Several important concepts or “lessons” come twisting through this new encyclopedically informative tome from Blood Moon Productions about the strange, twisted, alleged “love triangle” among Ronald (“Dutch”) Wilson Reagan, the future 40th president of the Republic, Jane Wyman (née Sarah Jane Mayfield, later renamed, after a miserable adoption, Sarah Fulks), and Nancy Davis Reagan (née Anne Francis Robbins, later Nancy Robbins Davis, after her adoption through her mother Edith Luckett’s marriage to Dr. Loyal Davis). Love Triangle is about the not-always-secret life of Ronald Reagan in Hollywood during its “Golden Age” of the big studios, a period that is often overlooked in biographies of Reagan, and certainly of Nancy Davis. Hollywood at that time had, to paraphrase Jack Warner talking about his own Warner Brothers, “more stars than in the heavens,” and according to Love Triangle, authors Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince claim that Ronald Reagan may have bedded a very impressive number of them, including perhaps a torrid affair with Susan Hayward who was jealous of Ronny’s affair with Lana Turner; Joan Blondell and her sister Gloria; and a bevy of other now hardly-knowns like Anita Louise, Ila Rhodes, Carol Landis, and Bonita Granville, who is actually remembered as Bette Davis’s mean-spirited niece in Now, Voyager. In the Big Studio period, musical beds — with either sex — sometimes as a partner, was simply part of the ethos of the time, before the media’s prying eyes started to expose things studio publicity departments worked hard to keep hush-hush.
Much of the material in Love Triangle comes from “trusted sources,” or naked gossip basically, although both authors use the same sources for many Blood Moon books, and in the past, Blood Moon has come out with some truths about Hollywood that the movie machinery and the stars themselves had once desperately (or ruthlessly) tried to conceal. The best example was Blood Moon’s candid 2004 biography of Katherine Hepburn, Katherine the Great: Hepburn, Secrets of a Life Revealed which claimed that the major sexual focus in Hepburn’s life was definitely not Spencer Tracy but with other women, and that Tracy himself was perhaps a closeted bisexual. Hepburn’s estate immediately sued Blood Moon for printing this. Several years later, in 2007, William J. Mann in his book Kate, from Picador Books, a division of Macmillan, said the same thing — without a suit. Then Scotty Bower’s 2012 book from Grove Press, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars (which was well covered and reviewed in the New York Times) repeated the same story, with barely a head shake from anyone.
The first “lesson” is something that any member of Europe’s royal families, no matter how low on the peerage pecking order, has known for the last couple of centuries: the distance between show business and politics is about a hair’s width.
Or, as they say backstage: “Politics is show business for ugly people.”
Which only means that if you start out not ugly, it’s extremely helpful — a fact constantly repeated in our age of Scott Brown, Republican senator from Massachusetts who, at 22, posed nude for Cosmopolitan. Ronald Reagan was not the first actor to make it in politics. The strikingly handsome John Lodge, of the Massachusetts Lodges, mostly remembered for starring with Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress, became Connecticut’s 79th governor from 1951-1955. As a Republican, he has been credited with being a big role model for “Dutch” Reagan wiggling his toes into often cold political waters.
In both show business and politics, image is everything. Power is definitely image; and position works from both image and power. It is also important how you project yourself, how you handle yourself, and how you allow yourself to be handled by others — situations which play out daily behind the scenes in both entertainment and politics, where agents, handlers, campaign managers, publicists, flacks, producers, pollsters, and a whole list of flunkies and schnorers can make or destroy you.
Jane Wyman was Ronald Reagan’s first wife. They met when they were both working their way up the Hollywood star ladder — Wyman was actually ahead of Reagan — and they came out of the same background: hardscrabble Depression; very much hand-to-mouth. Also, both of them bought into the Hollywood ideal that the “pictures” constituted the perfect world, where good always wins over evil, small-town wholesomeness was meant to conquer big-city cynicism, and all the lies used to keep this machinery of wholesome imagery working were necessary not only to the studio’s bottom line, but to the very fabric of the nation.
