Tragedy of Robert Walker by Jim Henaghan
Redbook Magazine - November 1951
During his strange and tortured life, actor Robert Walker was an enigma. Now at last the true story can be told – and by his closest friend.
At the moment of this writing, Robert Walker lies dead in a candlelit room of a funeral parlor just a few miles from where I sit. Dressed in a blue suit, a white shirt and a simple dark tie, he lies silently dead in his thirty-third year. Those who have seen him say he looks at peace, and maybe he is. Although the room in which he reposes is open to me, I shan’t go there. Even though I was one of his closest friends, I don’t want to see him. Instead, I want to fulfill an obligation and keep a promise I once made to him.
I will tell you about him and try to help you understand him. He wanted me to do this when he was alive, but, as he was neither at the peak nor the bottom of his profession, he was not newsworthy, so I was unable to. Now he is dead. His name, during the last days of August, was in the headlines, and his picture was on the front pages. This is my sorrowful opportunity.
I am a professional writer. “Too much author” Is the editorial term of objection when a writer injects himself into his copy – and it is a recognized journalistic sin. But it has to be different this time, because I would be unable to explain Bob Walker to you unless I told you about me.
For almost all of the years Robert Walker was in Hollywood, he was my closest friend – and I was his. From the time of his first public evidence of nervous anguish, I have been his only confidant, and he was my only confidant.
I have had few admirers of my work, but among them Bob was the staunchest. When I would finish a piece for a magazine, he would come to sit with me and read it. I would watch his face for reactions, and when he would chuckle or laugh out loud I was pleased; and when, through some trick of my trade, I would make him cry, I was pleased, too, with the knowledge that I had accomplished a mood I had sought. He was my own critic, and because there is little artistry in my writings, he was proud of the forthright approach I used and of the honesty I truly tried to achieve, no matter who or what my subject. I shall not betray him here.
Robert Hudson Walker was born is Salt Lake City, Utah. His birthday was October 13. He was the fourth child, all sons, of Zella Walker, wife of Horace Walker, at that time editor of a newspaper called the Deseret News. He was in no manner an unusual child. Even as an infant, he resembled his mother to a marked degree in physical characteristics, but in temperament he was like no other member of the family. During his early childhood, his family was a busy one, for there were three older boys, and the household was strenuously engaged in preparing them for their futures. It has been said that this junior status was responsible for much of his torment in later life; that he was unloved and it left his personality scarred. I wouldn’t know about that, because I wasn’t there. But I know his parents, and I am not sure I agree with this theory.
As a small boy, Robert Walker was a scalawag. He was slender of frame, and he had an unruly shock of curly brown hair that defied the comb, arranging itself into a kinky pad and a forelock that was later to become almost his trademark. He had inexhaustible energy and a physical strength that often terrified his playmates. Aware of his odd physique, he suffered from a naïve shame and fought his shame by nominating himself the neighborhood bully; and he loathed being a bully so much that most of his childhood was lived secretly, within the walls of his own soul. From his very early years he exposed himself to very few people – never to his own family – and he truly trusted and confided in no one.
There have been stories printed to the effect that he was an unruly boy. I prefer “scalawag.” It is true that something drove Bob to run away, in search, no doubt, of an elusive happiness. But it is also true that these adventures were part of the daredevil attitude he had adopted, and equally as much attributable to boyish enthusiasm as to a developing neurosis.
A few months ago, Bob and I drove to Las Vegas, Nevada, in his shiny new Cadillac. And he told me of the time he and another lad had hopped a freight train in Ogden, Utah, and ridden it all night to Las Vegas. We drove slowly by the railroad station, and he showed me the small park where they had paused to contemplate their crime. And he told me how they had been dirty and hungry and had walked around the streets until they became frightened enough to abandon their plans and wire home for train fare. There was no melancholy in his recollection. There was fun and gladness that he’d had the experience – and gratitude that now he was a young man earning an immense salary and a celebrity driving his new Cadillac through the scene of a boyhood escapade.
