The President’s Ladies

The President’s Ladies: Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis

BERNARD F. DICK
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vkm07
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    The President’s Ladies
    Book Description:

    Ronald Reagan, a former actor and one of America's most popular presidents, married not one but two Hollywood actresses. This book is three biographies in one, discovering fascinating connections among Jane Wyman (1917-2007), Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), and Nancy Davis (b. 1921).

    Jane Wyman, who married Reagan in 1940 and divorced him seven years later, knew an early life of privation. She gravitated to the movies and made her debut at fifteen as an unbilled member of the chorus, then toiled as an extra for four years until she finally received billing. She proved herself as a dramatic actress inThe Lost Weekend, and the following year, she was nominated for an Oscar for The Yearling and soon won for her performance inJohnny Belinda, in which she did not speak a single line. Other Oscar nominations followed, along with a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Angela Channing inFalcon Crest.

    Conversely, Nancy Davis led a relatively charmed life, the daughter of an actress and the stepdaughter of a neurosurgeon. Surrounded by her mother's friends--Walter Huston, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Lillian Gish, and Alla Nazimova, her godmother--Davis started in the theater, then moved on to Hollywood, where she enjoyed modest success, and finally began working in television. When she married Reagan in 1952, she unwittingly married into politics, eventually leaving acting to concentrate on being the wife of the governor of California, and then the wife of the president of the United States. In her way, Davis played her greatest role as Reagan's friend, confidante, and adviser in life and in politics.

    This book considers three actors who left an indelible mark on both popular and political culture for more than fifty years.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-020-4
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-2)
  3. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-6)

    HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN(1944) WAS ANOTHER WARNER BROS. MORALE-booster, following on the heels ofThank Your Lucky Stars(1943). The latter brought out the Warners pantheon: Humphrey Bogart, Olivia De Havilland, John Garfield, Ann Sheridan, Jack Carson—and, most memorably, Bette Davis, lamenting, ʺTheyʹre Either Too Young or Too Old,ʺ and hitting the double entendres as if they were typewriter keys.Hollywood Canteenwas mellower. It also spotlighted the Warners regulars: John Garfield, Bette Davis, Jack Carson, Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Paul Henreid, Dane Clark, Joan Leslie, Janis Paige (in her screen debut), and Jane Wyman, with guest appearances by the...

  4. Chapter 1 The Abandoned Child
    (pp. 7-15)

    DURING HOLLYWOODʹS HEYDAY, THE STAR MACHINE PROCESSED FODDER for the fan magazines, ingested by readers who believed what they read. To say that an actor was adopted posed questions that studios preferred not to answer and certainly would not include in their hagiographic bios. Mention of adoption meant disclosing a starʹs past, which could include implications of illegitimacy or abandonment, neither of which was good copy. And so, Jane Wyman was not adopted. But she was.

    On 27 May 1916, Manning Jeffries Mayfield and Gladys Hope Christian were married by a justice of the peace in Kansas City, Missouri. The...

  5. Chapter 2 The Name below the Title
    (pp. 16-29)

    THE 1932–36 MOVIES IN WHICH JANE APPEARED FLEETINGLY VARIED IN quality, but they at least paid the rent for her South Normandie apartment. For her uncredited role inMy Man Godfrey(1936), Jane received either twenty-five dollars a day for three days if she was a ʺbit woman,ʺ or fifteen dollars a day for one to three days if she was a ʺdress extra.ʺ Jane was probably the latter. She could have appeared in any or all of the four crowd scenes in the film: the scavenger hunt party, a cocktail party at the Bullocksʹ mansion, a cocktail lounge,...

  6. Chapter 3 Jane and Ronnie
    (pp. 30-36)

    ON 20 FEBRUARY 1948, MICHAEL DRAKE OF NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT, read that Jane and her third husband, Ronald Reagan, were divorcing. He immediately dashed off a letter to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who was so well known that a letter addressed to ʺHedda Hopper, Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif.ʺ managed to reach her. ʺMaureen and Michael will never have parents like Jane and Ronnie,ʺ Drake lamented.

