I remember exactly where I was standing on that cold February day in 1972 when I took in our mail and gasped at the headline on the cover of that week’s Life magazine. Was it really true? How did it happen?
"LIZ TAYLOR IS 40!" the magazine screamed. I was 12 and I couldn’t believe the news that the Liz we knew and loved was now that ancient. At the time my knowledge of Elizabeth Taylor’s oeuvre was mostly limited to late night TV viewings of her earlier work. “National Velvet,” starring the 12-year-old actress was one of my mother’s favorites and we watched it whenever it aired. I’ll never forget Velvet Brown’s odd philosophy of life: “I want it all quickly 'cause I don't want God to stop and think and wonder if I'm getting more than my share!” I enjoyed young Liz in “Lassie Come Home” and “A Date with Judy” and I thought there was no more beautiful woman on earth than Taylor in George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun” (I was a little scared to find myself empathizing with Montgomery Clift’s desire to kill shrewish Shelley Winters so he could have a life with luminous Liz).
But my favorite performance by the youthful Elizabeth Taylor, if I'm man enough to admit it, was as stuck-up Amy March in the 1949 version of “Little Women.” 17-year-old Liz seemed to grow up before our eyes in this film, and her conceited Amy eventually proved what a big heart she really had. My favorite scene was when she was passing out the popovers her family had brought to the waif-like children of a destitute family that Marmee was helping. Taylor couldn’t believe the financially strapped Marches had to share their rare Christmas-time treat so she decided to divvy up the popovers in a way that she thought was fair—“one for you and one for me and one for you and another one for me…”
The actress who played Jo March so perfectly in that film was June Allyson, who died this week at the age of 88. Kendall was driving yesterday when she heard the news and immediately called to tell me about it, sounding utterly heartbroken. It is the only thing marring our celebration of her 40th birthday today. The very first chapter in Kendall’s wonderful but as-yet unpublished new book is called “June Allyson Teaches Me Her Rules for Relationships.” Here is how it begins:
I speak in the voice that I do because of June Allyson. No other female in my family speaks in such a low register. And so I have come to the conclusion that the only explanation for my particular alto is my repeated viewings of “Good News” at the time my vocal chords were being formed.
“Good News,” MGM’s 1947 musical delight starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, was the film of my childhood. If that seems an anachronistic choice for someone born in 1966, it is because I was not exposed to the children’s films of my era. My parents had no interest in sitting through them so I never saw them. But if my parents deprived me of my birthright, they gave me something far better–June Allyson.
For those of you who are familiar with Kendall’s first book, let me just say that this one is equally brilliant and I hope you will be reading it some day soon, even if Kendall is in grief today that June Allyson never will. She goes on about her favorite film:
“Good News” paints a glorious Technicolor picture of college life in the 1920s. And it may be the reason I never attended college. Having watched “Good News” so many times, I felt I’d already been. I also knew the real thing would never live up to the MGM version. However, though “Good News” may have kept me from college, it played a pivotal role in my education and made June Allyson my intellectual role model.
I’m not sure how many others saw singing, dancing June this way, but she was my first example of a woman who prizes her intellect and will not put it aside to appear less threatening to easily intimidated suitors. In “Good News.” June Allyson is the brainy, hardworking college girl who falls for Peter Lawford, the captain of the football team, when he is sent to her for French tutoring. Throughout the movie, even after she falls in love with him, she never tries to hide the fact that she knows more about conjugating French verbs (and the best things in life) than he does. June Allyson showed me early on that you could be smart enough to tutor the boy you loved and still end up dancing the “Varsity Drag” with him (“Up on your heels/Down on your toes/Stay after school/Learn how it goes”).
The way June Allyson handled herself with Peter Lawford became my model for how I would deal with men. She was the straightforward girl whose emotions ran deep and true, but who would never resort to flirting and games to win her love (as Patricia Marshall does throughout the film, to the disgust of both June and myself). And June’s response when Peter Lawford asks her out after he has been dumped by Patricia Marshall I quoted word for word when a boy in the eighth grade did the same thing to me: “Play second fiddle? No thanks.” June Allyson taught me at a very early age the rules by which I have always played.
