Friday, April 15

Evelyn Keyes

I once spoke with Evelyn Keyes in Westwood Village, an artsy-fartsy little enclave in West Los Angeles, California, north of famed Wilshire Blvd and butting up against U.C.L.A.  I will never forget the time for a couple of reasons.  Just minutes before seeing her, I passed John Kerr and minutes before that, Henry Fonda.  My lucky day, I mused.  She was colorfully dressed with a funky touch and wore a cute hat.  I hadn't bothered Kerr or Fonda but determined I would say something to this mystical-looking creature that looked like she might be receptive.

Me:  Hello, Miss Keyes.  I don't mean to intrude but I wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed your work.

EK:  Aren't you darling!  My Lord you're tall. Which of my films was your favorite?

Me:  Well, Gone with the Wind is hard to dismiss but I think it's 99 River Street.  It was great and you were great in it.

EK:  (Touching my hand) What a delightful young man you are. You've made my day. Have a wonderful rest of the day.

That is my best at reconstructing the event and I think it's pretty accurate.  She was a little more sweet-natured than most of my fleeting movie star stop-and-chats.  I was glad because I always liked her as an actress.  She was but one more of those sassy dames I was so sidelined by.  Best of all, she did film noirs.  In her day she alternated between being a redhead and a blonde and she was pretty with a decidedly mischievous appeal.  Her voice seemed as if it were on the verge of laryngitis.

Years later I read the two installments of her autobiography, the super lip-smacking Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister and its wordly-wise followup, I'll Think About That Tomorrow.  I came away to find this was really my kind of human being.  She lived larger than life. She pushed boundaries. She accepted personal responsibility.  She was smart, pragmatic, common sense flowed from her. She was funny. She was well-traveled. Interesting people were always in her orbit. She was a good friend.  She loved sex. She loved good food. She loved a good book. She was a great storyteller. She was a real straight-shooter.

For Hollywood she shaved a few years off her age but she was actually born in 1916 in Port Arthur, Texas.  Still quite young when her father died, she moved with her mother and four siblings to Atlanta, Georgia.  By age 13 she was declaring to one and all that when she grew up, she would become an actress.  She took dancing lessons and performed in a play or two in school.  She saved up enough money dancing for local organizations to reward herself with a move by herself to Hollywood when she was 20.

Once in the film capital she got some gigs as a chorine in nightclubs.  She befriended a woman who had once worked in silent films and she suggested to her friend, Cecil B. DeMille, that he take a look at Keyes.  He was impressed enough to sign her to a seven-year contract and immediately offered her a small role in The Buccaneer (1938). The film's star, Fredric March, tried to seduce her but costar Anthony Quinn was able to make the leap. Ah, her first Hollywood affair but certainly not her last.

She would work in a number of movies away from DeMille, all equally unmemorable. Finally he gave her a new, small role in the Barbara Stanwyck-Joel McCrea western, Union Pacific (1939) and then didn't renew her contract.  

She made a test (didn't everyone?) to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).  It could be said Keyes had a number of Scarlett's traits, too... wilful, vivacious, predatory, savvy, to name a few, but she was passed over for some English girl. Producer David O. Selznick, however, was impressed enough to have her play Scarlett's younger, whiny sister, Suellen. The part was much smaller than in the novel but Evelyn Keyes, B actress extraordinaire, could always say she was in one of the most famous and prestigious films of all time.

Scarlett O'Hara's younger sister

Of course additional fame... or infamy, depending upon your point of view... came from the chatter about her men... most of them actors but also directors, producers, agents.  Evelyn was... well, um... fast.  Busy. Ready. It has been suggested by the woman herself that she was probably always looking for her father. From her own lips came these words: I always took up with the man of the moment and there were many moments.

Keyes married Barton Bainbridge Sr in 1939, a man 10 years her senior. It was not a good move for her and perhaps not for him either as his business was failing and he was often despondent. They fought too much and she flew into the arms of her current director, Charles Vidor.  Keyes left her husband and sometime thereafter he killed himself. 

