Evelyn Keyes: Versatile Hollywood leading lady

Despite over a decade of Hollywood stardom, Evelyn Keyes is probably best remembered for playing Scarlett O'Hara's sister in Gone With the Wind, and for her colourful private life. Her four husbands included the directors John Huston and Charles Vidor, plus the bandleader Artie Shaw, and she was sweetheart to the flamboyant showman Mike Todd until he left her for Elizabeth Taylor. On screen, Keyes established herself as an attractive and versatile leading lady in such films as Here Comes Mr Jordan, The Jolson Story and Johnny O'Clock, without ever attaining superstar status.

One of five children of an oil executive, Keyes was born in 1916 in Port Arthur, Texas. Her father died when she was two, and the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she studied tap dancing and piano. She danced professionally as Goldie Keyes before moving to Hollywood, where Cecil B. DeMille signed her to a personal contract at Paramount and cast her as a southern belle in The Buccaneer (1938), though he advised her to lose her southern accent.

After playing bit roles in such films as Artists and Models (1937) and Men With Wings (1938) she was given a brief scene in DeMille's epic Union Pacific (1939), yelling "Help, help, Indians are attacking the railroad!" and the same year she played Suellen, the sister whose fiancé Scarlett O'Hara steals, in Gone With the Wind. Among the film's many memorable moments is that in which Suellen laments, "Scarlett's had three husbands and I'm going to be an old maid!"

Keyes herself married for the first time in 1939, to the businessman Barton Bainbridge, who was 10 years her senior ("Handsome, blue-eyed older men were my inclination") but they separated in 1940 and a month later he shot himself. "His note said it was because I had left him," Keyes wrote. "I never left a man again. I made them leave me, instead."

Though Paramount publicised her as "The Georgia Peach" and featured her in their "Golden Circle" of future stars, her contract was not renewed. Signed by Columbia, she featured in The Lady in Question (1940), the first of six films she would make with Glenn Ford. After playing Boris Karloff's daughter in Before I Hang (1940), she was given her first important role, as the blind girl who befriends a disfigured gangster, Peter Lorre, in Robert Florey's haunting thriller, The Face Behind the Mask (1941).

Her sensitive portrayal of the heroine won praise and she was rewarded with the leading role opposite Robert Montgomery in Alexander Hall's enchanting Oscar-nominated comedy, Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), in which she gave a beguiling performance as the girl who falls in love with a boxer who has been reincarnated as a businessman. Though it was one of Hollywood's finest fantasies and one of the best of Keyes' movies, she did not enjoy making it.

I had recently become involved with Charles Vidor, one of Columbia's top directors, who was still married then. One day, Robert Montgomery rather sneeringly said, "I hear you're running around with a married man." Full of self-righteousness and probably guilt, I lashed back, "That's none of your business!" Bob Montgomery never spoke another word to me.

Vidor directed Keyes in her next movie, Ladies in Retirement (1941), in which she was a Cockney maidservant, though Ida Lupino had the main role of a homicidal housekeeper. Between films, Keyes tried to further her education by enrolling in courses at UCLA. "Since Charles Vidor had told me that my type of beauty would fade by the time I was 30, I figured I'd better become an intellectual as soon as possible."

Vidor directed Keyes again in an ambitious western The Desperadoes (1943), Columbia's first film in Technicolor, after which she made two lively thrillers, Dangerous Blondes (1943) and Nine Girls (1944). She married Vidor in 1944, but they divorced the following year, after which Keyes scored one of her greatest triumphs playing a mischievous genie in the colourful fantasy A Thousand and One Nights (1945).

Another western followed – Renegades (1945), in which Keyes was the girlfriend of outlaw Larry Parks, and the pair next won the coveted roles of Al Jolson and his wife in The Jolson Story (1946). Keyes recalled,

The Jolson Story was a great break for all of us, Columbia's biggest money-maker up to that time. I campaigned for the role of Jolson's wife. The character was, of course, supposed to be dancer Ruby Keeler, but she had had a very bitter divorce from Jolson and wouldn't allow her name to be used. I heard they paid her $25,000 to be able to show her character, but the name was changed to "Julie Benson".

Though Keyes aquitted herself well in the undemanding dance number, "She's a Latin from Manhattan", her singing voice was dubbed by Virginia Rees, and for the elaborate "Liza" number, in which Julie falters while making some athletic leaps down a flight of disc-shaped steps, a dancing coach, Miriam Nelson, did the routine in long shot with Keyes shown only in close shots from the waist up.

She was top-billed in another musical, Thrill of Brazil (1946), a remake of The Front Page, but the musical numbers were performed by Ann Miller and Tito Guizar, after which Keyes starred with Dick Powell in Johnny O'Clock (1947), a tough and moody thriller written and directed by Robert Rossen. During the shooting, in July 1946, she eloped with the director John Huston in Las Vegas, and according to Keyes this prompted the studio chief Harry Cohn, with whom she had a sporadic relationship, to tell her, "You'll never be a bigger star than you are now."

After The Mating of Millie (1948), in which she played a homely girl who needs a husband in order to adopt a child, she was loaned to Sam Goldwyn for Enchantment (1948), a romance spanning several generations that was too melancholy to gain popularity, then had one of her personally favourite roles in Mrs Mike (1950) as a young bride facing tragedy in the frozen north.

Louella Parsons predicted I'd win the Academy Award, but by the year's end blockbusters like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and my husband's The Asphalt Jungle had come out and Mrs Mike was lost in the shuffle. So was I.

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), in which Keyes played an unwitting smallpox carrier, was another grim tale that audiences resisted, and Joseph Losey's The Prowler (1951), though it won some critical praise, suffered limited distribution when both Losey and the writer Dalton Trumbo were blacklisted. Having divorced Huston in 1950, and free of contracts, Keyes acquired an apartment in Paris and made films in Europe, including C'est Arrivé a Paris (It Happened in Paris, 1952) and the British-made Rough Shoot (1953). In the US, she made a taut if fanciful thriller, 99 River Street (1953), and made her theatrical début as Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera (1954).

She had the thankless role of Tom Ewell's wife in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and played a cameo in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), produced by her lover, Mike Todd, who made her a partner in his Todd-AO company, but their plans to marry ended when he met Elizabeth Taylor. Keyes had also had affairs with Kirk Douglas, David Niven and Anthony Quinn. "I always took up with the man of the moment," she said, "and there were many such moments." In Paris, Keyes met the clarinettist Artie Shaw, and in 1957 she became his eighth wife.

Keyes returned to acting in 1968, starring with Cliff Richard in a British television play, A Matter of Diamonds. Moving to Connecticut, Keyes auditioned for the role of Phyllis in the Sondheim musical Follies, but lost to Alexis Smith. Though she split from Shaw, the couple remained good friends; they finally divorced in 1985.

In 1971 she wrote a novel, I Am a Billboard, about a southern girl who becomes an overnight star in Hollywood, and she was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times for several years. In 1976 she toured in the Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette, and in recent years she appeared in three episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Her autobiography, Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister, was published in 1977, and its success led to a sequel, I'll Think About That Tomorrow (1991). Recently she commented ruefully, "I got to star in my own movies. I even had my name above the title in some cases. But what am I known for? My bit part."

Tom Vallance

Evelyn Louise Keyes, actress: born Port Arthur, Texas 20 November 1916; married 1938 Barton Bainbridge (died 1940), 1944 Charles Vidor (marriage dissolved 1945), 1946 John Huston (marriage dissolved 1950), 1957 Artie Shaw (marriage dissolved 1985); died Montecito, California 4 July 2008.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism