Radio Broadcast circa 1941
Guy Alive" - "New York, New York"
It was at the Academy of Dramatic Art that Robert met a dark-haired girl named Phylis Isley, a fellow student from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Bob had been at the Academy just a short while when he met a gal. Obviously. Always a sort of casual dresser, he began to take endless pains with his tie, he started laboring over his hair.
‘Who is she?’ Walt asked him one morning, waiting for a turn at the mirror.
‘Who? Oh, her?’ Bob swivelled around, blushing. ‘Name’s Phylis Isley.’ And that was Jennifer. For weeks his brothers listened to Bob eulogize her acting.
‘She’s beautiful,’ he’d say. ‘Eyes like – I don’t know. You can’t describe Phyl.’
She lived in Oklahoma and during Christmas vacation she went home for a visit. Bob was lost for two weeks, feverish on the day she was due back. ‘Take it easy,’ Walt said. ‘She can’t be that good.’ Accompanied by Walter and his mom – who was in town for the holidays – Bob met her train.
‘There she is,’ he yelled, and he ran to meet her. ‘Mom, this is Phyl,’ he said when he could get his breath, and he was so proud of her he could hardly stand it. Mrs. Walker, who had been prepared for mascara and black lace stockings, looked at the sweet heart-shaped face, the gentle brown eyes.
‘Why, hello, dear,’ she said, and she took her arm and walked up the ramp. A pace or two behind them, Bob turned to Walt, and they exchanged a wink that was the equivalent of a long, low whistle.
‘Say, she’s all right,’ Walt whispered. The family definitely approved, and just about a year later, when they were eighteen and nineteen respectively, Phyl and Bob were married.”12
They had been working together in Phyl’s hometown of Tulsa at the Phylis Isley Radio Theater as arranged by her showman father, Phil Isley. Their wedding took place on January 2, 1939, at Christ’s King Church on the first anniversary of their initial meeting. “Phylis made a dazzling if unusual bride, wearing a Peter Pannish hat and the red velvet suit she had always felt brought her good luck. Bob splurged twenty-five dollars for a new suit for the occasion.”13
Christ the King Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Driving the brand-new Packard convertible that was their wedding gift from the Isley’s, Bob and Phyl headed to California after a stop in Ogden to visit the Walker clan. But Hollywood wanted none of the young Walkers. As Bob related, “Phyl and I began auditioning for agents – anyone. Seeing how we were graduate actors of accredited schools, we would audition with heavy stuff. Like Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’. Stuff that was too heavy and actually not our type. If we’d picked something like ‘Our Town’ – or just been ourselves – we might have clicked. I landed a job reading scripts at $35 a week for a literary agent. We couldn’t get Hollywood to give us a tumble. Finally we sold our car and returned to New York.”14
“They got $1100 for it. That got them to New York, paid the first month’s rent on an apartment in Woodside, Long Island.
It was fall. The city wore a cocky, bouncy air. The summer visitors were gone and the New Yorkers were back home, rarin’ to go. ‘We can’t miss,’ Bob grinned, optimistically. ‘Meet you on the 5:15.’
But they could miss. In fact, it was very easy – despite
their training, despite the people they knew. They missed for four long weeks
and then one day, when they met for lunch
at Walgreen’s counter, Phyl couldn’t eat. She didn’t feel well, she thought she’d see a doctor. Bob went along. The doctor grinned. ‘How’d you like to be a father?’ he asked Bob.”15
“He’d never thought of radio much before. He knew there was money there, but all he could see was the stage. Now he didn’t have the patience to take the brush-offs. He went over to Radio City now – and he found it just as tough.”16
But after his first job in radio, one line in a “Yesterday’s Children” show for the staggering sum of $25, Bob’s career in radio began in earnest. To save money for the upcoming birth of their child, they moved to the Village – to an unfurnished walk-up on West Tenth for $18 a month.
