Bitter Triumph—Donald O’Connor
“When is daddy coming home?” Sooner or later six-year-old Donna O’Connor had to ask that question, for in addition to looking like her famous father, she is the apple of his eye, and they love each other very much. Donna’s mother, Gwen O’Connor, was prepared with a reply that she knew would be temporarily satisfactory. Daddy had so much work to do at the studio that he was staying in his dressing room for a few days.
All children of show business parents can understand their moms and dads being away for periods of time, but both Gwen and Don knew that sooner or later they would have to tell their daughter the real truth. Children somehow have a way of knowing the secrets their parents try hardest to cover up, and Donna O’Connor is brighter than most.
Still, the heartbreak of separation was kept from their only child as long as possible. Gwen and Don had been through battles before. They always patched them up. But this time Gwen was determined to force the issue. For the first time, she sought out an attorney and Don was served papers. He may have known what was coming, but the actual blow so stunned him that for the first time in his life he begged off from work on his newest costarring picture, Walking My Baby Back Home, with Janet Leigh.
Then, he disappeared. Studio executives and friends couldn’t locate him for three days. Just before the situation had reached the “missing persons” alarm stage, someone thought to check at his Van Nuys home. Sure enough, there he was, where he had been for almost three days, playing with Donna.
The next day newspaper columns were filled with predictions that the O’Connors would make up, or had already forgiven each other for real and imaginary transgressions. The curtain, however, had just gone up on the embarrassing drama that is so often repeated in Hollywood. Before the week was out it was reported that Gwen was now dating Dan Dailey. Supposedly they had been holding hands in a quirt corner at the Encore, a La Cienega boulevard restaurant to which many film celebrities go to publicly display their grief over a broken romance or their joy over a new love.
Gwen O’Connor was furious. The report is that she had her attorney call the columnist and demand a retraction, a reluctant one which was published a few days later. This was not enough, for newspaper folk are now calloused when it comes to denials. Reporters began to choose up sides. On the day that Sheilah Graham stated that, “the Donald O’Connor’s are quietly making up,” Hollywood Reporter columnist Mike Connelly had a different version: “Dan Dailey threw a punch at Murray Garret at Peggy Lee’s Grove opening. Dailey didn’t want the photog to shoot him and Gwen O’Connor, who were NOT celebrating Donald O’Connor’s gala Call Me Madam preem, same night and miles and miles from the Grove.”
Who is right? Is Dan Dailey a cause celebre in the O’Connor marriage rift? Or was it true that Don had regularly been dating several of the hundreds of cute girls who make the studios a romantic stamping grounds. Why isn’t the truth printed? It will be, here and now.
Let’s go back to happier days to find the answer. Back to the time that Donald was a carefree young actor more preoccupied with his collection of foreign cars than he was with his career. To the time he proposed to beautiful red-haired Gwen Carter, a Los Angeles High School student, and gave her a two carat diamond ring, payable on time at $50 a week for the next two years.
Gwen was no innocent child who fell head over heels in love with an actor at 15. She had friends in show business and was not star struck. She’ll tell you that she didn’t think much of Don at their first meeting when they were introduced at a Paramount commissary table. She was 12 and he was a wacky 13. A little more than two years later, it was a different story.
Donald had by then skyrocketed to fame with Bing Crosby in Sing You Sinners, grown out of his britches in a few months and was tossed back into vaudeville, traveling the country with his family. Tragedy had made a man of him, for his beloved brother Billy had died suddenly of scarlet fever, not many days before Hollywood summoned him back for a second crack at stardom. Billy, of whom Don had often said, “He could have been a greater comedian than Bob Hope,” meant more to the young actor than he has ever been able to satisfactorily explain. He can only say, “Billy died when I was just getting to know him.”
Of course, it may be said that everyone knows sadness in life and that it takes an actor to dramatize his grief. But this was not so with Donald O’Connor. The loneliness of his youth was magnified by the fact that his father died of a heart attack when he was about a year old. Before that, outside a theater in Hartford, Conn., his five year old sister, Arlene, had taken him out for an airing in his baby carriage. Unable to resist the temptation of a candy store across the street, Arlene left the infant Donald at the curb and scurried to buy a sack of sweets. In a few seconds, she was lying dead, run over by a speeding car.
Knowing as we do that the mind of a child retains impressions from early childhood on, and remembering that Donald grew up with no real home other than a long list of theatrical hotels, it becomes a simple, understandable fact that what he always has needed most was a love and security of his own.
His second meeting with Gwen Carter took place backstage at the El Capitan theater. Don had gone there to help a friend named Julia Curtis to audition her ventriloquist act, and ran into Joyce Duffin, another vaudeville acquaintance who was there with Gwen.
“Gwen and I took a look at each other,” Donald remembers, “and the whole theater lit up.”
