Lew Ayres

Lew Ayres: Hollywood's Conscientious Objector

Lesley L. Coffin
Foreword by Marya E. Gates
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Lew Ayres
    Book Description:

    Lew Ayres (1908-1996) became known to the public when he portrayed the leading character in the epic war filmAll Quiet on the Western Front. The role made him a household name, introduced him to his closest friends, brought him to the attention of his first two wives, and would overshadow the rest of his career. To be a movie star was his first and only ambition as a child, but once he found success, he was never fully satisfied in his choice of profession. Although lacking a formal education, Ayres spent the rest of his life pursuing dozens of intellectual studies, interests, and hobbies. He even considered ended his acting career after just a few years to pursue a more "respectable and fulfilling" path as a director.

    Ayres was given not one but two comeback opportunities in his acting career, in 1938 and 1945. He was cast in the film seriesDr. Kildarewhere he showed his abilities in comedy and his unique strength at bringing a level of sincerity to even the most outlandish or idealist character. But he was willing to give up his star status in order to follow his moral compass, first as a conscientious objector and ultimately as a noncombat medic during World War II. To everyone's surprise, he was welcomed back to Hollywood with open arms and new opportunities despite his objector status.

    Biographer Lesley L. Coffin presents the story of a man of quiet dignity, constantly searching for the right way to live his life and torn between the public world of Hollywood and secluded life of spiritual introspection.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-068-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)

    On April 3, 1942, Americans awoke to learn that in the midst of World War II, a Hollywood star had declared himself a conscientious objector and had been ordered to a conscientious objector camp in Oregon. Actor Lew Ayres was best known for his performances as the titular character in the MGM film seriesDr. Kildare. The press even referred to him by his alter ego’s name. It was an irony lost on no one that he had first been famous for the antiwar filmAll Quiet on the Western Front.

    Newspapers across the country ran stories, saying that it...

    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Marya E. Gates

    Lew Ayres has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his work in motion pictures and one for his work in radio. Yet, I bet they are two of the most overlooked stars on those gilded sidewalks. Actually, I’ve seen them and one is in a state of utter disrepair—it’s in a heavily trafficked part of Hollywood Boulevard—and the other is in pristine condition near the Capitol Record building. The point is, if you asked a random selection of tourists about Lew Ayres, more than likely their response would be, “Who?” Even those in the...

    (pp. xv-1)
  6. Chapter One GRANDMA’S BOY
    (pp. 3-7)

    When Lew Ayres burst onto the Hollywood scene, his image was that of a child of privilege and education. Perhaps it was the name Ayres—it sounded elegant and lofty and vaguely pretentious, and carried with it assumptions about how he must have been raised. Or perhaps it was how he carried himself. He was quiet, intellectual, a gentleman even as a young man. For the rest of his life, Lewis Frederick Ayres would be known as Lew Ayres, a man destined to be the next big Hollywood star by the age of twenty.

    According to the story his studio...

    (pp. 8-16)

    There was only one subject in high school in which Lew excelled and showed a passion: music. Besides being in the school orchestra, he learned piano, banjo, and guitar and began playing professionally in a band with other high school friends.

    And as his home life became more difficult, constantly fighting with his stepfather, Lew spent more and more time with his musical friends, eventually forming a professional band of his own. With high school just a waste of time and little hope of having anything beyond a “working-class” job, at the age of just seventeen, Lew and the boys...

    (pp. 17-24)

    The rumors were true, although the predictions by Rohan proved to be unwarranted. Rohan’s comments regarding Lew’s acting were true in that his strength was not fit for silent film acting. Actors in the silent era were dependent on their physical expressiveness and tended toward the broad. Even the most “natural” silent performers can—to modern audiences—seem to be overacting. Naturally introverted, Lew had a subtlety and stillness on screen in stark contrast to the hammy-ness that characterized much silent screen acting. Accordingly, Lew’s performances in silent films were often characterized as boring. But what was a disadvantage in...

  9. Chapter Four A NEW KIND OF STAR
    (pp. 25-42)

    Lew was an interesting case in Hollywood: a boy who had been driven since childhood by the desire to become a star and yet, upon becoming one, seemed to publicly discourage fame and celebrity. Profile after profile of the rising young star noted that he was uncomfortable at the glamorous Hollywood parties and preferred to be alone in his home, sculpting, and learning his newest passion, astronomy, and listening to and playing music. He even told one reporter, “I couldn’t live with anyone. It would worry me. I like to play for hours at a time, and that would probably...

