Thursday, January 10, 2013

How Jane Wyman Dealt With Tragedy

By Mary Claire Kendall

Jane Wyman (December 1953)
Photo credit: Wikipedia
In Hollywood, selling your soul is often the price of success.  Yet, occasionally—miraculously—the healing light of faith intervenes as in the case of Jane Wyman, born 96 years ago on today.

From childhood, Wyman, orphaned at age 4, was very quiet, prompting Marlene Dietrich, her co-star in Stage Fright (1950), to tell her to “get noticed.”

She finally did—in a film career that spanned 60 years.

Johnny Belinda (1948), in which she gave an Oscar-winning performance, transforming herself into a deaf mute teen, is often cited as the pinnacle of her career. 

But, as her long-time friend Virginia Zamboni told me, her favorite film was The Blue Veil (1951), which earned her another Best Actor Oscar nomination—for a total of four also including The Yearling (1946).

Filmed in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, The Blue Veil “hit her in the face, said Zamboni.   Wyman had been attending mass with her friend Loretta Young at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills in the wake of her 1948 divorce and death, a year prior, of her second baby with husband and future president Ronald Reagan.  She nursed a deep wound over the loss of her beloved Christina shortly after her birth in 1947. As son Michael Reagan wrote in his book, Twice Adopted, “It probably was the most painful experience of her life, and I don’t think she ever truly recovered from it.”

The Blue Veil was ironically premised on the protagonist’s loss of her newborn son

As she soaked in the spiritual grandeur of St. Patrick’s during filming, she began to understand that her life’s triumph and tragedy had a deeper purpose.  And, on December 8, 1954, along with her children, Maureen and Michael, she was received into the Catholic Church.

Tragedy had visited early.  Born Sarah Jane Mayfield on January 5, 1917 in St. Joseph, Missouri, her parents were divorced by 1921. A year later, her father died and she was left with middle-aged neighbors.  But, her “adoptive” parents led dull lives, impelling her to fix her sights with steely determination on glittering showbiz, where her talents flowed.  After years of playing bit parts, starting in The Kid from Spain (1932), she finally got her big break in The Lost Weekend (1945) as the empathetic fiancée of an alcoholic writer, leading to greater dramatic roles and her stunning Oscar-winning performance in Johnny Belinda.

I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut. I think Ill do it again, she said in the shortest Oscar acceptance speech ever.  She could have been talking about her life characterized by a quiet reserve cultivated in childhood.

But, her actions spoke loudly. 

“She was certainly long on style,” Fr. Howard Lincoln of Sacred Heart in Palm Desert, California told me.  “But she was much deeper and much longer in substance.” 

“She was the antithesis of Sunset Boulevard and Norma Desmond”—that aging silent film star, who lives in the past, craving a “return, Fr. Lincoln said.

After her illustrious film career was over—her last film was How to Commit Marriage (1969) with Bob Hope—she tucked away her Oscars in her den and focused on the present, giving generously of her time, money and talent to the Church, especially Sacred Heart in Palm Desert, and The Arthritis Foundation.

 “I had never seen a $100,000 check,” Fr. Lincoln told me, “until I saw one… signed by Jane Wyman” to finance cushioned pews, state-of-the-art sound system and a chapel for nearby seminarians.  She also supported Hollywood’s Covenant House and Our Lady of Angels Monastery, run by the Dominican Sisters.  She herself was a Third Order Dominican, buried, wearing the habit, in a simple pine coffin. She died at her home in Rancho Mirage, California on September 10, 2007 at the ripe old age of 90.

“She was not afraid to die,” said Fr. Lincoln, because she knew her life would be “changed… “infinitely for the better.” One day, he said, “we’re talking about dying and she’s smoking cigarette after cigarette. Yet, by her bed” besides the ashtray “would also be a rosary and prayer books.  So this was a holy lady.”

She was also one heck of an actress. But, then, far from being incompatible, the two actually work synergistically.

As testament to her gold-plated soul, she was very loyal and discreet, purposely never writing an autobiography about her life, including details of her marriage with Ronald Reagan, Zamboni said.

And, she was a great mother.  As her son Michael said in his moving eulogy at her funeral, when he begged her for a bike at age 13, she agreed to buy it, only if he would work to pay her back, telling him, “I build men… (not) boys.”

What a class act!

This article by Mary Claire Kendall about Jane Wyman was published in Forbes on January 5, 2013. She  initially wrote this story for Our Sunday Visitor shortly after Wyman’s death in 2007.