Janet Gaynor — Star, Legend, Friend and Faerie God-mother

Unless you’re a die-hard movie buff or are over the age of 50, 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, my Teacher and the greatest influence in my life of anyone I’ve ever known.  This is our story.

It all began back in 1973 when WHYY, Philadelphia’s Public Television station, began airing what they called a “Silent Film Festival” on Saturday evenings with a rebroadcast on Sunday afternoon.  I got to see a lot of great films, though it’s been so long most of them are not much more than a memory flash.  I only wish now that I’d had a VCR back then – I would have had a Heck of a collection!!!!!

One Saturday a film came on 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.

It’s been 32 years since I first saw it but I remember most of that movie as if I saw it yesterday!  I can’t explain it nor do I really want to try.  I think part of it is the emotional attachment to the characters as well as to the actors themselves.  When you see how fragile and frightened Diane is, through Janet’s performance, you just want to take her in your arms and hold her.  You want to love and protect her and she becomes at once a daughter or younger sister.  Chico, at least as he’s played by Charlie, is an absolute delight, despite the fact that every time he opens his mouth he sticks his foot in it!!!  He’s funny and at the same time sincere in his own shy, awkward way and you can’t help but like him.

Just look at this face! How can anyone help but love this girl (both character and actress)? This is Janet in a publicity still for our favourite film Seventh Heaven. It was 1927 and she was 20 years old. I have this photo in my collection and it’s one of my absolute favourites !!!

I love this shot – you can see all her emotions, all her sweet innocence; it’s all in her face. This is from Heaven, of course.

At the other end of the scale is Nana, Diane’s Psycho-Bitch-From-Hell older sister.  She’s played brilliantly by Gladys Brockwell and is the source of all Diane’s woes.  I’m sure off screen Gladys was as nice as could be, but for some reason the poor woman always wound up playing sluts, drunks and psychotic bitches!!!  In the case of Seventh Heaven it was all three at once!  I remember one scene which is one of my favourites.  It’s just after Chico has gone off to war and Nana comes in to harass and frighten her sister yet again.  At first she succeeds but this time goes too far and Diane – who up till then had been cowering in terror – suddenly and quite literally goes ballistic!!!!!  The scene is hilarious and needless to say Nana gets what she deserves!

One of my favourite scenes from Heaven – Janet as Diane facing off with her psychotic sister Nana, played by the brilliant Gladys Brockwell.

Well, I told you this film made an impact on me!!!  Anyway, time passed and soon the wonderful “Silent Film Festival” went the way of the dinosaur.  In September, 1975, I entered high school.  Two months later 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 its 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.  It was then that I learned her name – Janet Gaynor.  Ironically, at 2 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?

—  I downloaded this from the web – Janet in a nice, casual shot with another Legend Judy Garland.  I assume it was taken during the filming of Judy’s version of A Star Is Born. 

Eagerly I continued watching as she now played Esther Blodgett, a farm girl who becomes the movie queen Vicki Lester.  Fredric March, quite the STUD in his own way, was perfectly cast as the alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine, who falls madly in love with Esther and helps to make her a Star.  Sadly, Norman’s career takes a nose dive and by the end of the film he sacrifices his own life to save the career Esther worked so hard to achieve.  Janet’s emotional delivery of the movie’s last “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” line was enough to melt all but the coldest heart.

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 6 October, 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.

Here’s Janet at about age 18, before her own Star was born.

This is a nice publicity shot from the studio – Janet was still in her early 20’s here. This photo is also in my collection.

Looking up at the clock I realized to my horror 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 in my scrap book.

The years passed again and by January, 1978, the excitement over the 50th Annual Academy Awards ceremony began to grow.  Not long after, it was announced that Janet was to make an appearance on the broadcast on 6 April, 1978.  As the big night approached my own excitement continued to grow.  I had for so long wondered what she now looked like and to know I’d soon find out was most nerve wracking, waiting for the night to arrive!

Finally, the 50th Annual Academy Awards ceremony began.  This is another night I remember like yesterday.  My father’s accountant was over doing his taxes and my brother and I were already in our pajamas, watching the TV in my room.  The first hour passed, then the second, then the third and still no sign of Janet.  I began to wonder how much longer I’d be able to keep my eyes open!!!  Finally, at about twenty minutes to one the following morning Walter Matthau introduced Oscar’s very first Best Actress winner.

