There’ll Be Some Changes Made—Charlton Heston & Lydia Clarke
Charlton Heston’s smile was slow in coming. It was half-confession, half-pride. “When Lydia first told me, I just couldn’t believe it. It just didn’t seem possible that after nearly eleven years of marriage, we were going to have a child,” he finally said as we sat across a table, lunching together. “I was plain shocked. I never thought I’d be so overwhelmed by the idea of fatherhood. Instead of clasping Lydia in my arms and telling her in my most soothing voice that I’d love, cherish and protect both of them forever, that while waiting for the baby, I’d make her life a solid bed of roses, it was Lydia who was holding my hand, reassuring me I could do it. Telling me how wonderful I was. For suddenly, after years of being only Chuck Heston, actor and husband, I was slated for a more important new role, father. You have to admit, after eleven years it takes a little time to adjust.
“As Lydia and I move over to make room for the third member of our family, our big problem still remains: Just how can we best adjust our lives for the good of our child? And what will these adjustments mean to our careers? For it’s quite obvious that some changes will have to be made and that what we want most of all—our baby—is also going to upset every pattern that we loved and established in our years together.
“For instance,” Chuck seriously added. “I would like my child to grow up in the timberlands, as I did. And I know from my own case that a small town and the great clean outdoors make for a healthy childhood environment. I dislike the idea of my son growing up in a city. Yet how can Lydia and I manage it otherwise? Suppose, even, that we were to go back to live with the boy in Michigan? Then what happens to our home life—not to mention our careers?”
Now when Chuck refers to “our careers,” he’s ‘not merely arranging grammar. “Our careers” is exactly what he means. It is his career and Lydia’s career, one career and yet two —his almost entirely on screen now, hers almost entirely on stage. It keeps them separated more than it keeps them together. It makes for romance with these two.
“We have another problem. It’s crazy. After much ticklish rearranging of our schedules, Lydia and I finally worked it out so that we both could go on a location trip together. We have always wanted to see Egypt and here was our opportunity. Cecil B. DeMille is soon filming ‘The Ten Commandments’ in Egypt. And in my role as Moses, I will be able to visit the spots where the young Moses is believed to have been born and the place where he started the tribes of Israel out toward their promised land.
“Now we can’t take the chance of our baby coming ahead of schedule and arriving in a land where we won’t know a single doctor. That means I’ll have to go alone and leave Lydia here alone.”
“Lydia was alone during the war,” I said.
“Yes. And maybe, now that I come to think of it, that set the pattern of our marriage. As you know, I’d courted Lydia from the very first day I met her at Northwestern University, where we were both drama students. Lydia was everything I was not: lively, social, alert and popular. She tells me now that the first time I managed a date with her, she reported to her friend, ‘I’ve just been out with the wildest man on the campus.’
“That was true, too. Until I went to the University, most of my schooling had been in a one-room schoolhouse in the backwoods where the ink froze in our inkwells during the winter and our boots steamed from melting snow. I was never conscious of a single girl in any of my classes. I avoided the boys as much as I could. I wouldn’t have been conscious of them, either, except that they always beat me up.”
Chuck caught my bewildered look. “I was the runt of the class,” he explained. “Out on my grandfather’s twelve hundred acres in Michigan my thinness and shortness didn’t matter. My grandfather had pioneered that land. Now I own it, and my children will inherit it. The lake that is on it is called Russell Lake—after my father.
“I wasn’t an only child, but I might just as well have been because next to me there was my sister Lilla, a girl, mind you, and four years younger. When you are a boy of eight or ten there can be nothing quite so humiliating as playing with a girl who is merely four or six and your sister at that. I have a younger brother, too, but he was always too young to figure in my scheme of things. So I ignored them both, prowled by myself.
“I’d heard pioneering stories from my grandfather. I was very close to my father. When I was barely old enough to hold a gun, he taught me how to shoot. In school I wasn’t ahead of my grades. We had a lot of books on the farm and Id read all the ones that were fiction. I was forever acting them out for the chickens and the cattle, but I wasn’t any outstanding brain at school. I was just smaller and thinner, that was all.
