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The Truth About Van Johnson’s Health

The first thing Van Johnson did when he heard about it was to dash for a telephone and put in a call for a little town on the Rhode Island seaboard.

“Hey, that you, Dad?” he shouted. “Just in case you’d heard about it, I wanted to tell you the report of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”

“I kind of thought it might be,” said Van Johnson’s father. “I said I thought I’d have known about it. But I’m right glad to be able to reassure the neighbors. They have been real upset, another two-three days they’d have started bringing me calvesfoot jelly. You—you all right, son?”

“I’m all right,” Van Johnson said from Hollywood. “Don’t you worry about me, you promise me. I never was better.”

That, so far as Van Johnson was concerned, was what happened upon the day we got the first news of that mysterious rumor which declared he had died suddenly on the operating table. The first news Van himself got of the fantastic tale was when Gene Kelly, in town on a twenty-four-hour pass from the Navy, pounded wild-eyed and breathless into Johnson’s dressing room waving a telegram and demanding, “You aren’t dead or anything are you, feller? I just got a weepy wire from my wife full of condolences. You sure don’t look dead to me.”

Phone calls, wires, messages from every part of the United States poured in. Often enough, denials weren’t believed, people kept saying they were trying to hush the whole thing up though, as Van himself remarked, that seemed like kind of a smelly idea to him.

I was lunching at Romanoff’s with Lana Turner when somebody mentioned it, still in an inquiring tone of voice. “I had dinner with him last night,” Lana said emphatically, “about a dozen of us. He was looking extremely healthy then.” And when the inquirer had moved on, she said, “How do things like that get started? It’s sort of—well, disconcerting. I think it made Van feel rather strange. Does anybody know who started this particular rumor?”

I said nobody did. As a matter of fact, they aren’t started exactly. They seem to swim up out of what, I believe, the psychologists call the collective unconscious or some such thing. By spontaneous combustion.

“He was—quite all right last night?” I said.

“Now you see,” Lana said, “they’ve got you doing it yourself. We had a very pleasant evening—a little dinner party to welcome Jean Pierre Aumont back. Van was in what I can only describe as the best of spirits. I’ve worked with him and we’ve been friends for a long time and he was in the pink. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard him do any complaining about his health, except once in a while he gets a terrible headache and sometimes he gets sore when he can’t do something or other, like taking some violent exercise, and he feels bad sometimes because he can’t get into the service. But so far as I know he hasn’t anything wrong with him and he’s one of the gayest and most cheerful people to be around I’ve ever known. I just can’t imagine how such a thing got started because after all there he was—and is.”

Even now, nobody has been able to trace the source of this rumor. It reminded me that some years ago a similar one got started about Gloria Swanson, then at the very height of her fame. Finally the studio for which she worked had to hire the Astor ball room, invite all the newspapermen in New York, bring Miss Swanson on from the Coast and exhibit her in the then not-to-be-duplicated flesh before the public would believe that she was still among the living.

But this particular rumor, which so deeply disturbed the millions who love Van Johnson, is of a little p more serious nature and it seems to m me it ought to be dealt with in some m detail. It seems to me it springs from some general uneasiness and fear in the minds of the many who have found that gaiety and good cheer, of which Lana Turner spoke so affectionately, in his pictured roles. If people went around in a state of perpetual concern about the health of this young favorite it would seem to me extremely depressing for them—and even worse for him. It would give almost anybody a jittery feeling to know that while he felt quite well and was going about his business the general public might take it into its collective head to think he was dead.

For myself, I think it goes even deeper than that. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. I don’t think Van Johnson, who In the opinion of everybody around here s about as nice a guy as Hollywood has ever had in its midst, should live under any such cloud of fear.

Also, since they do love him, the public has a right to some reassurance in this matter. We all have enough legitimate worries in these days without thinking something might happen to someone we love when there is no cause to think that.

This was particularly strong in my thought because one night when I was coming out of a broadcast on which Van Johnson had appeared I saw about 5,000 people waiting in a crowd to get a glimpse of him, and as I looked at their faces I saw real affection and a sort of smiling friendliness that couldn’t help but touch your heart. Fathers were holding up little children, old ladies were shoving for a better view, service men were grinning and I was near enough in the crowd at the top of the steps to hear Van Johnson say in a breathless kind of voice, “It’s wonderful, of course, but I don’t know what it’s all about. I can’t understand why they feel that way.”

There isn’t ever any real explanation, I suppose. Perhaps it’s because he is the kind of idealized version of all the boys who are so far away—the sons and the sweethearts who are fighting overseas. Perhaps he fills the empty place in our hearts. But whether you can explain it or not, there it is and thank God for it, because it’s a good, clean thing and a heart-warmer in these cold and lonely days.

So I thought I would like to give you a report on Van Johnson’s health and then we can forget all about it.

Headquarters is where I was taught to start as a reporter, so I went to headquarters. To the doctor who saved Van Johnson’s life the night he had that terrible automobile accident, who has taken care of him ever since, and who is not only his physician but his friend, father confessor and spiritual guide as well.

Being a modest man as well as an extremely orthodox and rigidly ethical member of the medical profession, the doctor said he would give me the facts but it would be better if I didn’t use his name, didn’t I think so, because it was never a good idea for a doctor to appear in print except in the medical journals.

