Evie Wynn Johnson: “Portrait Of The Man I Love”—Van Johnson
Never having discussed my life with Van Johnson for publication before, I am anxious that it be the true picture, and to be true it must have some rather frank statements and feelings in it. You see, I feel very strongly about Van—as a husband, a father and an actor. He and my three children are my life, and I am happily and completely absorbed in our life at home.
Perhaps you should know right now that I have a theatrical background and have been fortunate enough to act on the stage with Katharine Cornell, Maurice Evans and Sir Ralph Richardson in “Romeo and Juliet”; with Sir John Gielgud, Lillian Gish and Judith Anderson in “Hamlet”; with Paul Muni and José Ferrer in “Key Largo.” Therefore, I discuss Van, the actor, objectively, as a critic. But, when I speak of Van as a husband and father, it is on the simple basis of being his wife.
I don’t think Van’s magnificent sensitivity, his modesty and, yes, his humility have ever been clearly described or understood. These traits are so much a part of him that leaving them out of the picture would mean leaving out part of his basic nature.
Van has achieved stature with everyone—except himself. It’s as if the actor, Van Johnson, were a separate entity—a symbol, totally unrelated to him. I’ve walked down the streets of Paris, London and New York with him, seen the sudden recognition in the eyes of the crowd, heard the murmurs and exclamations of, “Oh, look, that’s him!” And Van, ardent movie fan that he is, would feel this excitement and turn to see what star he might be missing. When he suddenly realized that they were looking at him, he’d become panicky and embarrassed but would recover enough, because of their genuine joy at seeing him, to smile, wave and sign autographs.
There are times when I feel like shaking Van for this continuous lack of ego. Just once I’d like to hear him crow. But he won’t; he’s just not built that way. Even when he has done a great job on a film, he’ll come home after viewing it with a heavy heart, berating himself for not getting more out of a scene. When I can say in all honesty that I felt he did a brilliant job—and this is becoming very easy to say with the recent roles he’s been doing—he respects my judgment and it eases the pain a little. But Van is never so satisfied with a performance that he doesn’t think he could have done it better.
I know that humility and modesty are highly regarded in the Proverbs and that Van lives by his faith. But I have a friend who says, “The meek shall inherit the earth—six feet of it square in the face,” and sometimes I agree with her. I know that in this profession, as in most, being sweet, gentle and understanding invites others to take advantage. It has happened so many times to Van. Stars who blow their own horns and “carry a big stick” are never in danger of being overlooked for Oscars, of having their pictures released without proper exploitation and advertising. When I speak of Oscars, I am thinking of Van’s performance in “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Some of his scenes in that picture reached out and tore the heart of everyone who saw it. So many people thought it was a cinch for an Academy Award nomination that, when we returned home the evening of the nominations, without receiving any mention, the phone started ringing, telegrams poured in, and the next day there were all the letters. From people in the industry, from all walks of life, wanting to protest the oversight and tell Van how they felt.
When I mention pictures being released with little advance publicity, I’m thinking of “The Bottom of the Bottle.” I’d like to go on record as a great believer in the adage that “Advertising Does Pay.” I know | and you know that proper exploitation of any product pays dividends. If you have a supply, you must create a demand for it. The motion picture business is no exception. As for “The Bottom of the Bottle,” it was released too soon after completion and therefore had no build- up, no exploitation. Consequently, most people will be unaware that Van did a magnificent job of acting in it. However—and thank goodness—the critics saw it! A dear friend in New York sent me their reviews, which were excellent. One in particular capsuled Van’s performance with, “In fact the picture may well be called a Johnson tour de force.” This pleased me very much. I would love to get in and fight the good fight for Van, but as his wife my hands are tied. One does not have one’s wife trotting about as a tub-thumper—and continue to maintain good relations with all and sundry. So I try to keep my urges to a minimum, to relieve myself by long mullings of the whys and wherefores of this business—and butt my head against a stone wall. However, I must add one last word and say that, without a doubt, Van’s performance in “23 Paces to Baker Street” is one of his greatest.
I’ve told you about the part of Van’s nature that is shy, grateful and easygoing. Now I must reveal the side that is “monarch of all he surveys.” Van is king in his castle and his castle is home; there is no laxity in his domination of it. He is the foremost ruler of all time—and I like it. He is so much stronger than I. I dither about in mad circles, clearing up my inevitable piles of letters, wires and what-have-you before he gets home. If I have opened a picture album, I am inclined to leave it there until a later date. But not when Van is around. I scurry to see that everything is in its place, shined up right and proper, before the master strides into his domicile. Van can be very demanding and most formidable at times, but the compensations are well worth the strain on my casual, rather lax attitude. Whether it is clothes, make-up, house, children or food, he makes the decisions. Fortunately, for me, I couldn’t stand a weakling, so I secretly delight in his aggressive, “no-nonsense” approach.