At any rate, by the time he was ready for high school, it had been concluded that something must be done about him. The Walker family was in moderate financial health, but Zella Walker’s sister, Hortense was married to Floyd Odlum, the financier, and had in her own right a sizable fortune, earned in department-store enterprise. She offered to pay for Bob’s tuition at a military academy – and so he was shipped off to the San Diego Army and Navy Academy near San Diego, California.
Bob and I visited the place once and walked the outskirts of the school un-noticed while he pointed out familiar buildings and landmarks. He told me many things about his time there.
When he entered the school, Bob Walker was plagued with another curse. He suffered from acne, and his face seemed constantly in danger of erupting in a dozen directions. Along with his skinniness, the acne advanced his anti-social tendencies so much that he was almost a recluse during his first term. Although he hadn’t the weight to whip any boy in the school, he had the courage – and any time he had a fight, he was the challenger. He looked for trouble, you might say, in order to prove that he was better than any boy he had ever met.
By way of example, the dining-table regulations called for a new boy to be appointed head of the table each day. It was his duty to supervise manners at the table; the dishing out and passing of the food was also his responsibility. Bob kept himself aware of the culinary dislikes of his fellow cadets, and when it was his turn to sit in the chair of command he would see that nobody got what he wanted. If he knew a boy hated potatoes, that is all he would put on his plate. And if the boy complained, Bob quietly suggested that they settle it outside – after the angry one had eaten all of his potatoes.
Cadet Bob Walker wasn’t very interested in organized athletics. He had a brilliant mind, keen and analytical on any subject, and he had a fanatic desire to know everything there was to know. He was, consequently, a bookworm rather than a champion of the playing fields. His desire for knowledge and his ability to assimilate it quickly and easily did not show on his report cards, due, no doubt, to his eternal quarrel with constituted authority.
His one real passion at school was music. Trap drums. Born with a strong sense of rhythm, he developed it over a set of drums. Years later, I dropped into a dance hall at Ocean Park, California, with him. Bob asked permission of the band leader to play drums with the band. He took his place with the musicians and for hours played everything they played as if he had been rehearsing with them for months. And it was the opinion of everyone that he was great.
Another interest was acting. Many reasons have been given for his turning to this art, but the best is that it was a challenge to him. I think it was because he thought his pimples and his skinniness made his entry onto the stage ludicrous that he began to act; and I think his pugnacity was responsible for his success, rather than any native talent. Acting became a vital part of his life – and when he left school, it was the road he chose to follow.
It was Hortense Odlum his “Aunt Tenny,” who made his career possible. She invited him to come to New York and, to help him get a start, she staked him to tuition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was there that he met Phyllis Isley.
Anything you have read about the early days of their romance is pretty much guesswork, because Bob seldom spoke of those days to anyone – and never in detail. The fact, however, is that they worked together, found comfort in each other’s company, and eventually fell in love. He always spoke of her as “Phil”, and he described her as a shy girl totally unsuited to the role of glamorous film star she was later to attain under the name of Jennifer Jones.
They had wonderful times together. And they married when it was impractical. They lived in a small room in Greenwich Village, for which they paid sixteen dollars a month, and they played on the stage together at the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village for fifty cents a performance.
But even though he was happy in his marriage, Bob Walker was not happy with the world. He still mistrusted it and its people. He believed that no success would come to him that he didn’t create himself, and that opportunity would not knock at his door – he would have to seek it out.
William Bowers, now a screenwriter but in those days a fledgling playwright, ran into this mistrust the first time he met Bob. Bowers and some of his associates in a production then casting drifted into Walgreen’s Drugstore in the Times Square section for a sandwich. This drugstore was a meeting place for out-of-work actors. Bowers spotted Bob Walker seated alone, sipping a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. He suggested to his friends that the man was just the type they had been looking for to take a major role in the play. They agreed, so Bowers walked to Walker’s side.
“My name is Bowers,” he said, “I have a play about to go into rehearsal and we were wondering if you were an actor.”
Walker looked up from his paper and surveyed Bowers coldly. “So what if I am?” he asked.
“How would you like to read for the part?” asked Bowers.
“Walker turned back to his paper, “Get lost,” he said.
