James Darren: “Why Is It So Tough To Make A Girl Understand How You Feel?”
Marrying young,” James Darren spoke the words in a low, trembling tone, “it isn’t easy. It isn’t all hearts and flowers, the way you imagine it to be. A marriage doesn’t succeed just by being dreamy about it. A marriage succeeds only if you’re able to understand it, to work at it. Gloria and I weren’t ready for it. We were just babes in the woods trying to play house. But,” he added, “whether we divorce or not, I know this much. I’ll never stop loving her.”
He paused and squinted his eyes, trying to control the tightness that choked his throat. In six months, he had changed so much that it felt wrong to call him Jimmy. He was no longer the sheepish, shy boy whose eyes used to dart nervously around like a young pup’s. Now, Jim seemed to fit him more. He was thinner, more intense and yet it was more than that . . .
Outside the rooftop restaurant the drifting fog blanketed the winter-brown hills of Central Park. In a moment, he looked directly at me. “I’m going to tell you the story behind our break-up, everything that happened. I haven’t told it to anyone. I don’t know what’s ahead, but I hope—and I pray to God every day for this—there’s hope. I’m not giving up.”
While the late afternoon sun, smoky from the thick vapors of fog, fell over the skyscraper skyline of New York, Jim, anxious, heartbroken, an ache of sadness in his mellow voice, unraveled the events of his tragic marriage breakup.
From the start things had gone wrong, even before they married. But he believed it would all work out. God will be good to us, he thought. We’re in love, we’re young—in our teens—and there’s a wonderful future ahead. Jim (he was Jimmy Ercolani then) dreamed of being a singer in the clubs, and Gloria Terlitsky wanted to be his wife, to look after him, bear his children, give him courage to pursue the career his heart desired.
All through their courting days in South Philadelphia, when Jim went to pick up Gloria at her redbrick row house on Daly Street for a drugstore date or a picture show or just an evening of talk, he wondered if perhaps they weren’t too emotional. But, then, he thought, love will make things right. Love is magic. Nothing can go wrong with love behind you.
“And, of course,” Jim said, “we had the problem of security, which every young couple faces. Would we be able to pay rent, buy food, a few pieces of furniture? But that didn’t worry me so much. We could live on love. It did worry Gloria’s parents, though.
“And with her parents, much as we tried to avoid it, there was another conflict. Gloria was Jewish and I was Catholic. Her parents never openly said anything, but I had heard they didn’t want her to lose her faith, her heritage. I never faced her parents with this. Maybe I should have. Instead, I started pretending it didn’t exist. But it did. And now I wish I had had the guts to talk about it before the marriage.”
Love and a strong liking for the same things pulled them together. Gloria and Jim loved to listen to smooth “pop” music—especially Frank Sinatra’s vocalizing. They enjoyed ballroom dancing. On Saturday night they looked forward to seeing a good tearjerker movie and eating a pizza pie in a nearby pizza parlor afterward. Their love grew, and they rushed right into marriage.
“We just couldn’t stand to be out of one another’s sight. If we weren’t together, then we were talking on the telephone about anything and everything. I wanted to know Gloria better than I knew myself. And Gloria wanted to know me like a book.
“But that was our mistake. We wanted to know too much!”
Quietly, the black-uniformed waitress served fruit salad and coffee. Jim waited until the waitress left. Then, he looked at me again with his bright, dark eyes and said, “Gee, but we were young. I was nineteen when I married Gloria, and what I didn’t know—and Gloria didn’t either—was that love isn’t possession.
“Sure, we were happy for a while. When baby Jimmy was born two years ago, I was delirious with happiness. Someone to hold and love and teach things to. Someone who’d grow up and be our gift to the world. Gloria and I were in seventh heaven about Jimmy, and he took our minds away from ourselves. But, all the while, we kept clutching at one another, pulling harder and harder, only because I guess we were young and didn’t have much experience in life. We needed each other for support. And that’s what destroyed our marriage—ruined it. This fear of standing alone. We wouldn’t allow it. We leaned on each other for everything and ended up being prisoners—slaves!—instead of husband and wife.”
Never, except when Jim was working at the studio, would they allow one another a moment alone. It wasn’t right to be left alone even for a minute, to go for a walk by yourself, to visit a friend for part of an evening while the other one babysat with young Jimmy. Everything was together . . . together . . . together . . .
