Cover image for Van Johnson : MGM's golden boy
Van Johnson : MGM's golden boy
Davis, Ronald L.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, [2001]

Physical Description:
xiii, 256 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm.
General Note:
Includes Filmography: p. 241-242.
Personal Subject:
Format :


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PN2287.J58 V38 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Van Johnson's dazzling smile, shock of red hair, and suntanned freckled cheeks made him a movie-star icon. Among teenaged girls in the 1940s, he was popularized as the bobbysoxer's heartthrob.

He won the nation's heart, too, by appearing in a series of blockbuster war films-- A Guy Named Joe , Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo , Weekend at the Waldorf , and Battleground . Perennially a leading man opposite June Allyson, Esther Williams, Judy Garland, and Janet Leigh, he rose to fame radiating the sunshine image Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chose for him, that of an affable, wholesome boy-next-door. Legions of adoring moviegoers were captivated by this idealized persona that generated huge box-office profits for the studio.

However, Johnson's off-screen life was not so sunny. His mother had rejected him in childhood, and he lived his adult life dealing with sexual ambivalence. A marriage was arranged with the ex-wife of his best friend, the actor Keenan Wynn. During the waning years of Hollywood's Golden Age, she and Johnson lived amid the glow of Hollywood's A-crowd. Yet their private life was charged with tension and conflict.

Although morose and reclusive by nature, Johnson maintained a happy-go-lucky façade, even among co-workers who knew him as a congenial, dedicated professional. Once free of the golden-boy stereotype, he became a respected actor assigned stellar roles in such acclaimed films as State of the Union , Command Decision , The Last Time I Saw Paris , and The Caine Mutiny .

With the demise of the big studios, Johnson returned to the stage, where he had begun his career as a song-and-dance man. After this, he appeared frequently in television shows, performed in nightclubs, and became the legendary darling of older audiences on the dinner playhouse circuit. Johnson (1916-2008) spent his post-Hollywood years living in solitude in New York City.

This solid, thoroughly researched biography traces the career and influence of a favorite star and narrates a fascinating, sometimes troubled life story.

Author Notes

Ronald L. Davis is professor history at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of A History of Opera in the American West, Opera in Chicago, and A History of Music in American Life (three volumes). He has contributed numerous articles to Opera News, Opera and Opera Quarterly. In addition, he has written six books on Hollywood, including The Glamour Factory (1993).

(Bowker Author Biography) Ronald L. Davis is Professor Emeritus of History at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. He is the author of numerous books including "Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell & the American Dream", "Duke: The Life & Image of John Wayne" & "John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master" (University of Oklahoma Press).


Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

The first in the new "Hollywood Legends" series, edited by Davis (history, Southern Methodist Univ.), this is the only full-length biography of Johnson, who rose to film box-office stardom during World War II as a genial, boy-next-door bobbysoxer idol while struggling with sexual ambiguity. The red-haired, freckled Johnson appeared in war films like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, then later in films like The Caine Mutiny. He remained popular on stage and television after his film popularity waned. Unfortunately this chronicle of Johnson's career, while most astute in showing how a public persona may have little to do with the human being, relies a great deal on secondary sources and does not provide true insight. Recommended only for large public libraries and academic libraries with performing arts collections. Bruce Henson, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib., Atlanta (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Newport Most tourists think of Newport, Rhode Island, as a resort community famous for its mansions, its yacht races, and its tennis tournaments. But there is a blue-collar side to the island city, and that is the Newport in which Van Johnson grew up. His father was a plumber, and Van spent his youth living in a boarding house on Ayrault Street, just a few blocks from the ornate castles that line Bellevue Avenue. Van and his father were year-round residents of the port city who stayed behind to brave the icy New England winters after the summer colony had left.     Settled in 1639, Newport benefited from an accessible harbor that permitted the town to become a thriving colonial seaport and shipbuilding center. Its wharves were tentacles of trade and commerce, and fishermen unloaded their catch on its docks. Mariners lined the waterfront streets of the town, waiting to depart as crew members of Newport-based ships. By the eighteenth century a merchant aristocracy dominated the city, yet the community was already noted for its artists and craftsmen.     Irish, Italians, Portuguese, and Greeks later came to work in the local textile mills, to fish, and to farm the adjacent countryside. By the time Van Johnson was born on the eve of America's entry into World War I, Newport contained enough of a Swedish population to support two Swedish churches. The community had also become a significant U.S. Navy town, and sailors and their dependents made up a visible component of the city's thriving population.     Van's father, Charles E. Johnson, had come to the United States from Sweden while still a babe in his mother's arms. As a youth in Newport, Charlie Johnson developed into a powerfully built, bull-necked athlete who gave tumbling exhibitions and parallel bar performances for enjoyment. He served as catcher for a YMCA baseball team and at one time was gymnastic instructor of the Algonquin Club at Emmanuel Church. Raised in an austere, Calvinistic environment, Charles grew into a tough-minded, pragmatic New Englander who valued thrift over material comfort. True to his Swedish heritage, he lived simply and honestly, more given to self-effacement than to self-assertion. Achievement and success were far less important to Charlie than were privacy, discipline, self-control, and spiritual conviction.     Imbued with such rigid beliefs, Charles was unfortunate in his choice of mates. Loretta Johnson, who came from a Pennsylvania Dutch background, was miserable in her marriage to the humorless Swede and in the spartan living quarters he provided. With little more than a housekeeper's chores to keep her busy, Loretta soon became an alcoholic. Tension between the young couple existed from the outset but grew worse when their only child, christened Charles Van Dell Johnson, was born at Newport Hospital on August 25, 1916.     His birth took place shortly before dawn on a howling, rainy night. The arrival of a son merely added more pressure to his mismatched parents' dismal relationship, and Loretta's discontent and drinking sprees intensified. When Van was three years old, his still-attractive mother abandoned her family and fled to Brooklyn, New York, in pursuit of a livelier existence. Her son would not see her again until he was a late teenager. Commenting on his parents' divorce years later, Van said, "I was too young to comprehend it then and today I deliberately don't try." His father did not believe in airing such private matters and refused to talk about the marital rift.     Van stayed in Newport with his dad, who continued to live in the boardinghouse at 16 Ayrault Street, up the hill from the beach, where he had lived with Loretta. The two-and-a-half-story structure, with its pitched roof and clapboard siding, later would be converted into an apartment building, and Charlie Johnson, who never veered from his belief in plain living, resided there the rest of his life.     Soon after his mother's departure, Van's paternal grandmother came to live with her son and his shy three-year-old boy. Van remembered his grandmother as a tiny, tidy woman who wore bustling black taffeta dresses and used orange water as a scent on special occasions. She was also an orderly housekeeper and a fabulous cook whose Swedish meatballs, yellow cheese, and frosted cookies were beyond comparison. Born in Sweden, Grandma Johnson spoke English with an accent and sometimes reverted to her native tongue when talking to Charlie at home.     