Kendall then goes on to discuss June’s performance in “Little Women.” She explains that while some people love the Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder version of that story, she will always consider them imposters (“One’s first Jo is second in memory only to one’s first love.”)
Kendall and I saw June Allyson in person a few times, most notably on our very first date at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in 1989. Kendall had always reminded me of June and not just because of their distinctive alto voices. Both women were kind and loving and had that rare ability to appear apple pie wholesome and extremely sexy at the same time. Kendall and June were known for being cheerfully nice and yet both had inner lives that were far more complex and full of turmoil than people realized.
Have you ever seen the fascinating film “The Shrike,” the one movie in which June Allyson was allowed to put her “perfect wife” image on the back burner and show her dark side? In that 1955 film, Allyson played the evil, vengeful wife of a successful theatre director played by Jose Ferrer (who also directed this film). Ferrer is in the hospital recovering from a suicide attempt. Sweet-on-the-outside Allyson visits him every day, causing everyone to think she is a self-sacrificing saint. What they don't know is that whenever they're alone, June torments her poor sap of a husband within an inch of his life, nearly driving him over the edge with her constant harangues. Of course the film was a box office bomb—no one wanted to see their Junie as a Bette Davis-style bitch.
Following this daring and underappreciated performance, June was back in form in “The Opposite Sex,” a musical remake of the MGM classic, “The Women.” This was a film that never should have been made but June did her best in the Norma Shearer role, here a former nightclub singer whose husband was having an affair with Joan Collins. Collins' Crystal Allen didn’t hold a candle to Joan Crawford’s razor sharp performance in the original (“When Steven doesn’t like something I’m wearing, I take it off”) and even the likes of Ann Miller, Joan Blondell, and Agnes Moorehead couldn't save this abomination. MGM originally wanted June's close friend Esther Williams to star in the remake but she wisely refused to have anything to do with it.
June Allyson spent her 40th birthday on October 7, 1957, getting ready for the star-studded premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre of “My Man Godfrey,” her new film co-starring David Niven. This was, of course, a remake of the Carole Lombard/William Powell film that is one of Kendall’s all-time favorites, and June Allyson's updated version is another movie that never should have been made. The fact that Kendall didn’t turn on June after she committed sacrilege with two of Kendall’s most cherished characters just proved how much she loved her Junebug.
If only 40-year-old June had been offered better roles, maybe her movie career wouldn’t have sputtered to an end with her following film, the forgettable “A Stranger in My Arms” with Jeff Chandler. As June turned 40, her personal life was also in shambles. She had just announced her separation from longtime husband Dick Powell. “We have not been getting along for the past few years even though we have tried,” she told Hedda Hopper, “and I have decided that Richard and I have a better chance if we are apart from each other.” Powell shot back, “It is true that we have not been getting along, but I thought it was worth another chance. Unfortunately, June did not agree.” It was only many years later that Allyson admitted that the primary reason for the separation was the torrid affair she’d been having with Alan Ladd. There’s that dark side again, just under the surface. But June did change her tune in the end. She and Dick Powell reconciled and the couple stayed together until Powell’s death in 1963.
And now, according to Kendall, she’s lost June Allyson and her youth in the same week. While Life magazine may not be heralding Kendall’s entry into the 40s, we did have this yummy cake complete with an edible Greer Garson. It’s always nice to nibble on Greer and Walter Pidgeon (hmm, that didn’t come out right), but if I’d known June was fated to leave the planet this week, you can guess who I would’ve put on that cake. At the end of her chapter, after writing about a lost first love, Kendall thanks June Allyson for helping her recover from a broken heart. “She taught me that I need never diminish myself for love and she held out the promise that love would be something I would finally find. With ‘Good News’ and ‘Little Women,’ my romantic character was formed. Now I could move on to those other films on the shelf without fear of who I would become as I watched. For June Allyson had started me safely on the road to who I knew I was.”
Kendall, you will always be my June Allyson. Happy Birthday.