Glenn Ford’s And Eleanor Powell’s Last Interview
Eleanor Powell, elegantly dressed in a light beige suit, walked slowly and deliberately down the stairs of her Beverly Hills home and, reaching the hallway, stopped to pick up the morning paper. Glancing over the headlines, she took the paper with her as she walked out to the car.
The date at the top right-hand corner caught her eye, and immediately she realized why. It was Glenn’s birthday.
Slowly she drove into town, but did not stop, as she usually did, to pick up groceries on the way. Instead she headed straight for her lawyer . . .
A few hours later all Hollywood was buzzing with the news. Eleanor had announced that she was divorcing Glenn. “I am suing on the grounds of extreme mental cruelty, and that’s exactly what I mean,” she said. “We have been married sixteen years, and my marriage wouldn’t have lasted this long except for my religion and my feeling that I should keep the marriage together.
“I am sure that Glenn will be much happier alone,” she continued. “He isn’t happy now. . . . I have asked for complete custody of our fourteen-year-old son, Peter.”
Immediately, columnists and reporters began asking questions, turning up at her home and calling constantly over the telephone. “Didn’t you separate a few years ago?” one asked.
“No,” said Eleanor, trying to slip past him into the house. “We didn’t actually separate because I still wanted to save my marriage. We did have trouble, but I was determined to keep my marriage intact. I have tried hard—but now I know it just isn’t any use. We cannot go on.”
“When did this all start?” said another.
“It is nothing new,” she answered a little wearily. “I have been unhappy for a long time.”
“And are you going to begin dancing again?” the reporter asked.
“Yes—I intend to resume my dancing career.”
“What about your mother-in-law?” But this question went unanswered as Eleanor closed the front door of her home.
He had been referring to the charge about Glenn’s mother Eleanor had made in the suit. She had said that over the past two years Glenn had been putting property into his mother’s name to conceal his assets from her. “He just bought her a $100,000 house,” Eleanor stated, “among many other things.”
The reporters were anxious to speak to Glenn, too. He had left his home five days before, busy working on plans for a new picture. “Are you surprised?” asked one who managed to get to him.
“A thing like this is always a surprise,” he answered quietly.
But a few hours later a close friend admitted, “This has been the shock of Glenn’s life.”
It had been only a short while before this day that I’d gone to the Fords’ Beverly Hills home to interview Eleanor and Glenn—the last interview they were to give before the breakup. And, oddly enough, one of the first things they said to me was that they had always had to defend their marriage against divorce rumors.
“In all our sixteen years of marriage,” Eleanor had said, relaxing back in the deep couch of their English country-style living room, “I don’t think a year has gone by without someone starting a rumor. The first time it happened, I remember Glenn arriving home with a very strange look on his face. I hadn’t seen the papers that day and couldn’t understand what could be wrong because, as far as I could tell, everything else was all right.
“But he kept walking around and around the house all evening, asking what seemed to be the oddest questions. Finally, I worried him so to tell me what was wrong that he did. He put a hand in his pocket and without a single word, handed me a crumpled newspaper clipping.
“ ‘If that’s what you really want . . . ’ he began.
“I just looked at him. ‘Glenn,’ I said, ‘you don’t really believe this.’ And a few minutes later we’d straightened the whole thing out. Now, when we read rumors about our divorce, neither of us worries, because we know it’s not true—just a hardy annual that seems to be printed around the time of our wedding anniversary—in October. In fact, it has been going on since Pat O’Brien first introduced us, in the late 1930’s, at a large party at his house.
“I’ve always thought you kids should meet each other,’ Pat said, in what he obviously thought was a whisper, but actually could be heard half-way down the next block, ‘and now you have.’ He stood back while the two of us eyed each other a little cautiously. ‘Glenn, why are you standing there with your mouth open? Do something!’ Pat added, slapping him on the back.”
