Present Perfect—Susan Hayward
In palest pink—forbidden to redheads, but on her it looked good—Susan went through a scene for Soldier Of Fortune, stopped to chat with visitors on the set, then joined her gang. Emmy Eckhardt, her hairdresser and friend of eight years, was brewing tea. Marjorie Fletcher, her wardrobe woman, was cutting the chocolate cake Susan had brought from home. A studio publicist dropped in. “What’s new?” chorused the girls. He offered tidbits as they offered him nourishment.
“Mm, good. You make this yourself?
“Marooned on a desert island with the proper ingredients,” Susan allowed, “I could bake a cake. But why should I when Cleo does it so much better?” She picked up her crocheting.
“Hey, that’s the afghan you started on Untamed.”
“And when I’ll finish it, nobody knows. A thousand and one squares, as in a thousand and one Arabian nights. After which, I can spend hours pointing with pride, ‘Look, I did it all with my own little hands.’ ”
This vignette would have small significance except that it’s a far cry from the days when Susan used to shut herself up in her dressingroom with nothing but mood music for company. Down the years, especially when pickings are slim, Hollywood has played the game of discovery—the new Garbo, the new Crawford, the new Mickey Mouse. Right now Susan’s It, the new Hayward, lilting, buoyant and gay. To fall back on another cliché, she never looked lovelier, as anyone who has seen her close up will testify. Columnists on the prowl for an item attribute this to romance, but they are baffled when it comes to naming the other party.
Susan smiles. “You can’t keep people from saying whatever suits them. The truth is simple. I’m very pleased at the moment not to be emotionally involved with anyone. There’s a time to battle the stream and a time to sit on the bank, watching the current flow by. Gives you the chance to evaluate and ponder. This is my time on the bank.” Mischief glinted for a moment in the brown eyes. “Too much of it could get dull. I’m not feeling dull yet.”
There’s no new Susan. There’s a woman of character—intelligent, honest, courageous—who grows through experience, sweet or bitter. The past is past, and she The future can be handled when it comes. She lives in the present, which is good. If she’s happier, more at ease with herself and the world, you don’t have to go hunting for reasons. Release from the strains. of an untenable marriage is reason enough.
Indirectly, she says so. “The house has a nice atmosphere, casual, relaxed. We have many more visitors, who are always welcome. So many, in fact, that I bought a double oven, because we need two roasts instead of one. The boys ask their school friends to dinner and to stay overnight. Cleo, I might add, is the come-on. ‘She’s the best cook in the world,’ I hear them brag. ‘We’re going to have pork chops.’ ”
She has always been close to her sons. They’re closer now. Most of her nonworking time is devoted to them. As sole authority, all plans and decisions are up to her. She believes in combining supervision with greater freedom, gives them their rope while laying down definite rules. Despite her busy life as an actress, no concern of theirs is too trifling for her attention. “I can’t find my checkerboard,” says Tim.
“No wonder,” says Greg. “You took it over to John’s the other day.”
“That’s right, I did. Only I think it was Billy’s.”
Susan intervened. Boys must learn to be responsible for their possessions. Taking toys out was fine, if you could manage to remember where you left them. Until their memories improved, they’d better ask for permission. Next day the phone rang on the set. Greg had to speak to his mother; it was very important. “May I take my basketball over to Eric’s?” To Susan it was very important too—the feeling that they knew she was always on tap for consultation in a crisis of this or any other nature.
Wherever they’re playing, they’ve got to be home by five. If Susan isn’t in, they report to Cleo. In addition to Cleo, there’s Willy Jean, her daughter, a teen-ager young enough to romp with the boys and to sit, just as wide-eyed, through their TV programs. Matthew, Cleo’s husband, arrives at four to do odd jobs. From the day’s pursuits, the youngsters return to a circle of warmth and friendliness. Till six-thirty, which is dinner time, they watch TV. After dinner they’re allowed to choose a single half-hour program. Susan is of the crisp opinion that television, overdone, can have a stultifying effect on the young, or their elders, for that matter. She glows openly over the fact that her kids average 90 at school. Both love to read. They’re crazy about the Landmark books and the Book of Knowledge. They also have homework to do. If they get stuck, an SOS goes up for Mommy. “To my chagrin, I sometimes get stuck myself. You’d be surprised how tough that fifth grade homework can be.”
