Today we reminisce about
Van Johnson’s Hollywood: A Family Album
Schuyler Johnson with Evie Wynn Johnson & Carleton Varney
* Published specifically for The Third Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood *
The popularity of motion pictures soared in the 1930’s during the Great Depression because they provided an escape for the many social and economic ills of the time. They allowed people to dream and unabashedly hope for better things. Actors and actresses were moulded into perfect public personas and became the torch bearers of fantasies. Things have not changed for the many of us who are fans of Classical Hollywood cinema. We enjoy how the films transport us to a moment in time when glamour reigned and morally idealistic utopias existed. It is visually stimulating to see perfectly coiffed and dressed people with spacious, well-furnished homes and apartments; an effect which is heightened by magnificent Technicolor. Families were often happy, nuclear units and love at first sight (literally) could ensure a lifetime of happiness.
In all of this splendour, we are not blinded to the fact that reality was not at all like what is on-screen and moreover, that the players we so adore were just normal folks with flaws and problems like everyone else. Despite this, we still embrace these fabricated personas not out of ignorance but out of sheer adoration. Personally, I feel that it is not my place to judge events that happened 60, 80, even 100, years ago. The past is the past and we can only move on and learn from past mistakes, though that is not to say that everything from then on will be peaches and roses. Remember the saying: To err is human.
Schuyler Johnson had the opportunity to tell her side of the story about being Van Johnson’s only biological child when she decided to publish her memoirs alongside the nostalgic documentation of her mother, Evie. Although life had started out well for her and she lived an overall happy childhood, things changed drastically when her parents split up, resulting in her having limited contact with her father thereafter. In retrospect, Schuyler could have gone through life having a huge chip on her shoulder and cursing the name of her father. Instead, she has taken the high road and is actively celebrating her father’s legacy. While she does not sugar coat details or shy away from difficult topics in her recollections, she prefers to be positive and sympathetic to all parties involved. I admire her humility as a person and her dignity as a forgotten, neglected child who simply wanted to love and be loved. Words cannot express how lucky we all are to have her amongst us, particularly those who adore Van Johnson the actor and still marvel at his films.
With this being said, there is an impactful story that must be told in order to better understand Schuyler’s background, some of which is downright heartbreaking. My sole intention is to provide some history to you as a reader and not to defame anyone or to sway your opinion in any fashion. What happened in the past is what it is.
Van Johnson’s private life garnered much speculation in the years preceding and following his death, mostly in regard to his sexual preference and his family situation. When Van was a major leading star at MGM, the studio saw to it that he would remain a desirable figure to moviegoers – notably those awestruck bobby-soxers – for as long as possible and with whatever it took for them to keep his image squeaky clean. This was common practise at MGM and other major studios so it was hardly something that was limited to just Van. MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix was behind many of these efforts to “fix” stars’ abhorrently considered private lives which directly contradicted their wholesome studio fabricated images. As persistent rumours started going around in 1946 about Van’s sexuality, Louis B. Mayer was taken aback because the idea of Van being gay had never occurred to him. Only a few months before, Van and Sonja Henie were in a relationship that Mayer had condemned because he believed Sonja to be too old (she was only 4 years older than Van) and she was not yet divorced from her first husband. Van was sent overseas to England during the summer to give Mayer some time to think about the situation. Towards the end of the year, Mayer had found the solution to protect his prize asset: a negotiated marriage.
It was more difficult to convince Van of this arrangement than any potential bride as he was dead-set against the idea. Though I am unsure of what specifically made Van change his mind, it is certain that the threat of losing his career and lifestyle would have been an unimaginable blow to him. He had worked too hard to reach great heights at MGM and, likewise, Mayer had invested a great deal in building him up into a money-maker. The woman who would become Mrs. Van Johnson was Eve “Evie” Abbott Wynn, then-wife of prominent MGM contract player Keenan Wynn with whom she had two young sons, Ned and Tracy. Keenan, Evie and Van had been friends since early 1942 when the two men both had uncredited roles in the film Somewhere I’ll Find You. They became an inseparable trio. The Wynn marriage had many ups and downs with Evie being on the brink of leaving Keenan on several occasions. But even if their marriage had been fragile towards the end of 1946, the reason for that break-up was not Van Johnson – it was Mayer.