Although his grandmother surrounded Van with quiet affection, she and Charlie were both strict disciplinarians. Young Van was drilled in good manners, neatness of appearance, honesty, and respect for older people. As the lad matured, he was expected to take care of his own clothes, instilled with a keen sense of duty, and taught the importance of productive work. Charles could be severe with his son, and Van respected and admired as well as feared his father. "There was a rumor around," Charlie said later, "that I was a strict sourpuss father. I was strict about a few things, and one was [Van's] health. I never spanked him in my life. He was my buddy ... and all it took was a hard look to straighten him out."     But the austere, unbending climate in which the boy was raised created an emotional distance between Van and his father. The child learned at an early age to restrain himself, to bridle his feelings, and not to act on impulse. Self-discipline, he was taught, meant that displays of joy, sorrow, or anger must be diverted into some less demonstrative behavior. For a sensitive, introverted child this led to inhibitions, fundamental insecurity, and repression. Despite the attention he was shown, Van could never be certain that he was loved.     Bessie Boone, a maiden lady in the neighborhood, helped mother the boy, and Van remembered her supervision as warm and kindly. Yet early in his life he became skilled at swallowing his emotions and withdrawing into a hidden world of self-absorption and fantasy. "I've often wished my childhood had been a little different," Van said early in his Hollywood career, and "that I had had a mother's guidance like other boys."     Sunday school and church were mandatory for young Van. Every Sunday morning the lad waited for Virginia Sullivan, a family friend, to pick him up and take him to Newport's old Trinity Church, a landmark in town since 1726. Charles believed in the Scriptures and insisted that his son know and revere the ways of God. "I learned enough to help me keep a balance and a sense of values," Van later maintained.     Charlie tried to be a comrade to the boy. One of Van's earliest memories was of going for a trolley ride with his father one Sunday afternoon and ending up on the Newport beach, where they shared a picnic lunch from a shoe box of food Grandma Johnson had prepared for them. Van and Charlie sometimes took the ferry to the other side of the bay and fed broken Necco wafers to the fish from the end of a stone pier. Charlie taught his son to swim, and the two swam together at Quigley's Beach almost the year around, even when snow covered the ground. "Dad was one of those guys who'd break ice to go swimming," Van recalled. "We spent a lot of time at the beach in the summer. In the winter we'd go swimming with nothing on but trunks."     Charlie had a passion for good music, and through his influence Van developed an interest in the classics. On Saturdays, Charlie tried to leave work early enough to listen to the opera on radio, and he made a note of all the symphony broadcasts for the week. Van often sat with his dad and drank Moxie, New England's equivalent of the South's Dr. Pepper, while they listened together to the broadcasts.     But much of the boy's early years was spent alone, and he passed endless hours entertaining himself in the backyard. The house on Ayrault Street was set close to the street, but there was a good-sized yard in back, and it became Van's haven. Years later, even though he thought of his boyhood as routine and unhappy, he would remember the smell of lilacs around the old house with fondness. Much of his childhood he claimed he could not recall. "I'm kind of soft about things I remember," Van told a reporter in 1945.     When he entered Cranston-Calvert Grammar School, Van made good grades but was considered a daydreamer by those who taught him. Miss King, Van's first-grade teacher, convinced the boy that it would be a great adventure to learn his letters since after a while he would be able to read exciting books about faraway places. "I think I must have been very fortunate in my teachers," Van said as an adult, "because they made me interested in what I was supposed to learn." But the redheaded, freckle-faced kid was bashful with girls and very much a loner. Neighbors remembered Van walking by himself though the leafy streets from school, wearing a knitted woolen cap to keep his head warm in the sharp salt air characteristic of Newport's winters.     For a special outing Charlie took Van to Providence one day to see a circus, driving through a storm in an old Ford to get there. Van would never forget the excitement of watching trapeze artists, a tightrope walker, a man shot from a cannon, and a pretty blond riding a horse bareback around the ring and jumping through hoops of fire. The excursion made him deride that he wanted to be in show business, preferably as a tightrope walker or a trapeze artist.     The lonely youth began doing odd jobs after school--shoveling snow, carrying out ashes, mowing lawns, delivering groceries, selling magazine subscriptions. "It wasn't that I loved work so much," Van said later, "but that I loved possessions more. Dad had one rule: I could have what I wanted if I earned the price of it myself." Van already was substituting possessions for affection and barricading himself behind a wall of defenses.     He bought a trapeze and rings, suspended them from a large tree limb in the backyard, and practiced on them for hours. Eventually Van, Betty Meikle, who lived across the street from the Johnsons, and a boy who lived next door to Betty put together an act. "We would work on that trapeze almost daily," the neighbor boy recalled. "Van was an inveterate circus buff. He, Betty, and I would practice some of the acts that he had seen." Van eventually became quite daring. When the three children staged an exhibition in a neighbor's barn, Van strung a wire from the top of the loft to the ground, where he placed an old mattress. With a leather band attached to a pulley around his head and under his chin, he performed a stunt billed as the "Sensational Slide for Life." Sticking out both arms, Van slid down the wire to the ground. "It's a wonder I didn't break my damned neck!" he reflected later.     