In 1940 she secured a contract at Columbia Pictures. As said in postings on Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, Kim Novak and others, the studio was run by a fearsome, loathsome control freak by the name of Harry Cohn.  Most everyone hated him. Though married he seemed to always have some starlet in his office for afternoon delights. Keyes was one of those. Their affair lasted a few years, through marriages, although each carried on with others as well. The fact that they did that would have some consequences.

She married the Hungarian Vidor in 1944. She found him suave, mysterious, attentive and separated from his wife. She was unhappy at home and he was offering a good ear and a better bedding. No was not one of Evelyn's favorite words. It wasn't long before they were married and it wasn't long before they divorced... 14 months. Why? Because he cheated on her! They worked together in a trio of films: The Lady in Question, Ladies in Retirement and The Desperadoes.  They were no great shakes. She had a decent, leading lady role in the fantasy-romance Here Comes Mr. Jordan with Robert Montgomery in 1941 but most of her films at Columbia were sleep-inducers. To her credit, Keyes always gave it her best and because she did, I was always drawn to her work.

There were two exceptions to her dreary résumé at Columbia. One of them came in 1946, The Jolson Story. The highly-fictionalized bio of singer Al Jolson was an enormous hit and I would guess unexpectedly so, otherwise Keyes' role as Mrs. Jolson would probably have gone to another Columbia contractee. She was dying to do the part which was really Jolson's second wife, tap dancer Ruby Keeler. But Keeler wouldn't give permission to have her name used so Keyes was called Julie Benson. There were many inaccuracies to the story but the public didn't care.  And Keyes got to show off her tap-dancing skills.

She said she slept with Cohn for the most obvious of reasons... she wanted to be a movie star of epic proportions and he was the man to make her dreams come true. Smart and crafty as Keyes was, she failed to see what happened to most starlets in her day.  Sleeping with the boss often meant they would rarely ascend the golden stairs. Most didn't get the career Keyes had.  If she didn't sleep her way to the top, she certainly slept her way to the middle.

Cohn was wildly jealous and questioned her all the time about who she was out with and exactly what they did.  Her squadron of lovers would include Glenn Ford, David Niven, Kirk Douglas, Robert Stack, Peter Lawford. Cohn had gotten wind that she had been seen around with tall, handsome, blond Sterling Hayden and he pestered her for details, which she would not provide. They got into a row. He called her vile names and spat out you'll never be a bigger star than you are right now. I'll see to that

This took place as she was in the middle of filming another of her good films at the studio, 1947s Johnny O'Clock, her first foray into film noir.  He (Dick Powell) plays a gambling house operator and his ex-girlfriend and current hat check girl (Nina Foch) is murdered.  He sets out to find the killer with the girl's sister (Keyes) in tow.  It was yummy.  Keyes, in her been-around-the-block sort of way was perfect for film noir and I wish she'd done a whole host of them. Good as the film and her notices were, Cohn still told her goodbye.

Soon after meeting director-writer John Huston at a party, Keyes married him. Actually he simply told her they were going to get married.  He meant right now.  And they did.  She thought he was ugly but that molasses-tinged voice and his promises to show her life as she had never known it made her melt.  And for four years they led an exciting life.  They traveled a great deal all over the world.  Their times were filled with laughter, arguments, sex, booze, art and Huston's most fascinating friends. 

One day he came home with a young Mexican boy he had met on his Treasure of the Sierra Madre location and informed Keyes that they were going to adopt him... and they did. She was not pleased, reminding him that she told him she never wanted to become a mother. She might have stayed with Huston longer than she did had he not moved in his newest girlfriend. Three was too crowded for Keyes so she moved out. Huston would marry the young woman soon after his divorce was final and shortly thereafter their daughter Angelica was born. 

She was reunited with Powell in Mrs. Mike (1949) about a Boston-born wife who has quite a go of it when she joins her Canadian Mountie husband in the isolated Northwest Territories. I thought she and Powell were a fine team and this was one of her better outings and she thought so, too.  

Her favorite of her films was The Prowler (1951, a suspenseful noir concerning a cop who answers a married woman's reporting of a prowler while she is home alone.  The film goes off in a disturbing, psychological direction that I didn't see coming and I savored every minute of it.  Her real-life platonic friend, Van Heflin, was the star.

