THE DAY JEAN ARTHUR SAT
DOWN TO DISH
It was 11:00 A.M. on a Sunday
in May, 1972. "Do you drink in the morning, Mr. Flatley?"
Jean Arthur asked me as she reached into a kitchen cabinet for a
fifth of vodka. The notoriously shy actress needed that drink because
for the first time in years, she had agreed to go up close and personal
with the press. This interview appeared later that month in The
New York Times. --Guy Flatley
"I loved sinking my head into Cary
Grants chest," Jean Arthur sighs, dreamily
reminiscing about her dashing leading man in the 1939 movie, "Only
Angels Have Wings."
And audiences loved to watch Jean as she sank her pretty blonde
head into Carys chest, and cuddled up to Gary Cooper in "Mr.
Deeds Goes to Town," and spooned with Jimmy
Stewart In "You Cant Take It With You,"
and mooned over Joel McCrea in "The More the Merrier."
They loved her years later, too, when she was an uptight Congresswoman
meddling in the morals of our military men in "A Foreign Affair,"
and they loved her as a homesteaders weary wife in "Shane."
But for the past 20 years, audiences have had little opportunity
to love Jean, thanks to a harrowing succession of private and public
calamities that included a "Saint Joan" that got martyred
during a fiery try-out in Chicago, a TV series that should have
been burned at the drawing board, and "The Freaking Out of
Stephanie Blake," a comedy that gasped its last unfunny breath
after three paralyzing previews on Broadway. Feeble as "Freaking
Out" was, it proved strong enough to drive its chronically
insecure star into mortified seclusion and finally to Vassar, where
for the past four years she has been regaining her
lost confidence by teaching acting to freshmen students too young
to know the difference between Jean Arthur and Gene Autry.
Even in her Hollywood heyday, Jean ran a close second to Garbo in
the I- wanttobe-alone sweepstakes. So it was only natural
for observers at the recent U.S.A Film Festival in Dallas to do
a double-take when they saw a little white-haired lady spring up
on stage and share a standing ovation with director Frank
Capra for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the
classic comedy which they made together in 1939 and which the festival
was presenting as part of its tribute to Capra.
was just the most fun Ive ever had," Jean says, tucking
her legs beneath her as she sits in the
living room of her snug apartment at Vassar. "It was so wonderful
being with Frank again; I wish we could go on a road show together,
showing his movies and talking to the people. They gave us such
wonderful parties in Texas! One night I sat next to Andy Warhol.
You should work in the movies, he said to me. I
cant, I told him, there are no roles for women
my age. But the camera is magic... he said. Hes
so darling, so naïve. Oh, and that little boy from 'Love Story'
was there, too. You know the one I mean. He seems very charming,
At first, it seems impossible to connect this 64-year-old woman
in a dark sweater and slacks, nursing a vodka and water and puffing
nervously on a cigarette, with the spunky, cute-as-the-dickens blonde
of the thirties. Her white hair is close-cropped and her face
with its marvelously alert blue eyes and warm, slightly worried
smile is no longer baby-smooth. Yet, as she dips back into
her memories of the mad, mad world that was Hollywood, she begins
to look more and more like that one-in-a-million Miss who inspired
Mr. Deeds to go to town.
The voice has something to do with it. It is still fragile and still
tough. Still wavering unpredictably between the helpless and the
hardboiled. Still that uniquely off-key, sweetly pitched instrument
known as the Jean Arthur Voice.
"I guess I became an actress because I didnt want to
be myself," she says, reflecting on her not altogether ecstatic
childhood as Gladys Georgianne Greene of Washington Heights, New
York. "When I was a junior in high school, a man from a movie
company noticed me because of some commercial posing I had done
and he gave me a contract. I always intended to go back to school,
but I stayed in Hollywood because of the challenge. Just recently,
Ive begun to realize what a fantastic life Ive had,
compared with most women. The fact that I did not marry George Bernard
Shaw is the only real disappointment Ive had. I just love
But Jean did manage to get married twice. The first marriage,
while she was still a teenage starlet in silent films, was to Julian
Anker, a nice Jewish boy in a day when most Wasps Jeans
folks, for example never imagined there was such a thing.