Van and Keenan starred in several movies together, including:
Easy to Wed (1946), No Leave, No Love (1946) and Men of the Fighting Lady (1954)
“Mayer decided that unless I married Van Johnson . . . , he wouldn’t renew Keenan’s contract. I was young and stupid enough to let Mayer manipulate me. I divorced Keenan, married Van Johnson, and thus became another of L.B.’s little victims. … They needed their ‘Big Star’ to be married to quell rumors about his sexual preferences, and unfortunately I was ‘It’! – the only woman he would marry.”*
On 25 January 1947, Van and Evie married in Mexico, only four hours after her divorce from Keenan was finalised. Tabloid speculation had been mounting for months over their possible nuptials but no one was really prepared when they actually went through with it. The most affected were Van’s fans, for the most part adolescent girls and young women who thought of him as the man of their dreams, who were turned off by the fact that he had married his best friend’s wife and was now a stepfather of two. It created a backlash and Van’s “career slowed to walk for more than two years. Not only did his fan mail subside, but the uproar over his marriage continued in the movie magazines and blackened his image.”** Even some of his fellow celebrities looked poorly upon his union. Friend and co-star Lucille Ball felt “that (Van) had changed (over the years), had become consumed with his celebrity, and was willing to go to any lengths to protect it.”*** Their friendship ended and ironically years later he would also have a falling out with Lucy’s husband Desi Arnaz. Had Mayer made a terrible mistake by pushing this marriage which was tarnishing Van’s image instead of preserving it? As time went on, Van’s career eventually recovered enough that he was back in good graces again. He and Evie’s residence became one of the most popular places where to be entertained, always with exquisite detail and products. Their couple was thriving, at least on the outside.
Van and Evie
Less than a year before their first wedding anniversary, they were blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby girl who they would name Schuyler Van. The baby “was the instant object of affection in the house. She was Van’s first and only child and she was the apple of his eye. … She was, among other things, to be the antidote for Van’s own miserable childhood.”§ Van had a great affection for his daughter and tried to give her everything that he did not have growing up and then some. Schuyler recants in detail about visiting with other celebrities and having playdates with their offspring. She lived a life of privilege well until around her fourteenth birthday when her parents officially separated from one another. Van stayed in New York where he was appearing on Broadway and Evie moved back to Los Angeles with her two minor children, Tracy and Schuyler. The “façade” was over but it was not easy for anyone involved to deal with the changes.
The couple would only legally divorce in 1968 after more than six years of estrangement and a fight over assets. Van had found a lot of success on the stage and was making good money but did not always share his wealth with his family. Evie often complained about not having enough to live off of and over time, she had to continue downgrading her lifestyle. As a result, Van was cut-off from his daughter at Evie’s insistence, only able to send her letters. Living apart from Schuyler made him lose sight of fatherhood and sadly as time marched on, Van had less inclination to mend their relationship. They would see each other only twice more after the separation in 1962.
In regard to her parents, Schuyler had this to say:
“Given the circumstances that forced them into marriage, Evie and Van had a lot of fun, a lot of love, and a lot in common for a long time. Both had a fantastic sense of humor and a love for animals, as well as a passion for travel and writing.
While Van was my sun, my excitement, Evie was my rock, my security, my dependable guardian.”^
By reading Schuyler’s words and admiring Evie’s scrapbook, it is undeniable that there were many good times in the Johnson-Wynn household. Perhaps age allowed both these women to be able to look past the moments that were more difficult to bear and to appreciate what they had accomplished in life. Maybe Van was able to do the same but privately so, as he did not reach out to Schuyler before his passing in 2008. It is not always easy to do the right thing when the weight of shame is carried around for so many years. There are many articles out there about Van Johnson with a good number of them being somewhat negative in nature. Schuyler has actively commented on a handful of them in order to debunk outrageous theories or to simply try to set the record straight.
Anyone who enjoys Van as an actor will surely love Van Johnson’s Hollywood and even those who are mildly curious about him will be thrilled. It may very well make fans out of people who may be sceptical of his talent or who do not know much about him other than from Old Hollywood gossip heard through the grapevine. The pictures have been well preserved and nicely transferred to the paper, which is thick and slightly glossy. It is very much in the style of a coffee table book although this is not a book that you will be satisfied flipping through. You will definitely want to take the time to read, even if you have already read it several times before. It has been worth every penny for me.
Thank you to Schuyler, Evie and Carleton for making this available to all of us.
Van Johnson: MGM’s Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis, 2001; *pg. 114, **pg. 117, ***pg. 111
Van Johnson’s Hollywood: A Family Album, 2016; ^pg.3
We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood by Ned Wynn, 1990; §pg. 58