Janet being introduced by Walter Matthau at the 50th Oscars telecast.

Janet at the 50th Oscars – she gave Diane Keaton her Best Actress award for Annie Hall. I have this photo as well.

As one the entire audience rose to its feet in a giant standing ovation that lasted long after Janet reached the glass podium.  She was still tiny, barely five feet tall, and dressed in a lovely gown of pink and blue flowers with a three-strand pearl necklace encircling her throat.  In addition she also wore a longer pearl strand with a diamond broach and a longer gold braid chain with what looked like a cameo in the centre.  On her wrist was a multi-strand pearl bracelet topped off with simple gold hoop ear-rings.  Her auburn hair was now as white as snow and she was no longer 96 pounds, but she was still as beautiful as ever and positively glowed from within.  Her brown eyes twinkled with delight as the crowd finally quieted down and she was able to say how glad she was that both she and the Academy survived to celebrate 50 years.  She then read the nominees for Best Actress.  Of course Diane Keaton won for Annie Hall, a film I’ve never had any desire to see, and Janet presented her with her Oscar.  Diane said her acceptance speech and everyone was escorted off the stage.

Such a long wait and it was over before I knew it!  But, oh, I was still so excited I thought for sure my heart would stop!  I asked my mother, who had come upstairs not too long before Janet’s appearance, what she thought and even she agreed how wonderful she looked!  Somehow I managed to close my eyes, wondering how I’d be able to get up for school in five hours!  Surprisingly I did, though, but I was still excited and I think I must have functioned purely on adrenaline that day!

Time passed again and I continued to copy more articles and photos.  I graduated high school in June, 1979, then ironically in November, three years after I’d seen Janet in A Star Is Born, a headline appeared in the Entertainment section of the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin.  I 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 28 January, 1980.

Oh, how I longed to go!!!  A girl I was still acquainted with from high school promised she’d go with me and I began to look forward to the new year.  In December she convinced me we could see the rehearsals – in fact, she claimed she did it all the time – and I decided to get Janet a little something to remember me by.  That turned out to be a little gold locket, which I bought at the department store I worked at.  The day I got it they were doing free engraving so I took advantage of this and had my little treasure engraved.  On the front was the date which I was to present it to my Lady, with a personal message inside from me.  I showed it to some of my co-workers but didn’t say to whom it was for.

Perhaps on some sixth sense I decided to call the theatre the day before Lynia and I were to go and was informed that seeing the rehearsals was definitely out of the question!!!!!  I was greatly disappointed and rather annoyed at my so-called “friend”!!!  Upon some thought I made the decision to write Janet a letter and send her the locket in the post c/o the theatre.  I also explained about the date on the locket and told her that I hoped to see her in the show in the near future.

Lynia, when confronted, made a half-hearted attempt at an excuse.  I only half believed her and my doubts began to grow as the year came to an end.  Whenever I brought up the subject of tickets I was subjected to yet more excuses.  Finally, I got so disgusted with her that I got the information on ticket prices and seating directly from the theatre and sent them a Money Order for $18.50 for one orchestra seat ticket.  I was determined to go whether my “friend” came with me or not!  When it arrived in mid-January I was thrilled to find I had seat A106 – the very first row, right in front of the stage!!!

On 2 February, 1980, the day I was to see Harold and Maude, I awoke a nervous and excited wreck!!!  Since I’d heard nothing from Lynia in weeks my mother decided to accompany me, just to make certain I would come to no harm, all alone in a city the size of New York.  On hind sight I think Mum was probably right, but I was 19 then and perhaps more foolhardy than brave…and I want so badly to see Janet!!!!!

Janet with her husband Paul; I’m guessing this was either during Harold & Maude or On Golden Pond.—  Janet with her husband Paul; I’m guessing this was either during Harold & Maude or On Golden Pond.

As we took the Amtrak from Philadelphia my excitement grew till I felt sure 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.  Then a bizarre thought occurred to me – Janet’s birthday was October 6 or 10/6 and here I was in seat #106!!!!!  Told you it was bizarre!!  I’ve always rather thought it was fate or destiny or whatever you want to call it – in short, that day was meant to be.

