Tuesday, August 9

Boy Crooner: Dick Haymes

I heard his beautiful, clear, crisp, baritone voice so much around our house when I was a kid.  My parents, who didn't have much in common, agreed on Dick Haymes.  Even though my own musical tastes veered toward rock and roll, I cajoled my grandmother into buying me Dick Haymes' recording of You'll Never Know and I listened to it constantly in various states of reverie.  There was no boy crooner who commanded my attention more than this man.

Like most singers of his day, he found his way into the movies but by the time I discovered him, his acting career was pretty much over.  The great press he had gathered due to his singing and acting and marriage to a beautiful actress had given way to lurid headlines of bad behavior, drunkenness, terrible financial problems and abusive treatment of wives.  Like his One Touch of Venus costar, Robert Walker, himself the subject of a recent posting, it all began with a testy relationship with his mother.

Haymes was born in 1918 to a British father and Irish mother residing in Buenos Aires. He had inherited his vocal gifts from his mother, who, among other things, was a voice teacher.  It may have been the first and last good thing she ever did for him.  He and his mother only lived in Argentina for a couple of years and would never return. They moved to New York without the father who died a short time later. She became involved with a married man and had a son by him but gave him the Haymes name and claimed he was the natural son of her husband.

His mother was a wild and impulsive woman who knew nothing about money except that she liked to spend it lavishly and both she and her son were often shunned by others for their seemingly bohemian ways. Haymes, like his mother, never learned much about money and he would remain bitter about the shabby treatment he and his mother received.

Mama forced her rich and married boyfriend to foot her bills for trips all over the world and she would install both Haymes brothers with anyone she could.  In teenage years they were both in military academies.  Both would suffer abandonment issues all their lives and Haymes would eventually ditched his six wives and six children. His nomadic mother wasn't very good at parenting or much interested in her children.  As much as Haymes complained to her and suffered as a result of her lack of caring, he never stopped reaching out for her love, attention and devotion, although he learned to get it all mixed up with other women all his life.

In his late teens, still living in Manhattan, he developed a sense of style.  He was tall, often tan, immaculately groomed and declared that sophistication was most important to him.  Friends thought he imagined himself as The Great Gatsby.  He began singing around town in little gigs.  He even organized a quintet that was popular but came with a short shelf life.  As he acquired a following, his brother thought he became snooty and arrogant.

He was hired by bandleader Bunny Berigan to be the featured vocalist.  Soon he hitched his star to the Harry James band (they became life-long friends).  It didn't hurt that he was paired with the band's girl signer, Helen Forrest.  He became enormously popular. His effortless way of putting over a song, the incomparable phrasing and sumptuous low notes were made for love ballads.  He would go on to seek work with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey (neither of whom he liked) and then successful radio and recording careers. Who could ever forget Little White Lies, Night and Day, I'll Get By, Serenade in Blue, Long Ago and Far Away, The Devil Sat Down and Cried and so many more.  His was a voice of the ages.

In 1940 he married band singer Edythe Harper because she told him she was pregnant.  When he found out she wasn't, he had the marriage annulled.  Shortly thereafter while performing at New York's impressive Paramount Theater, he met Joanne LaCock, a beautiful chorus girl, and they were married in 1941.

Haymes had done some movie stunt work as a teenager (he did a high dive off the mast in 1935s Mutiny on the Bounty) and had appeared in specialty numbers with bands in a couple of films. Both he and his wife wanted to crack movies.  She would have to wait while she had three children.  He decided movies were a must and shopped around to see who was interested.  In 1943 he recorded the biggest hit he'd ever have (and that's saying quite a mouthful) with the Harry Warren-Mack David song You'll Never Know.  

Lucky, lucky Haymes.  20th Century Fox's top musical star, Alice Faye, first sang the song (which won the Oscar) in 1943s Hello Frisco, Hello, but at the time the studio forbade its contract stars to make records. The public took to the song in a big way and clamored for a record. Enter Dick Haymes. Shortly thereafter and unquestionably due to that massive hit, Fox offered Haymes a standard seven-year contract and he jumped at it. Of course, he did. Wouldn't you?

He was still looking for his identity.  He always would be.  For all his success, he never felt as though he fit in. Truly, his whole life felt like acting... he might as well be handsomely paid for it.  And the truth is, success really went to his head.  Despite his boy-next-door image, he was never a grounded person at all.  He never grew up and like a lot of children, he became spoiled. The same could be said for his wife. She was another kid and life for them was like being at an amusement park without anyone else being there.  By the mid 40s she was tiring a bit of domesticity (how funny since their three children lived in a separate wing of the house from their distant parents) and she changed her name to Joanne Dru and got herself an agent.  They went through money like spoiled, rich children with their own credit cards.  He thought it would never end.

Joanne Dru

There's another situation which needs noting.  Many people were not all that aware of Dick Haymes' looks.  They knew they loved the voice and perhaps his face came on the packaging for his records but the public hadn't seen their idol's face move or perhaps heard his speaking voice.  So the movies would open up a whole new world for everyone.  From Day One, Haymes was a popular movie star, albeit a bit of a wooden actor, and in 1946 would be declared Fox's most popular male star.  Not a single one of his films today stands up as anything great but almost without exception all were extremely popular.

Top honors, I expect, would have to go to State Fair (1945), a musical mix of Americana, patriotism and because it centered on Iowa, a lot of corn.  Haymes didn't have the male lead (that went to Dana Andrews) but he certainly was the singing male lead. Working opposite vivacious Vivian Blaine was, in my opinion, his best screen coupling.  Their singing of Isn't It Kind of Fun was the highlight for me.  He didn't sing It Might As Well Be Spring in the film but he did record it to great success.