Bowers was a little shocked at the brusque attitude, but he pressed the matter. He was not, however, quite able to convince Bob that he wasn’t a phony. It was finally agreed that Bowers was to leave the drugstore with his friends and Walker would follow them. If they went into the stage door of a theater Bob would come in and talk it over. And that’s just how it was done. Bob didn’t get the job. He couldn’t read the role convincingly. It was the part of a drunkard.
Although the lives of Robert and Phyllis Walker were not rich in luxuries, they were rich in shared experiences. I went to the Stork Club with him one night a few years ago when his name was famous. He was recognized at the door and we were ushered into the exclusive Cub Room without delay. Headwaiters flocked around us, suggesting rare delicacies. And when we had dined well, Bob sat back and looked around the room.
“This is very funny,” he said. “One time, when Phil and I were living in New York and we were very poor, I got a job on a radio show. We’d been broke for so long we decided to celebrate. So we came here – and they wouldn’t let us in this room. But I’ll bet five bucks that tonight we don’t even get a check.”
The fortunes of the Walkers fluctuated during their first years together. The stories of these days have been told many times in magazines and newspaper stories. They had two children. They went to California, where Phil tried the movies and Bob earned twenty-five dollars a week reading manuscripts for an agent. But the time came when his breathless voice began to earn them a living back in New York. In soap operas.
Bob had the halting, soft speech needed to drag a sad drama to infinity, and he became much in demand. It got so he would do one show on NBC, then dash out of the studio, over to CBS, into another studio – and start playing another character before he had a chance to catch his breath. He actually ate while he was on the air, interspersing dialogue between bites of a sandwich and gulps of coffee.
Phil had just about decided to give up acting. There was a nicely-furnished house on Long Island to take care of, and two fine sons, Robert and Michael. But she had been to Hollywood, and David Selznick, her present husband, saw her and wanted her back for a test. She, too, was an actress at heart, so she went – and with her first picture, “The Song of Bernadette,” she demonstrated enough artistry to win an Academy Award and become a star overnight.
It was almost as easy for Bob. Dore Schary, at that time a producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was looking for a boy to play a cocky sailor in “Bataan.” If you saw “Bataan” you know that Bob, too, became a star with his first picture.
What actually happened between Bob and Phyllis Walker when they were suddenly lifted from an improbable future in Manhattan to assured success in Hollywood, only she can tell now. At any rate, I do know that Robert Walker was in the early throes of his melancholy when he lived with his wife in Hollywood – and he could not have been an easy man to live with.
But what the real reason for their divorce was, I don’t know.
Phyllis Walker (Jennifer Jones, the present Mrs. David Selznick) has been blamed for many of the scrapes of her former husband. It is a cruel and unfair indictment, for it holds that Bob’s crack-ups were due to his “carrying a torch” for his former wife. Any competent psychiatrist will point out that his neuroses were caused by experiences and fears he suffered almost from the time of his birth to his adolescence. The breakup of his marriage may have been the trigger that transformed him from a borderline neurotic to a man needing psychiatric help, but if it hadn’t been that it surely would have been something else.
When our friendship began to ripen, Bob lived in a small apartment on Wilshire Boulevard. His quarters consisted of a living room, a bathroom, and a bedroom. It was a swank apartment building and an elegant apartment, but attempting to live and entertain in it was ridiculous. The main problem was privacy. Bob had a colored houseman, a fellow named Harry, who looked like the president of a bank. Whenever Bob had a caller, Harry used to have to go out in the street and sit in his car. And when Bob needed him, he would step to the doorway and cry, “Harry!” at the top of his lungs, and Harry, white jacket and all, would come running across the lawn and into the house. I am sure the neighbors, unaware of the size of the apartment, must have thought this was indeed an odd way to treat the help.
Robert Walker had such an immense sense of humor that he would suffer almost any inconvenience if he thought a situation funny. For instance, Harry suddenly began serving fried liver and artichokes for dinner every night. Bob didn’t say a word, but I did after dining on the stuff three nights in one week.
“What’s with this menu?” I asked. “Every time I come here, it’s liver and artichokes.”
“We have it every night,” Bob said. “It’s been going on for more than two weeks.”
“Do you like it that much?” I asked.
