Smash-Up!—Susan Hayward and Jess Barker
Cynical Hollywood, which can usually detect a fluff of gossip long before it hits ground, was suddenly shocked by a reporter’s line in a trade paper—“What was all the excitement at the Jess Barkers’ Sunday night?”
An hour after that “excitement” Jess Barker had moved out of the Van Nuys home he and Susan Hayward shared. But this wasn’t learned until a week later—not even by the razor-sharp columnists who could have told you to the minute when Mario Lanza and Geary Steffen ankled huffily out of their respective homes.
Nor were the news-hungry writers aware of a much more shocking fact; it was not until ten days later that Hollywood heard reports of a violent quarrel just before Jess moved out of their house. Those who knew Susan best scoffed at this report at first.
“I can’t believe Susan was on the receiving end,” said an actor who has worked with her recently. “That porcelain figure hides the constitution of a Mack truck. She wouldn’t let anyone sock her—and get away with it. Personally I’d give a buck to see what Jess looks like.”
Nevertheless, the fight between the two had taken place. And Susan, securely walled from public view in her San Fernando Valley home, finally admitted it. Further, she made what many considered a belated announcement: “I plan to file suit for divorce as soon as possible. I’ll leave shortly for a Nevada ranch to establish residence. My brother will accompany me and so will my sons. Reconciliation seems highly unlikely. I’m only worried about the pain this will inflict on our twin boys, Gregory and Timothy.”
By an unhappy coincidence Susan made her abrupt announcement on July 23rd—the day the Barkers were due to celebrate their ninth wedding anniversary. It was a shocking surprise to everyone. By a further strange coincidence Susan Hayward and Jess Barker ended their marriage with a “this is where I came in” angle.
The story goes that one hour after she first met the then sought-after actor he tried to kiss her as they were saying good night in front of her apartment. Recalled Jess under much happier circumstances, “Susan’s partly Irish—enough Irish so she always comes out fighting. I didn’t know it but I discovered right then and there that she was a woman of few words and a long, strong and efficient left hook. After the melee I looked as though I’d been wrestling with a bearcat. And I knew I was a prize chump to make a pass at a Flatbush redhead.”
Obviously Jess felt just as contrite after their last emotional parting. He has told friends that he hoped for a reconciliation after a cooling off period. On visits to the house to see his sons, he has used all his blandishments to get Susan to change her mind. But Susan, as of this writing, is adamant and saying nothing.
Though the divorce announcement was a complete surprise, studio associates recalled that on Susan’s last film, “The Gladiators,” she appeared even more moody and withdrawn than usual—a haunting sadness visible deep in her lovely eyes.
“Susan,” remarked Victor Mature, her co-star, “acts like someone 100 years old. I don’t know what the trouble is—we’re practically on a Mister and Miss basis—but something. is worrying her. We all wish we could help her, but we just don’t know how to go about trying.” The sparkle, the rapier-like sense of humor were subdued. Instead there was a certain lassitude and pre-occupation which close associates attributed to the aftermath of an exhausting two-month European vacation, followed immediately by a terrifically demanding film role.
At the party on the last day of the film’s shooting, Susan sat alone—surrounded by her own little coterie, hair dresser, wardrobe woman, make-up man—so sullen and withdrawn that photographers didn’t even approach her.
What actually happened on that battle-filled Sunday night in the Barker menage is a secret still securely locked in Susan’s heart. Insiders are betting that even on the divorce stand Susan won’t discuss the matter. She’s a complex, unfathomable woman—an actress through and through.
Explained a friend, “To understand Susan you must disregard her fragile appearance, look carefully at her resolute, determined chin and then go back to her poverty-stricken childhood. That included the lesson that a good left hook, judiciously used, was better than money in the bank. In her early years in pictures Susan didn’t get a chance to make the most of her talents and so she was inclined to go around with her fists up—to be sulky and obstinate. For years she brooded.
“But later she found her tongue—and learned to use it as a whiplash. I know that if she were to keep her emotions bottled up too long, the final explosion would make the recent Bakersfield earthquake seem like a mild breeze. Her red-haired temper expresses itself physically—and has—with Jess many times throughout their marriage just as it does in her acting career.”
Hollywood speculated as to just what it was that Jess and Susan didn’t see eye to eye on during their last night at home together. Speculation included rumors of Susan’s interest in a male star who had recently separated from his wife. But this appears to be the most baseless of rumors. No one has seen Susan with any man except her husband during the nine years of their marriage.
The fact is that Susan and Jess led the most secluded life of any Hollywood personalities. Totally without movie-name friends, they neither entertained nor attended the lavish Hollywood soirees. For Susan is painfully shy, a trait which she disguises in the form of brutal frankness. She is almost sullen with strangers; certainly she makes no effort to please. Even with close friends she’s undemonstrative.
