Charlton Heston Loves Lydia Clarke
That afternoon in the spring of 1941 love was at work. The class studying “Fundamental Theatre” at Northwestern University were the brains group, the college highbrows.
In the class was a broad-shouldered, shy and shabby boy named Charlton Heston. A scholarship student, he was running an elevator at nights to keep himself eating. In between classes and the night shift he did all manner of odd jobs. He got little sleep, of course, but that was all right; he was determined to become great in the theatre. That was why he was working so hard, and he was annoyed with himself for not keeping his mind constantly on his objective. For as the spring days wafted one past another, he found himself increasingly aware of a coed named Lydia Clarke.
He had taken the habit of sitting behind Lydia in class so that, without seeming to, he could watch her—her pert, dark curls, her huge, dark eyes, her neat rounded figure. He wasn’t the only guy in class aware of her; this he jealously noted. But Lydia Clarke was obviously an intellectual artiste. To ask such a girl to shoot the breeze at the college malt shop was Virtual sacrilege.
And then, this particular balmy day of that spring of 1941, it happened. Lydia Clarke, as the lecture ended, turned in Charlton’s direction. She addressed him.
“I wonder if I could ask your advice, Mr. Heston?”
What a dream question from any girl to any fellow! In one bound Chuck was on his big feet, standing close to Miss Clarke. Because of his height, she had to turn her face up to his. Seen this closely, it was an even prettier face than he had realized at first.
“In this production of ‘The Madras House’ which our class is doing,” Lydia said, “I have an entrance line that is bothering me. I have to come in and say, ‘My frog is dead.’ Now, how do you think I should say that line?”
Today’s Charlton Heston, the fastest-rising male star in the movie firmament, rocks with laughter as he tells this story. But back in 1941, the question nearly overawed him.
“I wanted to come up with a shattering reading for Miss Clarke,” Charlton says, “but we were both so young—Lydia wasn’t quite nineteen—that we didn’t know, in our total inexperience, what to do with such a line. But I did recognize a golden opportunity when I saw it, and I suggested to Miss Clarke that we go to the malt shop and discuss this matter over a cup of coffee. Then, as she accepted, I was in another panic, and I had to make an excuse to leave her for a moment, while I negotiated the delicate matter of a loan of a dime from another student.”
On this past March 17, Lydia Clarke celebrated her ninth anniversary of being Lydia Heston. With “The Greatest Show on Earth” behind Chuck, and “The President’s Lady” and “Pony Express” current, Lydia and Chuck were aware of how important he had become, of how much more important he promises to become. And they know how narrow has been the margin that has brought them to success from failure. For eight of those nine years, they went hungry together, and they laughed together. Marriage united them and war separated them. After demobilization, there were long stretches when Chuck couldn’t find work, and Lydia supported them. Then when he’d get a job, she would usually lose hers. There was a time when they nearly sold out for minimum security—but did save themselves, just in time, for the big reward.
However, they foresaw none of that in 1941. They didn’t even realize that Lydia’s being in the half of the class that was to do “The Madras House,” while Charlton was in the half doing “Francesca da Rimini,” was typical of the conflict that was to mark their careers forever after.
As recently as 1950, when Chuck came to Hollywood for his first picture, “Dark City,” this kind of conflict came up. Lydia had been on the road for six months in “Detective Story.” When she finally came back to New York, her husband met her at La Guardia Field, suitcase in hand.
“What’s that for?” Lydia asked.
“I’m so sorry, darling,” Chuck said, “but in an hour I’m taking off for California.”
While he was in the Army, Chuck had formed the habit of writing his wife daily. On the road, he had still kept that up. (“I’m not that faithful,” Lydia confesses of herself.) So she knew all about the negotiations he was conducting with Hal Wallis for his big picture chance. But the actual wire ordering him to Hollywood had reached him just as he was leaving home for the airport to welcome her back.
And all you have to know about the happiness of their marriage is illustrated by the fact that on this occasion they stayed right there at the airport, hand in hand, for that hour.
It wasn’t that dramatic at Northwestern with their first shows, but it still is a fact that at the exact moment that Lydia entered and said, “My frog is dead,” in the not-too-shattering way Chuck had suggested, he was forced to be backstage, getting his hair curled for “Francesca da Rimini” and while he was on stage later, Lydia had to be backstage making a costume change.
Chuck fell in love that spring. But Lydia didn’t. Chuck tried to spend every spare minute he had with Miss Clarke, but she didn’t very of ten agree to it. As a technique for winning a fellow with his romantic temperament, it couldn’t have been bettered. Except that with Lydia, it wasn’t a technique.