“I hate it,” said Bob.
“Then why do you eat it?” I asked.
“I think it’s funny,” Bob said. And he began to roar and hold his sides. He had to take off his glasses, because they were wet with tears. “I’m not going to say anything to Harry. I’m just going to see how long he’ll keep it up. It’s the funniest thing I ever heard of,” he said.
End of Part I
It was during this period, shortly after his separation, that he began to show signs of melancholia. He had learned that in Hollywood the movie star is king, and that he could act pretty much as he pleased. It amused him, and he would take advantage of this fact to get away with rudeness that would have earned most people a kick in the pants. He would become morose and suddenly order his guests from his house. They would start to go. Then he would beg them to come back. As soon as they were seated, he would order them out again. It was kind of a game with him to see how many times he could get them out and in again in one evening. He knew they were catering to the “star,” and their acceptance of his insolent behavior amused him and at the same time revolted him.
It was after an evening of this sort that he would call me on the telephone and tell me how unhappy he was. I suspected, naturally, that the breakup of his family was responsible, but I carefully refrained from speaking about it.
Bob was a man of limited appetites. He was no gourmet. He was no clotheshorse. He was a collector of nothing. He was moderate in all things. And he was no drunkard. He liked to drink, but he was no alcoholic, and no doctor ever treated him for alcoholism or told him to cut down on his drinking.
Robert Walker became known as a “drunkard,” through a freak accident. He had been in a bar and had been drinking. On his way home, he hit a truck, tearing the fender from a new Chrysler he was driving. The truck was not damaged, nor was anyone even shaken up. But Bob had been drinking, so, as he later said, he “took off.”
The next day he telephoned the Chrysler agency in Beverly Hills and ordered another fender. The police were waiting for someone to do that. They called him on the phone and suggested he come in and see them. When Bob refused, they told him he had better, or they would come and get him. He came in, was charged with hit-and-run driving while under the influence of liquor, and, to get the whole thing over with quickly, he pleaded guilty. That made the papers, and from that day forward Robert Walker was “that actor who’s a drunkard.”
He was arrested once again for drinking – just once. It was shortly before he went to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He had a date with a girl who had once worked with him at MGM. They dropped into a small bar near his home, after parking his car in the lot next door. They sat quietly and had possibly three drinks. When they left the bar, they noticed a police car in the deep shadows of the parking lot. They hadn’t gone more than a block when the police came after them and ordered them to the curb.
The officers decide to give Bob a sobriety test, so they told him to walk a line in the sidewalk. Bob told me later that this was one of the silliest things he had ever experienced.
“They just stand there,” he said, “and give you about a twenty-foot start. They seem to encourage you to walk away from them. It was so funny I couldn’t resist it. I started to run. They caught me, of course, but their indignation was the silliest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Bob was taken to Lincoln Heights jail, and because he didn’t like the way the police were handling him, he took a poke at one of them. When several retaliated, he took them all on. He didn’t win. The police threw him into a chair, and a photographer snapped the famous picture that appeared in the nation’s press. Bob’s shirttail was out, and his fist was thrust toward the police. The photograph always amused him. I had a copy of it framed and hung in my bathroom. When Bob saw it, he roared with glee and asked me to get him a copy so he could do the same.
But Bob was never arrested for drinking at any other time. He was a temperate man on most occasions, preferring a glass of sherry when others would have Martinis. It is true, though that just a couple of drinks would affect him.
When he got into a violent mood, as a result of his emotional problem, he would put his fists through windows and punch at walls. I have been with him at times like these. But he never hurt anyone else - just himself.
He hated Hollywood. He used to tell me that he had never been happy there, and that he was going to leave forever. I was with him one day when he called his studio and told an executive he was quitting. The startled executive said that wasn’t possible. He had a contract, and would not be allowed to work for anyone else. Bob said he had no intention of working for anyone else in the picture business, and would get a job in a service station.