I explained that if you were physician to the Crown Prince of Hollywood you might as well get used to it and that even Lord Dawson of Penn, who besides being a shining light in the British medical world, had signed bulletins on the state of health of the King and Queen, because the public expected it. I couldn’t, I said—and I’m sure you will agree—give out a report on Van Johnson’s health anonymously and expect readers to believe it.

So. The doctor’s name is William E. Branch. Everybody in Hollywood knows Bill Branch because you cannot take care of such folks as Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner and Joan Crawford and stay under a bushel forever. As a matter of fact four or five people had already told me that Dr. Branch said to Keenan Wynn when he regained consciousness after his accident: “I am getting very tired of this. If you and Van cannot learn to drive and ride motorcycles I wish you would walk.”

I already had a pretty complete file on Van Johnson’s tragic accident, which was one of those accidents that happen all too frequently in the United States when kids (if Mr. Johnson will forgive me) drive cars. He hit something and something hit him and he cracked his head wide open and nearly died.

His guardian angel arrived, if a bit late, on the scene because when he collapsed he did it with his head against the curb stone, which kept the severed artery from bleeding. Also when the people who picked him up called the M-G-M lot, the M-G-M chief of police was right there and got him in an ambulance and to the hospital in record time where Dr. Branch put him back together. There was a hole in the front of his head and they patched that up with bone and muscles from his shoulder.

Naturally, the accident had a lot of publicity then and it had even more later when it had to be explained why such a husky youngster wasn’t in uniform. And that, I can’t help but feel, was back of this fantastic story that Van Johnson was dead. That pity and concern that he’d been so badly hurt and did a man ever quite get over that kind of an injury and all that.

The first question I asked Dr. Branch therefore was, “What’s the state of Van Johnson’s general health at this moment?”

“He’s in magnificent health,” Dr. Branch said. “In splendid general health. No reason why he shouldn’t be. Fine constitution.”

“Is he in any danger from the injury to his head in that automobile accident?” I asked.

“Not if he takes proper care of himself,” Dr. Branch said, “if he doesn’t overdo nor get over-heated or over-excited. I’ll try to explain it to you.”

He did, in complicated terms of which I understood only about one in three. But with the X-rays and all I finally got it down to facts you and I can understand. Like any injury, this one of Van’s has to have time to heal completely. Nature has already done most of it in her own inimitable and glorious fashion. Within a year, a year and a half, two years, it will be entirely healed and well. Meantime, like any other broken bone, too much strain and stress shouldn’t be put on it. No serious results would follow, but in battle, let’s say, or over-exercise, it might not hold. Sometimes he gets those headaches which Lana described, and that’s when he hasn’t followed instructions. Aside from that, he is normal and well and there isn’t anything to worry about.

“There isn’t anything more to be done for him medically,” Dr. Branch said, “no further operations, no treatment. Time is the only thing he needs to be 100% okay again—and he’s got plenty of that so I don’t see why anybody need be disturbed about him. Since they won’t have him in the armed forces, so far as I know he should live to be about 102.”

“Did the injury have an effect upon his brain at all?” I asked.

“Never touched the brain,” said Dr. Branch impatiently, “just the skull. Good thick skull, fortunately for him.”

There is the report from headquarters and if you knew Dr. William E. Branch as well as we do you would heave a long sigh of relief.

But I thought I might as well ask a few more questions around and about, so I talked to Vic Fleming, who directed him in “A Guy Named Joe” and to Mervyn LeRoy who did the very difficult and wearing scenes in “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Actually, all they had to say was that he was a kid it was a pleasure to work with. A very nice guy, they said.

A woman who knows him rather well said an interesting thing to me. There was another report, this time that Van had married a Chicago socialite secretly some months ago. This woman friend said, “I don’t think Van will ever marry secretly. He just isn’t that kind of a guy. I don’t believe he would marry any girl he wasn’t proud to marry, he’s rather an idealist about women, you know. His greatest ideal is Irene Dunne, as everybody knows. You can’t look any higher than that, can you? I know he hopes he won’t fall in love with an actress. You see, he wants a home—he’s very New England about that. And he doesn’t think a home is ever quite the same if a woman doesn’t stay in it and take care of it and love it as her first concern.

“That’s why he has never brought his father out here to live. They are closer than any father and son I ever saw. But his father is a New Englander, too, and Van says he would not like to live in California because he wouldn’t like to leave his own home where he has lived so many years.

“Besides,” she said, “Van says he likes to think of that home to go back to. He says it gives him a nice warm feeling inside to know that the home where he lived as a boy, where he and his father spent so much time together when he was young, is still right there.”

All those things in a town where people are not always inclined to give the guy on top the best of it made me glad that Van Johnson is in good health and is going to continue to be.

Made me think we ought always to send him the best thoughts we know how, strong thoughts, good thoughts, and prayers for his well being since he has created so much love in human hearts so badly in need of love. We oughtn’t ever to accept anything but the best kind of thoughts about him—or any other American boy if we can help it. It’s a lot more comfortable for everybody. And if thought has power it’s sort of an obligation to think well. Especially of those we love.





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