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Van Johnson, Gay Superstar

Van Johnson was a huge star in the 1940s. His red hair, freckles and cute face made him the bobby-soxer's delight during World War II. His story—much like Rock Hudson in the following decade&...

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June 22, 2013 :: 7:05 PM

Van Johnson was a huge star in the 1940s. His red hair, freckles and cute face made him the bobby-soxer’s delight during World War II. His story—much like Rock Hudson in the following decade—is of a gay man who had to pretend to be straight and live a lie for most of his life. But unlike Rock Hudson, whose short-lived marriage was pretty much ignored by his fans and the press, Van Johnson’s marriage caused almost as much scandal as any revelations of his gay life.

Van Johnson was the only child of a Swedish immigrant plumber. His alcoholic mother deserted the family when Van was a child, and he was raised by a strict unloving father. Van became a dancer and eventually landed in the chorus of Too Many Girls with Desi Arnaz and Pal Joey with Gene Kelly. During this period, Van became close friends with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and this friendship with Lucy would be one of his luckiest breaks.

After a six-month contract with Warner Brothers flopped, Van Johnson was ready to leave Hollywood and return to New York. According to legend, Lucy and Desi took the despondent young actor to famous Chasen’s restaurant for a farewell dinner. Upon spotting MGM casting director Billy Grady, Lucy dragged Van over and basically told Grady that MGM would be crazy not to sign Van to a contract.

Grady was probably as impressed with Lucy’s enthusiasm as he was with the tall, handsome, shy young man at her side. Van was signed and did a couple of small parts when his big break came—and almost went. He was cast as the young pilot in A Guy Named Joe with mega stars Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. Midway through the film’s production, Van was involved in a near-fatal car accident that almost killed him and left him with a metal plate in his forehead. Laid up for weeks, MGM planned to replace Johnson and recast the part, but both Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy insisted the production halt and wait for Johnson’s return. Had these two huge stars not intervened, Van Johnson might never have become a movie star.

Now exempt from the military, Johnson was given the lead in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which was a smash hit when released in 1944. By 1945 Van Johnson was on the cover of every movie magazine and was tied with Bing Crosby as the top box office star of the year. Van was then cast with June Allyson and Esther Williams in a number of popular films.

Van Johnson was best pals with Keenan Wynn and his wife Evie Wynn. The three of them were inseparable, which led to a number of lurid rumors. Other rumors included Van being busted in a Hollywood men’s room for ‘indecent acts.’ At this point, MGM boss L.B. Mayer insisted that Johnson get married. According to Evie Wynn (quoted in Scott Eyman’s biography of Mayer), she was called in by Mayer and told that she was the only woman that Van would agree to marry. Mayer threatened to cancel her husband’s contract if Evie did not divorce Keenan and marry Van. She did as she was told.

Van Johnson married Evie Wynn the day after her divorce was finalized. The fan furor over this was unbelievable, as Van lost many of his female movie fans. Keenan Wynn’s father—comic Ed Wynn—added fuel to the fire when he stated, “I can’t keep them straight. Evie loved Keenan, Keenan loves Evie. Van loves Keenan. Keenan loves Van.” The gossip and conjecture about this volatile trio continued for years. Van and Evie had a daughter and raised Evie’s two sons from Keenan Wynn.

Van Johnson’s career at MGM lasted until 1954, and he did make a number of good films with divas Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1961, Van and Evie separated, divorcing in 1968. Johnson later stated it was “the ugliest divorce in Hollywood history. I make out checks every week to Dragon Lady and carry them through the snow at 4 a.m., if necessary, to get them in the mail on time.”

Van Johnson was officially ‘outed’ when his stepson, Ned Wynn, in his bittersweet memoir We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills, stated that the marriage broke up when Van took up with a male dancer in the London production of The Music Man. Wynn quotes his mother as saying that Van had left her “for a man, a boy really. He’s the lead boy dancer.”

Evie Wynn Johnson died bitter and broke in Florida in 2004. For years there were reports that she was going to write a blistering tell-all called All About Evie, but it never appeared. Van also became totally estranged from his only child. She later wrote a scathing article about her father.
Van Johnson was a charming, talented actor who did personify the boy next door. He lived until 92 and died in 2008. Unfortunately, he lived in an age when actors had to be straight. In today’s world, actors like Neil Patrick Harris can flourish and be totally open about their sexuality. But Van Johnson lived in an age that now seems prehistoric in terms of sexuality and personal freedom. Van Johnson could still be the boy next door today, but it would a very different boy from the cute redhead who entranced American movie audiences in 1945.

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