Tab Hunter: “What I Learned From Women?”
About women they say, “You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.” That first part I wouldn’t know about, because the only woman I’ve ever lived with was my mother and I get along pretty fine with her. Once in a while she forgets herself and starts ladling out small warnings and reminders to me. Things like “Drive carefully” and “Don’t forget your keys.” When that happens I turn the tables.
“Say, Mom,” I tell her, “you’re getting too thin. Are you eating enough?”
She flusters a little and then looks straight at me and says, “Stop treating me like a child!”
“Okay, okay,” I tell her, “and you let go of me.”
It’s my only kick against Mom, so it rolls off my back. For the rest of it, my mother is a rare woman. Once she felt my brother Walt and I had the necessary upbringing, she adopted a hands-off policy and contented herself with cheering from. the sidelines and giving advice only when asked for it. So Mom has been pretty easy to live with.
As for the tag part of the bromide, “you can’t live without ’em,” I am inclined to agree. I suppose I would have lived, all right, but if it weren’t for the girls and women I’ve known I wouldn’t know half as much as I know now. Not that I know a lot—if you talked to me about suspension bridges, for instance, you’d find me silent—but I feel that the fair sex has done more than its share of teaching me about life and how to live it.
Mom, of course, contributed the most. I don’t know who writes Mother’s scripts, but they hand out a lot of fine advice. “Soap and water are cheap,” Mom used to tell me. She taught me to try to learn a little bit every day. I used to clam up with strangers, but Mom loosened me up. “When you meet people, speak up,” she said. “You’re as good as anyone else—we all come from the Infinite.” Because Mom thinks good thoughts, she’s a good woman. I’ve tried hard to have some of those thoughts rub off on me.
There are females of all ages who’ve been sprinkled through my life and I’ve come away a little wiser by knowing each one of them. Some guys in their teens have a lot of trouble talking to girls, but I never did. I always felt at home with them. Even when I was a little kid I’d walk home from school with a girl, and lots of times pick a flower for her. The gesture never was awkward for me. When I got older I sort of slid into friendships with girls without any self-consciousness. I never had to go through that stiff-necked stage in which a guy has his first real date and regards the girl as a frightening creature from another world. Maybe it was because I was lucky enough to have interests in common with girls. For instance, I was crazy over horses. I dreamed about them at night and drew pictures of them in class when I should have been tending to my algebra. There was a bunch of girls who used to go riding after school from a barn in the neighborhood. I learned to know them easily because all we ever talked about was horses. Mary Lou lived around the corner from our house, so I’d usually ride with her and always walked her home afterward. It wasn’t what you’d call a romance—I guess I had a crush on her—but I always relaxed with her.
It was the same way with Joyce Lockwood, only with her, it was ice skating. We skated as partners. I think Joyce was the first woman whose quality of beauty from within struck me. It was something you couldn’t quite put your finger on. When she walked into a room everyone turned to look at her as though she had some magnetic force. Maybe it was because of her remarkable outlook on life, but whatever it was, Joyce always expressed pure beauty when she was on ice, and also when she wasn’t. From her I learned that you get beauty out of life if you put beauty into it.
Barbara Jones was another skater, a girl who was really dynamic on ice. We used to work out in the afternoons, and since she was a far better skater than I ever hoped to be she really put me through my paces. It was the way she did it that made working with Barbara such fun. She never nagged, but if she saw a point that needed improvement she put it over to me in such a way that my male ego wasn’t offended. That took some doing, considering the fact that I was painfully aware that this girl was a champion and that next to her, I looked like a Tahitian who had never even seen ice. Barbara taught me how to put both my pride and my humility in their proper slots.
Miss Joost was a plump, jolly music teacher in high school. Instead of joining the guys in batting practice during recess, I used to hang around Miss Joost’s classroom where a gang of us played the piano and sang. My voice wasn’t any better then than it is now. I knew how bad it was and I kept it down to a whisper. Then Miss Joost gave me a cue that I have found applicable to many things. “Let yourself go,” she said. “Relax and sing the best you can. Let your voice and yourself be free.” If she had kidded me or let the other kids do it, I’d have shrunk right back into my shell. This way she helped me to get over being self-conscious, and without that, I’d never had had a chance in the acting game.
