Evie Wynn Johnson

Actress and ambitious Hollywood wife

Monday 10 October 2011 03:01

Although initially a stage actress under her real name, Eve Abbott, Evie Wynn Johnson is best remembered as the former wife of the actors Keenan Wynn and Van Johnson.

Eve Abbott, actress: born Buffalo, New York 1914; married 1939 Keenan Wynn (two sons; marriage dissolved 1947; died 1986), 1947 Van Johnson (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1968); died Lauderdale Lakes, Florida 19 July 2004.

Although initially a stage actress under her real name, Eve Abbott, Evie Wynn Johnson is best remembered as the former wife of the actors Keenan Wynn and Van Johnson.

The marriages were the subject of much publicity and rumour in the Forties since, before marrying Evie, Johnson had been a best friend of the Wynns. Many of his fans were alienated when he married Evie the day after her divorce from Wynn, while those who were aware of Johnson's sexual ambivalence wondered how genuine the marriage could be.

In 1999, when Evie was bitter and near poverty, she finally stated that MGM had persuaded her to marry Johnson, one of their top stars of the Forties. "They needed their 'big star' to be married to quell rumours about his sexual preferences," she said, "and unfortunately, I was 'It' - the only woman he would marry."

The daughter of a theatre manager, Eve Abbott was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1914, but in her late teens she moved to live with an aunt in Brooklyn to be nearer the casting offices of New York City. Serving her apprenticeship as a member of the Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McLintock stock company, she made her Broadway début with a small role in Romeo and Juliet (1935). The legendary production starred Cornell and Maurice Evans, with a cast including Ralph Richardson as Mercutio, Orson Welles as Tybalt, George Macready as Paris and Tyrone Power as Benvolio. She and Power also had small roles in Saint Joan (1936), and started an affair, though she later stated, "Ty was too beautiful. I knew he would never settle down with one person."

Abbott also appeared in the record-breaking Hamlet (1936) starring John Gielgud, Kaufman and Hart's The American Way (1939), with Fredric March, and two plays by Maxwell Anderson, The Star-Wagon (1937), with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish, and Key Largo (1939) with Paul Muni. She met Keenan Wynn when he played a small role in The Star-Wagon. In 1939, when they married, Evie gave up acting to work as his unofficial agent and business manager.

Ambitious and assertive, she allegedly chastised Wynn for his cavalier approach to his profession and his love of motor-bikes and daredevil escapades. Wynn later stated, "I was Evie's hobby rather than hubby. Before long we began to realise that the only thing we had in common was my career, and even that bond was disappearing." He acknowledged, though, that as an agent she had negotiated for him one of the best deals ever for a supporting player in Hollywood, a contract with MGM paying him $2,500 a week for 40 weeks.

Wynn and Van Johnson had become friends when they were both small-part actors in New York. Both were signed to movie contracts by MGM in 1942, and Johnson was soon inseparable from the Wynns, spending much time at their home, though things were not always harmonious. The actor Eddie Bracken, who lived across the street from the Wynns, said, "Sometimes the loudness of their arguments was ferocious."

In 1943, the three were in a car with two other friends driving to a studio preview of the Hepburn-Tracy film Keeper of the Flame when they were hit by a car which jumped a red light. Van Johnson, who was driving, was seriously hurt and Evie suffered back injury (the others were only shaken). Johnson, who nearly died, spent his long recovery period at the Wynns' home. In 1945 Keenan Wynn and Evie separated, with Wynn commenting,

Our marriage had followed the inevitable, sad course of marriages in decline. We had gone from coolness to bickering and then to open disputes. We had nothing in common, no shared interest except in our son.

But when Wynn had a motor-bike crash Evie took him back and nursed him, with the aid of Johnson. Keenan's famous father, the comic actor Ed Wynn, commented in 1946, "I can't keep them straight. Evie loved Keenan. Keenan loves Evie. Van loves Evie. Evie loves Van. Van loves Keenan. Keenan loves Van." In January 1947 Evie and Wynn were finally divorced, and the following day she and Johnson were wed.

Although rumours quickly circulated that the MGM chief Louis B. Mayer had ordered the union to cover up potential scandal, the truth is cloudy. The writer Arthur Laurents states in his memoirs,

A sunny male star caught performing in public urinals once too often was ordered by his studio to get married. His best friends, a young comedian and his wife, divorced so that he could marry the wife.

According to Evie,

For my money, Mayer was the worst of the lot, a dictator with the ethics and morals of a cockroach. Mayer

decided that unless I married Van Johnson, he wouldn't renew Keenan's contract. I was young and stupid enough to let Mayer manipulate me. I divorced Keenan, married Johnson, and thus became another of L.B.'s little victims.

Outwardly, the marriage seemed successful, with the vivacious Evie rapidly becoming one of the film community's most successful hostesses and doyenne of lavish parties. Janet Leigh, new to Hollywood in 1947, stated that Evie's closet "looked like a department store". Ned Wynn, in his memoir We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: growing up crazy in Hollywood (1990), remembers his mother at that time "wearing a new fur coat, Balenciaga and Givenchy gowns, with jewellery from Tiffany and Cartier". Evie had been given custody of the two children she had with Keenan Wynn, and in 1948 she gave birth to a daughter, Schuyler, by Van Johnson.

Besides looking after her husband's career, she occasionally returned to acting - she was featured in Never Wave at a WAC (1952), a comedy starring her friend Rosalind Russell. As her husband's career faded, though, her aggressive approach sometimes misfired. In 1957 Johnson had accepted the lead in a new television series, The Untouchables, when she insisted he ask for more money. With shooting due to start, the role was given to Robert Stack. The show was a smash hit.

In 1960 Evie sued Johnson for divorce, citing cruelty and his causing "grievous mental suffering", and a few weeks later she sued Wynn for "fraud and breach of contract" in their property settlement and for failing to pay child support. She was briefly reconciled with Johnson and travelled with him to London in 1961 when he starred on stage in The Music Man, but the couple finally parted when Johnson began an affair with a member of the show's cast. Ned Wynn writes that his mother told him that Johnson had left her "for a man - a boy, really. He's the lead boy dancer."

Their eventual, acrimonious divorce (Johnson called it "the ugliest divorce in Hollywood history") was made final in 1968. Johnson said later, "I make out cheques every week to the Dragon Lady and carry them through the snow at 4am, if necessary, to get them in the mail on time." Evie Wynn Johnson lived in Beverly Hills for a time, then moved to Florida.

In 1999 she wrote, "I have been reduced to near poverty and went bankrupt some years ago thanks to Van's lack of appreciation for what I did for him by being pressured to marry him by MGM."

Tom Vallance

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