2004-08-28 01:34:10 UTC
Leave it to the British papers to out Van Johnson. This is
a marvelously gossipy obit.
Evie Wynn Johnson
Actress and ambitious Hollywood wife
28 August 2004
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
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
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
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."