“A project of his time, Van Johnson illustrates the fantasy world that Hollywood projected during the 1940s and 1950s,” writes Ronald L. Davis in Van Johnson: MGM’s Golden Boy. “… Any dishonesty in his life was part of a desire, dominant during the heyday of Hollywood’s big studios to produce pristine likenesses of an idealized society in which all but the most indolent sought the glories and riches of the American dream fulfilled.”
Needless to say, in the mid-20th century the glories and riches of the American dream fulfilled could never have belonged to a guy sexually attracted to other guys. As a result, Johnson, who had such inclinations, thought it best to play the game. (And if you think things have changed much, imagine if Michael Phelps or any other widely publicized “Boy Next Door” turned out to enjoy sex with other men. Perfectly legal behavior, mind you; nevertheless, you can bet that their multi-million dollar marketing deals would go up in smoke faster than Phelps’ infamous weed.)
As to be expected, the US-media has gone right along with the MGM-produced Johnson farce – so much so, in fact, that even in their Van Johnson obits mainstream news sources such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press failed to mention the actor’s efforts to hide his sexual orientation. (See also numerous US-based published obits for the likes of Merv Griffin, Dirk Bogarde, Lon McCallister, et al., in which homosexuality remained a taboo even after death.)
In Evie Wynn Johnson’s 2004 The [London] Independent obit, however, Johnson’s former wife is quoted as having said in 1999, “They needed their ‘big star’ to be married to quell rumours about his sexual preferences, and unfortunately, I was ‘It’ – the only woman he would marry.” According to Evie, MGM boss Louis B. 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. [Wynn was to remain at MGM until the mid-1950s.] 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.”
(In his autobiography, screenwriter-playwright Arthur Laurents, who was in Hollywood at that time, talks about “a sunny male star caught performing in public urinals once too often [who] 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.” The 2006 movie Hollywoodland has a brief scene based on Johnson’s alleged sexual escapades.)
I haven’t read either Ronald L. Davis’ or Ned Wynn’s book, yet, so I don’t know what they have to say about the whole Wynn-Johnson-Wynn triangle. In any case, Evie’s separation from Johnson, as explained in We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills, came about after she traveled with him to London in 1961, when he starred onstage in The Music Man, and discovered that her husband had begun an affair with a male cast member, “a boy, really. He’s the lead boy dancer.”
Now, although I find it idiotic that the US mainstream media would not mention Van Johnson’s hidden gay life in their obits and that morons everywhere continue to buy into the Sweet-as-Pie Boy/Girl Next Door b.s. (right, Johnson with Janet Leigh), in no way do I judge the actor for opting to keep himself locked deep in the closet. Honesty, especially if you’re in the limelight, can lead to disaster, as many celebrities both then and now have learned.
So, Van Johnson wasn’t quite like his public image – but then again, who is or ever has been? And whether because or in spite of his (serious) personal issues, the off-screen Van Johnson sounds far more interesting than the insipid, ahem, wholesome characters he subjected himself to playing in order to sate the appetite of audiences addicted to artificial goo.
And he kept on playing that role until the end. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Johnson said in a 1997 interview. “All my dreams came true. I was in a wonderful business, and I met great people all over the world.”