“So I did,” Glenn broke in, continuing the story. “I took Ellie’s arm and guided her out onto the porch. She was helpless with laughter. But from then on, not even Pat could complain of our progress. I’d seen Ellie in ‘At Home Abroad,’ with Bea Lillie and Bert Lahr. She was beautiful, and she could dance like a leaf in the wind, but she was as remote from me as the farthest star. I was hitting a new. low in my acting career at the time, and was broke as the Ten Commandments.
“Yet somehow this didn’t seem to hinder our romance. ‘I believe in you,’ Eleanor told me that evening at the party, and she seemed so sincere. She gave me confidence. Soon afterward, I found a part in ‘Martin Eden,’ then ‘Destroyer,’ and by the time the war started, I was well on my way up.
“But war is war, and I enlisted in the Marines, seeing Eleanor as often as I could get leave. After just a few months we were sure we wanted to marry, and did so—on October 23, 1943, in Beverly Hills.
“By the time our first baby, Peter, was born sixteen months later, the war was almost over—and soon I was able to come home again to the family—and my career.”
As I sat in their home, listening to the stories about their romance and about how they had begun their married life, I couldn’t help wondering if Eleanor had ever regretted giving up such a promising career. But from the way she looked at Glenn, who was sitting on the couch next to her, and from the way she talked about her home and her marriage, I felt sure this could not be so.
Eleanor never won an Academy Award—at the time when she was dancing the Academy did not recognize dancers. But she did win five Emmys, three for the “Best Television Show” and two for “Personality Woman of the Year.” Yet, she had told me, “a career fades to nothing beside the pleasures of having a home and children. And Glenn himself gives me no time for a dull moment!” she added, laughing. . . .
“Like that day Glenn took me to Montana on a hunting and fishing trip. A studio publicity man came up with an idea of getting a good shot of us both coming in for an apparent landing in our plane. It was a lumpy little runway, but since I was quite certain Glenn didn’t know how to fly the machine, and it was all just a publicity stunt, I went along, assured the plane would never get off the ground.
“I climbed into the co-pilot’s seat, heard the motor being revved up, and we started down the runway, traveling, it seemed, very fast. Then my heart almost stopped beating. We were suddenly a hundred or more feet off the earth, and getting higher every second.
“ ‘Glenn!’ I yelled. ‘You turn this thing around and let me out!’
“But he only shook his head helplessly. I think I must have gone paralyzed with fear, because I don’t remember anything Glenn did or said until I heard him telling me to pull on a certain knob sticking out from the instrument panel. I grabbed the thing and yanked at it. And, to my utter disbelief, the plane started to circle, and we headed back toward the strip. Glenn kept talking continuously, telling me I was doing fine, to pull the knob out a little further or push it in a trifle, till we landed.
“There was something in his eye that should have warned me. But the truth never dawned on me until we were in the car, headed back toward camp. Then I asked, ‘When did you learn to fly?’
“He didn’t burst into laughter. He just said gently, ‘Quite a while ago, Ellie; I should have told you.’
“ ‘What was that thing you told me to push in and pull out?’ I asked.
“ ‘It controls the air conditioning.’
“We looked at each other and the corners of his mouth began to twitch, and we both exploded at the same moment.”
They smiled warmly at each other as she finished the story.
Actually, their marriage had seemed A particularly happy and peaceful that day when I visited their home. “We go out very little because we can have better evenings at home,” had been Eleanor’s words. “Glenn built our hi-fi set himself, and it’s so beautiful. We have a library of over 7,000 records, and from that we can have wonderful entertainment. But, like all women, I do like to go out occasionally—just to see and mingle with people, although Glenn would rather stay at home.”
One thing Glenn enjoys at home, I learned, is carpentry, and a few years ago he built a small clubhouse in the garden for his son, Peter—“a place where he and his friends could make all the noise they wanted,” Glenn told me. “I taught them a little about carpentry, too, and they were crazy about the house. Then, little by little, they grew out of it, so I took over and turned it into a workshop for myself.
“But when Pete saw this happening, and watched what fun I was getting out of it, he asked if I’d build him another. But I’d have nothing to do with the job this time. Instead, I told Pete I’d buy timber and tools and he could build it himself. Well, he got a few friends together and they had a wonderful time. And now they love it, because it’s something they’ve created themselves.”
