"Robert Walker -- Tragic Figure"by Sheilah Graham - Modern Screen January 1949
"Cut your lawn for fifty
cents, sir?" The little eight-year-old boy
was very appealing. The owner of the big house -- one of the biggest
in Ogden, Utah -- smiled down as he hurried out to his car. "Sure,
son, if you want to," he said."
"So the ambitious little
boy spent all that Saturday morning in
mighty toil, shoving the heavy mower back and forth, back and forth
across the big lawn. And then --"
"He never paid me,"
said Robert Walker just the other day, with as
much bitterness as if the incident had happened yesterday instead of
21 years ago. "I'll never forgive him," he added in dead earnest."
filled with unforgotten heartache, Robert
Walker seems to be going through life with the self-indulgent
conviction that every man and woman is his active or potential
enemy. Some of his friends think it all began in just such little
incidents in his childhood as that busy house-owner's forgetting to
pay him the fifty cents. Others explain it by the oft-advanced
theory that he has never recovered from the shock of his divorce from
"In any event, his friends
were given fresh cause for sorrow a few
weeks ago when the unpredictable young man made headlines -- and news
photos -- by being arrested and fined in Los Angeles on charges of
being drunk and disorderly."
"This is what happened:
Motorcycle police chased Walker's car, being
driven furiously down the wrong side of Pico Boulevard, for three
blocks before they forced it to the side of the road. In the car
with him was 22-year-old actress Pat Dane, Tommy Dorsey's former
wife. She was at the wheel. She gave her real name, Thelma Patricia
Byrnes, and pleaded guilty."
"At the station, said
the dispatch, Walker became belligerent and
tried to fight five officers while being booked as "drunk, noisy,
loud and boisterous." He told of meeting his companion at a party,
after which they'd stopped at a bar and "had a few drinks."
"Why, I've been drunk
for 25 years," Walker was quoted as telling the
police. "This lady isn't drunk, though. Don't pick on her. I'm to
"Thus was achieved a
new climax in the personal difficulties of
Robert Walker -- difficulties which seemed to have reached their peak
last August when he separated from Barbara Ford after six weeks of
"Whatever it is that
has caused an intelligent, talented and
attractive young man to become such a tragic figure, his friends
(with, it must be said, rather shaken faith) are still hoping that
some miracle will transform him into a well-balanced, uncomplicated
"For a little while,
it appeared that young Barbara Ford possessed
the magic key. She and Bob had known each other only five or six
weeks before they were married, but in that brief interval Bob seemed
a changed man. He looked and sounded as he had in his early days in
Hollywood, before his marriage with Jennifer Jones exploded in his
bewildered face. He was keeping regular hours. He was eager to
work. He even talked to the press -- and for publication!"
"The date for the wedding
was set, the plans all made. The ceremony
was to take place aboard John Ford's yacht. (And, by the way, I
don't believe that Mr. Ford disapproved the marriage, as reported. I
think he liked Bob and wanted him for a son-in-law.) Then suddenly,
on one of his unpredictable impulses, Bob said to Barbara, "Let's not
wait! Let's get married -- now!" And two hours later, without Mr.
Ford in attendance, the wedding took place."
"There were many reasons
why Bob and Barbara should never have rushed
into marriage that way. They had known each other so very briefly,
and even a few more weeks of learning to know each other better might
have made a tremendous difference. Bob was scheduled to start a
picture, which made impossible the long and leisurely honeymoon they
had planned. The house he had bought was not yet furnished.
Barbara, who had always been very close to her father, had naturally
wanted him to be at the wedding."
"But Bob and Barbara,
on a romantic impulse, went right ahead. So
two strangers, in an atmosphere of haste and strain, found themselves
man and wife."
"Who was to blame for
the tragic marital fiasco? Most people say
Bob. I'm not so sure."
"Of course it was cruel
and wrong when he brusquely ordered his young
wife to leave him after three unhappy weeks. I'm not condoning that -
- it was a terrible thing on the face of it. But remember that he is
a man who has been babied by women all his life -- a man who always
says, in effect, "No one understands me."
"Barbara, a fine girl,
was very inexperienced. She's never been much
around men, except the men in her family. She just didn't know how
to handle her very difficult and emotionally unstable husband. And as
he was disappointed in her, she was disillusioned with him. I'm told
that Walker didn't leave his room for four days following the
behavior is supposed to stem from a heart-
hangover he carries for Jennifer Jones. Every time he gets in a jam -
- which is often -- someone explains it by saying he's still in love
with Jennifer. (At the time of his arrest, the Associated Press
reported, he asked that someone call her.) Even the time when
he "disappeared," we heard "He's carrying a torch for Jennifer," from
the people who always seem to know."
"Walker laughs now --
a little bitterly -- when you mention that time
when he ran away from it all. He was in the middle of a movie. One
morning, instead of going to the studio, he got in his car and drove
to Santa Barbara. Radio news reports at once announced his
disappearance, and expressed the fear that Bob was dashing off
somewhere to kill himself! "I just went to see some friends," Bob
told the studio heads -- when he decided to return. "Try telling us
in advance next time," they suggested coldly."
"But that's the way
it always is with Walker; he hates to tell. He
has never yet told the story of what went wrong with his marriage to
Miss Jones. And Jennifer is just as non-communicative."
