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Peg Of Our Hearts—Peggy Ann Garner

If you are less than eighteen, being a movie star cuts no ice with the California school system. Miss Peggy Ann Gamer, star of “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” co-star with George Raft in “Nob Hill” and now star of “Junior Miss,” is just thirteen and were you to call on her of a morning, you’d find her at school, on the Twentieth Century-Fox lot—admittedly, but sternly at school. So you talk to her mother until noon when Peggy Ann is free to meet you in the studio commissary.

Seeing them together, young talented daughter, young eager mother, the resemblance between them is most striking. If you comment on this Peggy will flash you a look and sigh, “Isn’t that gruesome?”

She is very conscious, almost self-conscious, about not being pretty. She is a little girl who has never been physically punished for wrong-doings, never once spanked, never once slapped. But right now. Mama admits there is some friction between them. Peggy is beginning to be clothes- conscious, wanting to dress more maturely, wanting longer “Junior Miss” dresses, craving “formals,” dreaming about jewelry, fussing around with her hair. It is all an attempt at personal adornment—and Mama is having none of it.

For Mama knows best. Mama knows that Peggy Ann’s plainness is the initial factor behind this amazing child’s success. There are a couple of others, too, to which we’ll come presently, but her chance for stardom came originally because of her un-cute little face, her utterly straight hair, her eyebrows that do not match and her long mouth, which in real life is a humorous mouth, always turning itself up into quick, sensitive smiles.

Peggy Ann was born in Canton, Ohio, where her father, William G. H. Gamer, now Lieut. Garner of the U. S. Army Military Police, was a government attorney. The date was February 3, 1932. Remember dear old 1932, when there was a depression blacker than the Black Hole of Calcutta, with an awful lot of people sunk in it? Bill Garner was among those sunk, and a baby’s arrival didn’t help matters any, except that she was such a beautiful—and very much wanted—baby.

Bill Gamer got a chance to work in Washington, D. C., as an American legal adviser to the British Embassy. It was a position full of title with little money attached, so while he headed south, Mrs. Gamer took Peggy Ann to visit her maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. S. G. Craig, in Newark, New Jersey.

After the manner of doting grandparents everywhere, the Craigs thought it would be just darling to buy this cute toddler some new clothes in New York City.

The thought was put into effect and presently there was little Peggy Ann, preening herself, small-girl fashion, before a full-length mirror.

A handsome stranger stepped up.

“Is your little girl a professional model?”

“Professional? Why, no.”

“Well, she should be,” said the gentleman. “If you’d like to consider the profession for her, look me up.” He flipped out his card and he turned out to be John Robert Powers, who hires all those pretty girls you see in the advertisements.

When Mrs. Garner discovered that Peggy Ann could pick up five or ten or twenty dollars—as she got more experienced—merely for standing still for five minutes before a camera wearing a hat, or coat, or dress or some such, she began thinking about Peggy’s college education. She herself had gone to Greenbrier College, in the old South, and at the time of Peggy’s birth had enrolled the child there for sometime around 1950. But as the depression kept on wiping out all the fine, fat, financial reserve she and Bill had put by in the prosperous years of 1928 to 1930, she began giving up hope.

Yet here, for a mere half hour a week’s work or less, Peggy seemed in a fair way of assuring herself of this education. Mrs. Garner went down to Washington and talked the matter over with her husband. Bill was agreeable. (“He’s the most carefree man on earth anyway,” says Mrs. Garner, “or at least he was before he went into service. That’s made him much more serious.”)

Thus Peggy was launched on her career. Enter here—factor three, the child’s native talent. Write down here another Hollywood truth: Mamas can push all they like, but if kiddie dear hasn’t got the talent, nothing does any good.

But Peggy Ann had it—right from the beginning.

“She certainly didn’t inherit it,” says Mrs. Garner. “Neither her father nor I ever had the least talent and there never has been a drop of theatrical blood in either of our families.”

The moment Peggy Ann started modeling, Mr. Powers suggested she study dancing to give her poise and balance. Mrs. Garner took her to the school he recommended, and its rates for instruction made her head spin—a mere something like ten dollars an hour. But again, came Peggy’s talent. The moment the head of the school saw Peggy dance, he agreed to cut his fees about in half, just for the privilege of instructing her.

Once she started taking lessons there, the dance instructor suggested Peggy also take acting lessons. He recommended the Alviene School of the Drama. Same routine. The price was too high, until they got a look at Peggy. Then they, too, hopped on the bandwagon. They, too, were delighted to have her at a financial sacrifice.

But even at that, it was all too costly for Bill Garner’s modest legal wage. So Mrs. Garner went to work, too. She worked nights in the personnel department of the Hotel New Yorker so that she’d have the days free to pilot Peggy’s career. Peggy’s grandparents had long since been pressed into service as nighttime guardians.

It was inevitable, of course, that the stage should begin beckoning such a clever little girl. She made her debut in a stock company production of “Mrs. Wiggs Of The Cabbage Patch,” whereupon, just as inevitably, people said, “That child should be in the movies.” This was in 1937 and the world was very Shirley Temple conscious right then.