When Van discovered silent movies, his interest in the world of entertainment broadened. Galloping Fish (1924) with Louise Fazenda and Chester Conklin was the first picture he remembered seeing, but he laughed so hard at the comedy that he made himself sick and had to be taken from the theater. He subsequently spent most of his Saturday afternoons and any evening he could get away from his studies at the movies. "Times when things weren't going so well, I'd buy a ticket to a picture show," Van recalled. He started reading fan magazines and cut out his favorite stars' pictures and pinned them to the walls of his room. "Van was stage-struck and had his room completely plastered with cutouts from magazines of Greta Garbo, his idol," a classmate remembered. Charles Johnson would walk into his son's room and say, "Must you clutter up the place like this?" but Van found delight in a mystical world he secretly longed to join. "I'd go home [from the theater] thinking how grand it must be to make other people feel good," he said, "but I didn't expect to get a chance to do it."     He wrote letters to Hollywood stars asking them for pictures and exchanged fan magazines with the girl next door. Whenever either of them finished an issue, he or she placed the magazine in the kitchen window to signal readiness to swap. The two children went to shows together, and it became clear to his schoolmates that Van had a desire to turn himself into a performer. By the time he was eight years old Dottie Sullivan, Rita McCarthy, and Van were putting on shows in the Johnson's backyard for the neighbors, charging a penny for admission. Charlie would snort, "Van, the only stage you'll ever be on will be a [house] painter's stage." But the rebuff fell on deaf ears. Entertaining people brought the boy the attention he so desperately needed.     As much as Van liked to show off, he was too shy to try out for school plays. The only serious encouragement he received for his ambition to entertain came from Professor Crosby, the Johnsons' landlord, who lived in an apartment upstairs with his cheery wife. But Van pretended a great deal as a boy, so much so in his daily routine that his lonely life was laced with make-believe. "Every day in every way I acted," he later admitted.     At age twelve Van suffered another emotional blow when his grandmother died. Without her sweetness and old-country decorum, the Johnson household turned empty. Distressed and numbed by her passing, Van withdrew into himself all the more. For a time he appeared inarticulate, puzzled, clearly mourning the loss of a vital component in his personal security. He suddenly had more responsibilities heaped on his shoulders, and there was less time for play. "My father and I did the cooking and I guess we weren't the best of cooks," Van said later. "When Mrs. Crosby brought us down some of her baked beans it was a big treat."     Aside from Saturday-night shopping trips and infrequent light moments together, father and son grew increasingly estranged. Laughter between them seemed uncomfortable, and they often spent evenings together with no exchange of words. Whereas Van reveled in glamour and lined his walls with movie-star pictures, Charles remained a staunch believer in physical culture and had a dozen pictures of his hero, Bernarr Macfadden, scattered about. Johnson decreed that he and his son should keep to a daily routine of exercises and follow a healthful diet. As Van became more the dreamer, his father's lack of ambition and simple existence bothered the boy. Charles was content merely to make a living and often warned his son that happiness did not come from chasing dollars or fame. Having enough to eat, a roof over his head, a pile of books, music, the sea, and a few friends was enough for Charles Johnson.     A short distance from the Johnsons' house on Ayrault Street were the palatial summer homes of the big spenders of the late nineteenth century--the Breakers and Marble House, both owned by the Vanderbilts; Chateau-Sur-Mer, designed by popular architect Richard M. Hunt; and the Breakwater, more commonly known as Lippitt's Castle. Van grew up watching the summer crowds that filled the boardwalks, the excursion steamers that brought visitors to Newport for a day, and the frivolity, clam bakes, and spending that took place along the beaches. As Van would remember, the wealthier summer people "came in floating chiffon and white flannel with the good weather and departed all tweeded up with the bad." He heard about the fabled dinners and the brilliant balls inside the mansions, the exclusive debuts and social weddings of the gilded-age aristocracy, and glimpsed the blue bloods who owned cabanas on Bailey's Beach, reputedly the most fashionable strip of sand in America. Although adolescent Van Johnson was not privy to the horse shows, the high teas, the concerts, and the backgammon games that the moneyed set enjoyed, he became aware that there was more to life than the restrictive parameters laid down by his father.     Resentment set in. As a successful adult Van could barely endure mention of either of his parents, and he vowed that he hated his father. If asked about his boyhood, he would usually make a face and decline comment. When his stepson, Ned Wynn, asked him about Charles, Van simply replied, "Horrible man, an awful man." About his mother he would say nothing. Van had little capacity as a child to understand his parents' unhappiness, and as an adolescent he failed to realize the extent of his father's unspoken feeling of rejection that Loretta had deserted them.     