Last June, I wrote about so many people who had died that month that I worried my blog was turning into a celebrity obituary site. I purposely avoided mentioning such deaths for the rest of the summer. That’s not working. Now I find that when I ignore certain people, I can’t let them go—or rather they can’t let go of me! It’s not everyone. Don’t worry: I won’t be writing a post connecting Golden Girls’ Estelle Getty to writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But remember actress Evelyn Keyes? She died on July 4th at the age of 91. I would guess that the vast majority of the public has forgotten this talented, lovely, and somewhat troubled actress, but my attempts to avoid writing about her have practically led to a full-scale haunting.
Do you remember how Keyes kept appearing to Tom Ewell as a ghostly apparition in Billy Wilder’s great 1955 film, “The Seven Year Itch,” one of Keyes’ best known films? Ewell was sweltering through a hot summer in his Manhattan apartment while his wife (Evelyn Keyes) had absconded to the country with their kids, but after sexpot Marilyn Monroe sublets the apartment upstairs and Ewell starts to fantasize about having an affair with her, Keyes keeps materializing in the apartment to shoot her husband down and act as his conscience. Keyes was a brilliantly understated comedienne in this film, delivering Wilder’s great lines in a deadpan style while sitting in a chair knitting. That’s the version of Evelyn Keyes that’s been appearing in my house during the weeks since she died. “Are you going to write about me today, Danny?” she says from the overstuffed green chair in our bedroom. “Well, no, I don’t think so?” “How about today?” her ghost asks in the kitchen as I’m frying an egg.” “Today would be a good day, don’t you think,” I hear her purring from the back seat of my car. Jesus, Evelyn, get off my back!
Keyes is part of that category of actors that has always fascinated me. The ones who easily could have been big A-list stars on par with Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, and so on, but for whatever reasons of fate and circumstance, never completely crossed over into that group. Evelyn Keyes was always “about to” make that transition. At least once a year for over a decade, an article would appear announcing that Keyes had finally arrived.
Evelyn Keyes was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1916 but was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. Shortly after coming to Hollywood in 1937, she was “discovered” by Cecil B. De Mille, who gave her small parts in “The Buccaneer” and “Union Pacific.” This led to an incredible break for a brand new, relatively unknown actress. David O. Selznick noticed Evelyn in her small roles and gave her the part of Scarlett O’Hara’s bratty sister Suellen in the biggest A-picture of all time, “Gone With the Wind.” After working hard for a full year to get rid of her Southern accent (De Mille was impressed by Keyes’ ability to “speak the King’s English”), Evelyn had to learn it back for her new role. While many actresses were having their dark locks dyed blond in Hollywood, Evelyn again had to go in reverse and have her golden hair dyed brown to match Margaret Mitchell’s descriptions of Suellen.
Does this building look familiar? I took this photo from my cell phone this morning as I rode by the building on my bicycle. Today it’s the administrative building for the Culver Studios and it was once the headquarters of the Thomas Ince and Desilu Studios. But in 1939, this building, looking exactly as it does today, appeared at the beginning of “Gone With the Wind” as the logo for Selznick International. It was probably in this very structure where Evelyn Keyes signed her contract to play Suellen O’Hara along with Ann Rutherford who was brought over from the Andy Hardy set at neighboring MGM to play Scarlett’s other “nicer” sister, Careen. Directly behind this building was the backlot, where, in 1938, Selznick set fire to his old sets from “King Kong” and other films for the famous burning of Atlanta scene. That backlot is now long gone but the gardens still exist where Bonnie Blue Butler rode that little pony to her untimely death.
I’ll save my thoughts about “Gone With the Wind” for another post. Suffice it to say that it’s a great film that only suffers today when you realize that it glorifies the unnamed Ku Klux Klan. Oy. Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable were perfect as Scarlett and Rhett, even when Leigh’s English accent kept slipping into her performance. Olivia de Havilland was a moving Melanie, Hattie McDaniel was a fabulous Mammy, and the rest of the cast was sublime except, in my opinion, Leslie Howard as a phoned-in Ashley Wilkes. Evelyn Keyes did a superb job in her small but high-profile role. Who can ever forget her whiny howl after she finds out her sister has snagged her long-time boyfriend Frank Kennedy in order to pay the back taxes on Tara. “Scarlett’s had two husbands and I’m going to be an OLD MAID!”