  10. Chapter Five ROMANTIC COMEDY
    (pp. 43-52)

    The failure of Lew to elevate his performance beyond the pedestrian plot and direction ofDon’t Bet on Lovewas a turning point in Lew’s career. In 1934, similar romantic comedies were increasingly the most popular genre for depression-era audiences, especially screwball comedies dealing with social class and status. Since beginning his career, Lew had projected a degree of refinement which seemed ideal for such films, but his own lack of training in the craft of acting was proving to be a hindrance. If Lew was to survive in the industry, he would need to take control of his career....

  11. Chapter Six AT THE HELM
    (pp. 53-58)

    By 1935, Lew was frustrated by the failure of his once promising contract with Fox and withdrew further from society, even from Ginger. Although he had given up hunting and fishing due to moral objections, he still enjoyed the solitude of outdoors for walks in the woods and astronomy studies. When not in nature, he could be found in the house, either consumed by a book or in his art studio completing one of his many art projects. More and more, his time was committed to his hobbies, at the expense of his career and marriage. The house was full...

    (pp. 59-65)

    When Ginger moved out of the couple’s home, Lew decided to sell it. He purchased a house on Sunset Plaza near Laurel Canyon, on top of what neighbors referred to as “Lookout Mountain.” It had been a dream since Lew first moved to California from Minnesota to live on the mountain. In an interview, he reflected:

    I always wanted this hilltop. Twelve years ago, when I was just a kid, I used to come up here and look at it. You see, 35 years ago, someone built a hotel up here, but it burned down 15 years ago and nobody...

  13. Chapter Eight “THE COMEBACK KING OF 1938”
    (pp. 66-71)

    Almost ten years after George Cukor and Lew had clashed while makingAll Quiet on the Western Front, the director came to Lew with an unusual offer. Cukor was taking time away from the production ofGone with the Wind—a production that had spiraled out of control and from which he would eventually be fired—and beginning work on a new movie for MGM titledHoliday. It was a remake of the 1932 film and 1926 play of the same name by playwright Philip Barry. Cukor’s film would be set in the present day, and star his favorite leading...

    (pp. 72-83)

    A year earlier, in 1937, Lew’s friend Joel McCrea had appeared in a Paramount film based on a story by poet and western pulp fiction writer Max Brandt, entitledInterns Can’t Take Money. In the film, McCrea’s character was an idealistic medical student named James Kildare. Brandt had based the character of Dr. Kildare on his friend George W. Fish, the founder of Columbia-Presbyterian clinic (who was, in truth, a urologist rather than a diagnostician). Paramount’s picture had been moderately successful, but MGM saw even more potential in the character of James Kildare and bought the property for Lew. MGM...

  15. Chapter Ten A DOCTOR, A COMIC
    (pp. 84-89)

    Ironically, the same week thatThese Glamour Girlswas released, an uncensored version ofAll Quiet on the Western Fronthit theaters. Capitalizing on Lew’s comeback, Universal rereleased an uncensored version of the film, which Germany still refused to screen publicly.¹ In newspaper advertisements, the phrase “The uncensored version” appeared above the film’s title. Underneath appeared the quote “The book was burned, the picture was banned, the author exiled” along with a small note that the movie had been “uncensored by war or military authorities.” The shadow of Lew’s first speaking role continued to loom over him, but the sun...

  16. Chapter Eleven ECHOES OF WAR
    (pp. 90-96)

    After making nine movies in less than two years without a break, Lew was given time to travel for a few months. With time off from his busy schedule, he was able to reflect on his career and life, and found that he was unhappy with what this self-reflection uncovered. Lew had assumed his unhappiness was largely due to problems with his relationships and dissatisfaction with his career. But now that those areas seemed settled and satisfactory, his unhappiness was disconcerting:

    I considered myself a Hollywood success, but there was something wrong with that success. I had everything, and yet...

    (pp. 97-101)

    Lew was in the midst of finishingBorn to Be Badas he prepared for the draft board’s decision. Lionel Barrymore was given more to do in this film, as he would be expected to continue the series should Lew leave for service. One of MGM’s newest stars, Donna Reed, was cast as the concerned girlfriend of a patient in the movie. She especially liked working with Lew on the movie. He was sent orders just as they were preparing to wrap production on the film, but the outcome was not as he had hoped.

