The only full-length biography of this immensely popular screen star of the 1940s and 1950s
Van Johnson's dazzling smile, shock of red hair, and suntanned freckled cheeks made him a movie-star icon. Among teenaged girls in the 1940s he was popularized as the bobbysoxer's heartthrob.
He won the nation's heart, too, by appearing in a series of blockbuster war films--A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Weekend at the Waldorf, and Battleground. Perennially a leading man opposite June Allyson, Esther Williams, Judy Garland, and Janet Leigh, he rose to fame radiating the sunshine image Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chose for him, that of an affable, wholesome boy-next-door. Legions of adoring moviegoers were captivated by this idealized persona that generated huge box-office profits for the studio.
However, Johnson's off-screen life was not so sunny. His mother had rejected him in childhood, and he lived his adult life dealing with sexual ambivalence. A marriage was arranged with the ex-wife of his best friend, the actor Keenan Wynn. During the waning years of Hollywood's Golden Age she and Johnson lived amid the glow of Hollywood's A-crowd. Yet their private life was charged with tension and conflict.
Although morose and reclusive by nature, Johnson maintained a happy-go-lucky façade even among co-workers, who knew him as a congenial, dedicated professional. Once free of the golden-boy stereotype, he became a respected actor assigned stellar roles in such acclaimed films as State of the Union, Command Decision, The Last Time I Saw Paris, and The Caine Mutiny.
With the demise of the big studios, Johnson returned to the stage, where he had begun his career as a song-and-dance man. After this he appeared frequently in television shows, performed in nightclubs, and became the legendary darling of older audiences on the dinner playhouse circuit. Johnson (born in Newport in 1916) has spent his post-Hollywood years living in solitude in New York City.
This solid, thoroughly researched biography traces the career and influence of a favorite star and narrates a fascinating, sometimes troubled life story.
Ronald L. Davis is the author
of Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master, and Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne. He is a professor of history at Southern Methodist University and the general editor of University Press of Mississippi's Hollywood Legends Series.