"The Wonderful, Wacky Life of Robert Walker" by Fredda Dudley
Movieland July & August 1944
(Part 1 & 2)
"So you're worried about Junior? He brings home a report card, you say, that reads like Charlie McCarty's average weekly allowance after deductions for window breakage, mumbly-peg losses, and income tax."
spends most of his school hours in the principal's office; he runs away
at the slightest provocation; he is shy, moody, unpredictable. Your closest
neighbor insists that he is a drip from the brow of Satan."
up. He is undoubtedly a genius and will grow up to bring fame and
fortune to your family. Like, for instance, Robert Walker."
surely remember the brilliant characterization that made the sailor in
'Bataan' an unforgettable boy? That was the work of Bob Walker. Surely you
have been among the millions laughing at the side-splitting comedy, 'See Here,
Private Hargrove.' That reluctant convert to khaki was this same Bob Walker in
the title role."
was born in Salt Lake City, the youngest member of a quartet of Walker
sons. Reading from bass to tenor, the boys were Wayne, Walter (currently an
army major in North Africa and in former times Bob's champion and confidant),
Richard, and Robert."
was knee-high to a Sunday edition of your favorite paper when his family
moved to Ogden where Bob's father became affiliated with a bank. Ogden was not
so much a home for Bob as it was an embarkation point. At the age of seven,
being unable to sleep because of the sparkling rush of gypsy blood through his
veins, Master Robert took a blanket from his bed, climbed out of the window,
and slunk mysteriously to the barn, keeping to the enveloping shadows cast by
incidental buildings and clumps of trees. Once in the barn, Bob climbed to the
hayloft, spread his blanket, and went to sleep. This made him a tramp, junior
he explored every remote corner of his home -- frequently on
school time, which made a great many people very, very unhappy. Bob tried to
explain that keeping him cooped up was like trying to catch quicksilver on a
fork. Life was continually wonderful and terrible to him; wonderful in his
moments of mad discovery and exploration; terrible in those moments when he had
to take the punishment for this adventuresome spirit."
he went through that phase most adolescents hit at sometime or
another -- the running away period."
Bob was a gangling character of thirteen, he and a boy friend hopped a
freight and bummed their way south, heading for Los Angeles. The first person
they met was a cordial gentleman who welcomed them to that tight little band of
bindle stiffs operating in empty freight cars all over the land. He had, he
said, a brother in Los Angeles replete with cars, summer and winter houses, and
jobs for boys of ability."
would, he added genially, be glad to line things up for the boys with this
imposing brother. For a slight consideration. They were to secure, by any
means, his food supply during the trip. The boys decided it was a fair
brokerage fee. Whenever they reached a small town where the freight trains
were reorganized, Bob and his buddy hurried through the districts near the
method was simple. They knocked. A housewife answered. They said,
'Please, ma'am, do you have an odd job I could do for you? I'm hungry and I'd
like to earn something to eat.'"
housewife, confronted by such youth, ambition, and obvious appetite, said
she was fresh out of jobs, but how about taking this sandwich, or this loaf of
bread, or this hunk of cake? How about a glass of milk and some fresh fruit?"
is approximately 700 miles from Ogden to Las Vegas, Nevada, and --
traveling as they were -- this distance represented quite a few meals for
three. As the freight neared Las Vegas, the boys' companion -- he of the
plutocratic brother -- excused himself from their car on the pretext of getting
a breath of fresh air on the roof. The boys noticed that a good many of their
traveling companions were dropping off, but the train seemed to be moving very
fast for amateurs to abandon. They remained huddled in their car."
they didn't know was that the railroad cops at Las Vegas have a
reputation for being rugged. The itinerant gentry, well aware of the dangers,
left the innocents to fend for themselves. They were found by flashlight,
big-eyed and timorous, from the car door when the cop made his rounds. He
questioned them and they, with great presence of mind, explained that they had
been preparing to run away from Las Vegas."
kids get away from the railroad yards and beat it back to your home,' the
officer ordered. 'Get going before I turn you over to the juvenile authorities
and they raise cain with your parents.'"
got going. They found a grassy square in the center of town, and there
they slept away the night. The next morning, after cinching in their belts
beyond the breakfast line (they were afraid to beg), they trudged out on the
highway to thumb their way to Los Angeles. Surely there, they would find their
vanished friend and his munificent brother."
o'clock scorched into ten, and ten blazed into noon. Noon scorched into
two o'clock, and two blistered into four. No rides."
up their thumb-trip to Los Angeles, two perspiration-soaked,
dust-encrusted, grumbling-stomached boys trudged achingly back to Las Vegas and
their haven of the public square."
pulled off his shoe and lifted out a shining object; a silver dollar that
he had been holding in reserve for just such an emergency. He and his
side-kick repaired to the nearest counter and each ate fifty cents worth of
cake and ice cream. They slept in the part that night and caught a freight,
Ogden-bound, the next morning."