    Lew had been classified as...

  18. Chapter Thirteen A CAMP IN OREGON
    (pp. 102-104)

    As the story continued to grow in public interest, Lew quietly registered at the camp in Oregon, operated by the Brethren and Mennonite churches. Much like soldiers in training camps, Lew was permitted to bring one trunk and one suitcase, and would share living quarters with forty men.² The daily schedule would require Lew to wake at 6 a.m. for a vegetarian meal and organized or individual prayers. At 7:30, all campers joined their work gang, where Lew served on the emergency first aid staff. From 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. they worked, clearing brush and cutting down trees. They...

  19. Chapter Fourteen “LIKE A BOMB WAS DROPPED”
    (pp. 105-115)

    When asked about the effect his stand as a conscientious objector had on him personally, Lew always insisted that he had been kept in the dark about the public outcry because of his limited access to the press while in the camp. This may be why Lew was unable to discuss in detail the effect the public reaction had on him: he did not directly learn of their reaction until later. It was part of the growing Hollywood urban legend surrounding him: that the star of the greatest antiwar movie became a symbol of nonviolent resistance. Although the legend claims...

  20. Chapter Fifteen PUBLIC DEBATE
    (pp. 116-119)

    A number of individuals wrote only because they were outraged by the apparent favoritism Lew Ayres received if he was allowed to transfer. The American Legion took a particularly aggressive stand against this issue, and even wrote an official letter to General Hershey protesting any reclassification of Lew. They were against allowing a civilian to request their assignment of duty, writing: “We object strenuously to allow any selectee to pick his desired branch of service; the man who volunteers and enlists is the only man who has a right to select any certain branch of duty.”¹

    The letter was wired...

  21. Chapter Sixteen BASIC TRAINING
    (pp. 120-123)

    Lew immediately went from the conscientious objectors camp to join an induction ceremony for the army. He swore his oath but emphasized to the surrounding press in attendance there had been no change in his views or beliefs. He had nothing else to say and would answer no further questions, and simply left for his basic training at Hood River in California. Lew would learn all the same skills and drills as his fellow soldiers, except never with a gun in his hand.

    It seemed, at least for the time being, that the controversy over Lew’s convictions had died down,...

  22. Chapter Seventeen IN SEARCH OF SOMETHING
    (pp. 124-133)

    After over a year of service in the Pacific, which he spent administering to the sick and injured soldiers and civilians, Lew gave this statement. But though he was absolutely certain of his religious convictions, Lew was not speaking of any conventional religious sect. He had not “belonged” to any church since he had gone with his mother to her Congregationalist church as a child. Lew had come to his own beliefs by reading religious texts, studying the Bible, along with other books of comparative religions, spiritualism, and philosophy, especially the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Carl Jung. Through...

  23. Chapter Eighteen A HERO RETURNS TO HOLLYWOOD
    (pp. 134-139)

    After twenty-two months overseas, Lew walked off the plane and onto American soil. He had survived three beach landings in Hollandia (Kota Bharu), Luzon, and Leyte and was honored with three combat stars. Besides assisting in the medical care of soldiers, civilians, and injured enemy soldiers, he and the other medics performed the majority of the burials, usually at night and while under sniper fire.² When he walked off the plane, the now gray-haired Lew gave a simple statement regarding his experiences, stating, “I have seen Americans in action, and I have seen some American cruelties too, which are rarely...

  24. Chapter Nineteen THE COMEBACK OF 1946
    (pp. 140-145)

    Lew’s return to films may have been a personal disappointment, but he kept busy. Rather than simply returning to his secluded lifestyle of reading and enjoying art alone in his home, Lew began using his intellectual interests to nourish his personal life. He attended art classes two nights a week, and joined the writing group “Essays in Thinking.” Lew also produced six recordings of Bible stories for Majestic Records and St. Joseph Audio Book Company, which were used by countless Sunday schools. He narrated several religious programs, such as a filmstrip titledThe Way of Peace, a fable about the...

  25. Chapter Twenty AWARDS AND AFFAIRS
    (pp. 146-150)

    Warner Bros. didn’t think they had much of a movie inJohnny Belinda. As Jack Warner was rumored to have said to producer Jerry Wald:

    The way that guy [Negulesco] fusses over this damned picture, you’d think he had anotherGone with the Windon his hands. For Christ’s sake, it’s only about a deaf mute who gets raped, knocked up, and later kills the rapist. I’ve heard enough of that “art” shit from Bette Davis. I don’t mind it if the picture has some class, but I want it to sell, goddamn it!¹

    It was Harry Warner who saw...