“When, finally, my family moved to Winnetka, Illinois, and I enrolled in the New Trier High School, I suddenly began growing. I shot up eight inches in one year. My shoulders broadened. I’d never been really sick one day in my life, and I still haven’t. But the day I was able to go out and try for the football team was the first day I had any sense of being free. It was like coming out of prison to know I couldn’t be pushed around any more, that I was strong enough to fight back.”
Chuck stopped, his steak finished, and attacked a salad nearly as large. “I’ll be glad if my son follows this pattern, too,” he said. “If he’s just born big and keeps on being bigger, he will never know the psychology of the small man, what it means to be helpless, what it means to have to accept certain disagreeable facts because there is nothing you can do about them. Now I am a lot bigger than average, but I will always know what it means to be a lot smaller.”
He laughed suddenly. The sound echoed around the room, and all the women in the place who had been watching him from beneath their eyelashes now looked up openly and smiled.
“Saying that reminded me of my father,” he said, “and the time I had been reading ‘David Copperfield’ or something like that. At any rate, it had inspired me to run away from home to seek my fortune. I did it in the classic manner, also. I got a pole to put over my shoulder. I took a bandanna and put a few treasures in it, tied it on the pole and was just striding manfully out when I saw my father coming toward me, coming home from work.
“I couldn’t make a run for it, so I put on my best soldier-of-fortune manner and told him I was leaving forever. My father said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that, son. Aren’t you happy here?’
“That wasn’t what he was supposed to say, of course, but I let him gather I wasn’t. I told him there was no use in his trying to stop me. I was going. He’d never see me again.
“ ‘Well,’ my father said, ‘If that’s the way it is, I guess I can’t stand in your way, so goodbye, son.’
“I didn’t want him to take it that well, either. So there I was, stuck with it. I hiked on. And on. It got dark and cold and I got cold and hungry. Finally I turned around and crept back home, into the house. My parents were very nice about it. Nobody mentioned anything. But I’ve been quite careful since then not to make idle threats, and I guess it was then that I began to realize that I had been merely acting, that I was always acting—but that it could be carried too far.”
Chuck was ten years old then. The year was 1934 and there was a depression on, but he didn’t know it. And it was the depression years that kept him from being raised as a city boy, for he actually was born one—in Evanston, Illinois, on October 4th, 1924. But, of course, the bottom fell out of American prosperity, as well as out of many of his father’s enterprises, by the time he was five, which was why the family so often went back to his grandfather’s acres, They were land-poor. They were often glad that hunting was both a sport and a means of obtaining food, and to Chuck the silence of the woods was friendly. He made friends with the chickens on the farm and the small animals that were wild among the trees. He fell in love
with sunsets and sunrises and ate wild berries, and knew the difference at a glance between edible mushrooms and dangerous toadstools.
By 1938, however, the family fortunes were upbeat again, as our whole country was. The Hestons moved to Winnetka. Charlton enrolled in the New Trier High School.
“As far as I know, it’s the only public high school in this country that has a complete drama course,” Chuck said, reliving it again at lunch. “I hope my son will find some such life-saver in some school he attends some time. I hurled myself into that course, and we did everything. We painted scenery, we learned lighting, we were ushers and leading men, both at the same time. We swept the stage and studied Shakespeare. I realized there that it was all I wanted to do all my life.
“Of course I had to get through my other studies and I did, but I was conscious of them only as they applied to the drama course. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a girl. And I didn’t miss any of it. I had acting.”
Chuck sat back, silent and startled at my insistence that somewhere in his life before he met Lydia Clarke there must have been a girl, one girl at least who’d stood out to him in grammar or high school or on Coke dates or something.
“But there wasn’t,” he said, finally, obviously searching his mind with complete honesty as he does in response to any old question you throw at him. On this occasion you could see that he was remembering deeply, going far back into his teens, and then suddenly, he swung that magnificent, craggy face of his toward me and said, “Do you know something? You just made me realize that except for interviews like this I’ve never talked to any woman who isn’t an actress, and except for Lydia, I’ve rarely talked to any actress except in rehearsal. In other words, until I met Lydia, all girls were just parts of a show to me, a necessary part of drama, a kind of framework for my dreams.
“Only Lydia became the dream—and only she could bring me out of my dream into the reality of having to fight for her attention.”
Actually it was the other way ’round, even if Chuck doesn’t realize it to this day. It was she, as serious a drama student as he was—even as solemn—who brought herself to his attention by asking him how to interpret a line in a play which they were doing for a class in interpretation.