As for the compensations, they are endless. Having established the balance of strength, Van can give me all the constant attentions and considerations a woman wants and needs. When we’re alone, we never stop talking. We don’t need people. After a good dinner, we can sit in front of the fire and talk, become stimulated, interrupt each other with thoughts, opinions and new ideas until the late hour precipitates contented yawns and we trundle off to bed, full of the richness of togetherness. There is nothing in the universe more important to a man and wife, I think, than being simpatico.
Van is also a non-conformist, in many ways. For example, the other day he came down dressed to go to the studio, handsomely attired in turtleneck sweater, suede jacket, and—tuxedo trousers! When I asked rather carefully why the tuxedo pants, his answer was very matter-of-fact.
“They’re old,” he explained, “and I might as well wear them out.”
I guess everyone knows by now about Van’s partiality to red socks. He started wearing them years ago, when he was just starting in pictures, mainly as a conversation piece—a social crutch. Long after the need was past, Van still found the habit comfortable so, no matter what the rest of his outfit may be, invariably he wears a pair of bright red socks. He also combs his hair with his fingers. I think he would be happy to go through the rest of his life without a comb.
He also refuses to conform to the so-called “commercial holidays,” such as Mother’s Day, anniversaries and birthdays. Van likes to pick his own time for buying gifts and, happily, these times are impulsively often. If he passes a shop window and sees something he’d like for me, he goes in, asks for a size twelve, and comes home with a big grin and a box behind his back. It may be anything from a gold lamé bathing suit—which I need like another head (but love)—to an ermine muff. He is constantly bringing home flowers and / or candy—because he wants to. When he arrived home from London three days before Christmas, he then and there gave me a beautiful antique diamond pin he had bought for me. It was the first diamond he’d ever given me, my engagement ring being a sapphire, and it was so lovely I cried! Quite naturally, on Christmas Day I received nothing. Van simply refuses to conform, and for me his way is more fun.
Van has an intense dislike for cocktail parties. He feels they are so superficial that one can’t even talk quietly and intelligently to a dear friend. He bemoans the lost art of conversation and the inability to reach people as people at these “glass-in-hand” conventions. Nowadays he picks the parties. He asks who will be there and how big the party will be. If the guest list contains more than thirty names, he finds a good excuse for not attending.
Van’s idea of a satisfying evening is a dinner party with ten or twelve close friends. On such an occasion, if he feels the urge, he will sing and dance for their entertainment for hours on end, because that’s what he wants to do. At big parties, however, Van becomes very nervous and will go to one of two extremes. He will either decide abruptly to leave or, in a frenzy of nerves, he’ll jump up and be “on stage” for a couple of hours. I never know which reaction is going to set in.
If and when I am ill, Van is so thoughtful and aware, there are times when I wish I were more helpless or had a tendency toward hypochondria. As it is, I’m healthy as a cow and seldom offer him an opportunity to take care of me completely. He’s a living doll, running up and down stairs with trays of tea and cinnamon toast, rubbing my neck, and being such a superior jack-of-all-trades that I feel like the best cared-for woman in the world. This same awareness and sensitivity can, however, become very frustrating.
When Van is in a mood, it’s easy to get him out of it by changing the subject (carefully) and tripping the light fantastic conversationally. But there are times, I must admit, when I am not in the mood to work on this project. If I happen to be in a snit of my own, I refuse to do my share of mood-changing—in which case, Van ignores my mental wall and immediately sets about to be divinely charming. He has learned that this is the surefire way of breaking down my defenses, because I have nothing against which to react. He’s the perfect picture of a happy husband with nothing, but nothing, wrong. Eventually, I have to capitulate to that grin, and my snit is gone. But it can, believe me, be very frustrating!
Actually, this is a minor irritation, considering the ninety-nine percent pleasure we have together. We have two miniature fire chairs on which are inscribed respectively, “Remember Only The Sunny Hours” and “Treasure A Good Moment.” These two little homilies accurately reflect the way we live.
