During Hollywood's Golden Age, it was not uncommon for film studios to emphasize the romantic appeal of their actors. Moreover, the movie press sold papers relating which actor was dating which actress, where they dined and what clubs they frequented. Warner Bros. contract player Ronald Reagan understandably received his fair share of coverage, much of it courtesy of Louella Parsons, a prominent gossip columnist from Dixon, Illinois, where Ronnie grew up after his parents moved there in 1920. She took a liking to Reagan, with whom she appeared in his second film, Hollywood Hotel (1937), based on Parsons' own radio show of the same name.
|LEFT: Portrait of Louella Parsons c. 1941. MIDDLE: Original theatrical release poster for Hollywood Hotel. RIGHT: Portrait of Ronald Reagan c. 1938.|
The tenth film Ronnie worked on was William Keighley's Brother Rat (1938), a B comedy set at the Virginia Military Institute — the title taken from the vernacular word for cadet. The picture featured Priscilla Lane, Wayne Morris, Eddie Albert (in his motion picture debut) and a young actress by the name of Jane Wyman. Ronnie played Dan Crawford, a charming cadet who falls in love with Claire Adams (Wyman), the bookworm daughter of the institute's commandant.
Parsons considered matchmaking «part of the mythmaking of Hollywood,» so when Ronnie and Jane appeared together in Brother Rat, she naturally publicized a budding romance. As it turned out, love truly was blossoming between the two young stars.
Ronnie had formed no serious attachments since parting with his high school sweetheart, Margaret Cleaver, after graduating from Eureka College in 1932. But he was almost immediately attracted to the beautiful Jane. Even if he did not know that she was a Midwesterner like him, he felt that there was a «refreshingly non-Hollywood» quality about her; she was serious about her craft, but not desperate for publicity. She may not have been the kind of girl who «conjured up images of Labor Day picnics, church socials and canned peaches,» but she was still completely different from all the «tinsel queens» he had met since arriving in Hollywood in 1937.
For her part, Jane was initially indifferent towards Ronnie. Although she was only 21 years old, she was already in the midst of a second divorce after being briefly married to middle-aged businessman Myron Futterman. Her unacknowledged first marriage had been to salesman Eugene Wyman, whom she wedded at the young age of 16. That union did not last, but the name did; it was as Jane Wyman that she had made her way to Hollywood, where she signed a contract with Warner Bros. a year before Ronnie arrived in Los Angeles.
|LEFT: Studio portrait of Jane Wyman c. 1938. RIGHT: Jane Wyman at her divorce trial from Myron Futterman (December 1938).|
Considering the recent turmoil in her love life, Jane was not exactly in the mood to initiate a new romance when she met Ronnie. However, as production on Brother Rat progressed, she became attracted to his steady and good-natured personality, which was a complete contrast to her own insecure and impulsive disposition. She found his optimism and trust in people infectious, while her youth and vulnerability fascinated him. It was apparently Jane who initiated the courtship, and Ronnie obviously offered little resistance.
Their romance continued through the making of Brother Rat and a Baby (1940), shot in October 1939. It was during this time that Ronnie proposed. «We were about to be called for a take,» Jane later recalled. «Ronnie simply turned to me as if the idea was brand new and had just hit him and said, 'Jane, why don't we get married?' I couldn't think of any reason why we shouldn't [...] I was just about to say a definite yes when we were called before the cameras. In trying to step down off my own personal cloud, I managed to muff a few lines and toss in a whispered 'Yes' after the director said 'Cut!'»
|Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman in Brother Rat and a Baby.|
Naturally, the publicity department at Warner Bros. played the young couple's romance to the hilt, announcing that the «athletic» Reagan had been «wooing the blonde Miss Wyman» and given her a ring with a 52-carat amethyst (her birthstone).