Jess is much more extroverted, and this has been a source of trouble between them. The tight little circle of people who visited them socially (none from her studio) were all Jess’s friends with the exception of Martha Little, sister of an old Brooklyn schoolmate of Susan’s. A former press agent once remarked incredulously, “They have the oddest assortment of people constantly popping in. Somehow these old cronies of Jess’s are always hanging around when Susan gets home from the studio. She can never seem to find peace.” So it follows that Susan may have found some of Jess’s too-robust buddies less than amusing—and on that final night she may have told him so. Sharply and spectacularly . . . as only Susan knows how.
One thing Susan herself definitely didn’t like and that led to a long-standing disagreement was Jess’s handling of the eight-year-old twins. Jess dearly loves his sons, but he was brought up to believe that children should be rigidly disciplined. Susan, who adores the twins equally, tends to be more lenient. “Oh, this discipline business,” Susan once moaned in true parental bewilderment. “If anybody knows a sure-fire system I’d like to hear it. Jess thinks I’m too soft with the boys. I think he’s too hard.”
Disagreement, too, may have stemmed from Jess’s generous way with money and Susan’s deeply rooted belief that money and banks have a natural affinity. This belief was reflected in her disinclination for expensive entertainment; in the haphazard furnishings and management of their home —a two-bedroom house in which, during the last few years, they felt crowded. Though Susan’s yearly salary comes to a staggering $200,000 a year, her feeling about money was well illustrated by her comment on a fishing trip they once made to Canada. “When I think of the cost—the four of us and nurse—and those $60-a-day hotel suites! Everybody ate like a horse, too, including me. Next year we’re simply going to take our vacation at the fish store. When you’re traveling on studio time it’s one thing. But when you’re vacationing on your own—it’s blood money. I’ve developed a habit of just not spending money.”
“Spends it like molasses,” Jess once wise-cracked to Susan’s annoyance.
All of these assorted basic differences undoubtedly played major roles in the Barkers’ explosive separation. But mostly the smash-up of their nine-year marriage is traceable to a special Hollywood malady—the long bitter battle of career versus marriage. Though Susan and Jess tried with all their might to keep their marriage intact, it began to get shaky when Jess started slipping down the ladder of success and found his masculine ego bruised and battered. Meanwhile Susan steadily mounted upward, to breathe the heady vapors of fame at the pinnacle.
Susan and Jess were caught in the old and oft-repeated Hollywood tragedy of such couples as Ginger Rogers and Jack Briggs; Hedy Lamarr and John Loder; Bette Davis and William Sherry; Joan Crawford and Philip Terry; Greer Garson and Richard Ney; Anne Baxter and John Hodiak; Ann Sothern and Robert Sterling; Kathryn Grayson and Johnny Johnston; Jane Powell and Geary Steffen. In each case the wife was acclaimed a star—the husband only an also-ran, a man without portfolio in his own household. As the gap between a wife’s success and a husband’s failure widened in each case, unhappiness, like a torrent, poured in and divorce became inevitable.
How far such problems were from Susan’s mind on a Friday evening in November 1943! She’d joined the stars entertaining GI’s at the Hollywood Canteen. Jess Barker, Broadway actor, fresh from his triumph in the stage play, “You Can’t Take It With You,” and under contract to Columbia studio, was master of ceremonies. The canteen was filled with movie dolls and Jess lost no time in deciding that flaming-tressed Susan led all the rest. Getting a date, though, wasn’t so simple. “I won’t go out with you,” Susan told Jess archly. “I’ve been reading about you in the columns, Mr. Barker, and I just don’t want to add my name to that long list of dates.”
Nevertheless he continued to phone, and when they began to date, female cats purred that Susie did the chasing. Bluntly honest, even then, that young lady flipped, “Why not? I just found out where Jess was likely to be and somehow found myself there at the same time!”
There followed a stormy courtship between an obviously mismated and maladjusted pair. Yet they were deeply in love. Or thought so. Twice the engagement was broken off. In fact, Jess ordered a diamond engagement ring; then, during a period of stress a few days later, told the jeweler he couldn’t use it. And when they had made up again and he came for the ring, the jeweler had sold it. And Susan never had an engagement ring, but many years later, Jess gave her a pair of diamond earrings as an anniversary gift.
The large diamond ring she wears (which many think is her engagement ring) has a curious history. Before she met Jess, Susan was in love with an actor whose name she does not divulge. In service, he wrote to her to have an engagement ring made. Susan let herself go. And when she told his business agent what it cost, the actor blew up. So Susan impulsively broke the engagement, paid for the ring herself, and wears it as a good luck omen. Susan’s mother, a wise lady, at the time remarked, “You didn’t want to be engaged—you just wanted a diamond ring!”
