“Star, Legend, Friend and Faerie God-Mother”
Unless you're a die-hard movie
buff or are over the age of fifty, many folks today have no idea who Janet
Gaynor was. She was a Star in the truest sense of the word, but for me,
personally, she was much, much more than that. She was my friend, teacher
and the greatest influence on my life of anyone I've ever known. This is
It all began back in 1973 when our
local Public Television station began airing a "Silent Film Festival" every
weekend. One night they aired a film that would, ultimately, change the
course of my life. It was called "Seventh Heaven" and it starred a very
young woman (barely 20!) named Janet Gaynor and a six-foot-two stud called
Charles Farrell. It was a simple, sweet little love story--she was Diane,
a physically and emotionally abused waif who is rescued reluctantly by Chico,
one of the most perfect specimens of manhood I've ever seen! These two
lost souls eventually fall in love and, despite appearances to the contrary, the
film has a happy ending.
While I never forgot the film, the
name of its young starlet was soon forgotten. Two years later, however, in
November 1975, my brother and I were spending the weekend at our grandmother's
house when a film came on TV. It was a Selznick International Production,
the 1937 original version of "A Star is Born." I knew nothing about the
film and thought it to be an earlier version of Natalie Wood's "Inside Daisy
As it began I beheld it's star, an
incredibly beautiful woman with tightly curled auburn hair and large, expressive
brown eyes. Something about her was more than a little familiar and I took
a peek at the TV book to see who she was. It was then that I learned her
name--Janet Gaynor. Ironically, at 2:00 am the next morning a New York
station was airing "Seventh Heaven" and that's when I made the connection.
Could this really be the same woman who had won my heart playing Diane?
From that night on I was
hopelessly attached to her and when I went back to school on Monday went to the
library first thing, before even going to homeroom. I told the librarian
who I wanted to look up and she was most helpful, suggesting a book by James
Robert Parish called "The Fox Girls." I found it in no time and, sure
enough, there was an entire chapter on Janet. Eagerly I began to read--she
was born on
October 6th, 1906 on Wister Street in the Germantown section of
Philadelphia, the younger of two girls. She'd made 35 films between 1926
and 1939, starting out several years earlier in two-reel comedies as an extra
and ending up one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time she
retired, making well over $100,000 a picture. She was the first actress to
win an Academy Award for Best Actress, for her performances in "Seventh Heaven,"
"Sunrise" and "Street Angel." Years later she was even considered by David
O. Selznick to play the part of the virtuous Melanie in "Gone With the Wind."
Doing some quick math I realized at the time she was 69 years old and I couldn't
help but wonder what she looked like.
Looking up at the clock I realized
to my horror that I had five minutes to get to homeroom! Quickly, I
checked the book out and raced to class with only moments to spare. It was
a close call but definitely well worth it. A week later I returned to the
library and photocopied the entire chapter, photos and all. It became the
first of many items in my scrap book.
The years passed and I continued
to collect more articles and photos. On May 6th, 1978, Janet made an
appearance on the 50th Annual Academy Awards broadcast, presenting Diane Keaton
with her Best Actress Oscar for "Annie Hall." The memory of that night
remained in my heart and would sustain me until November 1979 when, three years
after I'd seen her in "A Star is Born," a headline appeared in the now defunct
Philadelphia Bulletin. It said simply--"Comeback for Gaynor." My
eyes were glued to the page as I continued to read--Janet Gaynor, after a
41-year retirement, was to star in a Broadway play by Colin Higgins. The
play was called "Harold and Maude" and it was to open at the Martin Beck Theatre
on January 28, 1980.
On February 2, 1980, the day I was
to see "Harold and Maude," I awoke a nervous and excited wreck! As my
mother and I took the Amtrak from Philadelphia to New York my excitement grew
until I felt I would burst! Finally, after a brief ride on the subway and
a short walk we were standing in front of the Martin Beck Theatre. I
wanted to buy my mother a ticket but she doesn't particularly care for the
theatre so she planned to take a stroll around, perhaps do some shopping, and
meet me in the lobby when the show was over.
I don't even remember walking into
the theatre but suddenly I was in Row A, Seat 106. The lights went down,
the curtain rose and the most enjoyable two hours I can remember began.
Janet was absolutely wonderful as Maude and I laughed so hard I cried.
She'd changed a lot from the photos in my scrapbook--she was 73 years old,
plump, cheerful and her hair was as white as snow, but the quiet power I'd
always sensed in her was still there.
When the show ended at 4:00 pm I
met Mum in the lobby as promised and together we went to wait by the stage door,
hoping to catch a glimpse of Janet or one of the other actors. There were
about a dozen or so people waiting with us. At last she came out, wrapped
up in a heavy coat with a light green scarf around her head--after all, New York
City in February is a heck of a lot colder than Palm Springs, California!
The stage manager, a mountain of a
man, escorted Janet to the limo parked at the curb. Just before she
reached it I managed to squeeze passed him to find myself standing right next to
her. Putting my hand gently on her arm I asked if she had gotten the
engraved gold locket I'd sent her for Christmas. Well, that dear lady's
whole face lit up, like the sun bursting through storm clouds, and she got so
excited I thought for sure she was going to take off like a rocket into orbit!