For a long time he refused to face the fact that something he was not aware of was torturing him. But shortly after the last affair with the police, Dore Schary, the man who had brought him to Hollywood and who had by then become a top executive at MGM, called him into the office and put the cards on the table. Bob had choice to make, Schary told him. He could quit and get out of the business and the town and destroy himself – or he could go to the Menninger Clinic and take treatment. The studio would foot the bills. It was also stipulated that he would have to be committed, so that the clinic could hold him until they felt he was well enough to leave. Bob agreed to go. He told me later he thought it was a lot of nonsense, but he didn’t want to fight any more.
The night before he left, he called me on the telephone. I had not heard of the arrangements, and I suggested we get together for lunch the next day. He was very angry.
“You know damn well I’m going away in the morning,” he said.
“I didn’t know,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“Now don’t you start lying to me,” he shouted. “You know very well where I’m going.”
I didn’t learn until several days later that Bob and his father had boarded a plane early the next morning for Topeka, Kansas, to commit him to the clinic.
For the first few weeks at the clinic, he would talk to no one. He told me he sat in a small room and refused all attentions and hated the place and all the people in it. He was enraged because they thought he was ill.
The incident that changed his mind made headlines. He was picked up by the Topeka police as disorderly and brought to the station to be driven back to the clinic. He went on a rampage and broke nearly every pane of glass in the police station. But the real story was never printed.
“When I woke up the next morning,” he told me, “I knew they were right. I did have a problem – and maybe they could help me.”
“What changed you mind?” I asked him.
“I had always thought,” he said, “that when I became violent, it was because I’d had too much to drink. That night there were four of us, and between us we had jus one half-pint of whisky. And I didn’t remember a thing that happened. I knew liquor was not my problem. It was something much more serious, and I wanted to be cured.”
Bob stayed at the Menninger Clinic for six months, and during that time he communicated with no one in Hollywood. When he returned, he feared going back to work and facing people. It was the hardest thing he had ever had to do. Although we had been close friends for several years, he didn’t get in touch with me for two months – and I didn’t try to get in touch with him. I knew how he would feel, and I wanted him to do it his way.
One evening he called me on the telephone.
“I’m right near you,” he said. “Can I drop by?”
“Sure,” I said, “Come on.”
While I waited for him to arrive, I was filled with worry that I would not handle the situation properly. In a few minutes he stood in my doorway, and I invited him in to sit down. There was a feeling of strain between us. Then I said, “I don’t care if it affects you or not, I’m going to have a drink.”
He grinned and said, “Can I have one with you?”
“Is it okay?” I asked.
He said it was, so we poured and sat in silence. I broke it.
“Look,” I said, “Let’s get this over with. Just how nuts are you?”
He started to laugh, and he roared for five minutes, holding his sides as he always did and doubling over because it was hurting his stomach. But it did the trick, and he never again made anything but a joke of his stay at Menninger’s.
Much has been written about Robert Walker’s short marriage to Barbara Ford. Not much of it was either true or complimentary. It was a mistake they both made.
I was very troubled about their marriage plans, because I didn’t think either of them was deeply-enough in love. But they got the license and announced they would be married in a few days. That night Bob came to Balboa to see me. I told him how I felt. I could tell from his reactions that it was also bothering him, so I asked him to let me see the license. He did, and I put it in my pocket and told him I’d give it back in a couple of months if he and Barbara still wanted it.
A few days later, he called me and asked me to come to his Beverly Hills apartment. When I got there, Barbara was present, too. They told me they had been talking for a couple of hours, and that they wanted the license so they could get married that afternoon. I asked them if they were both sure – and they said yes – so I gave them the license, got hold of Judge Edward Brand, and arranged for a room at the Beverly Club for the ceremony. Barbara called her closest girl friend, the actress Nancy Guild, we drove to the club and the ceremony was performed
The marriage lasted a week. Both of them realized they had made a mistake, so Barbara got an annulment.
I think that when he died he was in love with Kay Scott Nerney an actress and dark-eyed, sensitive beauty, who loved him and was always kind to him. They spent a good deal of time together and never tired of one another’s company. Ida Lupino was one of his dearest friends. He loved Lee Russell. She was his only date for two years, and, with me, she witnessed much of his misery before he went to Topeka. He had a great personal affection for Dore Schary and felt he owed him much. He worshiped Emily Buck, his housekeeper, a woman who was truly a part of his little family. And, he truly loved Pete, the houseboy and cook in his home. But most of all he loved his sons.