On July 23, 1944, after Susan and Jess had known each other nine months, they were married at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. It is significant that Susan’s only reported wedding attendants were her press agents, Jean Pettebone and Henry Rogers.
Unfortunately marriage did not solve the maladjustment between this pair, though the word of friction was carefully kept from the press. Few were aware that after less than two months they parted. But the separation was brief.
Try as they might, neither Susan nor Jess could resolve their marital difficulties. In public they played out the farce, but in private they were miserably unhappy. It’s not generally known that they parted with rather unhappy regularity in those early days and that often Susan, in tears, went to seek a temporary haven at the home of her then press agent. Nor is it generally known that on October 1, 1947, three years after their marriage, Susan, who abhors divorce, actually sued Jess on grounds of “cruelty and grievous mental anguish.”
Another reconciliation followed and she dropped proceedings, explaining at the time, “I have come to the conclusion, as has Jess, that marriage is a contract that should be lived up to and there really isn’t much in life for you when you reach sixty, say, unless you have lived up to it. Our only real trouble was something that started in fun—a habit of making cutting remarks to each other in public. I don’t think that’s anything two married people can do even as a gag. Now I know that when I went to see a lawyer my faith had wavered and that somehow, I’d gotten off the track. Working out my marriage problems made me realize that I was growing up and maturing.”
Yet the basic problems continued and later she enlarged on them. “When we’ve had disagreements, and we’ve had some real ones, I’ve said things that I regretted and Jess has done the same. Yes, I fight with Jess. We fight about everything. Don’t all married people?”
When Susan and Jess sought help from a marriage counselor, he undoubtedly told them that even poorly adjusted couples do not fight about everything. And he must have tried to make them realize that such conduct is symptomatic of serious trouble in the union.
More serious trouble grew with Jess’s inability to find acting parts, after his first spurt during the war years. As his feelings of frustration and inferiority increased he became bitter, resentful and jealous of his wife’s major role as breadwinner in the family After all, Jess is only human. He remained at home, shopping in the supermarket, supervising the household, bathing the boys, watering the fruit trees, while his ego buckled under the increasing strain of his wife’s overwhelming success.
Both were well aware of Jess’s difficult position. He accepted a few small film roles and TV assignments. Yet Susan realized that he would be harmed more than helped if she interceded with producers for him. And she refused to do so. Once when he was up for a good part at a studio, the casting director asked him, “What do you need a job for? Your wife’s making plenty of money.” But recently, fortunately, his career has taken an upswing.
Can his ascending star be the reason that Susan has decided the time for parting is at hand?
It isn’t likely that Susan Hayward took time to reason logically during their last violent quarrel. A creature given to spells of laziness and furious activity, she acts on impulse. This inclination to relax and let things go is best illustrated by the incredible fact that she allowed her living room to remain unfurnished—a store house for broken furniture and outgrown clothing—for five years. Then Susan said, “Suddenly it ceased to be funny. And in two weeks I’d furnished the whole room. I’m impatient. Yet I’m lazy and let things go along without much interference, and then suddenly I’ll get into the positive, firm mood and will lay down the law. You know, I lose more help that way.”
Today it seems Susan lost a husband that way. Yet her few close friends insist that even though children are involved, Susan’s solution—long overdue—is best for all.
Perhaps, brooding over an upcoming decision affecting their marriage, Susan became sharper, more domineering, more caustic than ever. Perhaps, then, Jess, not without some temper himself, felt that this was too much to take. At any rate she lost her temper; he more than lost his. Susan enraged, would take no more. Within minutes Jess was out of the house, and Susan had phoned her lawyer. This time there would be no reconciliation—no turning back. From here on out she and the children would go their way alone.
The way alone for Jess will be simpler, probably, than for Susan. He’ll continue to see his boys and to be deeply interested in their future.
But what of Susan’s future? Careerwise she has nothing to fear. What kind of man will fill the void in her heart? A dependent, subservient man, with ambition at a low level will not please her. A dominant, intellectual, strong man, successful in his business or profession isn’t likely to be attracted to a domineering, career-conscious actress. It looks like lonely days ahead for the glamorous, introspective redhead. And lonely nights. After a smash-up, it’s hard to pick up the pieces.
But Susan Hayward is from Brooklyn. And no one in Brooklyn was ever brought up like a hothouse flower. As Susan, herself, has said, “You had to learn to be tough and take it. You had to learn to be like a rubber ball. When you fall—bounce!”
Without a doubt, Susan Hayward, Flatbush-born and Flatbush-reared, smash-up or no, is going to bounce.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1953