It was a foolish question. It was a foolish line, and there was no way it could possibly be read except straight—a throwaway line, as actors call it—thrown away so that no one will notice it. But tall, awkward, owl-eyed Charlton Heston was immediately charmed that the slim, worldly, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl should be so sincere regarding drama that she wouldn’t even permit a foolish line to be fluffed off. And the fact that she was sincere was affirmed immediately thereafter when she spurned every date he suggested—he who had never thought about dating a girl before. She didn’t want to get married, Lydia told him. She had no time for love, less for flirtation. She had only the drama of acting.
She couldn’t have charmed him more. Chuck was working his way through Northwestern by acting as elevator man at night in an apartment house in nearby Chicago. This meant he got virtually no sleep. He could afford virtually no food. But there were from that moment two burning ambitions to highlight his life—the conquest of acting and the winning of Lydia—and they rated in about that order.
Lydia wasn’t as poor as he. She’s never been as poor as Chuck has been, that is, until after the war when they were wildly poor together, when they were Mr. and Mrs. Heston and he came back from two years on the most desolate island of the desolate Aleutians and couldn’t get a look-in at theatre, TV, radio, movies, anything.
Nevertheless, in those college days, Lydia was amplifying her income a little by working in the college cafeteria. And this. charmed Chuck even more. Here was a living girl who was worthy to be queen to those kings he had been back on his grandfather’s farm. Here was the charmer who had inspired the adventurers he had been, at eight and nine and ten, sailing the seas (while firmly seated on the ground by one of Grandpa’s trees), wearing furs which he had trapped for her (and he really had trapped muskrats and beaver on the farm, but they were for selling—twenty-five to fifty cents apiece when the market was right).
Charlton Heston began coming out of his dreams, because of Lydia Clarke, and looking upon the world with different, appraising eyes. The more she refused his dates, the more he appraised the other boys whom he occasionally saw her dating, and by this observation he began to see what was wrong with his own personality and appearance.
Lydia will tell you now, “The first time I did have a date with Chuck, he told me it was the first he’d ever had with a girl, and I told my best girl friend the next morning that he certainly looked it. Instead of sitting in a chair, he enveloped it, and instead of talking, he orated, using the most elegant words in the English language.” Incidentally, Charlton still has a tendency this way, to which his best friends, Jan Sterling and Paul Douglas, will testify any time. It comes as a result of his reading every classic book he can lay hands upon.
Chuck has the inborn caution of the woodsman who thoroughly examines everything before he gets into danger through being impetuous. He was even a slow starter in pictures when Hal Wallis brought him to Hollywood for “The Dark City.” He was good in “The Dark City,” but not much more, because he didn’t know the medium of picture-acting. Watch his steady climb, however, through “The President’s Lady” up to the recent “Naked Jungle” and you see the growth in him. DeMille, who knows acting, says he is nothing less than superb as Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”
What Chuck himself says is “There’s so little time to learn all you have to know about acting. That is why I never stop. People ask me why between pictures I hop to Bermuda or Phoenix or wherever it is to do some play. That’s because I want to keep on learning. I want to play Macbeth. I’ve studied that one role for years. I figure it will be another five years at least before I’m remotely ready to play it adequately.”
Slow though he may be, however, once he starts on a thing, he never gives up. As he did not on the courtship of Lydia Clarke, who didn’t want to be bothered with him, or love.
The Army clapped him into uniform the day he got out of college. He was sent on to a camp in Greensboro, North Carolina, so he had to keep up his pursuit of Lydia by correspondence. He wrote her, finally, that the scuttlebutt was that his company was being shipped out. From the tropical issue they were being given, they assumed it was North Africa, Italy or some such. He implied he might soon die, and he asked his persistent question. Would she marry him?
Lydia wired him. It wasn’t the most romantic telegram in the world, but it sent him into romantic transports. “I have decided to accept your proposal,” it said.
It was springtime in North Carolina, and he chose the date March 17th—March 17th, 1944—“So I would never forget it,” he said. He began planning wildly, seven ways at once, not able to believe the happiness that had come to him.
The Hestons had two weeks, and then the scuttlebutt turned out wrong, like most scuttlebutt, and Chuck found himself with his tropical outfit in the Aleutians, and he remained there two solid years.