"Julian looked a lot like Abraham Lincoln, and thats
probably why I fell in love with him. One day, we were out driving
and he suddenly said, Hey, why dont we get married?
So we lied about our ages and got married in a sheriffs office.
You should have heard our families reactions all sorts
of screaming and shouting and carrying on about suicide. Well, neither
Julian nor I had enough income to make it possible for us to live
together, so our marriage lasted one day.
"Julian dreamed of becoming a millionaire. He had a lot of
good ideas, and I have a feeling he would have become a millionaire
one day. But shortly after our marriage was annulled, Julian died.
He was out fishing, and he had a sunstroke."
In 1932, Jean left Hollywood to try her luck on Broadway and to
marry budding producer Frank Ross. Although the marriage ran longer
than any of the plays Jean muddled through during her two years
away from the cameras, it was a distinct flop, finally ending in
divorce in 1949.
"I was working most of the time, but my husband was very social.
He went to everything. Once, we did go together to a party at Cary
Grants house, when he was married to Barbara Hutton. The place
was full of princes and things. It was a fabulous house, and Cary
was fabulous. I guess Barbara was kind of fabulous, too. I tried
to talk to her about her garden, because I had seen some beautiful
things out there. But, you know, Barbara didnt know a thing
about her garden."
Jeans second husband is still alive, isnt he? "Frank?
Oh, sure. I mean- I guess so. We certainly dont see
one another. Its not that theres any special bitterness;
its just that each of us thinks the other is a bore. Just
because you like to kiss and hug someone for ten years doesnt
mean its going to last forever."
While it did last, there were a few good times, and a few good friends.
"We were quite close to George Murphy and his wife. They were
great dancers, and they made a charming couple. It wasnt until
later that George became political."
Wayne, Jeans leading man in a 1943 lark called
"A Lady Takes a Chance," was also late to show his political
potential. "If I had known then what I know now, I think I
would have shot him dead on the spot. But he was quite pleasant
at the time, and he had a wonderful wife and family. My husband
was producing 'A Lady Takes a Chance,' and the studio had gotten
Henry Hathaway to direct. When I heard that, I said, Henry
Hathaway? Hell just turn it into another fat western. Get
Ginger Rogers for the part; Im going to get sick and go to
bed. My husband said, Im just getting started
as a producer--I cant ask them to remove the director!
But he did, and William Seiter, who was so wonderful for comedy,
directed the movie."
"A Lady Takes a Chance" was wonderful froth, but it did
not give Jean a chance to measure up to the sparkling standard she
had set in "History Is Made at Night", "Easy Living",
"The Devil and Miss Jones" and "The Talk of the Town."
And when her next effort, "The Impatient Years," provoked
impatient yawns from moviegoers, Jean decided to return to Broadway
in a play which Garson Kanin was writing for her.
"I waited two years for Born Yesterday. Kanin went
to war and I had to turn down Anna and the King of Siam
with Rex Harrison to keep myself free to do it. I must say, when
I finally read it, I was disappointed. I dont know why Kanin
ever thought I was right for it. He said something about the junkman
being Harry Cohn, my boss at Columbia who put me on suspension for
two and a half years and whom I almost found the perfect way of
killing without getting caught. Or maybe the junkman was supposed
to be my husband, who was always so interested in being successful.
I suppose Im a snob, but I wanted to do something more ladylike.
"I couldve played the part, but I could not have given
the performance that Judy Holliday gave. There was such confusion,
with changes being made continuously. And there was no third act!
I know they do things that way in the theater sometimes, but Ive
got to have that play written down for me. Also, we had a boy who
was 25 playing the newspaperman, and I got no reaction from him
at all. I only played one performance with Gary Merrill. If I had
had Merrill from the beginning, I would have had some support. I
was beaten by circumstance.
"I had $10,000 invested in Born Yesterday, and
the whole investment was only about $40,000. When I became ill,
and it was clear the show was going to be a hit with Judy Holliday,
Garson Kanin and Max Gordon came to me and demanded I give back
my share. I gave back my share. It was a very hard time for me.