She takes delight in doing with and for them things they’ve never done before. For the first time last Christmas, Santa and his reindeer decorated their lawn. Their Christmas requests were moderate. “Commando sets and trench coats—so we can play Army and fall in the mud.” She got a bang out of buying stuff they didn’t ask for. Out of love and their own allowances, they gifted her with a box of candy each, their favorite kind, which they absently proceeded to consume themselves.
She took them east for the World Series. She took them to Hawaii, where they learned surfboard riding. She takes them and a couple of pals to football games. Her careful planning includes a hired chauffeur. “It’s meant to be a day of pure enjoyment. If I drove myself, if I had to battle traffic and parking problems, I might conceivably grow a little impatient. I refuse to have anything take the edge off our pleasure. So we see the game, we have dinner at some special restaurant and have nothing to remember but fun.”
Her basic purpose is to extend in all directions the horizons of their world. She’s buying a piano, so all three of them can take lessons. The boys have joined the Cub Scouts. They belong to a social group which gives dinner dances. Parents are not permitted in but Susan drops them off and sometimes stops for an unauthorized peek. She sees her sons picking the prettiest little girls to, dance with, gathering around the water cooler, kicking and being kicked in the shins by other boys—and thrills to their normal reactions. Like the song says, little things mean a lot. As when Greg writes.an imaginative piece on how it feels to be a giant. As when Tim writes how he feels about Christmas and it makes the school paper.
She likes to pass the door of their room for a glimpse of two heads, one fair, one sandy-red, bent over the big double desk. Last year she had the house redecorated. Buttery yellows and greys in the livingroom, a mirrored fireplace, the walls aglow with prints—Matisse, Rouault, Chagall—which she gets from the Museum of Modern Art. For herself, a pink marble bathroom. “All my life I’ve heard about movie stars with marble bathrooms. Now I’ve got one. Fake, to be sure, but just as dear to my heart.” The big project, however, was the thirty-foot room upstairs, transformed from a children’s to a boys’ room. Plaid paper gave way to wood fibre. Opposite the windows overlooking garden and pool, a stack of shelves to hold books, records, all the lead soldiers she brought them from Mexico and miscellaneous treasure, with space above for pennants and flying ducks. In the center a desk, large enough for a boy on either side to spread puzzles, paintings, homework, without blocking the other. Their faces bear that innocent, vulnerable look of any child absorbed in what he’s doing. You don’t have to be their mother to know how Susan feels as she tiptoes by.
Angels they’re not, though cooperative for the most part. The one thing Susan won’t tolerate is freshness and, like all kids, they get out of line now and then. Comes the moment, for instance, to do something they’d rather not. She reminds them. They ignore her. She pokes their memory. “Why do I have to?” She explains. They parry with the why again. She explains for the last time. They’re seized by the child’s compulsion to find out how far authority can be challenged. “I won’t,” says Tim or Greg. For this, in Susan’s experience, there’s a sovereign remedy. Over the knee with a little slipper on the fanny. “They’re punished only for a reason. Being pretty hep kids, they know exactly what the reason is. You’d be amazed how that slipper clears the air.”
They turned ten in February, and the slipper-cure grows less frequent. On matters of consequence, the three assemble in council. Figaro, the Scottie who used to pick lemons off trees, met with a fatal accident. To heal their shattered hearts, Susan promptly bought the twins a dog apiece. Each picked his own breed—one cocker, one Scottie—each promised to be responsible for his own pooch. But it appeared they had no time for the duties of ownership. In Susan the sense of duty is strong, and she’s instilling it into her boys. “If Cleo or Willy Jean looks after them, they won’t be your dogs. So would you be satisfied if I found good homes for them?” Two faces fell. “Now wait a minute. You know I love dogs and I think we should certainly have an animal around. So I’ll get another one. It’ll be Mother’s dog and I’ll take care of it, though you can help when you have the time. But since it will be mine, I feel I should have some say about the breed, just’ as you did.”
“That’s only fair,” agreed Tim.
“What breed?” asked Greg.
“Well, I’ve always been partial to Irish setters.”
An Trish setter suited them fine. “He’ll have red hair just like yours.” He’s now an established member of the household.