“I wrote Lydia every day,” Chuck told me at lunch. “I thought about her constantly. And I read. I read anything and everything. We were supposed to be a flying station, but we seldom flew. All I wanted was to get back to my wife.”
At last the war was over. Finally Charlton Heston was out of uniform, back to his wife, back to Chicago, where Lydia was making a very meagre living as a model. She did have a room, and abashed at his own helplessness, he moved into it. She had $6 left, weekly, after she paid the rent. He had some savings after he got out of service, but gradually they disappeared. He was living on his wife’s earnings and they were both hungry.
“It never stopped,” Chuck told me, finishing his huge, luncheon salad. “It never stopped, that frustration, loneliness an grinding misery of trying to break into show business, of seeing other actors getting parts that you knew you could do better. Every day I went out looking for work. I stayed out all day. I went everywhere and I would have taken anything. And every night I came back with the same story—nothing.
“No woman could have been more wonderful than Lydia. We went to New York, trying Broadway. It was the same story. She could get some work modeling, but I could get nothing. And then finally one break came. We could go to Asheville, N. C., as co-directors and leads in the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre, acting and directing a series of repertory plays.
“Of course we grabbed it, not alone for the opportunity but for the regular eating, the regular income. And for the first few months, nothing could have been more charming. It’s a delightful town, Asheville, with a delightful way of life. The people in the company were delightful, too. In fact, that was the matter with it. They asked us to stay on indefinitely, and it seemed wonderful to be so secure, so assured. Only Lydia said, ‘Chuck, we are succumbing,’ and wretchedly I looked at her and agreed. We were almost ready to sacrifice every one of our ideals for a pleasant home and steak every night.
“So back we went to Broadway, back to the frustration and hunger. I know now we couldn’t have done that if we’d been ‘the three Hestons’ rather than the two. But we were back at least to believing in acting as an artistic force, not merely as a means of making a living.”
That was when Chuck and Lydia got the cold-water flat, which up until recently they retained. That’s when they had wonderful moments that only two people so in love can have. They understand each other’s mood so well that nothing seems strange to them. Like the Christmas when they would barely eat, when Chuck spent almost their last dime on a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph. They needed that like they needed an extra landlord, but Lydia understood why Chuck bought it. It was a lithograph of Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest actress of them all. He thought it was beautiful—and Lydia never bothered to point out that is probably why he bought it—not because it was a Lautrec.
Yet finally, after plays that opened and closed too fast, after TV shows sweated over that not many important people saw, the break came, as it always will to people who just won’t be licked. Lydia was in Chicago in “Detective Story,” when Chuck in New York got the call from Hal Wallis which brought him to Hollywood. And as has been printed many times, they met in Grand Central Station, the first time they had been together in eighteen months. She was just coming back. He was heading for Hollywood. They had one hour together. So they just stayed right there in the station, talking, holding hands, understanding one another.
“It clears away a lot of worry if you figure Chicago is just three hours by plane from New York, nine hours from Hollywood. Lydia and I have always been able to think that way,” Chuck said. “That was the ‘why’ of our keeping that flat in New York. We were sentimental over it, and we knew we could afford it, too. We knew, to an hour, whenever either of us got free how soon we could get there, how long we’d have together. That was also the ‘why’ of the modest place we took in Hollywood. I didn’t want anything pretentious without Lydia, or she without me.
“Then, when it turned out that Lydia seemed so often to get into Chicago runs of plays, we took the third flat, there. But now—with our son . . .” He paused, wordless, back where we started from.
“What if he’s a daughter?” I asked.
Chuck sat back, laughter in his eyes. “Now how’s that possible?” he said. “He has to be a son because DeMille has already promised him the role of the infant Moses—the one found in the bulrushes, of course—if he is. And furthermore, I feel he’s already launched in the profession, having played more than a hundred performances in ‘The Seven Year Itch’ before Lydia was positive that he was with us ”
“Yes, but just suppose he is a she,” I persisted.
His rugged face softened, and he was suddenly about as handsome a man as anybody could hope to see.
“If he’s a she, and looks like Lydia,” he said, “then I’m prepared to adore her.”
—BY RUTH WATERBURY
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE DECEMBER 1954