Anyway, Harold and Maude is a delightfully funny story about a 19 year old boy named Harold, here played by the absolutely gorgeous Keith McDermott, who falls madly in love with Maude, an 80 year old faerie god-mother played by Janet.  As the curtain finally rose the first thing to greet my eyes was Keith hanging by a noose tied to the chandelier!!!  After the maid freaks out Mrs. Chasen, played by Ruth Ford, looks up at the “corpse” and says – “Harold?  Harold!  This is your mother speaking!  Come down from there immediately.” as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening!  Harold thinks it over then pulls a string on the rope and lowers himself to the stage, disengaging himself from the harness.

This was so bizarre I didn’t know what to think!!!  Scenes 1 and 2 finished and the lights came up on Scene 3 with several pews Stage Left, stained-glass windows in the centre and a coffin Stage Right.  Keith sat solemnly in the front row when out of the blue a wee little voice chimed – “Has anybody seen my nuts?!” and Janet popped up from the seat behind him!  She was 73 years old, plump and cheerful but the quiet power I’d always sensed in her was still there.  Besides, she gave Maude such a wonderful personality I would have loved to have had her for my next door neighbor!!!

All too soon Act 1 came to an end but I was having the time of my life!!!!!   During intermission I went out to the stage door and asked the man if he’d be kind enough to deliver the note I’d written to Janet on the train to her before Act 2 began.  He was most kind and said he had to wait till the stage manager returned but would be happy to deliver the note.  In it I had told Janet exactly what I was wearing and where I was seated.

I returned to my seat feeling both happy and cautiously hopeful that I might get to meet her that afternoon.  As the curtain rose on Act 2 Janet and Keith had to climb a “tree” and she climbed out onto a “branch”.  I didn’t take my eyes off her through the whole play but was most surprised when she looked back at me from her tree perch.  Our eyes locked and she smiled softly, then nodded her head ever so slightly, acknowledging that she knew I was there!!!!!  My heart almost stopped!!!!!  This was turning out better than I ever imagined!!!!!

I won’t give away the ending in case some of you haven’t seen it, but Harold and Maude ended at 4:00 with everyone in the cast getting a standing ovation.  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 escorted Janet to the limo parked at the curb.  He was a tall man and reminded me a bit of Charlie Daniels, complete with beard and cowboy hat and boots but he had a pot belly the size of a beer keg!!!  Despite the cold weather he wore nothing by a pocket t-shirt!!!

Just before Janet reached her limo I managed to squeeze passed this mountainous stage manager to find myself standing right next to her.  Putting my hand gently on her arm I asked if she’d gotten the 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 met.  Then Janet did something I 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!!!  At the same time I got an…impression…for lack of a better word, of a beautiful blue light, the colour of the sky at mid-day.  To this day, whenever I think of her, I see not Diane or Esther or Maude but this radiant, perfect light.

Janet at about age 70. What a beautiful, very special lady! This is how she looked when I met her.

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.

I have only vague memories of the rest of that afternoon.  After leaving the theatre Mum and I took two buses and had a lovely dinner of roast chicken and salad with one of her uncles and his girlfriend.  After, while the others sat talking of old times, I kept looking at my treasured PLAYBILL, tracing Janet’s autograph done in purple Magic Marker.

Sadly, Harold and Maude closed a week later after only 17 performances.  The so-called critics panned it and one twit, a man named William B. Collins at the Philadelphia Inquirer, actually had the guts to say about Janet – “She’s in her early 70’s now, gray-haired, with the shape of a tea cozy that has been in the family for years.”  If you could have read the letter I wrote him you’d be in hysterics.  It had more venom than a copperhead snake!!!  In short I said something to the effect that how dare he say she had the shape of a Bloody tea pot, that she was Hollywood’s Queen while he was still in diapers and what did he expect a 73 year old woman to look like, Bo Derek?!!!  I also told him I’d like to see his shape when he’s 73!!!  I think I even sent him a SASE but the worm never wrote back.  Around the same time, however, Rex Reed – who has a reputation for being unkind – did a wonderful interview with Janet, which I will always treasure.  He treated her with dignity and gave her the respect she deserved and for that, I will always be most grateful.

Anyway, on 22 February 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 PM would ever come, but at last it did and soon I was reading the following letter –

 Before you folks get totally confused I must explain that “Leia” was a nickname I’d gotten 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 at the time on a theatrical career I came up with the stage name of “Leia Anderson”, all of which I explained to Janet.  She obligingly agreed to call me “Leia”, much to my delight.