Joyce, however, wouldn’t give Don Gwen’s phone number. A few days later he ran into the two of them in a drug store. This time Gwen was with a big handsome guy. Don took Joyce aside and tried again for the phone number. No soap. That night might have been the end of it if a fellow Don knew hadn’t dropped in to watch him work out at a Hollywood gym. Don went two rounds apiece that day with a couple of professional fighters. They stood toe to toe slugging at each other, much to the amazement of the friend, who later said to Don in the dressing room, “If you want Gwen. Carter’s phone number, I guess it’s okay to give it to you now.”
“Well thanks,” Don replied, “but why all the mystery up to now?”
“Well, the truth is,” the friend explained, “that Gwen’s boy friend is a very jealous guy. Also exceedingly tough. He knew you two liked each other and he threatened to beat the tar out of you if you tried to date her. None of us wanted to see you murdered, but after seeing you go in the ring I know you can take care of yourself.”
Don rushed for the nearest phone booth to make a date. That night he and Gwen held hands at the Casa de Amour restaurant and agreed that people their age, if they should fall in love, should wait a long time before marrying. From that moment on, Gwen never dated another boy, and. they would have waited, too, except for circumstances over which they had no control.
It was Don’s ambition to become a fighter pilot. He had already taken one test for Air Corps Cadet Training and flunked it. After some months, he tried again, passing with flying colors. On New Year’s Eve of 1944, they spent much of the night talking about the question of whether or not they should marry before Don entered the service. They decided to stick to their original promise to wait, but a few evenings later, while visiting at the apartment of their friend, Ally Kirk, the emotional upheaval of impending events was too much for them.
On the spur of the moment, they agreed to elope to Mexico. They jumped into Don’s car and took off, stopping for dinner at the Tailspin Restaurant. Here their plans made a crash landing. They fell into an argument about whether or not to they should tell their mothers. Don decided that if he was now man enough to enter the Air Corps, he certainly was man enough to tell his mother and hers in advance that he was marrying the woman he loved.
They postponed the event for a couple of days. Both mothers agreed that their children would be unhappy if they had to face the anxious days and perhaps years ahead, alone. So, on February sixth, they took off for the border city of Tiajuana, Mexico. They hadn’t counted on the difficulties of strict wartime regulations. Border guards insisted that Gwen give up her address book and that Don change the $65 he’d brought along into two dollar bills, no easy trick at four o’clock in the morning. While Gwen argued with the guards to prove that her personal telephone numbers were not the secret codes of a spy, Don hustled off in search of an all night gas station. With these delays, it was almost five A.M. before they reached the main street of Tiajuana, numb with cold, but still grimly cheerful.
Back in the U. S., they found a small hotel which jutted out over the Pacific Ocean, and they’ll never forget the cold lobster wedding breakfast.
This was just the beginning of a series of adventures, which if reenacted would make a swell comic movie. Don was shipped off to Texas, eager to start his Air Corps training. To his dismay, the entire cadet program was suddenly called off. All he saw in the future was an endless round of KP and latrine duty. As luck had it, the Air Corps suddenly needed more women than they did men, and Don helped to create a WAC recruiting show. Gwen, like thousands of women at the time, became a camp follower.
Somehow, though, the O’Connors were incredibly happy during these two and a half years. When almost all WACS were being shipped overseas, the recruiting show in which Don was being starred needed a leading lady. Officers in charge pressed Gwen into service and she wowed ’em.
When Don came back to Hollywood and civilian life, everything brightened up. There were those big pay checks again; back income taxes were paid up, and the baby came.
They never loved each other more. On the day of the blessed event, Gwen was so worried about Don’s condition that she kept crawling out of her hospital bed to visit him in the father’s room.
“Poor guy,” she remembers, “he sat there for almost 12 hours, white as a sheet. He must have smoked a whole carton of cigarettes. When it was all over, I looked up through a haze to see him, announcing that we’d had a baby boy.
“No, I told him. ‘You’re hysterical, honey. I saw it. The baby’s a girl!’ By this time he was the same old Don. He was playing it so straight with the boy routine that it was a couple of days before I realized he was kidding.”
Unless one is a veteran on the Hollywood scene, it is difficult to understand how merciless the demands of success can be, or why it is that the more famous a man becomes the less chance he has for happiness in private life. Despite the casual atmosphere of show business, the demands of its backstage discipline are terrific, effecting even a thing so small as a man’s hobbies. Speaking of his sport car hobby, Don recently dismissed it by saying, “I either had to give up the cars or my career.” What he subconsciously meant is that the requirements in time alone caused by doing four major pictures in the period of a year, plus a monthly television show, had cut deeply into his private life.
When Don was doing pleasant little pictures requiring little effort, his home was always filled with friends. He might, as on one occasion, come galloping home with all four Williams brothers from the Kay Thompson act for an impromptu supper.