"Myrt and Marge" - leads of the radio show of the same name. Robert played "Tad Smith" on the show and said of the duo "They're Tops!" (Photo: Soap World, Arbor House Publishing 1983)
“’It may be the vogue to live in Greenwich Village when you’re an actor, but not the way we lived,’ Bob laughed. ‘We lived in a tenement house and shared the bath. We had the kind of sink that is covered by a drain board and is the major part of the kitchen. It was hot and stuffy in summer, cold in winter. But as Phyl said, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the President of the United States, had a Village apartment down the street. We had atmosphere! Phyl had Tinker, her puppy, and Polly the parrot – and she had a way of making even that little room look homey and inviting. It was a wonderful place to come home to every night.”17
Years later when Bob was visiting New York City with his friend, Jim Henaghan, he paid a visit to his former neighborhood. As related by Jim; “One night Bob had the impulse to bum around Greenwich Village. He had a chauffeured limo drive us downtown, then instructed the driver to pick us up a couple hours later on MacDougal Street at the Champagne Room.
He just felt like strolling around. It was pretty safe in those days. After a while we found ourselves in front of a run-down building on West Tenth Street, a real dive.
‘Hardly the Waldorf,’ Bob remarked, ‘but I think I was happier when we lived here than I’ve ever been in my life.’”18
Bob and Phyl moved out of the Village to Long Beach to await the baby’s birth, and halfway through their unpacking, it was time to go to the hospital. “In a matter of minutes the Walkers were skidding down the pavement to Jamaica in as wild a ride as Bob cares to remember. All the dreadful tales he’d heard about everything connected with babies flashed through his mind – and it was all his fault. He was a nervous wreck and prepared to be more so when they closed the maternity ward door on him at five A.M. But in ten minutes the nurse popped out, smiling. ‘Congratulations,’ she beamed. ‘You’re the proud father of a fine son!’”19
The date was April 15, 1940. “Before long the Walkers were edging right along toward Easy Street. They moved from the Long Beach shack to a furnished house in Garden City, where, a year after Bobby, Michael boosted their family to four. “20 To anyone who knew Bob, the love for his sons was the most important part of his life then and for the rest of his life.
Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Walker and Robert, Jr.
(Odgen Standard Examiner, courtesy Loveland Studio, 1940)
After the birth of their sons, Phylis stayed home for a time to care for the children while Bob made a good living for his family in radio. “That’s the way both of them wanted it, although deep inside the old frustrated acting spark had never been doused in either Bob or the beautiful girl who was to become Hollywood’s Jennifer Jones.”21
Soon they could afford to hire a housekeeper, and Phylis began to accompany Bob into the city “just to see what was going on”. After seeing the Broadway play “Claudia” several times, Phylis was determined to play the part herself. She tested for the role, but another Phyllis – Phyllis Thaxter – won the coveted part instead. “For both Phyls, however, that test was a one-way ticket to Hollywood – only Phyl Walker got there first. Selznick’s alert New York scout saw her and phoned his boss. At that time Twentieth Century was combing the world for the one and only Bernadette for the great religious picture, “The Song of Bernadette”. So when Phyl Walker lost, she won. But could she fly out to Hollywood and make a test for ‘Bernadette?’ ‘Wait until I call my husband,’ said Phyl.
It was hard to tell it over the phone. But she babbled something and then raced out to Sands Point. Bob and Phyl stayed up most of the night making excited plans. Phyl would go to Hollywood, of course. What a wonderful unbelievable chance! And Bob – he’d keep on with ‘Maudie’s Diary’ and watch over the nurse and Bobby and Mike in Sands Point. It was all a long, impossible gamble, but what a swell kick to be thinking and hoping.”22
“He was home with the kids when the call came. It was short and sweet. ‘Bob,’ came the familiar voice, high with excitement, ‘I’ve got it. I’m Bernadette.’”23
“One of the very few things Selznick felt his newest contractee did lack was a memorable screen name. Remembering his own confusion the day of their meeting, he felt Phylis Walker was too similar to Phyllis Thaxter, in addition to being ‘undistinguished’. He wanted a first name that was fairly unique and at the same time not too fancy, and a one-syllable last name that had some rhythm to it and was easy to remember. He sent out a directive to his staff requesting suggestions.
It would take him four months to decide upon the name Jennifer Jones – the ‘Jennifer’ being his personal inspiration.”24