My association with my husband was breaking up, and there was nobody
I could turn to for help. I was so alone."
Jean was so alone that eventually she turned to Erich Fromm for
help. "I think that if you become so frightened, so emotionally
blinded that you dont even know that you should get a divorce,
then you have to have someone help you take the walls out of your
mind. I was in analysis with Fromm for about a year and a half,
and the greatest thing he did for me was teach me to laugh at myself."
Jean learned to laugh, and then she learned to fly high on Broadway
in 1950 in her triumphant "Peter Pan." But there was little
laughter and even less triumph connected with her futile struggle
to bring "Saint Joan" to Broadway in 1954. "I should
have gotten out of 'Saint Joan' or gotten another director. I could
have had Harold Clurman fired; I had director approval in my contract.
But I couldnt stand up to him. Before we began rehearsals,
we had agreed on an interpretation of Joan, but afterward he forgot
all about our agreement. He ordered me to stand on the stage and
not to move, and then he directed the other actors to ignore me.
Just recite the language, hed say to me, and
that will be enough.
"After we opened in Delaware, Clurman came backstage and his
criticism was, Miss Arthur, you didnt tear up the confession
right. Then I did something I had never done before. I got
up, walked over to where Clurman was standing, and grabbed him by
the lapels. Then I shook him and shook him and shook him -
like a thing. "You know what youve done to me,
I said. You know youve ruined me, and you dare to stand
here and talk about how I didnt tear up a piece of paper the
"The producer, Robert Whitehead, wanted me to think he was
on my side, and when he came backstage he gave me a big kiss on
the cheek. But in the process he stepped on my foot and put his
cigarette out in the arm of my costume, which tells you where he
was, psychologically speaking. When we got to Chicago, I was exhausted
- so sick that my lymph system had stopped working. The poison
had settled in my body and there were huge swellings, like enormous
eggs, all around my middle. We were to open that night and Whitehead
came to me and said I would have to go to an afternoon rehearsal.
I told him that I couldnt rehearse, that I needed to rest
before the opening. You get on that stage, he said,
or we sue you. I went on stage, but in the middle of
rehearsal, I began to sob hysterically and I couldnt stop.
I was truly in great pain. And that was the end of Saint Joan,
the play I had wanted to do all my life."
It was nearly the end of Jeans career, as well. It was not
until 1966, after getting up the nerve to do a guest shot on "Gunsmoke"
that she was coaxed into starring in her own series on CBS. She
played a lawyer, and the show was a crime. "There are no writers
on TV; and the directors are nothing at all. Walk in the door,
my director kept saying to me, turn right, face the camera
and start talking. Finally, I said, Look, if you say
that to me one more time, Ill knock your teeth out."
To nobodys surprise, the series sank faster than you could
say Nielsen, and Jean bundled up her bruised ego and fled to her
seaside retreat in Carmel. Then one day a phone call from producer
Cheryl Crawford shattered her solitary brooding. "She said,
If you fell in love with a play, would you do it on Broadway?
Send me a script, I said. She sent me the first scene
from The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake, and I loved
A merciful fate decreed that Stephanie would never freak out for
the benefit of the critics. Instead, Jeans voice vanished,
and the show along with it. "During rehearsal, we kept getting
new scenes every day, and you wouldnt believe how stupid they
were. They couldnt have been written by the same person who
wrote that first scene. Id like to find out some day who did
write that scene. The author of all those other scenes was a boy
who had worked in Cheryl Crawfords office for eight years.
She has since had him arrested for forging her name on checks.
"I would go out on the stage during previews and I could actually
see the audience cringing. Then my voice began going; Id start
to speak and nothing but a squeak would come out. I was so terrified
of making a fool of myself. At one preview, I stopped the play after
the first scene and spoke to the audience. 'Im probably not
going to get through this performance, I said, but this
play really only has one scene anyway. If you should see me putting
my hand to my mouth and dropping something in, dont worry
- its only a cough drop. Then I went on with the
play and every time I put my hand to my mouth, the audience clapped
Jean laughs. "Hey, I dont want you to think I go around
feeling sorry for myself. Thats not the way I am at all. The
truth is, Ive had fun today talking about Clurman and all
that other stuff. I certainly dont think Clurman is an evil
man; Im sure he couldnt help what he did. Years after
Saint Joan,' I saw him at a party and he looked so nervous.