"Before they came to
Hollywood, they were happy in the apartment in
New York with their two boys. Bob was doing all right with his
career, bringing home something like a thousand dollars a week from
his radio soap-opera jobs. Between times they worked together in
stock, and life looked pretty successful after their early struggles
to make good on the stage, and in Hollywood, where Jennifer had
worked in Westerns as Phyllis Isley."
"(I've heard that Bob
and his wife were very poor at one time,
starving on a bench in Central Park, etc. That isn't true. Bob is
closely related to millionaire Floyd Odlum, and his family has always
"I rather believe that
if Bob had remained in New York with Jennifer,
perhaps the early kinks in his character might have straightened out
in time. But who can say? In any event, Jennifer came to Hollywood
ahead of Bob to star in 'Song of Bernadette'. A few weeks later, Bob
was called by Dore Schary for a test in 'Bataan'. Richard Widmark
was also tested for the part. Bob won. I wonder what would have
happened to Bob and Jennifer if Widmark had won the part instead?"
"For a while in Hollywood,
Jennifer denied she was married. It
wasn't her fault, but it hammered the first crack into her marriage.
She was playing the role of Bernadette, a virgin who had visions, and
a married woman with two children would sound like wrong casting.
Bob agreed to keep up his part of the pretence, but he winced every
time his wife was referred to as a single girl. No man wants to be a
secret husband and father."
"The marriage and family
slipped out in an interview Jennifer gave me
during the making of 'Bernadette.' She begged me not to mention it.
I didn't -- until others did. Bob also let the truth slip out to
another interviewer in an unguarded moment. The story was
printed. "What an ideal situation," everyone cooed. "She's a big
success. He's a big success. Their marriage is a big success. They
have two lovely children. Who could ask for anything more?"
"Jennifer could and
did. At about the time of the release
of 'Bernadette' she separated from Bob."
"To understand Bob's
behavior at this time, you have to realize that
the strongest of all his strong dislikes is the press. Before he
signed with Metro, Bob had it written into his contract that he does
not have to give any interview unless he wishes. He can't understand
why anyone would want to know about what he does when he is not
making movies. I've seen him walk away in the middle of a
"Well, there was no
walking away from the furor of his broken
marriage with Jennifer Jones. Every day reporters called him for
details and photographers ambushed him for pictures."
"He holds the press
partly responsible for the actual divorce. "We
were trying to work things out," Bob has said sadly. "But I couldn't
read a paper without finding something that widened the gulf between
us." So he went further into his shell, became more aloof, more
suspicious of motives."
"Between the Jennifer
and Barbara marriages, Bob had a couple of near
weddings -- with Florence Pritchett and Lee Marshall, the divorced
wife of Herbert Marshall. Florence was even talking of getting a job
in Hollywood -- to be near Bob, I presumed at the time. He always
insisted that he and Florence -- and he and Lee -- were friends only."
"To me it seemed to
be the unfortunate case of an unhappy man who
wanted to be in love and to marry -- and who was desperately yearning
for a firm foundation for his very shaky personal house."
"I once overheard him
reply to a woman acquaintance who had asked
him, "What do you really want in life, Bob?"
"I want to remarry,"
he said sincerely and seriously. "I want a nice
girl who knows movies, but not necessarily an actress."
"Bob really does need
understanding. For all his strange, impulsive
behavior he is essentially a family man. He adores his two boys and
I know no one in Hollywood who is better to his parents. Bob moved
into his studio dressing room when his mother and father visited him
recently, so they could have complete freedom in his house."
"He teaches his kids
to hunt and fish. They go on terrific rabbit
hunts, from which they come home with a lot of imaginary adventures
and no rabbits. He reads stories to them by the hour. All the
unhappiness leaves his face and voice when he talks of his plans for
the boys. He was going to take them to South America, just before he
met his second wife. He will probably take them now in the spring.
He rented a house at Malibu last year because he wanted to teach the
youngsters to swim. He bought his present ranch next to the late
Will Rogers' home, so the boys could have their own horses. He is
trying, and quite sincerely, to give his children the security and
emotional stability he misses in his own life."
"Two years ago Walker
suddenly announced to Metro that he was
quitting motion pictures. This was immediately following the great
praise given him for his performance in the 'Sea of Grass'."
"I'm just tired of pictures,"
he explained. "No more movies for me.
I'm going to New York to rest." He wound up with his family in
Utah. He said he would stay there for the rest of his life."
"In a week he came back to Hollywood."
"Bob's marital crack-up
with Barbara gave him, naturally, a great
emotional shock. For a time thereafter he was in the hospital as a
result of not eating or sleeping. "How about drinking?" I asked. He
was not drinking either -- at that time."
"Shortly before his
recent arrest, he had said that he was eager to
get down to hard work again and get going with his career. I do know
that his acting means a lot to him and that he always gives honest
performances. Buy Hollywood is currently, whether deservedly or not,
very much on the defensive against charges of loose living. Though
MGM has given him "one more chance," it does seem probable that,
unless he undergoes a radical and convincing change, Bob Walker's
screen days are numbered."
"And yet -- if only
somehow Bob can get over his deep-seated belief
that every man's hand is against him! If only he can believe that
the human race, on the whole, can be pretty nice! If only he can
forget the past and find a way of fitting himself inside the everyday
pattern of human relationships! Then, perhaps, there will come a day
when Robert Walker will no longer be on the outside looking in -- at
other people's happiness."
"And, still hoping for
that day to come, there are a lot more people
than you think, Bob."
Copyright Modern Screen