It was for Bobbie and Michael that he tried so hard to keep a rein on his emotions. And he wanted desperately to live a long time so he could see them through to manhood.
I live at the beach at Malibu, in a house built upon the sand. For most of the summer, Bob and the boys came to our home every day he wasn’t working and camped on a stretch of white sand right beneath my porch. We played everlasting games. I have moving pictures of all of us, romping and clowning on the beach. All of these grand experiences give evidence that Robert Walker was almost well.
I was at his side when he died. On my way home I had dropped into his house for a drink and a quick hello. His psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick Hacker, was sitting at the dining-nook table with him. It was apparent that Bob was emotionally upset, so I started to leave. The doctor was trying to get him to bed and asked me to remain and help.
We talked for a moment or two, and Dr. Sidney Silver, an associate of Dr. Hacker, arrived. They agreed that Bob needed a hypodermic injection of a sedative to calm him and put him to sleep. Bob refused to go to bed, and playing a silly game he always enjoyed, he ran outside. It was raining, and I was in a hurry to get home, so I became angry.
“Come on, Curly,” I said to him. “Let’s get you to bed.”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” he said. And he took of his glasses and handed them to Dr. Hacker. “And you’re not big enough to make me,” he cried.
I picked him up and carried him into the bedroom, where I threw him down. The doctors began the injection. Bob laughed at them.
“You can’t even find the vein,” he said.
But they did, the fluid was injected and he immediately passed out. I started to put a blanket over him when Dr. Hacker, noticing something wrong, asked me to call Dr. Silver back into the room quickly. I did so. The entire situation was bewildering, for Bob had been given the identical sedative (sodium amytal) many times before, without ill effect. As I learned later, respiratory failure because of injection of this drug is extremely rare.
They began artificial respiration immediately, and injections of caffeine and a heart stimulant. We took turns on the respiration for a few minutes; then I ran and called the Fire Department Emergency Squad.
It seemed hours before I heard the siren up the highway. And Emily Buck and I kept calling the station back. The fire truck went down the wrong road, so I ran out to the highway and tried to flag a car. Nobody would stop, because I was coatless and it was pouring, so I ran half a mile up the road and leaped on the machine and directed them to the house.
Inside, there was much excitement. I asked the doctors how it looked, and they said bad. I suggested that I call Dr. Myron Prinzmetal, a brilliant internist, and it was agreed. He suggested that Dr. Hacker administer another drug – and I got into my car and drove ten miles in almost ten minutes in the teeming rain to get him.
When Dr. Prinzmetal got to the house, he immediately went into the room, examined Bob, and then went into the bathroom with the other doctors, for a conference. I joined them and asked the verdict.
“The man is dead,” Dr. Prinzmetal said.
I went into the living room and told Emily and my wife, who had come when she heard of the accident, that Bob was gone.
Soon the house was filled with people. I was crushed with sorrow. I poured myself a drink and went into Bob’s bedroom. They had covered him with a blanket. I uncovered his face, straightened his head, closed his eyes, and smoothed his hair, for he was a vain man and I knew he would have wanted to look as good as possible when they came for him.
I sat alone with him for half an hour and spoke to him as though he could hear me. I wanted desperately to call him buddy just once more and to have a last laugh with him. Then I remembered and outrageous running joke we had shared for many years.
It was our private joke. He would see me with a new pair of cuff links, and he would cry, “Those are mine! You stole them from me!”
I would look through his record collection, and I would scream that the records were mine and that he was gradually looting me of all my possessions. I remembered that one night, when he had stayed at my house, he had said:
“If I were to die in this house tonight, the first thing you would do is steal my money.” And he sat on the stairs and laughed for ten minutes at the thought.
I got up from my chair and picked his trousers. He had no money in the pockets. So I stole his watch.
I covered his face again, but I am sure I could hear him yelling at the top of his lungs, “You--------! I told you! I knew you’d do it!”
With the sound ringing in my ears, I left my friend’s body and his house and I’ll never go back.