But Keyes herself was anything but an old maid. While filming “Gone With the Wind,” she was already secretly married to architect Barton Bainbridge. I don’t know why she kept the marriage a secret, I guess she thought it might hurt her career and the studio wouldn’t like it. News of the marriage only leaked out after Bainbridge’s suicide in 1940, a few months after Evelyn had left him. Keyes revealed later that she got pregnant during the making of “Gone With the Wind” but rather than risk her part in this film, she had an illegal abortion that went bad, leaving Evelyn unable to have children.
Keyes then married director Charles Vidor who directed her in three films. That marriage went south in little more than a year, thanks largely to Vidor’s womanizing, and the two were divorced in 1945. In early 1946 Keyes told a Los Angeles Times reporter that she would never marry again, but in July of that year she impulsively snuck off to Las Vegas and tied the knot with director John Huston. “Hollywood was left gasping by the swift-moving romance. Huston and Miss Keyes, who met but a month ago, were dining at Mike Romanoff’s when Huston said, ‘Listen, honey, there’s no point in waiting any further. Let’s get married now!’ Miss Keyes assented, and while Huston was making arrangements to charter a plane, host Romanoff hurried home to secure an old-fashioned gold wedding band that, he explained, had been lost by a guest in his swimming pool.”
It was another tempestuous marriage for Evelyn. She moved into Huston’s sprawling farm in Calabasas and had to deal with his menagerie of animals including cats, dogs, horses, burros, monkeys, parrots, and a chimp who would torment the poor actress. In 1948, when Huston was in Mexico filming “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” with Humphrey Bogart and his father, Walter Huston, a young orphaned boy named Pablo Albarran became a sort of mascot on the set, helping with the crew and befriending the director. When it was time to return to Hollywood, Huston didn’t know what to do with Pablo so he decided to bring him home and adopt him…without telling his wife! In his autobiography, Huston recounts how he met Evelyn at the aiport and surprised her by introducing her to their new son. Good lord. Keyes tried her best but that was the beginning of the end of their marriage. They divorced in 1949.
Throughout the 1940s Keyes’ career had followed the same path of “almost” stardom. A great role in the 1941 film “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” was supposed to do it. A dazzling performance as the Genie in “A Thousand and One Nights” in 1945 was supposed to do it. Playing the Ruby Keeler-like wife of Al Jolson in the popular “Jolson Story” with Larry Parks in 1946 was really supposed to it, and then taking on the title role in 1948’s “The Mating of Millie” was supposed to do it again. As each of these films came out, articles appeared announcing Keyes’ newfound fame, but then it always seemed like she was back to square one, something she found increasingly frustrating.
In 1949, Evelyn campaigned vigorously for the role of Billie Dawn in the screen version of Judy Holliday’s Broadway hit, “Born Yesterday” that her studio, Columbia, was planning. She almost got it, too, after Columbia’s reigning queen, Rita Hayworth, turned it down. But at the last minute mogul Harry Cohn made the rare decision to give the part to the woman who created the role on the stage and Judy Holliday won an Oscar for her performance. That was definitely a smart decision and Holliday was exquisite, but I wonder how Keyes’ career would have changed if she had landed that plum part. Bitterly frustrated, Keyes’ agreed to a 20 percent pay cut to get out of her contract at Columbia.
After her excellent turn in “The Seven Year Itch,” Keyes all but retired from the screen. Her love life didn’t fare much better than her career in the 1950s. Evelyn began an affair with Mike Todd that ended when he dumped her for Liz Taylor. To everyone’s surprise, she married musician Artie Shaw in 1957 (another philanderer who’d already been married to Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and five other women) yet this marriage lasted into the 1970s and the couple only got around to a divorce in 1985. Following Shaw’s death in 2004, Keyes sued his estate, claiming she was entitled to half of his fortune based on a verbal agreement they had made. She was eventually awarded well over a million dollars. In addition to her husbands, Keyes also had well known affairs with Anthony Quinn, David Niven, and Kirk Douglas. “I was always interested in the man of the moment,” she later said, “and there were so many such moments!”
Oh Evelyn, Evelyn, I’m sorry that you never felt fully appreciated. “I’m the first to admit that I never achieved my potential as an actress,” she told a reporter in the 90s. “I got to star in my own movies. I even had my name above the title in some cases. But what am I known for? My bit part in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ It’s very funny.”
Rest in peace, Miss Keyes. See you in the movies.