journeys west to become one of the "first of the '49ers to stake a claim" there. Sedley Peck's adventures became part of the stories he told his family, tales that lured all eight of his children to the promised land of the Golden State by the last decade of the nineteenth century.
For more than twenty years after his arrival in California, Sedley's son Wallace eked out a hardscrabble existence as a miner in a series of inhospitable Southern California desert boomtowns with evocative names like Calico, Havilah, Isabella, Panamint, and Ballarat, which popped up and just as quickly disappeared in the wake of significant silver and gold discoveries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
While Wallace Peck struggled, his brothers prospered as cement contractors, laying down building foundations, streets, and sidewalks throughout burgeoning Southern and Central California, becoming pioneers and leading citizens in the city of Compton. Their success lured Wallace from the mines to Los Angeles, where he joined the family business. Within a few years, his own financial gains allowed him to move his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children to a ten-acre ranch in the newly laid-out San Fernando Valley town of Van Nuys.
Much like Sedley Peck, however, Wallace cherished dreams, and in 1913 he traded the Van Nuys property for land one hundred miles north, on the Cottonwood Ranch, south of Bakersfield in Kern County, hoping to strike it rich as a farmer. It was a costly deal. He quickly discovered that most of the land was worthless alkaline soil and filed a lawsuit to recover his losses. Weakened by a bout of pleurisy, Wallace fell ill again after returning to Kern County from Los Angeles over the snowy Tehachapi Mountains and died of pneumococcal meningitis at the age of fifty-two in December 1914.
Wallace had been a baritone soloist in the local Methodist church, and his son, handsome and blue-eyed Jack Peck, had inherited his father's fine voice as well as a "natural ability in salesmanship" from his mother, Elizabeth. After a hitch in the navy during the First World War, Jack returned to Bakersfield, where he married briefly, found employment at a department store and in the local oil industry, and led a second life as a vaudeville performer.
By the time he and Jo Taylor met in 1925, Jack had followed his dreams further north to the Stockton portrait photography studio of Fred Hartsook, part of a successful chain scattered throughout California. When Jo became pregnant, Jack opted for a better position as a photographer in the Hartsook branch in Santa Rosa, fifty miles north of San Francisco. Ten months after their wedding, the Pecks' only child was born at a local maternity home at six o'clock on the evening of September 26, 1926. The family's stay in Santa Rosa with their daughter, whom they named Nancy Gayle, was short lived. (Nine years later, the name Julie Peck was added to the birth record, presumably for legal reasons when "Julie London" began her acting career.) By the end of the year, the Pecks had moved south to the city of San Bernardino, where Jo's mother and stepfather lived and where Jack quickly found a position at another photography studio.
Gayle (the family quickly stopped calling her Nancy) naturally became a frequent subject for her parents' cameras. Whether as a chubby-cheeked toddler posed in a wicker chair in Jack's studio, her head covered with a bonnet or with ribbons in her hair, or outdoors as a smiling, curly-haired little girl, dressed in a jaunty cowboy outfit while seated on a pony, she was very feminine and unguarded.
Summers were often spent with Jack's sister Ethel and her family on picnics and trips to the mountains above San Bernardino or in the warmth and fun of beach towns along the California coast. Gayle's older cousin Jeanne remembered how Jack Peck held his tired daughter in his lap at the end of the day, telling her impromptu "marvelous, hilarious bedtime stories" populated by fantastical animals.
What mattered most in young Gayle's life was the music that surrounded her parents. The musical genes of the Peck and Taylor families were strong: one of Jo's cousins was the songwriter, vaudeville performer, and music publisher (William) Tell Taylor, composer of the 1910 popular standard "Down by the Old Mill Stream." So as Gayle listened to records or watched as her mother and her friends sang in four- and five-part harmony while sitting on their living room floor, she absorbed the music through her pores. For three years during her childhood, Jack and Jo Peck hosted an informal radio show on San Bernardino station KFXM ("The Voice of the Sunkist Valley"), broadcast from street-level studios in the elegant California Hotel. While her parents were on the air, Gayle spent most of her time in the restaurant next to the station, eating green peas served to her by a friendly waitress. Occasionally, she would be invited into the studio, and it was here, at the age of three and a half, that she made her public singing debut with an imitation of Marlene Dietrich's German accent in a performance of the iconic "Falling in Love Again."
