Remembering MGM’s Movie Boss Van Johnson
Hollywood’s Golden Boy Next Door
By Carleton Varney
Hollywood stars of the 40s and 50s are still big names to some of us and to those of us who are Turner Classic Movie (TCM) fans. For me, the TCM channel is my lifeline to real Hollywood glamour. I love to hear Robert Osborne chat about Olivia de Havilland, Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Ida Lupino, and Jane Wyman (remember, she was once married to President Ronald Reagan!) Yes, TCM daily features those brilliant starts from MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers and RKO. These studios housed, educated, and supervised the lives of its actors and actresses – in what was then called ‘the stable.’ Seven-year contracts were made with the stars, and stars were wise to follow up on what the studio master had to say. Jack Warner kept his stable of stars at Warner Brothers under watch, and sometimes under lock and key. Stars had to follow the strict rules of the studio, including the morale contract. At MGM, Louis B. Mayer orchestrated his studio, saying if and when he used a star to perform in whatever movie he chose. There could be no question of not complying, otherwise suspension clauses went into effect.
Meet Van Johnson
All the studios had their boss men, and MGM had Van Johnson, their boy next door and contract player (nay- star!). From Newport, Rhode Island, he became the top of the box office in the mid 1940s. He was MGM’s big money maker. The publicity department at MGM saw to it that stories about Van always appeared on the covers of such magazines as Photoplay or Silver Screen. Van was hot property and was considered golden, truly part of Hollywood’s Golden Years.
There was a personal side to Van Johnson that few knew. Of course, there was always a bit of under-the-radar chat about his sexual preferences. Following direction of the studio, Van married Evie Abbot Wynn, a close friend and wife of the actor Keenan Wynn. Van and Evie were married 21 years, and from their union a daughter Schuyler was born. Schuyler was a devoted daughter to her father, even at an early age practicing movie lines with her dad. Daddy Van was a voracious reader and always gifted his daughter books, volumes of wisdom.
I met Van Johnson in the mid 60s, not during the golden years but after he had departed the Hollywood scene for New York penthouse living. This was also after his divorce from wife Evie and his separation from his daughter Schuyler. A separation that would last right up to his death at age 92 in Tappan Zee Manor in upstate New York where he had lived for a few years.
It was in the 70s that Van and I became friends. I had been introduced to him by Joan Crawford, for whom I had decorated two homes in New York, and Van having seen the apartments asked to meet with me regarding some decorating for him in his New York City 54th Street penthouse. Happily I began working with Van and did so until he departed the city for his assisted living facility.
Van, the star, loved Broadway and truly enjoyed performing live on stage. He was a vivacious, fun-loving, happy soul who related well to the audience. He loved the band, the laughter and the applause of the people he loved.
Having grown up in a New England harbor town of Newport, as I had in Nahant, Massachusetts, Van and I had very much in common. He loved New England style and color. He wore red socks day and night, and I do the same now to keep his memory alive.
Schuyler Pays Homage To Her Father
To continue the Van Johnson spirit, I with his daughter Schuyler (a lady whom he adored even though she and dad did not touch base, mainly due to Van’s ex-wife Evie’s insistence), and Shannongrove Press have published a book, Van Johnson’s Hollywood with pictures by Evie Wynn Johnson and memories by Schuyler Johnson. The book features the family album with candid photographs that are a must for fans of the Golden Years of Hollywood to enjoy. You will find Van with a plethora of his co-stars, as well as pictures of Schuyler growing up in Hollywood and Switzerland.
Much has been written about the Golden Years of the silver screen, and there is much more to come!