“One night I awoke,” Jim told me, “and I had this terrible need to cry, but I couldn’t. It was an ache. Why? Well, that night I told myself I couldn’t cry anymore. I no longer had any real feelings. Everything was pretend. I didn’t want to hurt Gloria with troubles that bothered me so I covered them up. They weren’t important, I would tell myself, and I’d bottle them up in my heart until finally that night . . .
“I dressed quietly in a pair of blue jeans. I don’t remember the time. It was around two or three past midnight. Gloria and baby Jimmy were sleeping, and I took my car and raced it for ten minutes down Riverside Drive in Glendale. I just had to. I wanted to speed in the dark for hours, to run away. But I felt so guilty feeling this way, driving even for ten minutes without Gloria, that I went right home and got into bed and shook all night long from my need to escape.”
The next morning Jim didn’t tell Gloria he’d gone out to race his Porsche. But a few nights later the same overpowering urge pulled at him again. He slipped out of the house and sped his car for fifteen minutes. Speeding released him. It lifted the lid for a few moments from the tight emotional trap around him.
“Yet, all the while, I kept wanting to cry, and I couldn’t. I wanted to cry over Gloria and myself. We were turning out to be nags. Instead of growing and trusting each other, we wanted every single minute of our day accounted for. If I were late from the studio because of heavy traffic, I had to go into a long explanation and apologize. If Gloria wasn’t home the very minute I came home from work—maybe she was visiting a neighbor, it upset her and she’d be rattled all through the evening. We made stupid and unfair demands on each other; only because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know what I’m beginning to believe now: love must never be desperate. Love must always be founded on deep trust which comes with growing up.”
Weeks later, Jim said, he was summoned one morning to play a screentest—a love scene from “The Girl on the Via Flamminia”—with a new Columbia starlet, Evie Norlund. Suddenly, in the midst of the filming, he broke down and cried.
“There I was, trying to act like a lover, and I realized in that instant that I was a failure. I no longer had any real feelings. Everything was hidden, clammed up inside. I hated myself for being such a fake, for having lost myself. After I cried, I went and played the love scene better than I’d ever played anything before. Some heavy, crushing weight was lifted for a moment. And I went home that night hoping I had a clue to what was wrong with my marriage.”
But Jim learned you can’t change the patterns of three years of marriage overnight. “Besides, I was scared. I didn’t know if being yourself was right. Maybe one had to go through life faking and pretending. And I don’t care what anyone says. It’s so tough for a guy to tell a girl how he feels when something’s going wrong. I sensed Gloria and I had lost the personalities that attracted us to each other in the first place. We were so busy giving in to each other that there wasn’t any individuality left. That’s why I felt so useless as an actor. A friend of mine who knew all about my nervousness gave me a copy of ‘The Prophet’ by Kahil Gibran. He told me I looked unhappy. There was great wisdom in the book, he said. And I read a verse in it that hit home: something about the pillars of the temple standing alone. And when you drink wine with your love, it said, you don’t always drink from the same cup. I tried to tell Gloria about the book, but we got into arguments, silly fights over it. She’d say she was too busy with the house and the baby, that she didn’t have time for books. And Id holler that she ought to find time.”
Over and over again they fought over the slightest things. Something as meaningless as a door slamming shut could provoke a fight. “There were times we’d start fights just to be talked to. Gloria or I would say, ‘How did everything go today?’ And the other one would answer, ‘Okay!’ And then one of us would yell, ‘Okay what? You can’t put a whole day into an okay! Are you trying to keep something from me?’ ”
Once, Gloria caught her finger on a screen door, and she blamed Jimmy for letting the door close too quickly. All evening long they fought about it. Another time Jim wanted to go walking alone at twilight in Griffith Park, but he was ashamed to ask Gloria if she’d mind and so he sat in the living room watching television but refusing to answer any of Gloria’s conversation.
By the end of August, Jim and Gloria were caught in an endless, tiresome siege of petty bickerings, finding the most ridiculous excuses to pick on one another.
“We even got to fighting in front of the baby. He always went to sleep in the early evening, and sometimes he’d hear us hollering and wake up and cry. This wasn’t the kind of environment for anyone to grow up in. So Gloria and I decided maybe she should go East for a visit with baby Jimmy. She did—for a month. Then I was all alone, but it was too abrupt—the change. I didn’t know what to do with myself. and I missed them terribly. Gloria felt the same way. She said she couldn’t stand being away from me when we spoke on the phone. She and Jimmy came back to California, to our little two-bedroom house in Glendale, and from the day she got back, we never let up a minute. All through those long fall months we found the silliest reasons to fight. And I’d sneak away, night after night, to race my Porsche. It was the only freedom I had. Finally, last December, I told Gloria this was no way for us to live. The two of us didn’t know what we were doing. Something was eating away at us. We were so insecure we made it awfully hard on each other. Our marriage was dying. Maybe we should separate . . .