Last December I toured with the play Our Town, playing opposite Marilyn Erskine. In that brief run I learned more about the movie industry than I’d ever known and most of what I learned came from Marilyn. I’m a greenhorn at this business. It’s all so new to me that I go around waving my ears like an elephant trying to pick up valuable advice. I’ve always been impulsive and forgetful, and spent money as soon as I had it. Marilyn advised me to plan my career carefully, setting a goal and working toward it step by step. While she was at it, she explained that this can be done without stepping on other people’s necks. She taught me how to be selective about parts that are offered to me. Through her tutoring, informal lessons over coffee cups in assorted towns, I learned to be more critical of performances—including my own. Marilyn is a great actress and a fine technician. I listened and listened until I I thought I couldn’t absorb another idea.
The nice part of listening to Marilyn was that she didn’t try to change me in any way—she only pointed out ways to take advantage of what I am and what I have to offer. I notice lots of guys trying to change their girl friends and vice versa, and I don’t go for that. It isn’t right. It’s like telling Deb Reynolds not to be so happy all the time. You can’t tell the sun not to shine.
Debbie is one of my favorite people in this town. Underneath all that crazy gaiety of hers she’s a warm, sensitive person. I don’t think I realized this until the night I took her to see Jane Powell at the Coconut Grove. I was watching Janie who was singing the last song of her opening night there. Suddenly I looked across the table and there was Debbie, crying softly.
“Well,” I said, “this isn’t the Debbie Reynolds I know.”
She laughed through the tears and threw her napkin over her head to hide her confusion. Deb is like that—all heart. And despite her great success she still has a fine sense of values. She instinctively knows what’s right and what’s wrong—which is as it should be, considering her wonderful family.
Lori Nelson is like that, too. I guess I like Lori better than any girl I know. At first glance she looks like the drawing room type who’d feel uncomfortable without her pearls. She isn’t like that at all. She rides and swims like a demon, and wants to learn to ice skate. I might add, I’m just the guy who would like to help her. And I want to take her up to the mountains and teach her to ski. Lori looks wonderful in old clothes, blue jeans and shirts and stuff, just like Deb. And like Deb, Lori is one of the best sports I’ve ever known. One of the best little actresses, too. I watched her act in the dress rehearsal of Inside U. I., the live talent revue her studio puts on every year, and she was unrecognizable in the role of a metallic, disillusioned woman. I was so proud of her that afterward I rushed into the dressing room and picked her up and whirled her around. “You were wonderful!” I yelled, and I was so excited that I didn’t even notice that the other girls were screaming and ducking for cover. Lori is wonderful. She’s intelligent and hard-working and soft-hearted, and she has the same quality I admired so much in Joyce Lockwood; a true beauty from within. Plus which she’s a good listener, an attribute that builds my confidence.
Looking back over this it occurs to me that I’m giving the impression my life so far has been filled with nothing but romances. I don’t mean to. These are girls I’ve known who have taught me something or helped me in some way, girls to whom I’ll always be grateful. The idea seems to have got around that I’m fickle because I date so many girls so often. Actually, I date once, maybe twice, a week and as far as dating different girls is concerned, I never did go steady and don’t think I shall until my marriage is in the offing. Joyce Lockwood’s dad, a man I look on as a second father, told me long ago, “I don’t believe in this steady routine when you’re young. Go out and meet a lot of girls. You’ll be more sure when you finally decide to get married.” I’ve stayed with his advice and so far it’s working out fine. I figure that people change a lot when they’re young, and it’s better to get yourself settled before you get hooked up. Of course, I do want to get married some day and have three kids. As the line in Our Town goes, “people are meant to live two by two—it ain’t natural to be lonesome.” I remember once when Mom and Walt and I lived down in Long Beach, Walt had a date to take a girl to the movies and for some reason I tagged along with them. I remember how cute she looked in her new Easter hat and how lonely I felt when Walt wouldn’t let me sit with them. I vowed to myself then (I guess I was about eight) that soon I’d have a girl, too.
I have been lucky, I guess, not to have tied in with any women who are schemers. I don’t like women who play games, or women who are cheap or vulgar, and if I don’t like them I’m not apt to get mixed up with any of them. I’ve met a lot of types, and I’ve learned what I don’t want in a wife as well as what I do want.