family, unfortunately, couldn't bring themselves to look upon his
adventure with an objective eye. His mother had spent several days in tears,
and his older brothers had promised, resultantly, to produce blisters on a
certain part of the Walker flesh. Yet they were so glad to see him -- all in
one hungry hunk -- that they forgave him on sight."
he had been at home only a few days when he overheard some
conversation that buoyed him considerably. His aunt, Mrs. Hortense Odlum of
New York, had suggested repeatedly that Bob be sent to a private school in
which the teachers would study him and develop the innate ability that she
believed he possessed. She had mentioned in frequent letters that she would be
glad to pay his tuition, as she had that of several of Bob's cousins. So,
having agreed that Bob was a problem child, his parents decided to send him to
the San Diego Army and Navy Academy."
his sharp elbows akimbo, his thin legs busy with distance, hurried to his
boy friend's home to impart the news: 'Hey, kid, I'm being sent to a military
school. Howja like that? I'm too tough to handle. They're sending me away.'
He was vastly impressed with his own potentialities as a desperate character."
bravado lasted for a week -- until he was thoroughly settled at school.
Then he discovered that he was just a hick kid from the big outdoors. His
smooth classmates, some from Eastern schools, some from private tutors (all
rather sophisticated in an adolescent sort of way) looked him over and decided
he was of no particular interest. He was too long for his trousers and his
sleeves; he lacked the easy mingling knack of the initiates. His complexion
was at its worst."
two things happened: he was given the responsible (and active) post of
second drummer in the school band. And Mrs. Virginia Atkinson, the drama
teacher, noticed him. There was something about his intensity over the
tympani, something about the mobility of his freckled, sensitive face that
convinced her of Bob's dramatic possibilities."
"'Robert, how would you like to be in the next school play?'"
"He looked at her incredulously."
Gosh, Mrs. Atkinson, I don't know anything about acting.' But his eyes
rested hungrily on her face. At last someone thought he could do something
beside get into trouble."
you like to have me coach you? I think you're just right for the lead
in our next play. It's a dramatic thing about a man in prison who learns that
his baby is dying. He prays that the child will live until morning, and
promises that if his prayer is answered he will go straight.'"
"Bob looked at Mrs. Atkinson. 'You think I could do that? Honest?'"
not?' she wanted to know, her lips curving into a smile. At that moment,
Bob would have lain on a railway track to be bisected by a locomotive if Mrs.
Atkinson had suggested it. She believed in him! She was giving him a chance
to be noticed -- the thing that, subconsciously, he had always wanted. At last
he had a chance to lick the little-brother complex -- and he was determined to
learned how to handle his long, slender body. He learned the telling stage
tricks of the eyes. He learned voice placement, timing, and emphasis. 'Is
that right, Mrs. Atkinson? Am I putting it across?'"
"'Over the plate,' said Mrs. Atkinson, who knew a lot about boys."
play was so deftly done that it won first place in the district
competition. Then it was presented at Pasadena Community Playhouse to compete
in the finals. The production won first prize and the leading man, one Mr.
Robert Walker, was awarded first prize for his characterzation. This award
also carried a year's scholarship to the Pasadena Community Playhouse."
meeting Mrs. Atkinson jubilantly in the wings, shook hands, violently.
'Gosh, you're some coach!'"
some student. This is only the beginning,' she prophesied, thus
earning some sort of stature as a psychic."
following year the play she coached repeated the first triumph by winning
top honors and Bob, again the star of the play, resnatched his No. 1 spot and a
repeat offer of a scholarship. But the news of his two-time winnings had
delighted Mrs. Odlum in New York. Now she had ideas of her own."
like to watch him work,' she wrote. 'Send him to New York and I'll see
him through the Academy of Dramatic Arts.' This was another step -- a big step
for Robert Walker."
the erstwhile scapegoat of Ogden, Utah, boarded a train for big
time. His first day at the Academy was memorable for a number of things."
triumphed over his environment in San Diego, he expected to be at ease
in New York, but the city seemed suddenly mammoth and threatening despite its
glitter -- much like an iceburg on a bright March morning."
he was selected to read lines, he missed the partisan nod of Mrs.
Atkinson from the audience. Yet, out there in the daisy field of round and
eager faces, Bob abruptly noticed one face distinctive from the rest. A girl's
face -- delicate of bone structure and sweet of mein."
had selected a scene from 'Just Till Morning' and played it as he had
never done before. He was aware of every sentence, of every gesture. The
power was in his hands and the fire in his spirit."