Our children are the nucleus of our home, and in the capacity of father, Van is par excellent. Remembering his own disrupted childhood, he wants more than anything to raise Ned, Tracy and Schuyler as well-rounded citizens. There is always a lack—mental, emotional and economical—which comes from living with only one parent. Van wants the children to have everything he lacked, as well as the responsibility he did assume as a child. Fortunately, he is no extremist. He does not indulge them. In fact, if anything, he is stern in decisions. Van is deeply aware that they mustn’t be spoiled, and if he goes overboard to avoid it, I understand. He has given, and continues to give them, roots—solid, unshakable foundations on which to live for the rest of their lives. And he has given them God. Every Sunday, no matter how hard he’s been working, Van takes the children to church. His faith, a vital part of him since childhood, has given him strength when he needed it, and he wants our children to grow with the same sincere and instinctive acceptance of God as the center of the universe. For all of their healthy, purely physical activities they are all three spiritual children.
God is as much a comfortable part of their lives as the hobbies Van has encouraged them to develop. We have no whining brats in our house on rainy days. Ned, Tracy and Schuyler are all excellent artists, because Van has patiently taught them a real love of color and form. At ten, Tracy won the highest award given at the church hobby show—and a prouder family you never saw. As a matter of fact, Tracy has even sold a few of his paintings!
The children also excel in tennis. As a child, Van always wanted to play, but couldn’t afford a racket. He explained to them that knowing how to play was a social asset and at the same time kept one physically fit. While all three play well, Ned has become terrific. Last year when he stayed at Coronado, he played magnificent tennis for a fourteen-year-old. This year he’s on the tennis team at school and, to improve his footwork, has also gone out for track.
I remember when Van first took them skiing at Sun Valley. At the time, Schuyler was only two and didn’t have very far to fall. Ned was nine, and under Van’s tutelage he quickly became a beautiful skier. That first year, he won his silver star award for being the youngest child to ski down Dollar Mountain without a spill. The next year he won another award for conquering Old Baldy. Although Van skis beautifully, his student Ned has now surpassed him, and Van is the proudest of us all.
When Tracy was eight, he came home from the Catalina Island Boys’ Camp with the medal for Best Camper. That meant he was best in every way: swimming, bed-making, campfire activities, personality-wise.
These are the joys that come from Van’s constant wish and efforts to teach, love and give everything he knows to the children. As for discipline, he is a bug about their emptying waste baskets, keeping their own things neat and tidy. They must know the sharing of responsibility. At our home in Palm Springs, they really have their share of chores.
The Palm Springs house is, incidentally, a symbol in our lives. I went there looking for a place while Van was on location. It was about 120° in the shade, and after checking out about twenty-five houses I was a little discouraged. Finally, I was shown this enchanting place with a pool and a counter running from kitchen to patio (which meant that I could slap hamburgers out to the children and not have them dripping all over) and just enough room for the Johnsons—no more! The price was right, and it was even furnished, so I went racing home to our business manager.
Now, this man is the type (thank heavens!) who will, upon being told that I want to buy a dress for $1.98, automatically say, “Too much.” He listened with typical caution to the glowing terms in which I described my find, and eventually agreed to go down and look it over. When he came back, he said with enthusiasm, “If you don’t buy it, I will. And don’t wait until Van gets back—it’ll be off the market.”
So, taking courage in hand, I bought the house. Then I started worrying. Van loves to travel; the more he goes, the more he wants to go. For instance, he’s always on the lookout for a script with a European background. And here was I, arbitrarily buying a house in Palm Springs while his back was turned.
You can imagine my mixed emotions as we drove to the Springs, Van withholding judgment while I held my breath. As he walked through the house, his eyes lighted up, and his hands started combing his hair. He fell in love with it!
The furniture was rather prosaic, as was the upholstery. To help things along, Van went out and bought a rainbow of pillows and, merely by his banking them on the divan in blending colors, the living room came to life. Next, he began painting the rooms. One day when I came home from shopping, I found the old furniture painted white—and it was beautiful.
The kids are in heaven in this house, and it is the first time the Johnson family has ever been completely alone. Since we have no help there, everyone pitches in to get the work done. The youngsters hear “Help Mother” from Van until they actually enjoy doing their chores. We have a wonderful washing machine and the children hang the clothes out for me. I must also admit a justifiable pride in the fact that I have conquered the mangle and now do the ironing, as well as the cooking. Van is so completely happy in our Palm Springs home that he not only doesn’t want to travel, I think he’s even reluctant to go to work.
