In the nineteen thirties and forties Big Band Leaders were the Rock Stars of the day. And naturally they made the transition from live performing and hit record sales on to the Big Screen.
No musician was more popular than clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw. He was the Mick Jagger of his day, and when Hollywood called Artie ran. He was as big a star as any movie star… and Artie liked movie stars…
In time he’d just have affairs with beautiful women, but as he told Joe, when Morella interviewed him years ago for the Morella/Epstein biography of Lana Turner, “back then sometimes you had to marry ’em to get them into bed.” And marry them he did.
Shaw is equally renowned today for his Hollywood wives (never mind the flings) as for his music. Quite a feat considering how good his music was.
Make no mistake, Shaw was an artist who took music making most seriously even if his swing audiences at the time sometimes didn’t. (He would refer to his more avid fans as “morons.” We wonder whether he regarded his eight wives the same way.)
The former Arthur Arshawsky, born in New York City in 1910 and raised in New Haven, Conn., had been playing saxophone and clarinet since his high school days. By the age of 19 he was freelancing at CBS and making recordings in New York. After a experimental blending of conventional swing instrumentation and a strings flopped, Shaw got down to business and formed his big band, five brass, four saxes and four rhythm.
On July 24, 1938, his ensemble stepped into a studio and recorded its version of Begin The Beguine. It was a huge hit, and everything changed for Shaw. (Other hits followed including Moonglow and Frenesi.) His international fame became such that at one point, Time magazine published a line noting that to the average German, America at the time meant sky-scrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw.
He, and his band, were in Dancing Coed, with rising star Lana Turner.
Shaw had already played his way through two marriages. Then came the bombshell third marriage, to Turner from February 1940 until the following September. (The most conceited, unpleasant man I ever met, Lana said later.)
Short but sensational, the union cemented Shaw’s reputation as a notorious lady-killer. After Pearl Harbor, Shaw enlisted in the Navy, and wise-guy sailors would ask to “shake the hand that held Lana Turner’s tit.”
Two marriages later, Shaw was at a Hollywood party when the wife of actor Van Heflin introduced him a promising starlet on the rise by the name of Ava Gardner. She had been listening to his music, loving his music, since she was sixteen or so,” wrote Gardner biographer Lee Server. It was like meeting a god.
For his part, Shaw found the young Gardner the most beautiful creature you ever saw. Their marriage (she was wife No. 5) lasted a few weeks more than a year, just a bit less than average for Shaw’s four marriages until then. The longest of his eight unions was his last, to actress Evelyn Keyes. The union lasted a relative eternity, 28 years until 1985.
Watch Artie and his orchestra in Dancing Coed or the Fred Astaire/Paulette Goddard film, Second Chorus.