During Van's years at John Clarke Middle School, the boy attended whatever stage plays came to Newport and found them a welcome escape. At the Casino Theater he saw Ruth Chatterton and Alice Brady in dramas, gaping down in ecstasy from the top gallery. An old showboat still tied up periodically at the town's wharf and, as Van later told a writer for Photoplay , the leading fan magazine, "where it docked, I docked, too." Once or twice his father took him to Boston to have dinner and see a show, but Van's obsession with show business was mainly an irritant to Charles, and he expected his son to outgrow it.     When Van enrolled himself in Dorothy Gladding's dancing school, his father was appalled. Odd jobs provided the three dollars a month the boy needed for dance lessons, and he soon showed a talent for tap, adagio, soft-shoe, and ballroom dancing. "I decided I wanted to be one of those people up there entertaining people," Van said. But every time he mentioned that he wanted to hoof for a living, his father winced and made some sarcastic remark, and the gulf between the two appeared to widen.     Every Thursday afternoon at five o'clock Van's dance class performed in a vaudeville show. "That's where I smelled my first greasepaint," the future movie star said. Before long, Van was performing with an amateur group at the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, the Knights of Columbus, church socials--any place that requested free entertainment. He had soon worked up a song-and-dance routine, with a straw hat and a cane like Broadway's Jack Donohue, performed in front of a line of girls. The act proved a big hit in the annual variety show at the Colonial Theater, Newport's principal vaudeville house. Van loved the attention he received and, in his mind, he showed enough promise that his career path was set. "I knew I had to get out of that small town," Van told a Hollywood reporter.     The unhappy lad somehow found time to take violin lessons, for he played in the orchestra at Rogers High School during his last three years there. The student ensemble performed for weekly assemblies under the direction of math teacher Louis Chase, whose daughter, Priscilla, played the piano. Van sat in the violin section next to his fellow trapeze participant from grammar-school days. Young Johnson was also in the Dramatic Society during his freshman year, and while he tried out for play after play in high school, he never got a part. "I chewed up plenty of scenery at the tryouts," Van said, "but I could never make the grade." After repeated readings, the teacher in charge of school plays told him most emphatically, "You'll never make an actor."     Over six feet tall and nicknamed "Red," Van was miserable during his first two years of high school. His freckles caused him endless embarrassment, and the gangly youth appeared uncoordinated and unmanly. His was the innocent countenance that doting matrons often dub a "sweet child." Van felt the isolation. "I guess I always knew I was different," he later said. Hollywood fan magazines would make him out to have been a football and basketball player in Newport, but such was not the case. Van pursued a less academic, commercial course in high school, and his grades in bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand were nothing to brag about. He showed no interest in going to college, although his father talked idly about his son's attending Brown University in nearby Providence and studying law. Painting was the only class that Van truly enjoyed in high school, and the skills he discovered there would serve him well in his later life.     But Van was never part of the elite crowd during his early high school years. He did not date, and he was clearly a maladjusted boy. He found relief by losing himself in the fantasies he observed on the stage and screen. The neighborhood movie house, the Bijou, became Van's haunt, and he hunkered in a seat in the musty theater hour after hour, entranced by the beautiful people and fanciful stories that illuminated the darkness. "I sat through a picture two or three or four times," said Van. "I used to look around the audience, and I'd see the faces of people I knew very well, but they didn't look at all the same." Girls who were plain and uninteresting at school, men who were crabby and cranky on the streets, and women who looked tired and overworked when Van noticed them sitting on their front porches looked happier and more alive in the movie theater. "I could almost feel how they had forgotten their own lives and troubles and maybe the narrowness of existence," Van said, "how for a while they were carried out of themselves and could live so much more, so many more lives."     The boy decided that he had to be one of the people he watched on the screen. He wanted to make other people happy, and in his fancy he envisioned an escape from his own stifled condition. He had no notion of how to achieve such ends, how difficult a life in show business would be, for he knew little of anything beyond Newport. Yet a craving for fame and fortune was planted in his imagination as he became curious about the exciting life he imagined outside the island he came to view as his prison. (Continues...) Excerpted from Van Johnson by Ronald L. Davis. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Introductionp. 3
Chapter 1. Newportp. 7
Chapter 2. New Yorkp. 22
Chapter 3. Early Hollywoodp. 42
Chapter 4. Heartthrobp. 70
Chapter 5. Trouble in Paradisep. 98
Chapter 6. Resilient MGM Starp. 131
Chapter 7. Freelance Actorp. 159
Chapter 8. Holding Togetherp. 188
Chapter 9. Later Yearsp. 210
Bibliographical Essayp. 227
Filmographyp. 241
Indexp. 243