    It was ʺJane and Ronnie,ʺ not to mention Maureen, born a year after their marriage, and Michael, adopted in 1945. To Drake, the Reagans were the model Hollywood family, personable and scandal-free. The parties...

  7. Chapter 4 Slouching toward Stardom
    (pp. 37-46)

    BY 1952, JANE COULD COMMAND $ 150,000 A PICTURE, BUT IN 1940, she was just supporting cast or a B-movie female lead. InAn Angel from Texas(1940), she and Reagan were supporting players; the leads were Eddie Albert, Rosemary Lane, and Wayne Morris.Angelwas an adaptation of George S. Kaufmanʹs 1925 comedy,The Butter and Egg Man(the title refers to the backer of a Broadway show). Since moviegoers were more familiar with ʺangel,ʺ which carried the same meaning, the title was changed toAn Angel from Texas. But the plot remained the same: A Texan (Albert) is...

  8. Chapter 5 Reaganless for the Duration—and Beyond
    (pp. 47-51)

    IF JANE WAS EVER MEANT TO MARRY, IT WAS NOT TO ANY OF HER four husbands. As reductive as it sounds, she needed a man—if not older, then at least understanding and supportive—who could provide the security she lacked in both her youth and her profession. A mere sixteen when she married the twenty-seven-year old Eugene Wyman, Jane at least got a starʹs surname out of it. Myron Futterman was another older man, fourteen years older, to be exact. The couple married on 29 June 1937 and separated on 1 October 1938. Jane filed for divorce, citing as...

  9. Chapter 6 Angel in the Wings
    (pp. 52-57)

    WHEN JANE MADEPRINCESS OʹROURKE(1943), SHE HAD NO IDEA IT would represent a turning point in her career, nor did she give the movie any thought. Olivia De Havilland was the star, and she was only supporting cast. At least Jane had the female lead inCrime by Night(1944), a perfect example of the eccentric billing that existed during the studio years. Jane, now a brunette, was first billed under the title, followed by Jerome Cowan, Faye Emerson, and Eleanor Parker. Cowan was really the star. He was never a leading man, but he was a fine character...

  10. Chapter 7 Highs and Lows
    (pp. 58-65)

    JANE HAD NO IDEA THAT THE RESTAURANT SEQUENCE INPRINCESS OʹRourkewould attract the attention of Wilder and Brackett. They were searching for an actress to play the female lead inThe Lost Weekend(1945), which they were adapting from Charles Jacksonʹs 1944 bestseller. Jane just did what the scene required. Realizing that the evening could be their last for the duration, she dressed elegantly, not expecting to hear a song about war-torn China. Even in a night on the town, she cannot escape the war that could leave her a widow. Her only solution is to steer her husband...

  11. Chapter 8 Going for the Gold
    (pp. 66-69)

    ʺJODY!ʺ A WOMAN SHOUTS FROM THE PORCH OF A RAMSHACKLE house. The woman is Jane, barely recognizable at first. Her usually animated eyes are now those of a woman who has resigned herself to a life without prospects.

    For the screen version of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlingsʹs Pulitzer Prize winning novel,The Yearling, Jane was loaned out again, this time to MGM. Originally, MGMʹs own Spencer Tracy was slated for Penny Baxter, with Anne Revere, on loan from Twentieth Century-Fox, as Ma. Both could easily pass for salt-of-the-earth types. But although Tracy was box office, Revere, a fine actress who fell...

