She was a big star, one of the biggest at MGM in the 40s and early 50s.
Her three-time costar, Howard Keel, called her “the most beautiful woman in the history of movies.” And, yes, she was pals with Ava Gardner and once was romanced by Howard Hughes.
She was also a member of that tiny movie community of stars and supporting players who initially pursued careers in opera, not in Hollywood. (Members of this circle include Mario Lanza, Ezio Pinza, Margaret Dumont and Fortunio Bonanova, who so memorably plays the frustrated vocal coach in Citizen Kane.)
In 1951’s Showboat (costarring Gardner and Keel) Grayson hit really hit her cinematic stride.
Born Zelma Hedrick in North Carolina in 1922, she came from a highly musical family. Everybody sang, no one more exquisitely than Kathryn.
She was “discovered” at the impossible age of 11, and wound up on the radio. That in turn alerted the MGM brass, who signed Grayson in 1939, and provided acting (she already has plenty of singing) lessons.
A coloratura soprano, Grayson envisioned herself first as an opera singer. MGM, eager to land a rival to singing Deanna Durbin at Universal, changed her mind.
Then for reasons had to fathom, she was paired with Mickey Rooney in 1941’s Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary. The front office then came to its senses, and cast Kathryn in much more suitable fare: including besides Showboat 1953’s Kiss Me Kate with Keel; 1950’s The Toast of New Orleans with Lanza; and a number of pictures with Frank Sinatra including 1949’s The Kissing Bandit.
After her 13-year stint at MGM ended in 1953, Grayson’s career slowed. She made 1956’s The Vagabond King at Paramount, then turned largely to nightclub appearances (at one spell with Keel) and the stage. Grayson died in 2010 at age 88.
She didn’t have much luck on the personal front. She was married and divorced twice; the second hubby was Johnny Johnston, a fellow studio stalwart. He was a former night club and radio crooner who is Esther Williams’ costar in 1947’s This Time For Keeps.
Johnston, to say the least, isn’t widely known today but he had his moments of co-stardom at MGM. He was carrying on a torrid affair with Grayson (they married in 1947, divorced five years later) while he and Esther were making This Time on location in upper Michigan.
As Esther records in The Million Dollar Mermaid, her excellent 1999 autobiography coauthored by the late Digby Diehl, Johnston was no angel.
To amuse his dewy-eyed groupies on location, Johnnie would read aloud Kathryn’s intimate letters including the all-too-graphic details concerning what she liked about his love-making. I was appalled.” (So, eventually was Grayson; she was one of Johnston’s half dozen wives.)
Below is a shot of Johnson with Kathryn in happier days.