  26. Chapter Twenty-One THE RETURN OF DR. KILDARE
    (pp. 151-154)

    Although Lew’s film work had slowed and become increasingly infrequent, Lew wasn’t in financial need of new projects to occupy his time. Lew had always enjoyed work on the radio, and had been happy to appear on music programs and the radio versions of his films. So when he was asked in October of 1949 to reprise his beloved Dr. James Kildare role on a syndicated radio program, which would reunite him with Lionel Barrymore, Lew leapt at the opportunity. He loved the freedom radio programs offered, and took full advantage of opportunities to contribute to the production. He proudly...

  27. Chapter Twenty-Two MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
    (pp. 155-159)

    Lew turned downMagnificent Obsession, plus an impressive salary of $250 a week, to turn his attention to his own obsession. During a free period, Lew had decided he should try something new and more challenging than simply acting on screen. At first he planned to direct a narrative film in Africa for his friend andJohnny Belindacostar Charles Bickford to star in, but these plans were soon shelved.¹ He felt it was time to truly challenge himself. For a time, he considered writing or performing in a play or writing, but nothing ignited his passions. As usual, he...

  28. Chapter Twenty-Three A MAN OF HONOR AND FAITH
    (pp. 160-164)

    Lew Ayres had not appeared in a feature film sinceDonovan’s Brain, and Hollywood had gone through changes no one from the classic era would have expected. Actors were no longer under studio contracts, and there was an entirely new generation of stars, ones more often called actors than types. Younger actors like Jack Lemmon and James Caan were now playing roles for which Lew would have competed against peers James Stewart, Joel McCrea, and Henry Fonda.

    Lew was asked to appear with Fonda in director Otto Preminger’s upcoming film. He was offered the role of the vice president in...

  29. Chapter Twenty-Four THE OLDER GENTLEMAN
    (pp. 165-168)

    Both in his personal life and on screen, Lew’s romances had always carried an element of elegance and modernity, even in the 1930s. As a young man, without much effort, he could easily play opposite women who were his age or even older. Although he had at times expressed dissatisfaction and felt he had been pigeonholed in adolescent parts for far too long, Lew retained a youthful charm even as he aged. The elegance and grace that had been his trademark as a younger romantic lead allowed him to play romantic scenes opposite much younger costars without public criticism or...

  30. Chapter Twenty-Five ALTARS OF THE WORLD
    (pp. 169-174)

    For twenty years, Lew had been presentingAltars of the Eastto the public, most often to religious organizations and schools. In 1976, he finally released it theatrically. Edited down from the five hours comprised by the multiple films, the condensed two-hour version was retitledAltars of the World, and included a new segment on Christianity. Reflecting on the twenty years of work he had put into the films, Lew said:

    My documentary work in these fields has been objective, but not critical. Sympathetic, if anything. That’s really how I feel toward all the faiths, even with their disagreements, which...

  31. Chapter Twenty-Six AS TIME GOES BY
    (pp. 175-180)

    Throughout the 1980s, Lew was becoming more outspoken in public on the issues. This included his concerns over his long held environmental and antinuclear concerns, often giving speeches on the subjects. In a speech delivered before a civics organization, he spoke of the relatively new idea of conservation and drew a connection between economics and environmental resources, stating:

    The important point is that for a brief period during the oil crisis we had an opportunity to reform our environmental habits and attitudes. The mental climate was right. People were seriously ready for a changeover, but our tiger by the tail...

  32. Chapter Twenty-Seven REACHING FOR THE BUTTERFLY
    (pp. 181-185)

    As his eighties approached, Lew kept busy. He was impressively active, walking at least two miles every day and biking out to the cabin where he had once lived and seeing his friends who were still on Lookout Mountain. His pool house in his Brentwood home became his art studio, where he spent hours creating velvet paintings, watercolors, and oil paintings and even composed music. One of his newest artistic pursuits was the creation of massive wood and metal sculptures, some of which weighed well over eighty pounds, and which were hung like shields.

    Red Cross first aid continued to...

    (pp. 186-193)
  34. NOTES
    (pp. 194-213)
    (pp. 214-235)
    (pp. 236-236)
  37. INDEX
    (pp. 237-243)