Friday, June 11, 2004

No Love Greater

Than the B-Actor Spurned

Jane Wyman has emerged from years of silence -- 55, to be precise -- on the subject of her former husband Ronald Reagan to praise him as a great and gentle man in a prepared statement.

Wyman had two children with Reagan, one of whom died at the age of one day, the other of whom was the late Maureen Reagan, and adopted a third, Michael. A famous Hollywood couple in their day, Wyman eclipsed Reagan in her acting career, winning an oscar in the movie Johnny Belinda. On the set of that movie, she met and fell for liberal heart throb Lew Ayres. Ayres was the lead in the first Oscar-winning talkie, the anti-war All Quiet on the Western Front, a role he took to heart. As the country's most famous conscientious objector, he was excoriated by the public as a coward, but quietly volunteered for combat duty as a medic (while Reagan partied with Wyman in Hollywood, making Army training films by day and nightclubbing the rest of the time). When it became known he had served in combat, it took a bit of the stigma off him after the war, enabling him to land the fateful role of the doctor in Johnny Belinda, but the McCarthy era again branded him and he meandered through the rest of his career playing character roles (after losing the chance to play Dr. Kildare on TV because he didn't want cigarette sponsorship.)

I don't know the details of the Wyman-Ayres romance, other than the facts that Wyman divorced Reagan to be with Ayres, and the relationship didn't work out in the end.

Wyman, at age 90, is now the sole survivor among the three. One is fairly sure she won't be forthcoming with details of the love triangle -- or affair -- but you never know. There's an interesting story to be told, if for no other reason, a "what might have been" had Ayres never gone to work on Johnny Belinda.

Did she see in Ayres a person of conscience, who undertook to prove the value of his convictions by risking all? What spark of Ronald Reagan that might've originally been present did she sense that was similar to that of Ayres? We do know this: at his own crisis of conscience that might've ruined his career, during the McCarthy era, Reagan played the informant.

Reagan of course went on to marry another actress, Nancy Davis (three months pregnant at the time, in the grand Hollywood tradition), who had her own extremely strong set of convictions -- and to her credit, as with the debate on stem cell research, continues to live them and stand for them -- and the rest as they say is history.

Reagan clearly had a conscience and a sense of the strengths of personal relationships, although his legacy as a public figure makes the web of what made him who he was as a President rather opaque. It will be difficult to have an idea how his relationships with women will be understood outside of his celebrated love story with Nancy.

I do know this: there can be nothing so sad, and nothing so simultaneously binding and isolating, as having to bury a child with your spouse. That's a deeply sad thing. It changes a person. It either drives a couple together or drives them apart.

Reagan's celebrated penchant for confusing storyline with reality, his optimistic worldview and unrealistic grip on the facts of his time, came from somewhere. We spin varying degrees of fantastic belief about our loved ones, believing the best (and sometimes the worst) in them as part and parcel of our fervent faith and hope in them and in ourselves to maintain that love.

From the crucible of Lew Ayres came the hot metal of Ronald Reagan. Only Jane Wyman could tell you why one ended his career as a character actor on bad films and TV shows and the other became President of the United States, and only Nancy Davis could tell you why it wasn't the other way around. I think.


Anonymous said...

Lew Ayers was a man of conscience, and stood up for what he believed in. Thanks for giving him credit!

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