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Speaking Frankly

Why is it that marriage in Hollywood seemingly means no more than it means to Peter Rabbit? What busts up Hollywood marriages—boredom, too much money, too much temperament? Why can’t Hollywood people face and conquer the identical marital problems that the typical movie fan disposes of every day, without recourse to divorce court?

I hurled these questions at the beautiful blonde woman sitting on the couch, in my apartment. My French poodle, Bojangles 2nd, who’d been climbing all over the lady, sat up and waited for the answers, too.

“Whoa,” protested Mrs. Cornel Wilde, “those are all of the stereotypes—all of the glamorous reasons blamed for Hollywood divorces and separations. Some day, some writer in Hollywood will do a little more probing, and find that the warning signals of a movie colony split-up are nothing more glamorous than a medicine cabinet crowded with pills for nervous stomachs—and disclose that Joe Hero and Josephine Heroine are afflicted with nothing more glamorous than low blood pressure. When people or movie stars make decisions that are influenced by poor health, those decisions are liable to be off the beam.”

“Uh-huh,” I murmured. Mrs. Wilde looked at me icily.

“You don’t believe me!”

“Let’s put it differently,’ I said. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of that low blood pressure routine, and—”

“And nothing,” she stormed. “It’s no routine. It happened! It happened to Cornel and me. The only time we ever experimented with a trial separation, it was because he was worn out and nervous. His blood pressure then was less than 80. He’d just finished Bandit of Sherwood Forest for Columbia. He came home that night, completely exhausted. After dinner, a studio barber arrived to cut his hair; then he went to bed all in. I had to wake him at 6 o’clock the next morning, so that he could start for Arizona for his next picture.”

She gestured.

“Cornel sat at the breakfast table that morning, wordlessly. His face was drawn; there were deep circles under his eyes. This, then, I thought to myself, was movie stardom!

“For ten years the two of us had struggled to make the grade. We had stood up to heartbreak and discouragement, we had fought against sickness, we had laughed off shows that folded after one or two nights—and for what?”

“Wait a moment,” I enthused. “This sounds like a great story.”

“Not a great story,” corrected Mrs. Cornel Wilde, “but a tragic explanation of why some Hollywood marriages go on the rocks. Not maliciously, but with a certain sense of smugness, people say that the Hollywood star is overwhelmed by problems that the average citizen meets It is consoling for people outside of Hollywood to feel that the movie personality lacks the moral fibre, the sense of proportion or the moral courage of John Q. Citizen.”

“What are you driving at?” I asked her.

“Just this,” said Mrs. Wilde, “the problems of Hollywood stars are completely dissimilar. Actors encounter occupational hazards that never touch the lives or affect the happiness of those who aren’t on Hollywood sound stages.

“For instance,” she said, “after Cornel became a star, we rarely saw each other, and then only when he was so exhausted that it was an effort to make conversation. Both of us were on edge; he was worn out from too much work; I was lonely and unhappy. The day he left for Arizona, I packed his bags for him.

“ ‘Don’t forget my pills,’ he told me. ‘My stomach is doing nip-ups.’

“As I watched Cornel walk out of the house that morning to the studio car, I thought to myself that it had been far better when we were struggling to earn rent and food money back on Broadway.”

“Tell me about Broadway,” I suggested.

“Well,” she said, “in New York, we had been together continuously. We had gone to agents’ offices together, we’d lunched together, had dinner at the Automat together, and it was all wonderful. We both got parts in Tallulah Bankhead’s Antony and Cleopatra, and we felt flattered that she’d selected us. That was back in 1937, just before we eloped to Maryland. Then, to our dismay, we learned that Miss Bankhead had planned a long road tour, and like most kids, we wanted to stay on Broadway. So we told her. She was very nice, and understanding, and we left the company, confident we’d grab another job, quickly.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“We eloped, came back to Broadway, and never got another offer from a producer.”

“What,” I asked, “did you do for money?”

“What any other young stage couple does, I suppose,” she said. “Worried ourselves sick. Every time we’d make some money, we had to pay it to the doctor. Luckily, the manager of the hotel where we lived was swell. No impounding of our trunks or anything like that. We played periodic ‘subway circuit’ engagements in Moon Over Mulberry Street, and finally I landed a job in the Ethel Merman-Bert Lahr musical, Dubarry Was a Lady. It was the security of the $40 a week that permitted Cornel to look for a part leisurely.

“If you read fan mags, Ed, you know the rest of our story. The first real break for us—parts in the Laurence Olivier-Vivien Leigh production of Romeo and Juliet, and traveling to San Francisco, and opening there, and the Warners’ scout raving about Cornel. Warners used him twice, dropped his option, and six months later, he signed with Fox.

“For two long years, we waited and waited, and then Columbia borrowed him for Song to Remember.”

“Where does the low blood pressure enter the script?” I asked her.

“Starting right then,” said Mrs. Wilde. “For years, Cornel had been under contract, doing nothing. Once he clicked in Song to Remember, they ran him ragged. Three pictures in a row at Columbia, then Leave Her to Heaven, Centennial Summer, three weeks with Peggy Cummins in Forever Amber, then into The Homestretch,then the Linda Darnell version of Amber, and out of that and into It Had To Be You, with Ginger Rogers. So instead of enjoying this new-found stardom, we were worse off than ever. And that’s when we finally determined on a trial separation.

“The separation did the trick?”

“It gave us both time to think things over sanely. It enabled both of us to remember that we loved each other a lot. If I’d forgotten, it reminded me that Cornel was the most wonderful guy I’d ever met; sweet, considerate, thoughtful and a lot of fun—when he wasn’t on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of overwork. So we determined that from now on, we’d live differently. Now that he is a star, he can ask for certain things—and the first thing he asked for was a six-month clause in.which he could do a play. Never again will we ever permit Hollywood to disrupt our happiness.”

A few nights ago, the Sullivans went to a dinner party in-New York. There wes a Wall Streeter and his wife, there was a toy merchant, there was a big league baseball star and his wife, a doctor and his wife and some other couples. “Another Hollywood divorce on the front pages,” said one of the guests, shaking his head. “Well, I guess marriage means no more in Hollywood than it means to Peter Rabbit.”

“They can’t stand success,” said the doctor. “When they click out there, they lose all sense of proportion.”

“It’s the atmosphere,” suggested one of the wives. “It breeds promiscuity.” Another wife chimed in: “They have too much money.”

“The problems that all of us face and defeat, every day,” said the doctor, “destroy them. Every married couple has disagreements, but we lick them. Hollywood people can’t take it.”

I think that any movie fan will agree that he or she has said practically the same thing about Hollywood stars. It is a nice concession to your own ego to ponder on the fact that the problems which all of us citizens solve are the very problems that send the movie stars scurrying to Reno.

So next time you’re tempted to be smug, remember this story by Mrs. Cornel Wilde.





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