Mrs. Garner went down to Washington and had another huddle with Bill and that die was cast. She and Peggy Ann came to Hollywood. They had a letter of introduction to Dave Chasen, who runs one of Hollywood’s swankiest and best restaurants, which is not a bad type of guy to know when one is hunting work. Dave, a big-hearted fellow, who used to be an actor himself, called upon and telephoned casting directors. Mrs. Garner called upon and telephoned casting directors. The Vice President at that time was a Texas gentleman named John Nance Garner. Mrs. Bill Garner, telephoning people, would say, quite truthfully, “This is Mrs. Garner of Washington, D. C. I wonder if I might come out to see you.” Several casting directors misunderstood that, quite as she hoped. When she got into their snobbish presences, she presented Peggy Ann.

The Garners got no work, but the casting directors remembered Peggy Ann. They didn’t know just why, but they remembered her because she was the only plain little girl they had looked upon in months. Mrs. Garner saw to that.

The very first night she and Peggy were in Hollywood they did the natural tourist thing. They went to the Chinese Theater and looked at the footprints of the famous in the forecourt there. It was, by the happenchance that rules their lives, the night of a Shirley Temple preview, “Heidi” actually, and as luck would have it, Shirley, flanked by her mother, exited from the theater just as they were standing there.

Peggy Ann dashed up to the dimpled Shirley, said, “I’m Peggy Ann Garner. I’m going to become a movie star, too. Will you send me an autographed picture?”

“Sure I will,” said Shirley. “Tell me the address.” So Peggy did, and Shirley did, and it was the beginning of a beautiful faith in human stars for Peggy and the beginning of a big idea for Mrs. Garner.

For, going around the casting offices, she saw that all the other child actresses were imitation Temples, making up with artifice for the beauty Shirley had naturally. Mrs. Garner went home and pasted down Peggy’s Indian-straight locks even straighter, washed her face till her nose shone, kept her in plain linen dresses. At the end of five weeks, Peggy captured her first role in “Little Miss Thoroughbred.” She was all of six years old at the time and the Garners thought she was terrific.

Nobody else in Hollywood thought anything. Almost a year and a half went by before Peggy got another role, and this time she got two in quick succession, in “In Name Only,” in which she played Carole Lombard’s daughter, and in “Blondie Brings Up Baby.” The Garners thought the second role, following right on the heels of the first, meant that Peggy was established. So another year went by before she got a bit in “Abe Lincoln In Illinois” and after that one two years—and two years is a lifetime in the career of a child actress—till “Eagle Squadron” came along wherein Peggy’s part lasted just one day and paid $25. Nor was that the end. She still had another year to live through before another little girl’s having the measles let her get into “The Pied Piper” at Twentieth Century-Fox. It was after “Pied Piper” that Twentieth put Peggy under contract.

But it is these six years of grim, background struggle that makes Peggy the watchfully sensitive girl she is today. It is this background that makes her give the reply she did when asked what she thinks of when she has to cry for a scene.

“I think what will happen to me if I don’t cry,” she says quickly.

“Peggy knows she is just as good as her last picture,” added her mother.

Her last filmed picture, says the grapevine, is swell. It is “Junior Miss” and it makes Peggy happy since, having proven her ability as a weeper in “Jane Eyre,” she has practically been in tears ever since. But “Junior Miss” is comedy, and gives her a chance at being mildly grown up. She even has a boy friend in this one, Scotty Becket, whom she doesn’t exactly look on with hate off-screen, either. Scotty, however, is not the main source of her wanting to look older. This is merely part and parcel of her actually growing more mature. She is a very good student and this fall will enter junior high and as she is also an excellent athlete, she is simultaneously attaining physical height along with mental depth.

But she is not the dreamy child she portrayed in “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.” She loves reading, though her taste runs to mysteries (her favorite picture of the moment is “Hangover Square”). The only school subject she isn’t really good in is mathematics (it bores her). She infinitely prefers her portable typewriter to any doll ever made and her differentness to the usual child pattern even extends to her not caring for ice cream or chocolates, though she dotes on pineapple in any form. She is even so practical that when her parents asked her what she wanted for this past Christmas she calmly announced she’d like an emerald. (They are so practical, too, that she didn’t get it.)

Instead, she got a cat’s-eye ring, a beautifully carved gold affair with a really fine stone. Her two best friends are nonprofessionals her own age.

“Like all movie children,” her mother says, “she’s getting just a bit too well known now to run around freely. I want her to have friends, so it looks wisest to bring the kids to her, at our home, under our supervision.”

Lieut. Garner, fortunately, has recently been transferred to the West Coast, still acting as a lawyer, being the counsel for the plaintiff—that is the Government, in cases involving infractions of military discipline. Peggy adores her dad, and Mrs. Garner says that he would spoil her except that she is too sensible a child to get spoiled. Peggy just grins when this remark is made. She’s visibly very, very happy at the family circle being complete once more.

In fact, she is very happy about everything, and why not? She now has everything she desires, that is, all except the emerald. But she should worry about that. Come five years from now or so, she can buy it for herself if she likes, and she probably will.

Along about the time she gets her first Academy Award, most likely.





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