First, let’s set the pivotal scene….
The small wedding party gathered on a beautiful spring day outside the courthouse in Greenwich, Conn. The ceremony was delayed by the late arrival of the best man, Jerry Lewis, who had earlier advised Janet and Tony against their marriage (but later recanted).
Hello Everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers here again.. Today, we bring you Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis in their own words. He said, She said.
It was “short, sweet, sedate and solemn. We gave each other our plain gold bands, and I was Mrs. Bernie Schwartz…It was glorious, it was happy, it was fun, it was volatile, it was crazy – it was wonderful!…That set the tone for the rest of the day. And for a lot of years as well.”
“Despite all the warnings and naysayers, Janet and I were married one day after my birthday, on June 4, 1951, in the country outside New York City…Our wedding was a lot of fun. We had a wonderful dinner at Danny’s Hideaway, a trendy New York restaurant.”
Thus began one of the most celebrated star marriages in Hollywood history. Janet’s recollection of the day is emotionally effusive. Tony’s is more self-centered and matter-of-fact.
Both accounts are contained in books each wrote decades after their wedding – Janet’s in “There Really Was A Hollywood: An Autobiography,” published by Doubleday in 1984; and Tony’s in his remarkably candid “American Prince: A Memoir,” written with Peter Golenbock and published by Harmony Books in 2008.
The groom was 26 at the time of the marriage, a teen-idol-in-the-making under contract to Universal Pictures. He had 10 undistinguished movie appearances under his belt including “The Prince Who Was A Thief,” a swashbuckler with Curtis co-starring opposite Piper Laurie.
He recalled that during promotional tours for the movie, “ the girls would scream” when he walked onstage. “It happened in every city. It was nuts. I couldn’t believe that I could generate that kind of response after nothing but bit parts and one starring role.” But Curtis soon got used the idea. His career of was off and running.
Janet was a month shy of her 24th birthday when she married Tony. It was Tony’s first marriage, but Janet had been wed before –twice. She’d eloped at 15. Her parents had that annulled. Then as a 19 year old she married again. But when she signed with MGM that marriage was dissolved too.
When she and Curtis wed she was the much bigger star. She was such a hot property that even psycho-lecher Howard Hughes found himself making lavishly expensive but unsuccessful plays for her sexual favors – a practice he usually reserved only for the most established leading actresses.
Hughes wasn’t the only shady character in hot pursuit of Janet before the wedding. Another suitor was Johnny Stompanato. Yes, THAT Stompanato — the gangster-lover of Lana Turner who was fatally stabbed by Turner’s daughter, Cheryl.
In 1950, Janet was starring in Hughes’ production of “Jet Pilot” at RKO studios, an ill-fated movie that took seven years to finally reach theaters. Perhaps symbolically, given the outcome of their marriage, it was also the time that Janet first met Curtis.
She was on loan to RKO from her home studio, MGM, and was moving in swift company – director Josef von Sternberg, leading man John Wayne and, of course, producer-studio-owner Hughes.
As Tony tells it, Janet, playing a Russian fighter pilot of all things, decided to attend an RKO publicity party directly from the “Jet Pilot” set. He was there as well. “She had her hair pulled back, making her look sweet and vulnerable, and, boy, was I stunned by the way she looked,” recalled Tony.
Janet was more specific. The RKO publicity party was held at Lucy’s, a popular Hollywood watering hole on Gower Street and Melrose Avenue. “The gathering was in full swing when we arrived.…At one point I was introduced to a devastatingly handsome young man – beautiful really – with black unruly hair, large sensitive eyes fringed by long dark eyelashes, a full sensuous mouth – and an irresistible personality…I didn’t forget him.”
Janet Leigh was at the peak of her beauty, as the photo above attests.
Throughout their ensuing courtship Tony felt somehow inferior. Janet, he wrote, “was someone I admired greatly, and I badly wanted her to admire me back. She was better educated than I was, and I was honored that she wanted to spend time with me.” Then comes this confession:
“Janet and I had been nuts about each other when we first started going out. We loved the sex, and we loved the companionship; but it wasn’t long before the differences between us that had seemed so exciting at first started to create friction…(Janet) had developed very firm ideas about how everything should be.”
Janet would criticize Tony’s manners at parties; would feel uncomfortable with the attention that came with celebrity while Tony thrived on it. She began, said Tony, “bossing me around, just as my mother had bossed my father around.” Curtis suffered through a Dickensian New York childhood explaining why he never liked to be reminded about the old days.
In her book Janet glosses over or ignores outright the couple’s early differences. Instead, she warmly recalls their foreign travels, the socializing with their famous friends (notably the Kennedys) and the movies they were working on. And, of course, the arrival of the couple’s two daughters, Kelly Ann and Jamie Lee.
But their children didn’t cement the crumbling marriage.