She sincerely wanted a career before she even gave a thought to marriage. She had absolutely no ambition to be a homemaker, or anyone’s little woman. She told Chuck so, but the more she brushed him off, the more he pursued her.
“The truth is, I thought Chuck was impossible,” Lydia confesses, smiling.
It is typical of the Hestons that the first flat they ever had in New York was in the slums and cost thirty dollars a month and is of that variety tagged “cold water,” meaning if you want hot water you heat it yourself on the stove.
In Hollywood there are no slums, but there are very inexpensive areas, which are small and unfashionable. In such an area the Hestons have another flat. Because they have suffered so much poverty, they have no intention of impressing the movie Joneses. All their savings are going into Michigan timberland. Currently they own 1,280 acres, on which there are two houses. One house they may sell. The other they are developing.
This is their dream house. This is where they expect to retire one day, to live happily ever after. And there is definitely a sentimental story behind all this.
That 1,280 Michigan acres is the place where Chuck grew up. His whole family was what is known as “land poor.” Charlton Heston is his real name, given in baptism, and there was a legend in the family that the Hestons were directly descended from the famed Scottish chieftain, Black Douglas. His given name, Charlton, also has a distinguished family ancestry, even though, growing up, it was to give Chuck great trouble. Bigger boys called him Charlotte—and all the boys of his own age were bigger than he until he was fifteen.
He grew eight inches that year he was fourteen, but some of the loneliness and sensitiveness that a short boy is apt to feel had entered into him before that. He had the very serious handicap, in addition, of being the only child in his family.
He was ten when his folks moved to Chicago and he met other kids, but previously, he had lived a lonely kind of life amid the wilds of Michigan.
Perforce, he learned how to shoot and fish from the very moment he was able to tote a rod or a gun, since this was one of the ways by which the Hestons ate. It would have harmed many children. All it did to Charlton was make him dream. He invented friends for himself. In the forests he found drama behind every tree. Looking into streams, studying the changing sky, he saw romance.
Shy, awkward, insecure, there couldn’t have been any better corrective for him in college than to fail in love with a spirited, brainy girl like Lydia Clarke. She forced him to think, because she argued every point with him. She forced him to be dominant, since she was not to be easily conquered.
“When I first dated Lydia, she had a spitfire temper,” Chuck tells you grinning.
“Once, before we were engaged, I hit him with my purse, I was so angry at him.” Lydia confesses.
“See this scar,” Charlton says, pointing to a mark on his forehead. “This happened after marriage. Lydia had bought herself a little radio. She had it on too loud and I told her to turn it down. Instead, she tossed a candle at me. She missed, and I laughed, whereupon she tossed the candlestick. That didn’t miss, and it took six stitches to knit me back together again.”
It took three years, America’s entry into the war, Chuck’s persistence and his draft call to wear Lydia down. Even her parents were opposed to their union.
Chuck chose their wedding day, March 17, 1944. The March 17 gag was so that he would never forget the date. The place was Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was stationed. They both knew he was about to be sent overseas—to a tropical climate, he thought, since his outfit had been issued some jungle equipment.
It was a dreadful day, March 17. “Raining cats and dogs,” Chuck says. Lydia wore a little lavender suit and a white hat covered with flowers.
She had paid fifty dollars for the suit, which was a lot of money then. Just before Christmas of 1946, the first year Chuck was out of the Army, Lydia sold that suit. She got ten dollars for it, including the hat and the suitcase in which she carried it to the pawn shop. Then she socked the ten bucks into a Christmas gift for Chuck.
Because, by then, things were really rugged with them. The Army, with its usual consistency, had sent Chuck and the other jungle-equipped men to Alaska and then to the bitterly cold, dreary Aleutians. Lydia, meanwhile, had gone back to Northwestern to finish her course and get her degree. On graduation, she took a small room in Evanston and did some work as a model in Chicago.
When Chuck was demobilized, they took two weeks off for a honeymoon. Chuck had the key to his grandfather’s battered lodge on the Michigan property. It was heaven for the lovers to be alone—but they soon discovered neither of them could cook a thing.
“We still can’t,” Chuck says.
So they headed for Evanston and tried living in that single room, mostly out of a foot locker Chuck had brought back from the war. But that was too terrible, so they gambled on New York. Gambled and lost.
