1948-1949 Seeking Help - Topeka
“In the meantime, Dore Schary was deeply concerned about the furor Bob Walker had created not merely by his arrest but also by the wide circulation of the jailhouse photograph. He had been certain that after their warm and productive conversation, Bob would stay out of trouble. Schary recalled, ‘The simple way out, of course, would have been to fire him. With Jones due on the lot, I was told that would be to our best advantage. It’s so easy to kick a guy when he’s down, but I couldn’t do that to him. Aside from my own instincts, I had heard too many good things about Bob to give up on him. He was mentally and emotionally ill and needed expert psychiatric help away from the pressures of Hollywood.’”116
Filled with guilt and remorse, Bob went to Schary’s office, not knowing what to expect. “He had expected fireworks, but Schary never raised his voice. Bob, however, recognized his contract lying on the desk. In a businesslike manner Schary initiated the conversation. ‘I’ve decided to give you a last chance and a choice. You can tear up this contract, quit films, and eventually destroy yourself, if that’s what you want. Or you can agree to undergo psychiatric treatment at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka for however long it takes to get to the root of your disturbance. We’ll have to take you off salary, but we will pay all your hospital bills. I’ve been in touch with the clinic; your father will have to commit you. Sleep on it, and call me in the morning.’
The following day Bob called Schary. ‘I’ll give Menninger’s a try,’ he said. ‘But I don’t believe in psychiatry, and if I can’t stand it there, they won’t be able to keep me.’”117
True to his promise, Bob flew to Topeka, Kansas and registered at an obscure hotel. During his first week, he was treated to a week’s worth of tests. It was determined by a board of psychiatrists that he be committed by his father, Horace Walker, and undergo one, perhaps two, years of treatment. Bob would later tell Hedda Hopper of his feelings at this point in his life. “’I hated myself and blamed myself all my life for things I shouldn’t have blamed myself for. I felt that everybody was against me, hated me, couldn’t understand me. I couldn’t even understand myself. I was only moments away from alcoholism, which is a slow form of self-destruction.’”118
In an article from the May 1950 issue of Modern Screen magazine, Hedda Hopper again quotes Bob: “’To me,’ Bob told me, ‘a mental clinic had been an asylum for the insane. I couldn’t stand the sense of shame attached to entering a mental institution. On the plane to Kansas, I wore dark glasses, kept my hat-brim snapped over my faceand hunched down in my coat collar. Actually, of course, nobody noticed me – and they wouldn’t have cared if they had. But I couldn’t realize that.
I somehow had the idea that I’d find the clinic run on the line of a country club. My first shock came when I found myself behind locked doors. Then everything, including my razor, was taken from me. I bitterly resented it and kept thinking, ‘Do they think I’m crazy?’ But the greatest shock came when I stepped into my quarters. I found myself in a room with bars on the windows! I remember the terror of that first night alone in a barred room with strange sounds all around me.
For the first month I was only under observation. I didn’t realize it then, but a complete, scientific diagnosis was being made of me.
At the end of the first month I was convinced the clinic was doing me no good. Being an actor I was able to convince a doctor I was perfectly capable of going into town by myself one night – or perhaps the clinic was only trying to convince me how sick I still was. Anyhow, I was allowed to go. I took a few drinks, got into a fight with a policeman, rammed my fist through a window. Again I was in headlines.
Now I was convinced of my desperate situation. But I wanted to get out. I told myself I’d been there a month and here I was as bad as ever. My doctor advised me to stay, but his advice only irritated me. He said he had a psychoanalyst assigned to me. I said I wanted nothing to do with the man. You see, it was another attempt to avoid a show-down. I told my doctor I’d soon be leaving. He said ‘All right. It seems we can’t help you.’
A few days later the psychoanalyst came. I took a liking to him right away. His face was filled with kindness and understanding. He said he’d heard I was leaving but just dropped in anyway to say hello. First thing I knew I was talking to him as I’ve talked to few people in my life. But in the end I told him I was still determined to leave. He said that was all right.
Next day I found an excuse to see that psychoanalyst again; this time I liked him even more. For the next few days I endured a hell of indecision, but finally I made up my mind. I told my analyst, ‘I’m going to stay here and battle this thing out.’ It was the most important decision in my life.
‘I had one hour a day with the psychoanalyst, six days a week,’ Bob told me. ‘It was an emotionally exhausting experience. For three weeks I spoke to nobody else, keeping myself shut in the room, eating little, sleeping little. Then one day the darkness began to clear and I knew I was getting well. You can’t possibly understand that thrill. I had been shown how mental stumbling blocks had distorted my life. Four-and-a-half months later I was discharged.’
They warned Bob it might take him a year or maybe two, when he entered. Reason he could leave so soon was that he finally came to the point where he desperately wanted to help himself. He knows he’s not completely well yet, but as he told me, ‘For the first
time in my life I’m not being driven; I’m doing the driving. All the things that used to be terrors to me are challenges. And experience has shown me I can conquer them.’”119
Robert Walker was officially discharged from the Menninger Clinic on Sunday, May 15, 1949. Dore Schary had been kept informed of Bob’s progress. Barbara Ford had obtained a divorce from Bob the previous December, so he returned to Hollywood unattached and able to resume his career, preferably in a film that would not prove too stressful. Schary had a perfect vehicle for him – another romantic comedy called “Please Believe Me”. It was to star Deborah Kerr as an English girl pursued by three men after inheriting a ranch in the American west.
Later, Bob told an interviewer from Motion Picture magazine: “’Naturally,’ Bob said, ‘after being out of films for so long, I felt a bit shaky about carrying the male lead. When I read the script I was immensely taken with another role, a gay, light-hearted and likable gigolo, and Schary gave it to me.’”120
Peter Lawford was cast as the millionaire playboy, and Mark Stevens portrayed his protective lawyer.
Deborah Kerr’s biographer, Eric Braun, mentions “Please Believe Me” as follows: “Of this likeable but mediocre comedy she remembers most vividly the genuine appeal and charm of Robert Walker, whose tragically early death two years later robbed the cinema of one of its most attractive light comedy actors.”121
“After conquering a slight case of first-day jitters, Bob sailed through the filming of Please Believe Me under the direction of Norman Taurog.”122
“Later, writer Joel E. Siegel would comment, ‘Of the entire cast, Robert Walker, in a nicely stylized performance, comes off best.’”123
After Bob’s return from the Menninger Clinic and his return to films, he had a different attitude toward himself and others.