She smiled radiantly at me and I could tell how glad she was that we'd met.
Then Janet did something I'd never expected--she squeezed my hand. In that
moment I felt such a tremendous warmth coming from her, a feeling that reached
into the very core of my soul, and I knew that I'd come face to face with a
Somehow, through my dazzled brain,
I heard Janet say softly, "Yes, I did, but I haven't had a chance to send a
thank you note." I heard myself reassure her that it was okay, then she
signed the cover of my Playbill, hopped into her car and was gone.
Sadly, "Harold and Maude" closed a
week later after only 17 performances. On February 22 I called home from
work during my lunch hour as I usually did and Mum excitedly told me, "You got a
letter from Janet Gaynor!" Needless to say I couldn't keep a straight face
the rest of the day and would break into a huge grin whenever no one was
looking. I never thought 5:30 would ever come, but at last it did and soon
I was reading the following letter:
Thank you so very much for that lovely little locket.
I was very sorry not to be able to stop and say a few
words with you but if I stopped for one person I would have to talk or
autograph for all the others and would never get away.
I am sure you understand.
Again, many thanks and with warm good wishes
Before you folks get totally
confused I must explain that "Leia" was a nickname I'd acquired in Summer Stage
when the others in my Little Theatre class decided I looked like Carrie Fisher,
who played Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" films. Since I was hell-bent
on a theatrical career at the time I came up with the stage name of "Leia
Anderson," all of which I had explained to Janet. She obligingly agreed to
call me Leia, much to my delight.
Once again the months came and
went and Janet and I continued our correspondence, beginning with a New Year's
wish from her. I was to wind up doing the majority of the writing, but I
didn't care. I understood that she had her own life. She traveled
and worked on her paintings and a new resurgence began in her acting career.
Between January 1981 and September 5, 1982 Janet appeared in an episode of "The
Love Boat" with Lew Ayres, opened in "On Golden Pond" as Ethel Thayer and gave
delightful interviews with Merv Griffin and on the PBS series "Over Easy."
It was just after the taping of
this last interview that all our lives would be forever altered. Janet,
her husband, Paul Gregory, Mary Martin and their friend Ben Washer were in a
terrible accident. The cab in which they were going to dinner was
rammed broadside by a drunken degenerate's speeding van. The cab spun out
of control and wrapped itself around a tree. In the aftermath, Ben
was dead and Paul Gregory and Mary Martin were left with bruised organs and
The worst of the injuries,
however, was inflicted on my darling Janet. She had caught the impact of
Washer and Martin's bodies and the result was devastating: 11 broken ribs (the
human body only has 12!), a broken collar bone, a burst spleen, a ruptured bladder, a bleeding
kidney, multiple pelvic fractures and on top of all of that, her feet were
mangled. Within minutes they were rushed to the trauma center at San
Francisco General Hospital and Janet was listed in critical condition. She
was fighting for her life with every bit of will she had, but her doctors had
little hope of her living through the first few days. They took her into
surgery to try to repair some of the damage. It lasted five hours and in
that time she needed ten pints of blood.
The night I heard of the accident
I didn't sleep a wink. I kept fighting for my friend's life, praying she
would make it, willing her with my own spirit, my own soul, to survive!
The Goddess, or perhaps the Fates, I don't know which, smiled on us and Janet
make it. She stayed in the hospital for four months, during which time she
had six more operations. At last, in January 1983, my friend went home to
the Singing Trees Ranch in Palm Springs to complete her recovery.
Over the next 18 months Janet was
on a rollercoaster ride. For every step forward she took to complete
recovery, she'd take two steps back. Finally, as hard as her spirit
continued to fight for her life, her body was unable to any longer and Teacher,
as I had come to affectionately call my friend, journeyed to the House of the Dead
at 1:45 am Pacific time on September 14, 1984, with Paul and her son Robin by
her side. She was three weeks from her 78th birthday. Her attending
physician, Dr. Bart Apfelbaum, listed the cause of her death as pneumonia, renal
failure and other complications caused directly by the accident in San Francisco
two years prior.
It's been over twenty years now
since Janet died in Palm Springs and not a day has gone by that I don't think of
her or miss her, especially when I think of all of the things I could have
shared with her. After her death Jimmy Stewart was quoted as saying that
she was a great lady and that as long as movies survive she'll never be
forgotten. He was right. I know for sure that I'll never forget her
and my goal now is to see that "Seventh Heaven," "Street Angel," "Lucky Star"
and every one of Janet's films that have survived is fully restored and released
on home video, maybe with a little help from genius composer Lord Andrew Lloyd
Webber, who I would love to see get his hands on some of them. Janet Gaynor was more than just my idol. As I've said, she was my closest and
dearest friend, and I'll love her until both time and the universe cease to
Gina LoBiondo offers a 28-page expanded memoir about her friendship with Janet Gaynor. Gina has recently updated her memoir, added 22 photos, and bound
it. To own a copy send $25 to: Gina Lo Biondo, 105 Green
Briar Lane, Havertown, PA 19083-2833.
Other Janet Gaynor Pages:
Jackson's Janet Gaynor Page -- The Little Actress with a Big, Big