Parsons, too, became almost a cheerleader for their relationship. After breaking the news of their engagement in late 1939, she invited the young couple (along with several other young performers) on a national promotional tour called Hollywood Stars of 1940 on Parade, which started in Santa Barbara and covered San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Chicago. Maureen Reagan, Ronnie and Jane's first child, later remembered that Parsons was «pretty much a fixture in our household during the early years of my childhood.»
|Jane and Ronnie obtaining a marriage licence (January 21, 1940).|
Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman's wedding took place in a chapel in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, north of Los Angeles, on January 26, 1940, with Parsons hosting the reception. A few years later, Jane told an interviewer that until she met Reagan, she had never been able to entrust her feelings to anyone. She had hardly known her father and had very little experience of a stable home. (After her father died unexpectedly when Jane was just five years old, her mother had put her up for adoption.) Six years her elder, Ronnie was able to provide her with the emotional assurance that she so desperately needed. «He was such a sunny person [...] genuinely and spontaneously nice.» She could not stress enough what his love did for her. «Marrying Ronnie worked a miracle for me,» she said unequivocally.
Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman on their wedding day.
Following Ronnie and Jane's wedding, the studio's publicity department actively exploited the fact that it was one of the few marriages at that time between a pair of relatively important actors. Hundreds of fan magazines portrayed them as Hollywood's «perfect couple,» a title which the American public seemed to thoroughly agree with.
The couple tried to establish as traditional a marriage as possible, despite the relentless publicity created around them. Jane regarded her husband as more mature and wise than she was; she deferred to him on important issues, while he left the «feminine-frivolous» household matters for her to handle within the budget he had set up for her. However, Jane was quicker and tougher than Ronnie, possessing «street smarts» he did not have. Ronnie treated her as «cute and mercurial,» which she resented. Friend June Allyson, then married to former Warner Bros. contract player Dick Powell, a committed Republican (Reagan was still a Democrat), later recalled that she and Jane used to spend hours listening to their husbands argue over politics. Jane told her, «Don't ask Ronnie what time it is because he will tell you how a watch is made.»
|LEFT: Ronnie and Jane during their honeymoon at El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs. RIGHT: Ronnie and Jane having a picnic in the early days of their marriage.|
A couple of weeks after their nuptials, the Reagans were cast as husband and wife in yet another B comedy, An Angel from Texas (1940), which reunited them with former co-stars Wayne Morris and Eddie Albert. By the time they started filming Tugboat Annie Sails Again (1940), in June 1940, Jane was already pregnant with their first child. Daughter Maureen Elizabeth Reagan was finally born on January 4, 1941 to two overjoyed parents. At the same time, Hollywood was involved in a campaign to clean up its moral image; after Maureen's birth, Jane and Ronnie were even more suited to the role of «perfect couple.»
|LEFT: Ronnie and Jane in An Angel from Texas. MIDDLE: Ronnie and Jane in Tugboat Annie Sails Again. RIGHT: Ronnie and Jane with their baby daughter Maureen.|
In April 1942, two months after delivering a critically acclaimed performance as a double amputee in Sam Wood's Kings Row (1942), Reagan was drafted. Because of his poor eyesight, he was eligible for «limited service» only, which excluded him from serving overseas. Instead, he was assigned to work under studio chief Jack Warner, who had become a Lieutenant Colonel in the newly created First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Forces.
As a Second Lieutenant, Reagan was stationed at Fort Roach, formerly the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, where he acted in and narrated several propaganda films used for recruitment, training and public relations. One of such movies, Beyond the Line of Duty (1942), won the Oscar for Best Short Subject at the 15th Academy Awards ceremony.
|Ronnie with Jane and Maureen on his way to assume active duty (April 18, 1942).|
As expected, Jane and Ronnie became «propaganda commodities» themselves. They attended several Hollywood social events together and appeared in one so-called «morale-booster» each — Ronnie in This is the Army (1943) and Jane in the star-studded Hollywood Canteen (1944), the latter paying tribute to the eponymous historic club on Cahuenga Boulevard created by Warner Bros. contract players Bette Davis and John Garfield to provide free entertainment to service men and women of all Allied nations.