  12. Chapter 9 Frontier Gal
    (pp. 70-75)

    ALTHOUGH WARNERS RELEASED SOME RESPECTABLE WESTERNS (E.G.,They Died with Their Boots On, San Antonio, Silver River, Colorado Territory) and one classic (The Searchers), the studioʹs reputation was founded on the crime film. Warners not only had actors who could work both sides of the law (James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson), but those who were at home on the range (Errol Flynn, Dennis Morgan, Ronald Reagan). The studio expected similar versatility of its female players. Actresses, too, were expected to take up residence in the Old West, if necessary. Bette Davis, the reigning diva, was the exception, but...

  13. Chapter 10 Strange Interlude
    (pp. 76-79)

    AS A WARNERS CONTRACT PLAYER, JANE HAD BEEN LOANED OUT TO Universal (The Spy Ring), MGM (The Crowd Roars, The Yearling), Columbia (Wide Open Faces), Fox (Tail Spin, Footlight Serenade), RKO (My Favorite Spy), and Paramount (The Lost Weekend). ButMagic Town(1947) was a new experience; she would be appearing in an independent production for a company created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin, with RKO as distributor. The result was the disappointingMagic Town, Robert Riskin Productionsʹ only release.

    It was understandable that Riskin would go independent. The year 1947 marked the close of Hollywoodʹs boom years. In the...

  14. Chapter 11 And the Winner Is …
    (pp. 80-84)

    ALTHOUGH WARNERS WAS CHIEFLY NOTED FOR GANGSTER-TOUGH guy-fresh headlines movies, it also distinguished itself with adaptations of novels:Penrod and Sam, Captain Blood, The White Cockatoo, Anthony Adverse, Oil for the Lamps of China, The Maltese Falcon, Kings Row, Now, Voyager, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for example. But stage adaptations predominated:First Lady(1937),Tovarich(1937),Jezebel(1938),Boy Meets Girl(1938),Brother Rat(1938),The Old Maid(1939),Dark Victory(1939),No Time for Comedy(1940),The Man Who Came to Dinner(1941),George Washington Slept Here(1942),The Male Animal(1942),Watch on the Rhine(1943),Old...

  15. Chapter 12 The Non-Marrying Kind
    (pp. 85-94)

    WHEN REAGAN WAS DISCHARGED IN FALL 1945, HE RETURNED TO A changed household and a different wife. Jane went on location to Florida forThe Yearling. When she had to return to MGM for the interiors, the sets werenʹt ready. As soon as she wound up work onThe Yearlingin mid-January 1946, Warners wasted no time squeezing her into a few scenes inNight and Day, which revealed her underutilized flair for musical comedy—a flair she had exhibited earlier when she sang ʺWhat Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?ʺ with Jack Carson inHollywood Canteen. But...

  16. Chapter 13 These Three
    (pp. 95-99)

    IT IS NOT UNCOMMON FOR DIVORCED MOVIE STARS TO REMARRY within their profession. Tyrone Power seemed happy with Annabella, until World War II intervened. Afterward, Power was a changed man, ready for a second go around with Linda Christian. When Humphrey Bogartʹs stormy marriage to Mayo Methot ended, he found a soul mate in Lauren Bacall. Tom Cruiseʹs three marriages were all to actresses: Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman, and Katie Holmes. ʺStick to your own kind,ʺ Anita advised Maria inWest Side Story. And Reagan did. Nor was there anything unusual about Reaganʹs marriage to Nancy. Movie history is replete...

  17. Chapter 14 The Rest—and Best—of Reagan
    (pp. 100-110)

    REAGAN MADE OVER FIFTY FILMS OF VARYING QUALITY. THE BEST ATTEST to a talent that served him as well on the screen as it did in politics. He had his strengths and weaknesses. His strengths were evident in dramas likeTennesseeʹs PartnerandKings Row, and in comedies likeThe Girl from Jones BeachandBedtime for Bonzo. During the studio era, producers were savvy enough to know that actors must play to their strengths, and Reaganʹs lay in comedy, melodrama, westerns, and war films. Although he appeared in two musicals,This Is the ArmyandSheʹs Working Her Way...