The Girl approached him with quiet assurance. 'I liked the way you
read very much,' she said. 'My name is Phylis Isley and I'm from Tulsa,
Oklahoma.' Robert Walker smiled broadly."
didn't know it, but he had just met the future Jennifer Jones, and
simultaneously the future Mrs. Robert Walker."
was September 1938. Robert Walker and Phylis Isley were enrolled in the
same class at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. That first day each
member of the class read lines. Afterward, Phylis approached Bob Walker to say
that she thought he had done an excellent job. 'I thought you were swell too,'
Bob said quickly."
how it started. They read hundreds of plays together; they worked out
thousands of scenes. Together all day in classes, they often went on until
late in the evening. One night Bob put down his script and looked at the girl
who was eventually to become Jennifer Jones in Hollywood. 'Do you realize that
we've never had a real date?' he demanded. 'I mean a terrific evening of
dinner and dancing and that sort of thing?'"
smiled at him. And when she smiles, apple blossoms sprout from
broomsticks. 'I think just reading a play with you is a terrific date,' she
you what. When either of us gets a big break, we'll really cover New
York. We'll celebrate,' Bob said. Then he told her about his chance to read
for Hammerstein. 'Maybe this is it. Maybe tomorrow at this time we'll be out
getting acquainted with the better head waiters.'"
read for the part. It was a comedy role and the view was held by the
producer that a very thin boy -- a qualification that Bob possessed in
superlative degree -- would be very, very funny. This viewpoint persisted for
two days, while Bob and Jennifer kept their fingers crossed and avoided black
cats. Then the news filtered through: the viewpoint had changed. Now they
wanted a very, very fat boy for the part. Funnier."
"The celebration was postponed."
month or so later, Jennifer had a chance to read for Hammerstein, but
nothing came of that, either. So the celebration had to be re-postponed."
abruptly, it was summer time. Jennifer's plans called for her to go
back to Tulsa, complete her stock company and go on a Southern States
straw-hat circuit. Bob had decided to see the world. This was the summer, you
may recall, when it was considered adventurous to sign up on a freighter or a
tanker and rough it from port to port. Bob hadn't been feeling very well; he
decided to build himself up by some rugged manual labor. Then, too, there was
that acquaintanceship with the world that he wanted to make. His aunt wanted
him to remain in New York and go on with his theatrical training. She said so,
said just as flatly that he needed muscles, to be supplied by freighter
work, and adventure, to be supplied at cargo loading points."
aunt said that if he persisted in his attitude she wouldn't be responsible
for any more schooling. Bob said he could look out for himself, thank you very
Bob about life on a tanker some day. Then back away quickly. The story
is likely to need asbestos binding. By the end of the summer Bob had lost all
interest in the salty seven-eighths of the world. All he wanted to investigate
was New York in the vicinty of the Academy of Dramatic Arts, particularly is
there happened to be present a returned Oklahoman with wide blue eyes."
he called at the Barbizon Hotel for Women, where Jennifer was living,
Bob went down into the village to secure quarters for himself. He looked and
he looked. He wound up in Yonkers at the Wallace Co-Operative Lodge, a frugal
spot where a man living on ten bucks weekly, borrowed from his brother and duly
recorded in an account to be repaid someday could be sheltered if scarcely
cradled in luxury."
housing problem solved, Bob proceeded to the Cherry Lane Theatre -- one of
those very small, very arty theatres down in Greenwich Village -- talked the
owner into giving him a job. He was to do a little scene-shifting, a little
painting, some wiring, some re-roofing, and a fat share of acting. When
receipts warranted it, he was to get fifty cents per night for his pains."
dollars a week and fifty cents (sometimes) a night! He was set. On his
first paynight he got in touch with Jennifer. He took her to Nedick's (a spot
that will be recognized by New Yorkers, or any other person who has ever
frequented an open air juice-and-sandwich stand). Standing in a corner that
suddenly seemed like a South Sea Island -- remote, balmy, and romantic -- Bob
and Jennifer drank orange juice, ate hot dogs, and exchanged a breathless
you aren't going back to school, I'm not going either,' Jennifer declared
partisanly. 'I'll get a job at the Cherry Lane, too.'"
addition to her plushy fifty cents per day, Jennifer was getting an
allowance from home. In this manner Art was advancing at a rapid rate up and
down the Cherry Lane's rickety stairway, when Jennifer received a radio offer
from Tulsa. The station wanted her to organize her own company. And -- oh,
Allah is good -- to bring along her own leading man. You'll be astonished to
know that he was a lean and able gentleman named Robert Walker."
the way to Tulsa, Jennifer and Bob had one of those half-shouted club car
conversations. To wit:
Bob: I don't ever want to settle down, do you?
Goodness, no. The Gypsy life for me. You know -- road shows,
repertory companies, summer stock. That sort of thing.
I've always said I never wanted to own property. I can't see this thing
of being harnessed to a house and a load of furniture neatly embroidered with
Jennifer: The happiest people in the world live out of suitcases.