In Hollywood Canteen, a corporal on leave (played by Robert Hutton) wanders into the club, hoping to catch a glimpse of his dream girl, Joan Leslie. Jack Carson befriends the lovesick corporal and jokingly remarks that he has been «Leslieized.» Jane, who had just performed a musical number with Carson, interjects, «Stop. I've been Reaganized!»
|LEFT: Ronald Reagan and Joan Leslie in This is the Army. RIGHT: Jane Wyman and Jack Carson performing their musical number in Hollywood Canteen.|
For the past few years, Warner Bros. had been depicting Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman as examples of respectable and hardworking young members of the film community. Now that Hollywood's «perfect couple» had become part of the war effort, Reagan was portrayed by the press as «patriotically giving up his career to serve his country, while Wyman bravely faced life alone and stoically endured her fear that her loved one was in danger.» During World War II, the Reagans' fan magazine coverage — by writers overlooking the fact that Ronnie was working only a few miles away from home — was virtually unprecedented in film history.
In March 1945, about six months before Ronnie was discharged from the Army Air Forces, the couple adopted a baby boy, Michael Edward Reagan, the biological son of Irene Flaugher, an unmarried woman from Kentucky, and an Army corporal named John Bourgholtzer.
Jane and Ronnie at a screening at Grauman's Chinese Theatre c. 1944.
MIDDLE: Jane and Ronnie at the Café Trocadero in 1944. RIGHT: The Reagan family in 1945.|
By the time Ronnie was discharged as a Captain in September 1945, his screen career had lost momentum. Among those who had overtaken him was his own wife, whose first «serious» role, that of Ray Milland's love interest in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), had earned her a great deal of recognition for her acting ability, after years of playing «dumb-blonde» parts. She next fought for and landed a co-starring role alongside Gregory Peck in The Yearling (1946), which brought her the first of four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress.
As his film career faltered, Reagan dedicated himself to other ventures. In September 1946, he became third vice-president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which he had joined in 1941. When the Guild adopted a bylaw stating that «no actor or actress who becomes a motion picture producer or director, and who [...] is found to have primarily and continually the interest of an employer, rather than that of an actor, shall hold office in the Screen Actors Guild,» President Robert Montgomery and six board members resigned. A secret vote in March 1947 saw Reagan elected as the new President. He served during six turbulent years marked by such issues as the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) strikes, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, the Hollywood blacklist and the end of the studio system.
Before Hollywood was caught in the midst of an anti-Communist crusade, Reagan's name had appeared in an internal Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) memo listing people in the industry who «have records of Communist activity and sympathies.» Once he became President of the Guild, however, he began to demonstrate a change in his political liberal views. He and Wyman, a SAG board member since 1942, contacted the FBI and requested an interview, stating that they might provide «information regarding the activities of some members of the Guild who they suspected were carrying on Communist Party work.» Their report may have contributed to the blacklisting of some of their colleagues during the HUAC hearings in October 1947.
|LEFT: Reagan testifying before the HUAC in October 1947. RIGHT: A contingent of film stars arriving in Washington, D.C. to protest against the HUAC hearings.|
Meanwhile, Jane became pregnant again and Ronnie fell seriously ill with viral pneumonia. On June 26, 1947, while he was fighting for his life at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, Jane gave birth to a baby girl, Christine, who was four months premature and died the same day. Neither wanted to face the unhappiness of losing a child; Reagan immersed himself further in Hollywood politics, while Wyman plunged into another challenging role, playing a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda (1948), for which she later won an Oscar without speaking a single line of dialogue.
According to Reagan's second wife, Nancy, in an account undoubtedly based on what Ronnie related to her, he arrived home one afternoon in late 1947 and was told to «get out» by Jane; their marriage was over. She had grown bored with the politics of the industry, which fascinated him. As for the politics of the nation, which were claiming more and more of his interest, she considered them even more tedious. Jane said she found it «exasperating to awake in the middle of the night, prepare for work, and have someone at the breakfast table, newspaper in hand, expounding.» They officially separated early in 1948. Ronnie was not prepared for the break-up; he moved out and agreed to a divorce, but Jane's abandonment wounded him deeply.