“I do get very worried about Peter, though,” Eleanor continued. “Because of the way the kids at school taunt him about his father being a famous actor. ‘So you’re Glenn Ford’s son,’ I heard one of them say one day. ‘Maybe you think you’re better than the rest of us. We’re probably a little too common for you!’ That day, I came home and told Glenn about it, and we decided we’d have to take Pete out of that school, because he had become very moody and I knew this was the reason. It forced us to put him into a private school, reluctantly, because we had always wanted Peter to grow up without that ‘apartness’ so many actors’ children have.”
She paused, looking over toward the door as it began to open. I turned, too, and saw a small, white-haired, lavender-and-old-lace lady come into the room. I got up.
“Hello—I’m Glenn’s mother,” she said, shaking my hand and then going over to an armchair by the couch. And soon I began to ask her a few questions about Glenn’s childhood and she spoke quite freely—with Glenn interrupting every now and then.
She talked about the early days in Santa Monica, and about how her son was very determined, right from the time he was quite small, to become an actor. Delivering newspapers, she told me, Glenn would dream of the day he’d be a star.
Only, however, when a telephone call called Glenn away from the room a few minutes later, would she be at all critical.
“Glenn would always be too likely to do things on the spur of the moment,” she said, “without thinking things clearly through. Also, he’s too trustful. Glenn gets hurt now and then by those he has tried to help. Sometimes, I think, he attaches too much importance to things that are part of the past. Do you know he’s got every one of his report cards from the first grade on? It’s well enough to be sentimental, but sentiment can be harmful, too. So many people in this fast moving world don’t understand it and interpret it as a weakness.
“But I hope I don’t seem too fussy, or too possessive,” she said, looking straight at me. “I hate ‘Momism.’ And I’m certainly not one of those mothers who takes the credit for her son’s success. My husband and I would have been just as content if Glenn had settled for some good trade—like carpentry (he would have been a top-notch artisan, too, you know).”
Yet it was this charming old lady whom Eleanor complained about in her divorce announcement, saying she’d been the cause of much of the trouble.
“I did try to keep our marriage intact,” had been Eleanor’s words. “But it was just no use—we cannot go on. I have been unhappy for a long time, and this is no sudden thing.”
It seemed so different from the Eleanor who, with Glenn, had talked to me that afternoon and showed me around their home. I saw the hi-fi set, and the study on the second floor where they both keep their trophies (Glenn was awarded a “Golden Apple” in 1957 for being Hollywood’s Most Cooperative Actor, and a year earlier he won the Man of the Year trophy from Optimists International; the same year, he and Eleanor were chosen as Man and Woman of the Year by B’nai B’rith).
Eleanor had been anxious and pleased to tell me about her jaunt as a Sunday School teacher on television, a program which had sprung out of a class she had just happened to take over one week, and which had become so successful, they had put it on TV. And Glenn had explained how he was official Scout Master for his son’s Boy Scout Troop.
And the only faults Eleanor could find to tell me about Glenn had been in complete jest. . . .
She had been silent a few moments, then she’d said, “Sure he has faults.
“If I send him to the store to get a few things and don’t give him a written list,” she had said, “he can’t remember two articles that I need. If I give him a written list, he loses it. He can commit an entire script to memory in an unbelievably short time, not only his own but the other roles, too, but he can’t remember when dinner is served at home. If he waits to see the day’s rushes, he’ll probably wander in around eight or eight-thirty, starved as a wolf, and maybe with a guest along. If I intrude on any matter that is indisputably his business, like a personal telegram, he sulks until I explain that the only reason I opened the envelope was that I thought it might be something he’d want to know at once. Then everything’s all fine and finished.”
And their only difference seemed to be that she liked westerns on TV, while Glenn preferred serious dramas.
It had seemed such a happy marriage.
GLENN CO-STARS WITH DEBBIE REYNOLDS IN TWENTIETH’S “IT STARTED WITH A KISS.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE AUGUST 1959