The clamor over the film and its patriotic theme came at a good time for Haymes, serving as a weak antidote for his avoiding military service.  He could have enlisted if he'd wanted and it certainly would have helped if he wanted to become a U.S. citizen but he suddenly claimed his Argentinian birth as a way to get out of it.  It caused him the first bit of unsavory press coverage and would be used against him more dramatically a few years later.  Fox just kept shoving him in one boy-next-door confection after another.

He would make two films with Betty Grable... no surprise,  In between the two films she would marry his best friend, Harry James. The first, Diamond Horseshoe (1945), supposedly Billy Rose's grand palace in New York, concerned a medical student who wants to get into show business and his girlfriend chorine who wants to get out of it.  Another huge success and it produced one more identifiable Haymes song, The More I See You

The second picture with Grable, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) is too silly to contemplate but it also provided a hit song for Haymes, For You, For Me, Forevermore, which he recorded with Judy Garland.  It is interesting to note that biographies on both Haymes and Grable have said they had an affair during the making of this film.  It ruined his friendship with James until after Grable's death and certainly didn't help his rusty relationship with Dru.

Their relationship wasn't helped by the fact that he had become a drinker as well.  Living the high life was what he did and that meant booze but he claimed he needed it to handle getting through that very high life.  The booze flowed in, the money flowed out. Haymes was also a prodigious philanderer. He was never faithful to any wife.  If this wasn't bad enough, Dru's movie career was on the ascent (she was filming one of her best, Red River, for Howard Hawks) while his was going down.

Do You Love Me? (1946), with Maureen O'Hara, and Carnival in Costa Rica (1947), with Vera-Ellen, were both misses, along with Miss Pilgrim, and Fox decided to let their recent number one male star go. In fairness to both Haymes and Fox, movie musicals were on the wane.  The war was over and all that Technicolor fluff was so yesterday.

One might say it's too bad that Haymes couldn't make the leap to drama as his longtime rival, Frank Sinatra, would do (and even Bing Crosby) but Haymes never had their acting chops.  Too bad he would have no problem creating such drama in his personal life. Additionally, despite many comments about what a nice guy Haymes always was, he was difficult on film sets. Like we said, it all went to his head. So when musicals went, Haymes went with them.  At least at Fox.

He signed on with Universal (at the time, not a good thing) for a couple of films.  Up in Central Park (1948), Universal songbird Deanna Durbin's penultimate movie, was not a good choice for Haymes, and they had zero chemistry.  The aforementioned One Touch of Venus, also 1948, was so-so but Haymes didn't have the leading male role.  

He and Dru were divorced in 1949 and less than a month later he married Nora Eddington with whom he'd been having an affair for months.  She divorced Errol Flynn to marry Haymes.  Ten years later I would be attending University High School and Haymes' daughter with Dru, Joanna, and Eddington's daughter, Deirdre, were classmates of mine. 

Haymes lost his long-time radio show.  He changed agents and stiffed the old one who sued him for what was owed.  He was sued for back rent.  Dru took him to court for back alimony and child support.  Of course all of it made the papers and the old draft-dodging raised its ugly head.  Haymes had later apparently tried to enlist but was considered to be suffering from hypertension and declared 4F. Whether true to not, his reputation suffered.  His relationship with Eddington was never highly praised and he took slings and arrows for his treatment of Dru and the children.

He was still a major draw at clubs and there were still successful recordings.  Things were certainly juicy in 1953.  He made two more musical movies, both with unimaginative songs, and he and Eddington were divorced... it was short and boozy.  His rather publicized affair with Rita Hayworth may have had something to do with that. The juicy part came when her boss, the punitive Harry Cohn, tried to have Haymes deported. The two hated one another... at stake was Hayworth. Both wanted to control her. When Haymes made a trip to Hawaii (which was not a state at the time) to watch Hayworth film Miss Sadie Thompson, his return to the states was stalled with the threat of deportation.  All one needed were newspaper clippings of the unsavory circumstances of his life.  He and Hayworth were certain Cohn was behind it.

Dick and Rita not at their best

The deportation didn't occur but Hayworth became wife #4.  It was brief and terribly painful for all.  His career and life were in a slump and so was hers.  Their marathon drinking bouts, often resulting in his physical abuse of her, made the headlines and his popularity was in the toilet.  Life was certainly a lot different from signing on with Fox 10 years earlier.  

He continued work in clubs whenever they came his way.  He tried to keep his private life private but it usually played out in ways he did not like.  It often had something to do with money problems. Many wondered why 20-years' younger singer Fran Jeffries would marry a deadbeat like Haymes but he seemed to do somewhat better under her care.  They did form a nightclub act together but by 1960, hurt by America's indifference to him, he and Jeffries moved to Europe. They would have a child, she would have a small but impressive film debut in The Pink Panther (1964) and divorce in 1965.  It was the same old story. He would not return to the states until the early 70s by which time he had married wife #6, European model, Wendy Smith (same age as Jeffries). The union would produce two more children and would be his longest marriage. At the time of his death, however, she was divorcing him.

He stayed as busy as he could.  He had one more fantastic album in him, made as many guest appearances as he could on variety television shows and managed guest roles in some dramas.  He made a couple of wretched movies no one saw and while he still made club appearances, the venues were smaller than he was used to.

There were some pieces of good news.  He never lost his beautiful voice as so many of his contemporaries had or would.  To a large degree he had cleaned up his act and best of all the public took him back into its collective bosom.  Apparently he had been forgiven by most. 

Then things all fell apart again when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and the wretched disease quieted that beautiful voice for anything new.  Dick Haymes, who felt unloved and unwanted in his earliest years, who grew up to be a Hollywood bad boy, so-so actor and one of the best singers to ever stand in front of a microphone, died in 1980 in Los Angeles.  He was 61 years old. 

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