  18. Chapter 15 Stars in Her Eyes
    (pp. 111-119)

    IN NEW YORK, THE EVENING OF 6 FEBRUARY 1946 WAS RELATIVELY mild. The temperature reached a high of 48, and it was in the 40s at 8:00 p.m., when audiences started filing into the theaters. Broadway was at its zenith.Oklahoma!was in its third season andCarouselin its second. Other musicals included the revival of Victor HerbertʹsThe Red Mill, Bloomer Girl, Billion Dollar Baby, Song of Norway, Up in Central Park, andFollow the Girls, with Gertrude Niesen lamenting the plight of the single female in ʺI Wanna Get Married,ʺ whose unexpurgated lyrics could only be heard...

  19. Chapter 16 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starlet
    (pp. 120-123)

    ON 2 MARCH 1949, MGM SIGNED NANCY AT THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS a week, starting on 7 March when her first film,Shadow on the Wall, would begin shooting. MGM, the ʺTiffany of studios,ʺ was the right one for her. Tracy and Gable were both MGM contract players. Dory Schary, who produced Nancyʹs best-known film,The Next Voice You Hear, credited Loyal Davis for alleviating his back pain. Benjamin ʺBennyʺ Thau became infatuated with her.

    Thau, born in 1898, was old enough to be Nancyʹs father; in fact, he was two years older than Loyal Davis and four years older than...

  20. Chapter 17 Nancy at Tiffanyʹs
    (pp. 124-135)

    WHEN JANE RECEIVED BILLING FOR THE FIRST TIME INSMART BLONDE, she did not head the supporting cast. But Nancy held that position inShadow on the Wall(1950), filmed in 1949. It should have been Nancyʹs debut, except that it was not released until May 1950, when audiences had already seen her in smaller roles in two other films:The Doctor and the Girl, with Glenn Ford, Charles Coburn, Gloria De Haven, and Janet Leigh, released in September 1949; andEast Side, West Sidewith Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Ava Gardner, Van Heflin, and Cyd Charisse, released three months...

  21. Chapter 18 The Empress of Ice Cream
    (pp. 136-138)

    ʺSHE PROJECTED ALL THE PASSION OF A GOOD HUMOR ICE CREAM.ʺ That was Spencer Tracyʹs summation of Nancy, whom he dated occasionally when he was in New York. The truth is that Nancy did not have star quality, whatever that elusive je ne sais quoi is. When Katharine Hepburn was asked to define it, she replied, ʺI donʹt know what it is, but whatever it is, I have it.ʺ Indeed she did.

    MGM tried to give Nancy the star buildup. The photo collection at the Margaret Herrick Library includes a trove of glossies featuring Nancy in a swimsuit, Nancy with...

  22. Chapter 19 Post-Oscar Blues
    (pp. 139-142)

    IN 1948, NANCY WAS ON THE EVE OF HER BRIEF, GAUDY HOUR AS AN MGM contract player. That year, Jane Wyman made the film that would net her an Oscar. But Oscars are a blessing and a curse. Except for something extraordinary on Oscar night—Greer Garsonʹs seemingly interminable acceptance speech forMrs. Miniver, or Louise Fletcherʹs forOne Flew over the Cuckooʹs Nest, which she delivered in sign language for her hearing-impaired parents—one can hardly remember who won what a year later, much less who said what. Rarely is the winner on a roll for the next few...

  23. Chapter 20 The Last Picture Shows
    (pp. 143-149)

    BY 1952, NANCYʹS MOVIE CAREER WAS DRAWING TO A CLOSE. WHEN she had the opportunity to co-star with Lew Ayres inDonovanʹs Brain(United Artists, 1953), she signed on immediately. Although it was a low-budget film (which netted Nancy $18,000 and second billing), it had a respectable lineage, originating as a novel of the same name by the prolific Curt Siodmak, the brother of director Robert Siodmak and a well-known screenwriter in his own right (The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, I Walked with a Zombie). For a work of science fiction,Donovanʹs Brain(1943)—in which a...