They conferred on Mommy’s new car—her first Eldorado Cadillac. “It’s got to be fire-engine red,’ cried Greg. “You always said you loved fire-engine red, remember?” She remembered well, but she wanted black. Susan, however, leads through finesse, not despotism. Driving around town, they compared colors. The reds were certainly beautiful, but every other car they saw was red. Wouldn’t it be better to have something different? To this, Tim added the clincher. “They stick out more, so they get tickets faster.” Whereupon they veered to white, but decided the mud would show up too dirty. Meanwhile, Susan kept pointing out the shiny jet blacks. In the end, the boys were persuaded that black was the only color for a new car, and that they themselves had talked Mommy into it.
That she’s an actress they accept, the way some other kid accepts his mother’s being a teacher. It’s a fact of life, neither ignored. nor stressed. The only picture they’ve seen her in since Song In My Heart is White Witch Doctor. They loved the natives, went wild over the African backgrounds and thought Mommy was pretty good too, but Mommy’s presence was a minor affair. Very rarely she’ll have them on the set, when something special goes on like the big animal scene in Demetrius, or the wagon-train sequence for Untamed, which was shot on the ranch. Here the twins had an elegant time, played with kids in the cast, dragged stray cats into Susan’s trailer, watched her fashion bullets out of lead, which they conceded was a pretty neat trick. Here, for the first and only time, her position in the movie world staggered one of her sons. It happened at noon, when box lunches were distributed. Greg opened his, eyed the sandwiches, the eggs, the fruit, the cellophaned packets of salt, and lifted a face of sheer rapture. “Mommy, do you eat like this every day?”
Her career is in high. From Untamed to The Conqueror to Soldier Of Fortune, which she all but lost. Part of the picture was to be shot in Hong Kong. She had nothing against Hong Kong. On the contrary. A trip to the Orient plus a co-starring role with Gable struck her as an attractive combination. “Provided,” she told them at 20th, “I can take my children. Otherwise, no.” Jess Barker, their father, has the boys every Wednesday afternoon and every other week end. She’d have been glad to make up the time to him. But by legal stipulation, neither parent may take them across the state line without the other’s consent. Their father withheld consent on the grounds that their schooling mustn’t be interfered with. It wouldn’t have been. She had planned to engage a tutor. She felt, moreover, that the trip would be rich in the kind of education that doesn’t come from books. She appealed to the court, which ruled against her. “In that case,” she said quietly, “I won’t go.”
They were all disappointed. Susan is a fighter, convinced that the Lord helps those who help themselves. She’s also what you might call an upbeat fatalist, who won’t bash her head against the inevitable. With her own philosophy she comforted the twins. “If something’s supposed to happen, it happen, it happens. If not, it just wasn’t meant to be. But don’t worry, we’ll get there yet. When you graduate from school, we’ll take a tramp steamer and go around the world on a summer vacation.” Which softened the blow.
She had resigned herself to bowing out of the picture. The studio bowed her right back in again. They wanted Hayward, not a substitute. They summoned writers, who revised the script so a double could be sent to China for necessary long shots, while the close-ups were done here. One detail hung fire. To the brass, it loomed as more than a detail. This became clear to Susan, seated in the office of Buddy Adler, producer.
“There’s something I want to talk to you about.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t know just how to put it.”
She looked him in the eye and played her hunch. “You mean you’d like me to wear short hair.”
“I know you don’t care for short hair.”
“There’s no problem,” she said equably. “I’d just as soon have it cut.”
Between surprise and relief, he banged the table. “Boy, am I going to collect! Bets and bets that I couldn’t get you to do it.”
“I wonder why. I’m the most docile person in the world.”
“Then how come,” he deadpanned, “they’re all scared to ask you?”
She turned thoughtful. “It’s rumored that now and again I get my Irish up.”
The above scene maybe needs some interpretation. A story, part myth, part fact, has attached itself to Susan’s crowning glory. The myth is that she guards it against the shears like no one since Samson—which leaves out of account that she had it clipped years ago for The Saxon Charm and more recently for With a Song In My Heart. The fact is that she prefers it long and has on several occasions kept it so, despite pleas. Her reasons seem sound. “Ninety per cent of the masculine population likes longer hair. Inasmuch as I’m a woman, one of my primary purposes is to please men. Besides, it keeps the back of my neck warm.”