Roz and Freddie Brisson, who are always hankering to take off for Europe, have been coming down to see us. Slowly, the feeling of the place is getting a hold on Freddie; less and less does he yearn to visit the continent.
I haven’t spoken of Schuyler, our only girl, because I think I must make mention of her individually. I’m sure Van and I are a bit prejudiced, but we think she is slightly out of this world. She’s exactly like Van, with the same deep sensitivity, sense of humor, and sweetness. To prove that we are not alone in our feeling, I’d like to tell you about one of our proudest moments.
First, you should know that Van has idolized Greta Garbo for years, and so have I. He has scrapbooks two feet high on this magnificent actress. As for my part, let me say that while I was playing in “Romeo and Juliet” with Katharine Cornell at the Empire Theatre on Broadway, “Camille” was being shown at the Capitol almost twenty blocks away. Every night for three weeks, Miss Cornell, Guthrie McClintic, Ty Power, other members of the cast and I raced out of the stage door, still in make-up, took a cab to the Capitol, sat in the loge, and never stopped crying. So perhaps you can see that both Van and I feel that Greta Garbo is the greatest motion picture actress we will ever see in our time. That’s for sure!
Getting back to my story, we were in New York to see Roz Russell in “Wonderful Town,” and we had taken the whole family. One day, when Van and I were out walking near the Pierre Hotel, I recognized Garbo approaching. Taking a deep breath, I walked up to her. “ ‘Miss Brown, ” I said softly, “I’m Evie Johnson, and Van would never forgive me if I didn’t say hello.” Then I got Van into the conversation fast.
Garbo looked at me, and that beautiful voice whispered like a cello. “How very kind of you. Are you here for some time?”
“Yes,” I answered. “We’ve brought the monsters with us.”
“Monsters?” Her bewilderment was obvious.
“The children,” I amended hurriedly.
“Oh. I hear your little girl is very beautiful. I would like to see her. Could you perhaps have tea with me tomorrow at Mr. Hauser’s home?”
Could we? Could we! That was one date neither of us would’ve missed for an Academy Award. Getting ready the next day, I must have changed Schuyler’s outfit 5,000 times. I don’t remember what I looked like, but shewas a beautiful blond Swedish doll.
After we arrived and had exchanged a few words of small talk, Schuyler—who had taken to “Mrs. Garbo,” as she called her—wanted the two of them to “cray.” Taking crayons and paper, Miss Garbo retired to a corner with our child and “crayed” for more than an hour. When she returned, Miss Garbo said to me, “Mr. Johnson is so much more timid than I. How do you get him out so much when he is so much more Swedish? If I had ever known anyone to draw me out.. .” She paused and sighed, then continued, “But at least I will go for a walk in the park. . . . Yes, he’s much more terrified than I.” This insight and deep understanding, I think, are two of the qualities that have made Garbo’s acting so magnificent.
As we were leaving, she smiled down at Schuyler and said to me, “I envy you this lovely thing.”
“I give her to you for a quarter,” I quipped.
And very seriously Greta Garbo said, “Ah, I’d give you so much more for her.” As Van and I took our little prize possession back to the hotel, we were both ready to burst. Garbo does that to people.
I suppose it’s obvious by now that I am full of pride and love for the life I lead. I count my blessings when I think of my husband’s character. Van is completely honest; he can’t say anything he doesn’t mean. He only acts when he has to—he’s for real, a human being without a facade. He won’t compromise and, when forced, he will fight for his integrity. He is a man deeply rooted in home and family.
Movie reviewers are constantly being touched by Van’s scenes with children. In “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” his scene with his little daughter on the park bench brought tears to the eyes of men. In “The Bottom of the Bottle,” the critics unanimously took the time to describe an entire scene in which Van talked with his wife and children over the phone. He can do this superb acting with children because he loves them and understands the pain of letting them down, or being let down.
As for Van’s future, I’d like to see the fulfillment of this life of great energy and great heart. If possible, a lessening of his shyness and modesty. But most of all, I want Van to be able to fulfill his career as he sees it. To be able to turn his back on the whole thing if he wants, to travel, to go around the world, or paint the walls of our Palm Springs home. To come back to the screen if and when it pleases him—and them. “Them” is the public that he adores. His: great love for the public is part of our life, too, and the reason why Van would never let them down.
I hope this portrait of the man I love that I have sketched is a clearer, deeper one than you had known before. That was my wish. And now, perhaps, you also understand why I say my life is Van . . . and our children.
—VAN JOHNSON, by his wife Evie, as sketched for Dee Phillip
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JUNE 1956