Gosh, we think alike about everything. You're really a wonderful girl,
so they were married, on January 2, 1939, and set forth boldly in the
resplendent red Packard Convertible Coupe that was a wedding gift from
Jennifer's parents. They were headed for Hollywood -- with confidence, with
four suitcases, a sheaf of (they thought) persuasive letters of introduction."
Hollywood, it soon wasn't. Several picture people took an interest in
Jennifer, but they told Bob flatly that he simply wasn't the picture type.
Jennifer could have signed several minor contracts, but she wouldn't have it
don't like this town,' she confided one night. 'Let's go back to New York.
There, you can at least get a break in radio, Bob.'"
"They returned to New York."
first they took an apartment in the Village. One of those deals wherein
the kitchen and dining room occur simultaneously, while the living room doubles
by night as bedroom."
began to get a little radio work. Then a little more. Then a lot more.
They bought a seventy-five dollar Ford. One day Jennifer said thoughtfully,
'We're going to have to move soon, because we can't go on living in such
cramped quarters, after the baby comes. Children need space and fresh air --
don't you think?'"
hunting became their avocation. There were plenty of places, at plenty
of price. Weeks went by, months. The situation became critical, with the
distant sound of giant wings beating the air."
they located a little house, away out on Long Island, unfurnished.
They went to a second hand store and bought the unavoidable items of furniture.
Loading same onto the Ford, the Walkers carted the possessions they never
intended to have, out to their home."
the last trip, Jennifer turned to Bob unsteadily. 'I think we'd better
dash for the hospital,' she managed to say. 'That...that road leading up to
our house isn't very smooth, is it? I think I've been joggled.'"
Bob managed to get a taxi. (He was afraid to trust the Ford.)
Somehow they got to the hospital. Somehow he lived through the aching hours
until the nurse emerged to say, 'It's a boy, Mr. Walker.'"
young Bobbie was a year old he was joined in the nursery by Mr. Michael
Walker. 'Now our family is complete,' Jennifer said happily, over the downy
head of her youngest."
you can start your career again,' said Bob. 'I hear that Selznick has
bought 'Gone With the Wind' and is going to star an unknown as Scarlett.
Wouldn't it be wonderful?'"
"'Not a chance,' scoffed his wife."
she did test for the role (it was an actress' epidemic that year --
nearly everyone had 'Scarlett' fever). Her test was a trifle too ethereal for
the requirements of the part of the headstrong southerner, but her acting was
so indicative of talent that Mrs. Robert Walker, nee Phyli Isley, was placed
under contract by David Selznick, and was rechristened Jennifer Jones."
Walker was doing okay, himself. He was so much in demand for radio shows
that his days started with hair tonic and ended with foot powder."
the time Jennifer had tested for 'Claudia', and it was decided that the
role would be screened with Dorothy McGuire, who had created the original
Broadway character, the Walkers were living were comfortably in a smart
bungalow in an excellent suburb."
they finally cast me in a picture,' Jennifer asked Bob one night, 'and I
have to go to Hollywood, what will we do? You're doing so well here.'"
you get a picture break, you must go to Hollywood. I'll store the
furniture and come out as soon as possible. I can always find something to do
-- probably in radio.'"
had scarcely taken a deep breath before Jennifer was set for 'Song of
Bernadette'. He put Jennifer and the two boys on a westbound train, then went
with his agent to the eastern offices of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he was
had bought 'See Here, Private Hargrove,' and a few feet of film
convinced them that, in Bob Walker, they had a side-splitting Private Hargrove.
He signed on the dotted line."
didn't write, he didn't wire, he didn't telephone. First, he stored the
furniture (again), then he boarded the first available Pacific-bound train.
And the Walkers were reunited -- in Hollywood."
went to work at once in 'Song'. Metro decided to use Bob in
'Bataan,' before starting him in the Hargrove role, and he responded by quietly
stealing the picture."
both Jennifer and Bob had been quietly trying to find a way to
appear in a picture together. They had struggled together, they had built two
burgeoning careers, they had two chubby children. Now they wanted to do a
picture together. Samuel Goldwyn announced, one morning, that he had borrowed
the Walkers to play sweethearts in 'Since You Went Away.'"
then, just when all of Hollywood was beaming at its favorite couple,
something happened. No one knows exactly what caused the difficulty, but the
trouble was so great that Jennifer announced her separation from Bob Walker.
Neither would talk of the tragedy, beyond the terse phrases originally released
to the newspapers."
this chapter of the Life of Robert Walker must end on a minor chord. That
there will be subsequent chapters, no one doubts. That they will be filled
with cinematic and financial success seems to be a foregone conclusion.
Whether Jennifer Jones will reappear depends on so many things that no
Hollywood matrimonial soothsayer has yet dared to prophesy."