Jim, lifting his fork, nibbled at the fruit salad. The waitress brought more coffee for both of us.
“But that was only the beginning,” Jim said. “A separation is more complicated than people think. Don’t forget we had little Jimmy. who was idol of our hearts. What were we going to do about him?
“I rented a one-room apartment on North Kingsley Drive in Hollywood, but I didn’t want baby Jimmy to know anything was the matter. After all, I like to think Gloria and I are going to learn from this.”
Every morning, Jim told me, he drives to the home he and Gloria shared as husband and wife to greet his happy, dimple-cheeked son. “I pretend I’ve just come in from the grocery store,” Jim said. “And I play with him for a little while before I report to the studio. I want him to be loved constantly. All a baby can understand is love, and every child needs a father’s companionship. It’s different from a mother’s. I want my Jimmy to know his father is right beside him, loving him. Lots of times I’ll bring him little things. When I visit him at night, after I finish work, and he’s getting ready for bed, I’ll bring him a stuffed animal or a Mickey Mouse toy. He’s crazy about Mickey Mouse.”
Looking away, toward the darkening fog, Jim continued. “Funny,” he said, “but I realize now there’s no companion in the world like a wife. Yet, I know I have to prove to myself that I’m able to live alone. The four walls of my furnished apartment aren’t anything like the pretty house we had with its clean stucco front and big lawn. And I miss the sounds of a family: the clatter of dishes in the kitchen, a baby laughing, the milkman’s ‘hi-yah’ every morning. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this. But I also know it’s better for Gloria and me to give up something that wasn’t working and save three lives than to lose them in a marriage struggle that had us going around in circles.”
Is there an answer? Jim says he is looking for guidance from his religion.
“The silence of a church helps me collect my thoughts, and when I pray, I get flashes of insight, moments of knowledge that help me. I’d be lost right now without religion. It’s all I have to look up to. I go to church every day, and I get comfort from it. After I visit the confessional, the church so much richer—and freer. Strange, even though I’m alone, I’m learning I can’t live without other people. A man has to belong in this world. Right now I belong with the praying worshippers and the Father who confesses me. I don’t feel lost any more, and I know God’s going to give me an answer to our problem.”
Sipping the last of his second cup of coffee, Jim looked out to the shadowy sky, deepening now with the inky blue of twilight.
“Gloria and I were too greedy for love,” Jim pointed out. “We were too grasping—like kids. If you give a child lots of toys, he gives them too much attention at first, then they bore him after a while. Maybe we loved too hard, too desperately. Anyone who says young marriage is easy is crazy, because there are so many deep emotions to deal with, emotions you sometimes just can’t understand unless you’ve seen a little of life.
“Now that we’ve filed for divorce and are living separately, we might have more understanding of how the other person feels. Maybe we won’t submerge ourselves so completely. If we can learn to get along with our true personalities, the Jim and Gloria we’ve kept under cover, then maybe we can get together again. Maybe we won’t. Maybe Gloria and I will go our different ways. But, regardless of the outcome, I know that what I said before is true, so help me God. I’ll never stop loving Gloria. I can’t. You just can’t turn off love like a faucet—not deep love, anyway. But young, selfish love isn’t strong enough to make a marriage successful, either. Marriage takes guts, but, at the same time, a willingness to compromise.”
Twilight darkened the cold spring sky. We got up to leave. Downstairs a light drizzle began to fall, and Jim put on his poplin trench coat. We said goodbye, and I watched him walk down the wet, dark sidewalk the glow of streetlamps reflected in the glimmering rain. Suddenly. looking at his tall figure walking away from me, I realized what the difference was I’d noticed in Jim when I first saw him that afternoon.
Jim was no longer Jimmy. He was no longer a boy. Faced with the tragic heartbreak of a broken marriage, he had emerged with a new faith in himself and a fearless conviction of truth in his heart.
Jim had become a man.
DARREN’S A DOUBLE-THREAT IN COLUMBIA’S “GIDGET,” WHOSE TITLE SONG (PLUS “YOU”) HE’S RECORDED FOR COLPIX. COMING UP COLUMBIA’S “LET NO MAN WRITE MY EPITAPH.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JUNE 1959