"Our whole family kind of leaned toward jazz," Julie recalled, and her mother's bluesy voice could often be heard in San Bernardino–area nightclubs and theaters, where she sang to supplement the family's income. "In those days, there were no such things as babysitters, so if my mother worked in a club, I went along and slept in the checkroom, under the coats. But I didn't sleep. I'd listen to the music." By the time Gayle turned nine, her voice was distinctive enough to amaze talent scouts auditioning participants for a statewide radio contest. She didn't make the cut, but her mother sang "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" in a live "Salute to San Bernardino" broadcast on radio station KHJ from a theater in downtown Los Angeles. Although Jo's performance caught the ear of actor Conrad Nagel, the program's emcee, she failed to pick up the $500 first prize.
* * *
The first half of the 1920s had been a golden age for San Bernardino. Its agricultural output, particularly the vast orange groves that covered much of the city's acreage, and the establishment of Route 66, which ran directly through the city on its way to the Pacific coast, led to a 200 percent population increase during the decade. But San Bernardino, like the rest of the United States, was hit hard by the Great Depression. "It was pretty much a lost decade," wrote one local historian.
The economic struggles of the Peck family during the 1930s meant frequent changes of address, and Jack's mother occasionally became the fourth member of a household that was devastated when he lost his job at the Platt photography studio. As Jack's failure to find work continued, he became discouraged with himself and his future. His disappointment was reflected in changes in Gayle's physical appearance. The open-faced, smiling child of early photographs became the young girl who sometimes turned her face away from her father's camera with a clearly troubled mien. "There wasn't anything" for a while, but she insisted she didn't suffer; though her parents sometimes didn't eat, "they made sure" she did.
By the late 1930s, the local economy had rebounded under the programs of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, subdivisions began to replace many of San Bernardino's orchards and crop lands, and the impending war in Europe bolstered the region's manufacturing and industrial concerns. Jack Peck's selfconfidence and the family finances rebounded when he was hired as a salesman for the Simon Levi Co., a large Southern California wholesale grocery and liquor distributor. He remained with Levi, moving up the ranks to become a sales and credit manager, until the family's departure for Los Angeles a few years later. The proximity to liquor, however, aggravated Jack's tendency toward alcoholism, an affliction that probably began during his naval service; on at least one occasion during the 1930s, he was arrested for public drunkenness and reckless driving.
* * *
Gradually, life improved for the Pecks, and by the end of the decade, Jack's salary and the value of the San Bernardino house he had purchased were comparable to, if not higher than, those of many of his neighbors.
Gayle Peck spent much of her childhood surrounded by the musicians who congregated around her parents. This early isolation left her with a feeling of discomfort around her peers, and her years in San Bernardino were not particularly happy ones for an introverted girl who often lived in a world of her own making. "People thought my mother was a snob," said her daughter Lisa. "She was shy." Gayle had few friends, but Caroline Stagg remained loyal from the day they met in elementary school. To Caroline, who knew Gayle better than anyone, she was "a gentle, quiet girl without much self-confidence." On weekends Gayle's parents drove the girls to dances at the San Bernardino Auditorium or in the mountains near Crestline, but her parents never worried about her and boys. "I wasn't what you'd call madly popular. I was sort of old for my age and didn't fit."
When given the opportunity to perform, however, she came out of her shell to become more than the typical girl next door. Gayle sang in front of local big bands, was chosen as a candidate for her school's Mardi Gras queen, and often appeared on the radio. San Bernardino was a popular spot for advance screenings of new movies, and Gayle became part of the onstage entertainment at local theaters on Saturdays before the lights dimmed and the projector started. Her repertoire spanned popular ballads like the First World War–era "There's a Long, Long Trail A-winding," Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," and hits of the day such as "By the Waters of Minnetonka" and "All Ashore." It was good teenage fun but not the makings of a career.CHAPTER 2
[She was] serious and very honest, with a mind of her own.
— Jeanne Woodson Labadie, to Julie's son, Jody Troup, ca. 2000
Frustrated and miserable as she advanced through Arrowview Junior High School, Gayle's restlessness continued when the family moved to Los Angeles in 1941. After developing a severe case of hives, doctors put her "on every special diet known to man," without providing any visible relief for the incessant itching and swelling. When a specialist recognized the symptoms as potentially psychological and made the radical suggestion to keep Gayle out of school, the hives quickly disappeared. Emboldened by the solution to one problem, the fifteen-year-old asked her parents if she might leave school permanently. They agreed, but on one condition: Gayle had to prove she wouldn't be a financial burden.