Ill bet he thought I was going to throw my plate of food in
his face. Maybe I should have! But, seriously, thats all in
the past; I prefer thinking about the future."
Does Jean see a Hollywood comeback in her future? "If this
were in England, and there were Margaret Rutherford roles to be
had, that would be great. Oh, if I really wanted to go back, I could.
I was asked to play Steve McQueens mother - some beaten-down
old woman - in a western. And Ive been approached by
Ross Hunter to take the part of a lady missionary in Lost
Horizon, but its a deadly part. I dont want to
do anything unless its a lot of fun."
Being at Vassar has been a lot of fun, but Jean now feels it is
time to move on. "Im very grateful to Vassar for giving
me the chance to prove that I have something to contribute to young
people. Ive found that I can open them up and help them to
release whats inside them. Once they catch on to how much
fun it is being somebody else, there is no problem.
"But Im lonely here. The faculty is quite conservative,
and I can count the teachers with whom I have some communication
on my hands and still have some fingers left over. Im ready
for something different now, Im ready for some excitement.
I want to teach and direct all over the world. I hunger for that.
And one of these days I will direct. Ill find the right actress,
and Ill direct her in Saint Joan."
In the meantime, Jean seems to be doing a pretty good job of just-plain-communicating
with young people. This afternoon, in the crowded Vassar cafeteria,
she looks in vain for an empty table but has to settle for one already
occupied by two students. One is a white boy, with long hair and
sideburns; the other is a black boy with an impressive Afro. "May
I join you?" she asks, and within minutes her cheerful cross-examination
has uncovered the facts that the white boy cant make up his
mind about which subject to major in, and the black boy -
a visitor from Oberlin College - has made up his mind that
there is racial discrimination at Vassar.
"Why, I think white people are ugly," Jean says, pinching
her pale cheeks for emphasis. "I feel like drinking iodine
to change my color."
"But you dont deny that prejudice exists?" the black
"It doesnt exist with me."
"Just look at the past
"I dont want to look at the past. I live for the present."
"But in order to change something, you must first acknowledge
its existence. In this country, the name of the game has always
been power - and that includes whites preventing blacks from
"Sure, theres been prejudice, and sure the wrong people
are running the country. You only have to look at their brutal faces
to know that. But there are people who have the right answers -
Ralph Nader, Buckminster Fuller, Dick Gregory, Loren Eisely -
and one day people are going to listen to them. The best thing that
can happen is for kids to get together and talk and plan. Its
like that great song from that terrible show - To Dream
the Impossible Dream. I mean, how did our scientists ever
get us to the moon, after all?"
"I dont mean to sound cynical," the white student
says, "but dont you think there are things, things inside
us - philosophical ideas - that should be explored before
we start exploring the moon?"
"Well, for heavens sake, just because the scientists
happen to be supporting that guy in Washington at the moment doesnt
mean they wont put their technology to better use one day.
Maybe theyll help us all learn to love one another."
"I dig what youre saying," the black student says.
"You must cut out feeling abused. If you hang on to all that
foolish stuff, it will prevent you from going ahead, from creating.
I know, because thats what happened to me once. But it will
never happen again, no matter what."
The lunch - and the rapping - are over, and Jean gets
up from the table. "Its been nice talking with you,"
she says, extending her hand. "My names Jean Arthur."
"Jean Arthur. Jean Arthur...Ill remember that name. You
just keep doing your own thing, lady, and one day youll be
Jean Arthur doesnt say a word, but she beams like someone
whos just been told shes going to graduate summa cum
TO READ MANY MORE OF GUY
FLATLEY'S ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS--FROM JACK NICHOLSON TO AMANDA PEET
TO AL PACINO TO BARBRA STREISAND TO VINCE VAUGHN TO DIANE KEATON
TO WOODY ALLEN--CLICK