Reagan, born on February 6, 1911 in Tempico, IL, a one-horse-burg that the twentieth century hadn’t yet entered, was the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman and a very repressed, hyper-religious but physically beautiful mother. After numerous moves, mostly because Reagan senior lost jobs due to his drinking, the family settled in Dixon, IL, 100 miles west of Chicago, on the banks of the Rock River. Dixon was very much the high point of “Dutch’s” formative youth. There he went from being a skinny, muscleless weakling, often called “Sister-boy,” to spurting past six feet and filling out into an attention-grabbing lifeguard and football player. Realizing that sports was an express route to popularity, he would have played basketball, too, but eyesight problems stopped him. He was forever vain about wearing glasses, and as one Hollywood agent later coached him, “Girls don’t make passes at leading men who wear glasses.”
He worked his way through Eureka College, a Christian-affiliated school in Eureka, IL (which now prides itself on having a Ronald W. Reagan Society, a Reagan Athletic Center, and a Reagan Drive) by washing dishes. He joked: “The road to the presidency was paved by masses of dirty dishes.”
Another “lesson” that comes through Love Triangle is that Reagan, from an early age, cultivated, in fact exuded, a very conscious form of American “cool” called “regular-guyism.” He was not exceptional and didn’t want to be, but was the perfect example of what you’d desire in the “boy next door.” It was his selling point in Hollywood, and in quote after quote, Love Triangle claims that he talked about how the “homos [in Hollywood] tried to get to me,” but he wouldn’t let them, although often in the guise of handlers, makeup artists, directors, or designers. “You had to hand it to them, they knew their stuff.”
Physically he found himself equipped for popularity with his tall physique and a sunny exterior that could crash into a full-blown temper, but which also hid a rampant sexuality. Besides dating a raft of co-eds, “Dutch” continued a passionate relationship with Margaret (“Mugs”) Cleaver, a pretty brunette also from Dixon who alluringly dressed like a flapper, was very popular with “the guys” — and who ended up pregnant.
She admitted to young Reagan that “it could have been anyone of 40 guys,” but “Dutch” took his role seriously enough that he and his older brother John, known as “Moon,” secretly drove Peggy into Chicago to get a back-alley abortion.
At Eureka, Reagan made sure that he had the kind of classic Midwestern, “Gee-shucks” college experience that was the prototype for what Hollywood often cashed in on in movies like Good News, from 1947, with June Allyson as the girl-next-door and Peter Lawford as the popular football-playing dreamboat. Because of his success with women, Reagan was convinced that he was indeed “dreamboat” material, and often relied on this for the box office bankability that his talent did not provide. Although Reagan was only passingly athletic, he knew sports would provide a doorway to another kind of success.
After college, again working the “regular guy” routine, he settled into sports announcing in Des Moines, Idaho, becoming famous in the Midwest for the “at-home warmth and sincerity” of his radio interviews. Among others, he interviewed Aimee Semple McPherson, the most famous evangelist in America and model for Sharon Falconer in Sinclair Lewis’s scandalous novel made into a Burt Lancaster movie, Elmer Gantry.
Aimee Semple McPherson was so taken with young Reagan’s “at-home” manner that she reportedly seduced him, without any reluctance on Ronny’s part. Soon thereafter, at the age of 26, in 1936, Reagan left America’s breadbasket for Hollywood, when the manager of the Chicago Cubs invited him to watch their winter training on Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California.
Bristling with ambition, Reagan had already established a “beachhead” in L.A. by using women he had met in Des Moines. He quickly worked his way through a chain of them leading to Betty Grable and her friend Jane Wyman who at that point was still struggling to find an image of her own but who, “Dutch” felt, was the most glamorous woman he’d ever met.
Lesson three that comes through Love Triangle is that although trying hard to appear a “man’s man,” Reagan genuinely knew how to use women, and be used by them. His first Hollywood agents were introduced to him by starlets. He married a bigger star than he, Jane Wyman; then, after she left him, wed an extremely ambitious woman, the bit-actress Nancy Davis, whose stepfather, Dr. Loyal Davis, a glamorous star brain surgeon in his own right (talk about movies: this one should have starred Rock Hudson, or did they make that one and call it Magnificent Obsession?), turned her into the kind social-climbing debutant to make the famous Bouvier sisters look like Carmelite nuns.