The Pecks lived in a tiny, one-room apartment at the Marathon Arms, a nondescript three-story building in East Hollywood, located a few blocks from the campus of Los Angeles City College. The thirty units of the Marathon Arms were occupied by other solidly lower-middle-class Angelenos: telephone operators, bookkeepers, salesmen. One of their neighbors was Dorothy LaPointe, a twentyyear-old elevator operator at Roos Bros., an upscale clothing store on Hollywood Boulevard. Dorothy suggested that Gayle's looks — even though she was still a teenager — would make her a natural fill-in while she went on vacation.
If contemporary photographs are any indication, it's not surprising that Gayle Peck was able to fool people into thinking she was significantly older. The gawky child of the 1930s, who gazed abstractedly away from the camera's lens, had undergone a remarkable transformation. The skinny waif had blossomed into a curvaceous fifteen-year-old who was well aware of the good looks she had inherited from her parents. She got the elevator operator job by telling the hiring manager she was nineteen, yet it still took the paychecks of all three members of the Peck family to "put food on the table and pay the bills."
* * *
Her looks soon caught the attention of another pair of eyes. The circumstances of her first encounter with Jack Webb are best described by his biographers:
One 1941 evening when Jack was living with [his friend] Gus and [his grandmother] Gram on Marathon Street, the two young men decided to visit a malt shop on the opposite side of Vermont Avenue. On their way they approached two girls talking in front of a large apartment house.
(No exact citation is given for this specific sequence of events, but it appears at least as plausible as other published versions of the meeting, including one in which Jack spilled a soda on Gayle at a La Cienega Boulevard jazz club.)
Immediately struck by her alluring figure, strawberry blonde hair, and striking blue eyes, Webb probably "had one look at her and had to have her." Quiet and unsure of herself, Gayle was attracted not only to Jack's smiling, boyish qualities but also to his palpably intense determination to become something better than his circumstances might have dictated. When they met, the twenty-one-year-old Webb was living in a duplex less than two blocks away and was barely earning a living as a clothing salesman at a local department store.
Gayle was always a responsible young woman, and her parents didn't object to the six-year age difference between their daughter and her new beau. The pair had a lot in common besides their current occupations. A love for music and movies meant there was much to listen to, watch, and talk about, including their budding thoughts of becoming actors. Even after Japanese airplanes attacked the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, life for many Americans — including Gayle Peck and Jack Webb, caught up in their youthful romance — continued much as usual. Gayle's job at Roos Bros. meant she was just steps from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and there were plenty of inexpensive entertainment options for two young people looking for fun. Located within blocks of the store were the Egyptian, Pantages, and Paramount Theatres, as well as the elaborate Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and numerous small clubs where Gayle and Jack could enjoy the hot sounds of jazz. Carefree months of movies, music, and trips to San Bernardino to visit Gayle's old friends were finally interrupted by the call of the US government, which asked Jack Webb to serve his country in the army air corps.
* * *
Gayle Peck certainly had the looks of a movie star. Agents avidly pursued her into the Owl drugstore to hand her their business cards when the luscious teen walked down Hollywood Boulevard on her lunch break. Yet unlike many young women who wanted to be discovered and become movie stars, Gayle showed little interest in seeing her name on a theater marquee.
That indifference changed on an otherwise routine day in 1943, when Gayle opened the gates of the elevator at Roos Bros. The woman who walked in didn't merit a second glance during the short ride, and when Sue Carol introduced herself as an agent, Gayle had no idea that Carol was also the wife of movie star Alan Ladd. On the lookout for new talent, Carol suggested that she could get the beautiful young woman a screen test. Gayle thought it was a joke, but when the agent came back to the store a few weeks later to ask where she'd been, she realized that Carol hadn't been kidding. With the encouragement of her parents and the advice of actors who worked at Roos Bros. between jobs, the sixteen-year-old decided to take a chance and signed a contract with Sue Carol.
Excerpted from Go Slow by Michael Owen. Copyright © 2017 Michael R. Owen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Arthur Hamilton xv
Prologue-Spring/Summer 1955 xvii
1 God Bless the Child 1
2 Dream 7
3 Bouquet of Blues 20
4 A Place in the Sun 32
5 Cry Me a River 38
6 The Exciting Life 60
7 Free and Easy 74
8 The House That Julie Built 93
9 Julie at Home 103
10 There'll Be Some Changes Made 122
11 Live … in Person! 141
12 For the Night People 159
13 Lonesome Road 173
14 Wild, Smooth, and Sultry 190
15 Emergency! 204
16 "We Said We'd Never Say 'Goodbye'" 215
Appendix 1 Discography 237
Appendix 2 Filmography 249