  24. Chapter 21 A Cathedral and a Conversion
    (pp. 150-154)

    WHEN JANE WAS PREPARING TO SAIL FOR ENGLAND TO STAR IN ALfred HitchcockʹsStage Fright(1950), converting to Catholicism was the furthest thing from her mind. Soon, it became an obsession.

    Her reputation preceded her. In January 1949, theLondon Daily Expressnamed Jane best actress and Laurence Olivier best actor of 1948, Jane forJohnny Belindaand Olivier forHamlet. It was an odd juxtaposition: an actress who delivered no lines, and an actor who delivered Shakespeareʹs. But the honor carried a cash award of $4,000, which Jane in turn gave to Londonʹs Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA)....

  25. Chapter 22 Zinging with Bing
    (pp. 155-161)

    IN 1951, IT WAS LOAN OUT TIME AGAIN: MGM FORTHREE GUYS Named Mike, RKO forThe Blue Veil, and Paramount forHere Comes the GroomandJust for You, both with Bing Crosby.Groomgave Jane an opportunity to work with both Crosby and director Frank Capra, whose best work was behind him. Jane was not a screwball heroine like Claudette Colbert and Jean Arthur. And the public did not associate her with Crosby, whose most frequent co-star was Dorothy Lamour, who made a cameo appearance inGroom, whose plot was pure Capra—or as his detractors would say,...

  26. Chapter 23 Glass Animals and Blue Veils, Cabbages and Couture
    (pp. 162-170)

    EVER SINCEJOHNNY BELINDA, JERRY WALD FELT A SPECIAL AFFECTION for Jane, who would star in two more of his productions. She had just returned from England after winding upStage Frightwhen she was back before the cameras inThe Glass Menagerie(1950), which Wald and Charles K. Feldman were producing for Warners. Feldman was one of the few agents who could boast of a bachelorʹs degree from the University of Michigan, a law degree from University of Southern California, and an affection for Henry James, whom he allegedly read each morning. As president of Famous Artists Corporation, Feldman...

  27. Chapter 24 Addio del passato
    (pp. 171-174)

    THE YEAR 1956 MARKED THE END OF JANEʹS TWENTY YEARS AT WARners, where she received her first screen credit. It was fitting thatMiracle in the Rain, her last film for the studio, reflected her newfound faith and religion. She was not as embittered as Reagan was when he left Warners in 1952. Jack Warner did not even say goodbye, and no sooner had Reagan gone than his name was removed from his parking space. Jane had been doing television since 1952 and sensed that would be her medium for the duration, with an occasional return to film if a...

  28. Chapter 25 I Do, I Donʹt, I Do, I Donʹt
    (pp. 175-180)

    THERE WAS NO MORE REASON FOR COLUMBIA TO TURN ITS ARGUABLY definitive comedy of remarriage,The Awful Truth(1937), into the musicalLetʹs Do It Again(1953) than there was to remakeIt Happened One Night(1935) asYou Canʹt Run Away from It(1957). All a remake does is invite comparison with the original, which usually emerges in a better light. If the argument was that the remake was intended for moviegoers who never saw the original and preferred the stars of their generation to those of their parentsʹ, the solution might be to re-release the original with the...

  29. Chapter 26 The Actress and the Octopus
    (pp. 181-186)

    INTHE LADY TAKES A SAILOR(1949), JANE ENCOUNTERED A REAL OCTOPUS in her underwater adventure with Dennis Morgan. Three years earlier, theSaturday Evening Postran a four-part series, dubbing the agency that represented Jane, the Music Corporation of America (MCA), the ʺstarspangled octopus.ʺ The agency had tentacles reaching out to every medium: music, radio, theatre, film, literature, and soon television. In the 1950s, MCA was in the market for a studio, one in particular, Universal-International. It was not accidental that Jane made two of her best films at UI during the same decade.