I remember the girl I met on the roller skating rink in New York when I was in the service. I had a buck to my name and I was lonesome. So I went in and pretty soon I was talking to this girl and I bought her a cup of coffee. That left me with one thin dime. I had to borrow twenty cents from her to take her home and for my own subway fare. I was only sixteen, maybe less, because I lied about my age to get into the Coast Guard. I had a rough time getting up the nerve to ask her for a date. I was to get my paycheck the following week and promised to take her out on the town. Well, we had dinner at a fine restaurant and then went to a lot of nightclubs, all good places, like The Embers, and I was getting a big boot out of just sitting there over coffee and listening to a tinkling piano in the background. It was my first big date and it was just the way I’d always dreamed it would be, sharing a romantic, relaxed evening with a beautiful girl. Then she leaned across the table and said, “I don’t know how people can just sit around like this and talk. Let’s go someplace where there’s some life. Someplace where we can dance.”
“Sure,” I told her. To myself I said, “This girl has just flubbed the whole thing.”
It seems to be a little thing, but I like a girl who can be content with quiet rather than one who has to be chasing around, running away from herself all the time. Like I say, it’s what’s inside that really counts.
I’ve known girls who are naggers, whose voices tend to whine, and just having that kind of a thing on a date should steer any guy away from a lifetime of it. I’ve known some girls I liked very much but somehow I wasn’t able to get through to them. Our conversation was stilted and strange, and I sensed a wall around them. Sometimes I’ve thought perhaps I could help a girl like that to learn how to enjoy herself. After a few dates, if I can’t break down the reserve, I’ve given up.
Walt was always a little nonplussed at the fact that I went around with so many girls. For Walt it was girl friend No. 1, then girl friend No. 2, and then he got married. “My brother’s harem,” he used to snort, but our own ways have worked out fine for each of us. Walt got a wonderful wife, and I feel I’m a better guy for having known a variety of girls. They’ve given me the self-confidence I need in this business. Heavens knows I didn’t have it at first. On my first interview, when the reporter asked me to repeat my name, my mouth opened but no sound came out. When I took my first test I was half dead with fright. When I began to meet movie stars and get invitations to Hollywood parties I was petrified. But then I began to think that we’re all equal (Mom’s advice coming back to me) and if other people failed to be polite to me, all I could do was feel sorry for them. You must care for the complete character of the human being in this life.
It’s a little easier now, but I have so much to learn that it makes me dizzy to think of it. I’m in sort of a funny position in Hollywood. I’ve made four pictures but I’m not under contract to a studio. In these days studios aren’t rushing to sign up every new kid who comes along. I’ve been picked for a movie here and there, but in the meantime I’m on my own as far as learning about the business is concerned. Mom’s on my side—she’s happy as long as I’m interested in something and trying my best to make a go of it. And Walt is interested in my work in his own quiet way. Last time I saw him he grinned and said, “Saw you in Gun Belt, kid. How are you?” Which, from Walt, is the same as “Go to it!”
So here I am, on my own two feet, and learning a business that I love. I’m still surprised when somebody asks for my autograph and sometimes, when headwaiters bow and say “Good evening, Mr. Hunter,” I have to laugh inside. I say to myself, “Art Gelien, boy skater, lookit you!”
If I should ever hit the top the most important thing I’d have to learn is to keep my head out of the clouds. Already I see danger signs. Two years ago I wouldn’t even have hoped that I could take a girl to a lush Hollywood restaurant for dinner. Yet just the other night, when I took a girl to La Rue, she mentioned what a good dinner we’d had there last fall.
“Last fall?” I said. “I don’t remember being here with you before.”
And then I remembered. It had been a great evening, and I had been so concerned since with what I considered a big thing that I had forgot that evening—an evening which should be a big one in anybody’s book. I rapped myself on the head.
“What’s the matter?” said my date.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just teaching myself a lesson.”
And if I do hit the top, I’ll never forget that in great measure it’s the ladies who put me there. Not that any girls have taught me about acting, specifically. But we are all composites of those we have known and a lot of girls have, to put it in a corny phrase, made me what I am today.
I’ve known a lot of men who grumble about women, but as far as I’m concerned, bless ’em all!
—BY TAB HUNTER
(Tab Hunter can be seen now in UA’s Screaming Eagle.)
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE MARCH 1954