For Soldier Of Fortune, they took off two or three inches. A little more? they hinted. No, that’s enough. Let’s have lunch. Next morning she learned via one of the gossip columns that she had shed salt tears, gathered up the poor locks and carried them home. This broke her up. “Comes the living day!” she hooted. “You know, I did cry once. I was ten and my mother got tired of brushing all this hair and had it cut. I cried because I didn’t want to look like a boy. Well, I’m no longer ten. In the course of time I’ve also discovered that hair grows.”
The plum of the year has dropped into her lap. She helped joggle the branch. Like the afghan, it started on Untamed, where one day the twenty-four-hour virus hit her. Accustomed to rugged health, she makes a restless patient. In an effort to hold her down, Martha Little, her house guest, brought in a book. “It’s new. Read it and lie still.” But for keeping her quiet, Martha had picked the wrong book. It was called I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Turning page after page of this story of a woman’s travail with agony and her spiritual triumph, Susan’s fever mounted. Virus or no, she flew out of bed to call her agent, Ned Marin. “I’ve just read the Lillian Roth book. Who has it?”
“I thought you were sick.”
“I am, so don’t trifle with me.”
“Nobody has it, but there’s lots of interest around.”
“I’m going to buy it for myself. It’s a blend of the two pictures I loved best—Smashup and Song.”
“Don’t be hasty. Get back into bed and I’ll see what goes.”
What went was as follows. Paramount wanted it if they could borrow Hayward. They couldn’t, but MGM could—on the deal that brought Tracy to 20th for Broken Lance. “If they buy it,” said Susan, “that’s the one I’ll do for them.” Marin so informed Dore Schary, who said they were dickering. When I’ll Cry Tomorrow won the Christopher Award, they quit dickering and snapped it up. This crisscross of activity, told in seconds, covered weeks, with Susan chewing nails. Came at length the bugle call from Marin. “I’ve got all the clearances, and you’re Lillian Roth.”
“Yippee!” she yipped, read the book five times more and flew up to Vegas to watch the singer work. From their confabs, she’s emerged with boundless admiration for Miss Roth. No tosser-around of large words, Susan calls her a great person. “To go through all that tragedy and come out more than whole, you’ve got to be great. And an inspiration to others, may I add, as I sip my tea.”
Though work and children claim most of her time, she’s hardly the hermit type. Dancing she loves. Marin, old friend as well as agent, is a frequent escort. There are others. “But they’re people not involved in this business and they’d just as soon not see their names in print.” When she’s going someplace exciting—which means formal—it’s a big deal for the twins, who run in and out while she puts her make-up on, fall over the gold slippers, set them tenderly upright and wait for the breathless moment when she’s ready. Their round eyes, their, “Mommy, you look so pretty,” isn’t the least of the evening’s satisfactions. She’ll introduce them to her date—usually not the first time, but the second. They’ll size the gentlemen up and note their preferences, which they’re quite willing to discuss. She’s just as willing to listen and to set them right if she happens to disagree with them.
Being thoroughly feminine, she can’t see herself living alone and liking it. The state of single blessedness strikes her as a state of singular unfulfillment. “But I’ve, never been the kind of girl who jumped from one romance to another. And I don’t propose to jump from one marriage to another. When the time is ripe, I’ll know it. Naturally, the boys are a prime consideration. The man I choose or who chooses me—we might even get around to it at the same minute—must love children as dearly as I do, for I fully intend to have more. Since that’s a prerequisite, I feel that he and the twins will get along fine. Only this is for sure. If I fall in love and believe we’re right for each other, the decision will be mine. At eighteen, my youngsters will have their own lives. Parents, like children, are entitled to theirs.”
When she marries again—and Susan says when, not if—she’ll kiss her career goodbye, not without regret, but with finality. “I’ve loved every minute of it. As long as I’ve got to work, I hope they’ll accept me in this business. I just can’t figure staying in it for the rest of my days. Not because I feel an actress can’t handle both. But because I’ve handled this one since I was seventeen, and I’d like to handle something else for a change. Will I miss it? Probably—for a while. But life goes on and there’s always another bonfire,” cracked the doll from Brooklyn.
Which brings us back to that afghan. She’s always liked to knit and crochet. This job, however, is special, being linked to the future. “It’s the kind of thing that’s handed down. It’s meant to be handed down to the little girl ’m going to have some day. Not to mention two more boys.”
Their prospective dad? Don’t be silly. Susan’s no fortune-teller. She lives in the present, and sufficient unto the day is the good thereof.
—BY IDA ZEITLIN
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE APRIL 1955