|Reagan and Wyman preparing for their appearance at CBS's Lux Radio Theatre on November 17, 1947, in an adaptation of the film Nobody Lives Forever (1946).|
Patricia Neal, Reagan's co-star in John Loves Mary (1949) and The Hasty Heart (1949), encountered him at a Hollywood social gathering and thought she had never seen a man so glum. The separation had just been announced. «It was sad because he did not want a divorce,» Neal later recalled. «I remember he went outside. And an older woman went with him. He cried.» Not knowing what else to do, Ronnie continued working. Eddie Bracken, who appeared with him in The Girl from Jones Beach (1949), said that he was «a lonely guy.» He was surprised when Reagan ignored the beautiful women around him. «He was never for sexpots,» Bracken explained. «He was never a guy looking for the bed. He was a guy looking for companionship more than anything else.»
|LEFT: Ronnie and Jane c. 1945. MIDDLE: The Reagan family c. 1946. RIGHT: Ronnie and Jane at a Hollywood formal event in July 1946.|
The Wyman-Reagan divorce became final in 1949. Jane stated during the courtroom proceedings that she had become increasingly frustrated with Ronnie's emotional detachment until «finally there was nothing in common between us, nothing to sustain our marriage.» Although he soon found love and companionship in Nancy Davis, Ronnie would remain forever guarded about his first marriage, «bearing scars that recalled the wound.» Ronnie and Nancy were married in March 1952 and later co-starred in Hellcats of the Navy (1957).
Thirty years after his divorce from Wyman, Reagan was still evading the matter. In an interview after the 1980 election, he was asked if he had changed the image of the presidency by becoming the first divorced man to hold the office. «No,» he replied. «Adlai Stevenson had been divorced, and I don't think that is why he wasn't elected. I've never talked about this, but it's true: I was divorced in the sense that the decision was made by someone else.»
An article entitled «Those Fightin' Reagans,» written by Gladys Hall for Photoplay magazine in February 1948, reported the following about the state of affairs in the Reagan household:
[...] Jane last autumn was visibly unhappy; was nervous; was irritable — many times in public — with Ronnie. But Ronnie was cajoling, always very easy with Jane, and very sweet. Always in there, trying. «Please remember,» he told us, «that Jane went through a very bad time when, after the strain of waiting for another baby, she lost it. Then, perhaps she was strong enough, she went into Johnny Belinda. It was a taxing, difficult role. Perhaps, too, my seriousness about public affairs has bored Jane,» he added slowly. «But you must believe me when I say that, less than six weeks before Jane left for New York, we were happy enough for her to tell me, 'I hope it can always be like this between us.' I hope so, too.» Ronnie said, with an earnestness you could reach out and touch, «Because I believe we belong together.»
|LEFT: Ronnie and Jane c. 1939. MIDDLE: Ronnie and Jane in the early days of their marriage. RIGHT: Ronnie and Jane c. 1941.|
In his biography of Jane Wyman, Lawrence J. Quirk shared a prescient anecdote related to him by actress/singer Joy Hodges — who had helped launch Ronnie's film career by convincing him to «ditch the glasses» — regarding the collapse of the Reagan-Wyman marriage. Hodges told Quirk, «Jane said one prophetic thing to me [...] a short time before the announcement of their breakup. I said I was aware that she and Dutch [Reagan's nickname] did not seem to happy during their last trip to New York, and she replied, 'Well, if he is going to be President, he is going to get there without me.'» As it turned out, he did.
This post is my contribution to The Star-Studded Couple Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. To view all entries, click HERE.
Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan by William E. Pemberton (Rutledge, 2015)
President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime by Lou Cannon (Simon & Schuster, 2000)
Reagan: The Life by H. W. Brands (Doubleday, 2015)
Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader by Dinesh D'Souza (Simon & Schuster, 1999)
Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics by Stephen Vaughn (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Ronald Reagan: The American Presidents Series by Jacob Weisberg (Henry Holt and Company, 2016)
The Politics of Glamour: Ideology and Democracy in the Screen Actors Guild by David F. Prindle (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012)
The President's Ladies: Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis by Bernard F. Dick (University Press of Mississippi, 2014)
TCM's article on Brother Rat and a Baby
TCM's article on An Angel from Texas
«Ronald Reagan & Jane Wyman Call It Quits», Photoplay (1948)
Screen Actors Guild Presidents: Ronald Reagan