There was, you see, the housing shortage in New York. That’s how they finally found the flat in “Hell’s Kitchen” and they only managed to get that because Chuck was a vet. They hadn’t been there a week when Lydia was bedded with a dreadful cold she had got in its cheerless rooms. She ran such a temperature that she had to be hospitalized, which ate up all their savings. Chuck pounded the pavements looking for work. One of a hundred thousand other veterans doing exactly the same grim thing.
“There was nothing,” Chuck says. “There was nothing, nothing, nothing.”
But presently Lydia was up and around, and she began working as a model again. It wasn’t high style modeling. It was hours and hours a day, being photographed in the cheap little dresses that retail for $3.95. Sometimes, Lydia got the chance, too, to pose for photographers and painters, but Chuck, pounding the pavements for eight and nine hours a day, every day, got precisely nowhere.
“No one who hasn’t been an actor can know how ego-shattering that is,” he tells you. “I went up for stage shows, radio, TV, anything. In ordinary work, you are just turned down, impersonally. But in theatrical work, you are told you are too big or too short, your eyes aren’t the right color, your voice is terrible. The rejection is a total rejection of you as an individual.”
By 1947, they at least had hope, for Charlton got a chance at three different plays. Three different plays and three different flops. Then he and Lydia did a little stock, and as a result of that they got a chance to co-star at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina.
It was their first real break, and it was nearly their undoing. That was because it came right after the sad ending of a production of “Romeo and Juliet” in which they were both to have played. The show flopped. They were hungry and shabby. At Asheville, while they made almost no money, they were offered a little house. They could direct and star in all the plays there. They could live in a charming town among interesting people. They did so, for eight months and seven plays.
Then Lydia and Charlton talked it over. The greatest bond between them, next to their love, asserted itself: they both wanted to do fine things in the theatre. They wanted that more than security.
“Another thing was,” Charlton says, “that I didn’t particularly like directing. I wanted to play the scenes myself, not tell other actors how.”
“We directed one another,” Lydia said, “but we both knew that directing was mental, where acting was emotional. We both missed the release of acting.”
So, courageously, they said goodbye to their friends in Asheville, and came back to the cold-water flat in New York. They had no prospects. But on the trip, Charlton bet Lydia a new hat, he’d have work inside of two months.
And then for the first time, fate really smiled on them. For he got work within two hours after their arrival in New York, in the company of the mighty Katharine Cornell. And he had little more than achieved that, than he got his first calls for TV, then still new. Lydia got her hat. And shortly thereafter things began looking up for her personally. She got the chance at the role of the wife in “Detective Story” even though the woman in the part was written as ten years older than Lydia.
You know the rest. You know how TV actually turned the trick for Chuck, for that is where Hal Wallis discovered him. You know the rest of his career to date—and that it can get to be nothing save more brilliant. As for his love story, that keeps on perfecting itself.
The Hestons are separated by their work so often that the divorce rumors pop up. Charlton takes this very seriously. Lydia merely smiles.
He says, “We are often separated geographically, but never emotionally.” Lydia says, “Relax. My big break will come.” But she refuses to sign any sort of a contract, for fear it might keep her from being with him at times when it is important.
Her husband is deeply grateful for this. He was madly in love with her when they married. He is more in love now, nine years later.
He says, “I don’t think it’s possible to have a marriage between a pair of actors without slighting one of the careers to a certain extent. Conversely I don’t see how any woman could be happily married to any actor if she weren’t an actress. I can’t even buy theatre tickets two weeks ahead because I don’t know where I’ll be or whether I’ll be working that night. This goes for concerts, lectures, dinner parties or seeing friends.
“Last winter, when we were in New York, we borrowed Huntington Hartford’s apartment to give a cocktail party for seventy-five friends. Two days before, Lydia was called back to Hollywood for a picture and I had to host it alone. Brother, did I miss her! I spent my entire time saying, ‘So glad you could come,’ pouring drinks, passing food and then saying, ‘Goodbye, see you soon.’ I never had time to have one decent bit of conversation with anyone.
“A few weeks later, we gave a cocktail party in Hollywood. We set it for Thursday, but then it turned out that I had to do a radio show, so we switched back to Wednesday. That kind of thing would drive most women mad—but not Lydia.
“When I’m working I get up at seven, finish at seven, because I stay to see the rushes, go to bed six days a week at nine. Most wives would take a very dim view of this. Lydia takes it with complete calmness.”
Lydia smiled. “I’m the girl with the awful temper,” she said.
Chuck reached for her hand. “I’m the fellow you couldn’t stand,” he said.
It wasn’t necessary for either of them to say that they are that rarest and loveliest of human achievements: a happy couple creating an ideal marriage.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JUNE 1953