Obituary : Joan Perry

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The Independent Online
Harry Cohn, the autocratic founder and production head of Columbia Pictures, enjoyed demonstrating his power over contract players by assigning them new names. Jack Lemmon defied his employer by refusing to change his surname to Lennon, but Cohn succeeded in turning Margarita Cansino into Rita Hayworth, Harriette Lake into Ann Sothern, Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford into Glenn Ford, and Betty Miller into Joan Perry. He later changed her name again when he made her the second Mrs Harry Cohn. (According to Hollywood legend, he called her into his office and declared, "I'm going to make Hayworth a star, and you my wife.")

The daughter of a prominent Florida railroad executive, Betty Miller wanted desperately to act on the stage. She came to New York in her late teens, and worked as a fashion model to finance her drama lessons. A brief marriage to a photographer ended in divorce. Harry Cohn was 44, and still shakily married to his first wife when, one night in 1935, he saw tall, green-eyed, 21-year old Betty dancing with an escort in New York's Central Park Casino. Introducing himself, the mogul impulsively invited her to make a screen test in Hollywood.

That test was the talk of Columbia Pictures: Cohn lavished an unprecedented 1,200 feet of film on it. "He really must go for this gal," whispered one of his hirelings. "He's made whole features that cost less!" It came as no surprise when the newcomer was signed to a studio contract.

Reviewing the film Shakedown (1936), in which she appeared opposite Lew Ayres, Variety stated, "Ayres has been seen to much better advantage. And he is not given much help by Joan Perry, apparently debuting in femme leads in this. Needs grooming." Before her next film, the crime story Counterfeit Lady (1937), Perry clearly had received that grooming: the same critic reported, "She displays rare charm and unexpected thespian ability, going through the implausible gem-thief role like a vet trouper."

Of the dozen-odd films she made at Columbia (most of them supporting features), the best was the screwball comedy Good Girls Go to Paris (1939), in which she shone as a rich snob who loses college professor Melvyn Douglas to waitress Joan Blondell. Perry demonstrated independence by making MGM's Maisie Was a Lady (1941), her first film away from Columbia. She then accepted a one-year contract with Warner Brothers, for whom she appeared opposite Anthony Quinn in Bullets for O'Hara, Arthur Kennedy in Strange Alibi, and Ronald Reagan in Nine Lives Are Not Enough and International Squadron (all 1941).

On 31 July 1941, a month after Cohn finally received a divorce from his long-estranged wife, he and Perry were married, and she retired from the screen. Their first child, a daughter, died 30 minutes after birth, but they had two sons and an adopted daughter. A converted Catholic, the new Mrs Cohn persuaded her Jewish husband to allow their children to be raised in her religion. A gracious hostess, she made their Beverly Hills home the scene of Hollywood's most elegant dinner parties. Although Cohn was the most feared and hated of all the film moguls (Ben Hecht nicknamed him "White Fang"), his second marriage lasted 17 years.

Harry Cohn died in 1958, leaving his widow $2m and the largest single stock holding in Columbia Pictures. Thanks to astute investment, she more than quintupled her inheritance, but took no part in the business of the studio. "I could have screwed my hair into a bun and become another woman executive," she said. "I leave the running of the company to the board. My job is being a woman."

She was a much sought-after woman. Her old friend the lyricist Sammy Cahn suggested that, were she to marry again, an ideal husband would be the actor Franchot Tone - as she'd then be Joan Cohn Tone. Actually in 1959 she became Joan Cohn Karl, but her marriage to the multi-millionaire shoe manufacturer Harry Karl ended in divorce after only 21 days. For most of the 1960s she was the constant companion of Laurence Harvey. They married in 1968, but divorced four years later. A rumoured engagement to Tab Hunter never materialised.

"I didn't want to be a star," said Joan Perry Cohn in 1962. "What would have happened to my marriage if I had?"

Elizabeth Rosalind Miller (Joan Perry), actress: born Pensacola, Florida 7 July 1911; four times married (two sons, one adopted daughter); died Santa Barbara, California 15 September 1996.