However, Don’s popularity brought incredible demands on his time. It reached the point best illustrated by the time Gwen’s maid, to her great surprise, brought in the morning coffee while she was still in bed. The maid had a complaint to make, hardly believable in this modern age. “I’m a good cook” she explained, “but I’m getting rusty. I’m going to have to change jobs unless you and Mr. O’Connor do more entertaining.” Gwen promised that they’d try to reform. She planned a dinner party for the following Friday. She called all of Don’s friends, but with a single exception, they were all too busy. It was just as well. An emergency rehearsal came up for Don, so he wouldn’t have been there anyway.
Such things may seem trivialities, but a happy marriage demands every bit as much attention as a successful career. Recently, Gwen has been very much alone, with the result that any appearance publicly without Don stirred comment. If, while Don was busy talking business at a Palm Springs dinner, Gwen seemed to linger too long in the company of Dean Martin, it was nothing to her. When the story broke that Gwen, immediately after the separation from Don, had been dating Dean Martin, she was in tears. She called Dean on the telephone to make certain that he knew that she didn’t have anything to do with the linking of their names. Dean, who had never liked Gwen too much (not all Hollywood personalities are bosom pals), was impressed with her forthright honesty. At this writing, they have never been together, except for a few moments at a time at crowded parties, and although no one expects to give out affidavits that they will never have a date in the future, they most assuredly have not had one up to the present time. Nor has Donald ever dated Mitzi Gaynor, even though they have had their pictures taken together. You can expect, however, that this false rumor will crop up too, if it hasn’t already in some irresponsible column. Even so small an item as Gwen’s acquiring an agent—at the suggestion of Don, incidentally—seemed to indicate to the gossips that she was more interested in a career than in a home.
The “little things” which have destroyed many a marriage, both in and out of Hollywood, have been gnawing away at the O’Connor marriage for over two years. Finally, at a friend’s suggestion, Don broached the subject of consultation with a psychiatrist. It must be pointed out that young married couples all over the country have done the same thing—not because they are mentally deranged, but simply to try to achieve a better understanding of the science of living. Gwen O’Connor, anxious to make whatever corrections were necessary in her thinking as well as Don’s, agreed to the idea.
To their mutual dismay, the news leaked out. There would be little purpose in mentioning any of this here, except that it is important to the O’Connor marital story. A lot of folks in Hollywood laughed at the idea of their seeking psychiatric aid. To them it was one more case of another actor and his wife going a little nutty. The truth was that these consultations brought the two back together, if only temporarily. After a few months during which they earnestly sought to resolve their problems, Gwen and Don went to Honolulu for a second honeymoon.
Meantime Gwen was doing all right with her own career plans. With her good friend, Ann McCormick (Jackie Coogan’s ex-wife), she planned to join a troupe of performers headed for Korea to entertain our troops there. Gwen had already been accepted as a good trouper on the Colgate Hour. There was nothing wrong with her carrying on, even though she might never expect to become as famous as her husband. However, she never made that trip. The undercurrent of gossip mounted. One evening Gwen and Don had a lulu of an argument over some infinitesimal matter neither can remember. It may even have been the tone of voice of one or the other that set off the fuse. All they knew was that they were tired; weary of trying to discover where and why they had lost the rich meaning of their life together.
Don moved out.
Today you need only to bend a casual ear to the wind to hear people who know them only slightly to hear phrases like this . . . “It should have happened a long time ago” . . . “Gwen wants to be a play girl” . . . Or, “Don gets around himself.”
The rising tide of Hollywood opinion hurries home to the Donald O’Connors more swiftly since their definite rift. But it hasn’t prevented them from having dinner together on several occasions, still seeking to discover why it is that, after they attained the goals they set out to achieve nine long lean years ago, they are no longer together to share a triumph now turned bitter.
Currently both Gwen and Don are having a fling on their own, dating other people. But the more they are apart, the more they like each other’s company. Gwen came home at four A.M. one morning after a date with a Hollywood playboy, and termed night life a real nothing. Next night she and Don went to the Circle J Ranch, and both declared they had a real ball, and were getting tired of their so-called freedom from domestic woe. That’s why real intimates are predicting an early reconciliation despite columnists’ reports.
Nor can one fact be denied. Gwen and Donald O’Connor privately admit that they still love each other. If this is so, and they can look at each other across the chasm created by a suit for divorce, they may be able to retrace their steps and hold on to the happiness they built for each other.
And they don’t need this honest attempt to evaluate their lives to realize the most important thing of all: Technically they still will remain man and wife for almost a year. All it takes to assure little Donna O’Connor that Daddy will indeed be home tonight is a couple of telephone calls to a pair of attorneys.
Let’s hope they do it!
—BY WILLIAM BARBOUR
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE JUNE 1953