The first film I saw Evelyn Keyes in is to this day my favorite of all her work, 99 River Street (1953). In a plot closely resembling Johnny O'Clock, she is an aspiring actress who comes across a former boxer-turned-cabbie who is hiding out.  He is suspected of killing his cheating wife and is out looking for the real killer.  It's a fairly brutal piece with no one really being all good. John Payne was tough as the cabbie and character actor Brad Dexter scared the hell of the young me. Keyes' scenes with Dexter in a cafe at the end of the film were thrilling. 

That's John Payne of 99 River Street

In 1953 she became the constant companion of brash, flamboyant and often volatile producer, Mike Todd.  He lavished her with attention, gifts and journeys to far-off locales and soon she was head-over-heels in love again.  She worked very little during her time with him.  One film she did make was The 7-Year Itch (1955) in a thankless role as Tom Ewell's wife who is away for most of the film while he fantasizes about upstairs neighbor Marilyn Monroe. Todd kept Keyes too busy to work.

He brought her into the business arrangements for his planned-for blockbuster, Around the World in 80 Days (1956). She not only had a cameo in it (who didn't?) but invested money. As she said... thanks to Mike, I never had to worry about money again. He gave her a big, fat engagement ring while they worked on wedding details . All was going well, she thought, until the day she picked up the phone and before she could say anything Todd blurted out...  I'm in love with Elizabeth Taylor. That, as they say, was the end of that. She always maintained a fondness for him, as she did for all of her exes. As it turned out, 80 Days was the last movie she would make for 31 years.

What took up a chunk of her time was former bandleader, clarinetist, composer and writer Artie Shaw whom she met in Paris. He became her fourth and final husband and she became his eighth and final wife. . She was the fourth actress to be Mrs. Shaw... the others were Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Doris Dowling. Keyes was technically married to Shaw from 1957-85 although for over 20 of those years they were living apart and didn't see one another. Even married and living together for 11 years was her longest relationship by far. They were alike in many ways... living large, great energy, love of books, art, travel and sex. For years they lived in Spain and later Connecticut. They loved talking about everything under the sun, never mind (at first) that he turned mean and nasty if she had another opinion. Few would doubt that Keyes didn't usually have another opinion. She was way too independent for him.  He liked his wives more subservient. Like the rest of the Mrs. Shaws, she tired of the emotional abuse. 

After Shaw died at age 94 in 2004, Keyes sued his estate claiming he had verbally promised to provide for her.  It's been said she was awarded a million dollars.

Life after Shaw was to her liking.  She knew she was far too opinionated, independent and getting crankier to put up with another man or have one put up with her.  She was certain she would never marry again.  She still smiled when she thought of her playgirl days but they were now behind her.  She traveled, visited friends the world over and even seemed to enjoy getting older.  She knew she sometimes startled people with the things she said and she wouldn't have had it any other way.

She began writing. She did a column for the L.A. Times called Keyes to the Town, a fun Valentine to Hollywood and I rarely missed it. She loved to decorate and her homes were often something to behold. She did a musical tour of No, No Nanette with Don Ameche, excited to be tap-dancing again at her age. And of course there were those two autobiographies.  Keyes had a lot to say. I thought Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister was just about the best autobiography I'd ever read... funny, informative, juicy, occasionally profane and more than a few dollops of kiss-and-tell. I'm thinking I should read it again. Her last film in 1989, Wicked Stepmother, starred Bette Davis, in her final movie as well.  It was a dreadful little comedy-horror thing that would have ended anyone's career.

In the 70s she wrote a novel about Hollywood called I Am a Billboard.  Some years later Tab Hunter and his partner Allan Glaser wanted to make a film of it and they not only worked with Keyes on the screenplay but befriended her.  He found her to be quite engaging but Shaw had taught her well in volatility and combativeness. Nonetheless, Hunter was friends with her until the end of her life, if not a caretaker in many respects.

The woman who truly enjoyed her life, who knew how to the take ups with the downs, didn't do so well at the end of her long life. She suffered from Alzheimer's for eight years before dying of uterine cancer at age 91 in Montecito, California, in 2008. She died on July 4th, America's independence day, a perfect day for independent Evelyn Keyes to say good-bye. 

Next posting:
One of her ex-husbands

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