Even more so than Reagan, Jane Wyman’s early life was utter misery. Born out of wedlock to a Depression-era, hard-luck young couple, she would later be adopted in Cleveland by Richard and Emma Fulks who treated her with a coldness bordering on contempt. She became paralyzed in school by a shyness that only became relieved when one of her teachers suggested she be enrolled in a local dancing school headed by Ed Prinz, the man who discovered her beauty and talent and who also abused her trust in him by what would now be called very “inappropriate touching.”
Emma, barely able to make ends meet herself, took Jane to Hollywood with the idea that the little girl could become a child star in the era of Shirley Temple and Jackie Coogan. Nothing panned out. Finally at 16, Jane married Eugene Wyman, a garage mechanic who promised Jane, working as a hash-slinger in a diner, everything. “Everything” appeared to be continuous beatings, rape by Eugene’s buddies, and constant fear and abuse. Jane left him stealthily early one morning when Eugene was sleeping off a bender, lifting $80 from his wallet. She never returned to him, nor did she divorce him — divorce was too expensive. Her real entry into Hollywood strangely came from LeRoy Prinz, son of Ed from Cleveland, who arrived on the West Coast after a stint in the service and who, after working as a bouncer in a bar and other such jobs, installed himself as a choreographer for “chorines” in low-budget movies. Jane approached him, and he trained Jane to be a movie chorus girl, immediately getting her roles in B movies.
In the 1930s, Hollywood studios were grinding out dozens if not hundreds of films a month of various length and degrees of quality, and an army of good-looking young women showed up to be in them. Jane became befriended by other rising starlets like Paulette Godard who would marry Charlie Chaplin (who reportedly once exposed himself to Jane on a casting call), Lucille Ball, and Betty Grable, the 1940s pin-up star who also became Ronald Reagan’s entrée into the movies. What is fascinating about Love Triangle is the constant daisy chain of romantic and sexual couplings (and sometimes even triplings) and how these, often much more than talent, charted the course of Hollywood history. Just when Jane met Ronald Reagan, she also became close to the tragic Ross Alexander, a young good-looking actor who killed himself shortly afterwards due to his homosexuality. Ross was often paired in casting files with young Reagan: they were both (along with Henry Fonda, who had been, according to several of Ross’s confidants, Ross’s lover in 1933) “All-American boy” material. Again according to these confidants, Fonda left Ross for the great love of his youth: blue-eyed, boyish Jimmy Stewart. Ross Alexander appears like a strange Hollywood footnote in many major movies such as the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Mickey Rooney as an unforgettable Puck; and Captain Blood, where he co-starred with Errol Flynn whose randy reputation paired him with dozens of actresses and some men. Flynn seduced Jane Wyman and almost got her pregnant.
It was only inevitable that Reagan and Wyman would meet, their circles narrowing through stars like Grable, Clark Gable, and the famous “party girl” Glenda Farrell. They married in 1940, and remained married for eight years. They had three children, the last of whom, prematurely born Christine Reagan, lived only one day. There are many conflicting stories about why Jane Wyman sued Ronald Reagan for divorce. Wyman was depressed after the death of her enfant; she objected to Reagan’s voluntary appearance and testimony in front of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities; both of them had started to date other people, even before their marriage broke up, and Wyman had simply lost respect for Reagan both as a person and an actor.
Of course, waiting in the wings was Nancy Davis, pregnant with their daughter Patti when Reagan and Davis were married in 1951.
What comes off most effectively in Love Triangle is the constantly shifting realities of Hollywood under its veneer of make-believe: what Joan Didion refers to as the real art form of Hollywood, the “art of the deal.” In motion pictures, the “deal” is more important than the product, the movie. One deal carries you through to the next deal, because, the sad fact is, when a movie’s over, it’s just over. When Ronald Reagan met Jane Wyman, they were both young actors on the make. Reagan, who started out as a left-leaning Democrat, realized that the “real deal” in his life was going to be with Nancy Davis. Davis could approximate glamour without the necessity of talent, and her background through her socially acceptable stepfather, Loyal Davis, would soon give Ronald Wilson Reagan the platform and stability necessary to parlay his almost larger-than-life boy-next-door exterior, that men admired and women found close to irresistible, all the way from the governor’s residence in Sacramento, to the White House.
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Originally published on The Huffington Post
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