Tuesday, December 11

Mrs. Hughes

As a teenager I was friendly with a girl who wanted more than anything to be a movie star.  She had come from Ohio to Los Angeles and thought the move would be a sure-fire guarantee to movie stardom.  We lived a mile from 20th Century Fox studios  and we would sneak in and watch as much as we could and ogle movie stars.  She said there was nothing she wouldn't do to realize her glittery dream.  My hunch is she didn't make it as most dreamy-eyed girls didn't and still don't.  There was another young girl from Ohio who never had a dream of being a movie star yet became one and easily so.  The gates at 20th Century Fox magically opened for her, she had a pretty good run with 19 films, and then she vanished.

My partner gets his Jeans all mixed up.  When we're discussing which Jean/Gene/Jeanne was in which movie, he often tussles with is it Simmons, Crain, Tierney or Peters?  But when I told him I was writing a new piece called Mrs. Hughes, he said... oh Jean Peters.  She was married to Howard Hughes and all savvy trivia buffs know that.  Don't they?  We'll get to him shortly.

She was an Ohio farm girl, naive, unspoiled, fresh as the morning biscuits, when after she began college a classmate turned in her photo to those who were staging a beauty contest.  Jean reluctantly agreed to see it through and won.  That good fortune came with a trip to Hollywood and a screen test at Fox.

Head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck, always with his good eye for beautiful women, saw the test and immediately hired Peters for the role of Tyrone Power's fiery romantic interest in Captain from Castile (1947).  This is how she looked:

Debuting as a hot tamale

Soon it was one film after another but she didn't much care for them or her in them.  While it's true that her heart wasn't ever into acting, she still wanted to be good at her profession.  She tried her hardest and did her best.  Almost every film she made was at her home studio.  She was well-liked, easy to work with and, by and large, gave the bigwigs no trouble.  They liked that.  What they didn't like was that she still had a lot of Ohio farm girl in her and she eschewed the Hollywood lifestyle.  No parties for her.  No setup photos with up-and-coming male Fox stars, some of whom were her costars like handsome buddies Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner.

She hated the glamour scene, generally not wearing makeup if she wasn't working and hanging out in jeans and men's flannel shirts. She loved to paint and listen to classical music (they had that on the farm?).  No big Hollywood homes for her either.  Her mother had come to join Jean and they lived together for several years in an ordinary little cottage... paid for by Howard Hughes.  Wait... wait, we'll get there.

Not especially content with the flighty (hehe), exasperating Hughes and equally dissatisfied with her film roles, she and Mama upped and hightailed it back to the farm.  Maybe Hollywood wasn't really her thing, after all.  But Fox liked her, liked her work and had plans for her.  So she relented and with Mama in tow flew back to Hollywood and life picked up on all fronts as it had been.

First up was, of all things, a swashbuckling role as a lady pirate in Anne of the Indies (1951).  Despite its B-picture status, it was gobbled up by the undiscerning public and Peters liked her rather unglamorous role.  The following year she was the leading lady in the prestige production of Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata.  Back again to her movie debut Latin roots, she more than held her own against acting heavyweights Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn. 

I became aware of her in 1953.  It was a productive year.  There may be those who refer to Jean Peters as one of those forgotten movie stars but I don't agree.  Maybe-- and I mean maybe-- we could change that to nearly forgotten but her marriage to Hughes and her role in her next film would preclude her being forgotten.

With friend MM on Niagara set

Her part in the steamy film noir Niagara was originally the starring female part.  I still think her role was the larger female part but Peters was undeniably overshadowed by her friend, Marilyn Monroe, whose part was actually enlarged once Monroe's popularity became obvious.  MM was given top billing as an adulteress orchestrating her husband Joseph Cotten's demise by her boyfriend.  Peters and husband Casey Adams are staying in the same lodge as Monroe and Cotten.  After Cotten instead murders Monroe, he and Peters are on a cabin cruiser excitingly headed toward the top of the Falls.  All I know is my nine-year old little heart was wildly beating.  I was mad about Monroe but I found Ms. Peters very fetching. 

She made the clumsy Blueprint for Murder, again with Cotten, before they made Niagara, but it was released afterwards.  I thought she was quite good as a stepmother that you're never sure of whether she is poisoning her stepchildren.  (She is.)  Vicki was a decidedly glamorous role as a model who is murdered early on and  through flashbacks we learn whodunit.

Then came the gritty film noir Pickup on South Street, arguably the best role of her short career.  It was by no means her biggest film but it was the one that best displayed her acting chops.  With her hair done differently than ever before and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, she was a smart-mouthed, hardened dame who gets set up by a pickpocket that ultimately gets her involved with a Communist spy ring.  She was aided by knockout performances by Richard Widmark and my bff Thelma Ritter.

Peters (r) with her "3 Coins" castmates

Her final four films were all good ones.  That certainly would have been so in my 10-11 year old mind, but I own them all and I can say I still like them to this day.  Peters' most well-liked film was possibly Three Coins in the Fountain, an enormously popular and financially successful film.  It's odd that it was probably her least favorite film. She wasn't keen on going to Italy (did she not want to leave Hughes?) and once she saw her part a little clearer, she noticed it was little more than silly romantic nonsense.  Popular as it was, it was also standard Fox fare.  They had done or would do the three-girls-in-search-of-husbands bit in Three Little Girls in Blue, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Best of Everything and The Pleasure Seekers, among others.

