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JANET GAYNOR

By
Gina LoBiondo

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“Star, Legend, Friend and Faerie God-Mother”

1930's Janet Gaynor 5x7 Fan Photo1934 Godfrey Phillips Janet Gaynor & Charles Farrell Tobacco CardUnless 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 our story.

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 Clover." 

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 Janet Gaynor MemoirOctober 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.

1934 Write Name Here Janet Gaynor Trading Card1929-early 1930's Janet Gaynor Premios Coupon CardWhen 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 higher intelligence!

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:

1929 Janet Gaynor Movie-Lane Keeno Game Card

Feb. 18, 1980
 
Dear Leia,
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
 
Janet Gaynor

Early 1930's Janet Gaynor Movie-Land Keeno Game Card

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 1934 Watkins-MGM Janet Gaynor 4x5 Promotional Photo1930's Janet Gaynor Premium from UruguayWasher was dead and Paul Gregory and Mary Martin were left with bruised organs and broken bones.

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 exist.
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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:

Denny Jackson's Janet Gaynor Page -- The Little Actress with a Big, Big Talent!