Hello everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here again with more dirt on Van Johnson.
By 1945, Johnson was voted by movie theater owners as the No. 2 biggest box office star, second only to Bing Crosby. But questions still were asked about his sexual preferences.
As author Scott Eyman recounts in his biography of the MGM mogul, Louis B. Mayer, “homosexuality was not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle.” Surely with the “right” woman,” Johnson could be cured of his “malady”, figured Mayer.
As a result, every gorgeous babe on the MGM lot was urged to pursue Johnson. Surely he could be married off to any one of the beautiful, young women both stars and starlets.
By this time Johnson had become a genuine star in the MGM galaxy. The press of those years certainly could be controlled – especially by the renowned studio fixer team of Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling.
Unwanted information rarely if ever saw the light of print. Farsighted MGM managers took considerable pains to head off potentially negative reports or rumors about their charge.
There are many versions of how Van Johnson married Evie Wynn.
One is that in March of 1943, Van Johnson, a new but promising talent at MGM, was driving to a studio screening with friends – said to be fellow actor Keenan Wynn and his wife, Evie.
At a Culver City intersection a car came barreling through a red light and slammed into the side of Johnson’s convertible. The force of the impact rolled the vehicle on its side, seriously injuring Van..
Another version is that Johnson was alone on his motorcycle when the accident occurred. But this was not the image MGM wanted for their bright new star.
In any event, the fact was that Johnson sustained a fractured skull, multiple facial cuts, a severed artery in his neck and bone fragments piercing his brain. There is no good time for a near-fatal accident but at this early point in Johnson’s career, the timing was atrocious.
He had just experienced his first big movie break, being cast in a juicy role in director Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe costarring Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne – established stars with real empathy for the struggling, young actor and the horrible predicament he faced.
During Johnson’s subsequent, three-month hospital stay, Tracy and Dunne fought off repeated studio attempts to recast Van’s part in the picture. “Joe,” finally completed with Johnson aboard as a young fighter pilot, turned into a box office hit when it came out. Van’s stellar career was off and running.
The accident left Johnson with a scarred forehead and a metal plate on the left side of his head.
The good news – if you can call it that – was that the accident also generated huge amounts of sympathetic publicity in movie fan magazines of the time. And because of that metal plate, Johnson was declared exempt from wartime military service, giving his career additional tail wind because so many Hollywood stars were otherwise preoccupied in uniform.
The accident also set in motion a series of events that very much related to Johnson’s personal life, and address the question posed by the heading of this blog.
After being released from the hospital, Johnson moved in with the Wynns, and their young two sons. It proved to be quite a ménage-a-cinq, with Van with Evie Wynn discovering that they got along very well.
One version of the story is that Johnson just couldn’t get over how kind she was to him while he was recovering. He was so moved that he often mused out loud at how lucky his close pal Keenan Wynn had been to snare such a lovely and ingratiating woman.
That’s not to say that Evie was fooling around behind Keenan’s back. She had harbored something of a crush on Johnson but Keenan, perhaps aware of Johnson’s sexuality, deemed him “safe.”
By the time this unusual domestic arrangement was in full flower, MGM boss Mayer was already concerned (some say convinced) that Johnson was indeed gay, and that this perception was leaking out to fans and general moviegoers.
One version of the story is that the studio boss got wind of Johnson’s admiration of Evie Wynn. What exactly did happen has been dissected by Hollywood historians ever since.
Mayer, of course, was motivated by protecting an increasingly valuable piece of studio talent. In fact, Johnson was already considered worthy of the status of a top-billed star — for the first time in Richard Thorpe’s Two Girls and a Sailor in 1944.
What to do? Force an arranged marriage for Johnson?
The harshest interpretation of ensuing events is that Mayer coerced Evie Wynn, who was also Keenan’s manager, to divorce her husband and marry Johnson. The not-so-hidden threat was that unless Evie agreed, Keenan’s MGM contract would not be renewed, and she would never be allowed to represent anyone at the studio again.
Another version of the story is that Evie “traded up”. She knew Keenan Wynn whould always be a character actor and that Van was a star. She seduced him and enlisted Mayer’s aid in her plot.
Whatever the preliminaries, on Jan. 25, 1947, the Wynns were driven to Juarez, where a Mexican divorce was pre-arranged. The couple then drove back across the border to El Paso where Johnson and the former Evie Wynn were married four hours later.
For the remaining seven years Johnson worked at MGM, the gay rumors were effectively neutralized. The very much-married Van Johnson starred in such macho titles as director Sam Wood’s Command Decision and William Wellman’s Battleground as well as lighter fare including as Robert Z. Leonard’s Too Young To Kiss.
As for Johnson’s marriage to Evie, it ended badly. The couple had a daughter, Schuyler, in 1948, and managed to make a go of it until the early 1960’s, Then Van left her, supposedly for an affair with a chorus boy Johnson had met in a stage production of The Music Man. The divorce decree followed six years later.
Unshackled from MGM, Van did in our opinion his best work – particularly his strong performance as the earnestly upright U.S. Navy Lt. Steve Maryk in director Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny, produced by Stanley Kramer for Columbia Pictures.
Johnson appeared as a Navy enlisted man, warrant officer Darrel Harrison, in Melville Shavelson’s Yours, Mine and Ours (1968).
Stars of the family comedy were Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball, Van’s close friend who perhaps more than anyone else in Hollywood was responsible for setting Johnson’s movie career in motion some 25 years before.
Yours, Mine and Ours was made for United Artists release by Desilu, the immensely successful movie and tv production company formed by Ball and husband Desi Arnaz. We suspect Van was cast by Lucy and Desi as a professional token of their longstanding friendship.
In any case, Johnson continued to work sporadically in films. In 1985, Johnson was cast in a small role in Woody Allen’s 1985 fantasy-comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo.
By the time he died at 92 in a Nyack, New York nursing home in 2008, Johnson had compiled an extraordinarily busy show business resume including years of doing television (Murder She Wrote in the 1980’s), performing in regional, dinner and Broadway theater (he appeared on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles at the age of 69, and touring as Captain Andy in Showboat at 75).
Getting back to our headline question – was Johnson gay? Undoubtedly bisexual. But who really cares today, in a time when Hollywood movie and tv personalities seemingly can’t wait to tell us about all aspects of their lives, including the sexual?
Johnson was a creature of his secretive times. We salute the body of work compiled over nearly half a century by “Cheery Van,” as he called himself. In yesterday’s blog photo, we showed you Van with costar Lana Turner.
She found him wanting…but only off screen.
And who is that in the background of Van above? Looks like Fay Bainter, doesn’t it?