Two of her last films were westerns.  Another of her best performances was as the Indian wife of a renegade warrior, played athletically by blue-eyed Burt Lancaster in the exciting Apache.  She had little to do in Broken Lance, but it remains a well-done oater about a cattle baron's testy relationship with his sons.  Wagner, Widmark and Spencer Tracy also saddled up.

Ordinarily I would not be likely to see a film centering on going to church but to this day I feel rather cleansed and uplifted and teary-eyed when watching A Man Called Peter.  The story of Peter Marshall, a modest young Scot, was about his journey in becoming the chaplain of the U.S. Senate.  Peters was loving and spunky as his wife, Catherine, upon whose memoirs this film was based.

It would be her final theatrical film and a fitting farewell... something an Ohio farm girl who preferred jeans to evening gowns would be proud of.  She didn't announce a retirement.  She really just sort of vanished.

Howard Hughes

Likely the vanishing was something her husband requested or required.  It's how he lived.  Peters had actually been dating the peculiar billionaire since she began her Hollywood career.  He was always on the lookout for new babes.  He was drawn to brunettes with great faces and if they were large of bosom, all the better.

Hughes' women fall largely into four categories.  Jean Harlow and Jane Russell and a few others fell into one group, the working women.  He didn't mind the publicity that he was sleeping with them, but he wasn't.  Then there were the actresses stashed all over Hollywood (some in pads he paid for) whom he dated.  Once in a while he may have slept with one (he was apparently never that great in the sack with women or a few men) but generally they were little more than glamour pusses who looked great on his arm.  Most of these women he had under contract and most never stepped in front of a movie camera.  Faith Domergue was an exception.  Then there was the coterie he lived with and/or dated more frequently, including Katharine Hepburn, Olivia deHavilland and her sister Joan Fontaine, Jane Greer, Ginger Rogers, Ida Lupino, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner and two of Peters' fellow Fox contractees, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell. 

The final group contains the very special women... three of whom he married.  It was a quiet time with them or as much as that could ever be.  They went out some but it was more about simpler times at home.

Hughes wanted everything in his life to be secretive.  Being involved heavily in the aircraft industry and with TWA and as the head of Hughes Tool Company and RKO Studios probably aided in his secretiveness but he had always led a life that might be best kept under wraps.  By the time he met Peters, his mental illness had already taken effect.  She started demanding that he marry her and when he didn't act upon it, she married another rich Texan oilman, Stuart Cramer.  It didn't last long, a mere 18 months with much meddling from the influential Hughes.

Actress Terry Moore claims to have had a secret marriage with Hughes somewhere in this time frame.  Whether, in fact, that is the truth, Hughes' estate settled with Moore on it.  And how about this for an oddity:  Moore was also married to Stuart Cramer for a time.

Finally, Hughes gave in and married Jean Peters in 1957.  Their nuptials were barely announced and there were no photos taken and no details given to anyone.  (I don't think there is a single photo of Hughes and Peters together.)  It would be virtually the last time we would hear of Jean Peters for more than a dozen years.  Poof... gone.

She would embark on a strange life with Hughes and there are those who believe it was a sexless one.  People rarely heard from her and if they did it might have been little more than a Christmas card.  They were never seen out together and she was rarely seen out alone.  They lived together only briefly.  Most years of their marriage she hardly saw him.  For some time she was one of the few who could directly access him by phone but toward the end of their marriage, she had to go through others, too.  She had a full staff of servants and there were men to watch her.  They were mainly for her protection but they were also there to spy on her for Hughes.  She knew it and generally ignored them.  She took up charitable causes, went back to college and of all things, shopped a great deal.  She loved clothes-shopping, a far cry from the young (and poorer) Jean.

One of her last photos

Finally, one day after 14 years of a very strange marriage, she divorced Hughes.  He put up little resistance and gave her yearly support, but nothing as extravagant as one might think when divorcing a billionaire.  She never had any intentions of trying to soak him.  She also had no intention of speaking about him or their relationship publicly, which, of course, suited him just fine.

I find it interesting how they were able to pull off all they did.  The world's most famous billionaire and his movie star wife are able to maintain strict privacy in the face of everyone clamoring for some scoop.  In some of his biographies Jean Peters is barely mentioned.  In The Aviator, the Leonardo DiCaprio film, she is not mentioned at all.

Eventually she remarried and even did a couple of TV things but her career never picked up any steam.  After her husband died, she went to live with her younger sister.  Peters died of leukemia in 2000, two days before her 74th birthday.

Favorite Film #19


  1. Nice piece about Miss Peters. She was also a favorite of mine. I've dug up a lot of information about her and agree that she can't be called anonymous or forgotten. She was a very special person and a most pleasant surprise as an actress in every film she made. This girl could act!
    Her best friend at Fox was Jeanne Crain, and one piece of info that may interest your readers is that Jean Negulesco (who directed Peters in Three Coins in the Fountain) gave a party at his home after Jean married Hughes. The affair was attended by big shots -like the Zanucks and Hedda Hopper-, and friends of Jean's like Marilyn Monroe, Cesar Romero, Crain, Jeff Hunter, Clifton Webb, Dotty Mac Guire and many big name stars. So it wasn't just Xmas cards to friends that corroborated they were married. Negulesco was trying to lure Jean back into movies at the time (late 1957). Jean Negulesco said that Hughes left the party early, without Jean.

  2. Nice piece yourself. I loved it. Thanks.

  3. Good job my friend..........