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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&...
By Mike McCrann
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.
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 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 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.”