    Jane had not been in...

  30. Chapter 27 The Actress and the Auteur
    (pp. 187-200)

    UNIVERSAL WAS NEVER A DIRECTORʹS STUDIO. THERE WERE ONLY A few directors at Universal in the 1930s and 1940s who could qualify as auteurs, able to sign their films as if they were paintings: James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House), who raised horror to the level of gothic; Robert Siodmak, who could manipulate light and shadow to create a sunless milieu (Phantom Lady); and Jules Dassin, who could pace a film, moving it steadily and inexorably toward a harrowing finale (Brute Force). In the 1950s, Universal, then Universal International, was blessed with two extraordinary directors: Anthony...

  31. Chapter 28 The Beginning of the End
    (pp. 201-206)

    WHEN JANE WAS FIRST STARTING OUT IN THE MOVIE BUSINESS, DISNEY was not a studio, but a company known for its early cartoons, distributed by United Artists, and for animated features likeSnow White and the Seven DwarfsandPinocchio, distributed by RKO. But by the 1960s, Disney was a player. As the studio system receded into the past, the Disney Company filled the void, eventually creating its own cable network and film division. Jane, now in the twilight of her movie career, found herself working for Disney twice.

    Pollyanna(1960), based on Eleanor H. Franklinʹs beloved childrenʹs classic of...

  32. Chapter 29 Worlds Elsewhere
    (pp. 207-220)

    NANCY ENTERED THE BUSINESS TOO LATE TO BE PART OF RADIOʹS golden age, when stars appeared on such shows asLux Radio TheatreandScreen Directorsʹ Playhouse, reprising their film roles or taking on roles created by others. For movie buffs, the closest equivalent to the neighborhood theater wasLux Radio Theatre, which aired from 1934 to 1955. For diehard fans, Monday evenings at 10:00 p.m. were sacred. This was the time they tuned in to CBS for an hour-long version of a movie, frequently with the original stars. Some could act with voice alone. Loretta Young, Fred MacMurray, and...

  33. Chapter 30 From the Hearth to the Vineyards
    (pp. 221-238)

    IN THE LATE 1940S, MANY STARS OF A CERTAIN AGE SENSED THAT THE studio system was not what it had been when they entered the business. Some may even have realized that the safety net the system provided would soon drop, leaving them in free fall. But there was an alternative to hanging on and wondering when the end would come. They could take a break from the big screen and try the small one, crossing the Hollywood bridge but not burning it. In 1948, this meant New York and live television drama.

    Although Margaret Sullavan was a luminous screen...

  34. Chapter 31 Unholy Families
    (pp. 239-248)

    SOME EX-WIVES CAN MAINTAIN A FRIENDLY RELATIONSHIP, BUT NOT Jane and Nancy. Each felt the other was usurping the spotlight, which was never known to be impartial. How could Jane Wyman, even though she was an Oscar-winner and a television star, compete with the First Lady? If Jane was mentioned in the same context with Nancy, it was as Ronald Reaganʹs first or ex-wife, neither of which was a welcome epithet for someone who considered herself first and foremost an actress. As Reagan eased his way out of performing and into politics, Nancy accompanied him, until both had shed their...

  35. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 249-250)

    In summer 2012, the Weinstein Company announced that it would be distributingThe Butler(retitledLee Danielsʹ The Butlerprior to its August 2013 release to avoid confusion with a similarly named 1916 silent film), inspired by the life of the African American Eugene Allen (called Cecil Gaines in the film and played by Forest Whitaker), who served as the White House butler for thirty-four years under eight administrations. The film limited the presidents to Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Richard M. Nixon (John Cusak), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman)....

  36. NOTES
    (pp. 251-260)
  37. APPENDIX
    (pp. 261-269)
  38. INDEX
    (pp. 270-278)
  39. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)