Several months later I wrote my friend again, this time c/o her son Robin, who was still working at CBS.  I also sent Robin a note, explaining who I was and thanking him in advance for being kind enough to forward the letter to his mother.  On 17 July I received her letter, complete with her address so that I could write her directly in future.  Among other things she told me – “It’s wonderful that you have definite goals to work toward.  You should spend your energy and time working toward them and let the frustrations go.  There’s a lot of wonderful life to be had out there so relax and go get it.  Know that you have every good wish of mine.”  It was signed – “Sincerely, Janet Gaynor”.  It was the best advice I’ve ever gotten, before or since, and it proved to me that, without a doubt, we were friends, always and forever.  It was about this time that I began to call Janet “Teacher”, using the same reverence with which young Helen Keller had with Annie Sullivan.

Once again the months came and went and Janet and I continued our correspondence, beginning with a New Year’s wish from her the following January.  I was to wind up doing the majority of the writing but I didn’t care.  I knew she had her own life.  She traveled and worked on her paintings and a new resurgence began in her acting career.  In early January Janet co-starred with her long-time friend, film veteran Lew Ayers, in a very funny episode of The Love Boat.  Their segment was called “The Fugal Pair” and was the story of an elderly couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.  Two months prior she had appeared in on episode of the PBS series Over Easy, giving a delightful interview with host Frank Blair.

On 10 March, 1981, at the World Playhouse in Chicago, Janet opened in On Golden Pond as Ethel Thayer, the role played by Katherine Hepburn opposite Henry Fonda in the film.  By the time Merv Griffin interviewed her a year later, Janet was in her fourth production of On Golden Pond with a fourth cast and plans were underway to take the show to Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Philippines and wind up in Honolulu, Hawaii!!!!!  The months passed again and in early November, 1981, it was announced on the news that Janet had had an art show at a gallery in San Diego and sold 200 paintings!!!  I felt proud for my friend and added this piece of news to my growing scrap books.

—  Here’s a sample of Janet’s amazing artwork.  I downloaded this off the web, but one day hope to have some of her work decorating my own home.
By June, 1982, I finished work on my first major writing project – a full-length, two act stage play which was my own retelling of the Cinderella faerie tale.  On a whim I decided to send a copy to Janet’s husband, producer Paul Gregory, to see if he’d produce it for me on Broadway.  I knew I was acting on a fantasy but I figured I had nothing to lose and possibly a Tony Award to gain!!!

When Paul and Janet returned to the country in August he wrote me a very sweet letter, saying that while he found the play to be an interesting idea it wasn’t something he’d be able to personally produce.  He suggested I submit it to producers in New York City since I live outside Philadelphia and it would be easier to deal with someone on the same coast.  He concluded by saying that in any event he and Janet both wished me all good fortune in any undertaking I might be involved with.  I still have yet to find a producer for Cinderella but my goal these days is much broader than the Broadway stage.  My dream now is to have genius-composer Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber turn it into a musical…but that’s another story!!!!!

Less than a month later all our lives would be forever altered by the actions of what I consider to be a pathetic waste of human life.  On the afternoon of 5 September, 1982, Paul and Janet were in San Francisco taping an episode of Over Easy, which Mary Martin was then co-hosting with Jim Hartz.  Mary and Janet had been friends since Mary first came to Hollywood and after the taping they decided to go to dinner along with Mary’s manager Ben Washer.  Since the restaurant was in Chinatown the little group decided to take a taxi – Mary slid in behind the driver, Janet got in the middle and Ben was last to close the door.  Paul sat up front next to the driver because he’s tall.

Not two minutes later, while the cab was crossing the intersection of California and Franklin Streets, all Hell broke loose.  Robert Cato, a drunken degenerate, ran a red light and plowed his speeding van broadside into the cab.  It spun wildly across California Street and wrapped itself around a tree.  In the aftermath, Ben was dead.  Paul, with a severe whiplash, several broken ribs and a bruised kidney had the least severe of the injuries.  Mary had a pelvis broken in three places, two broken ribs and a punctured lung.  While she wouldn’t be aware of it for several weeks, her head had hit the back window of the cab so hard it pulverized it.

The worst of the injuries, however, was inflicted on my darling Janet.  She had caught the impact of Ben’s body and Mary’s and the result was devastating – 11 broken ribs (the human body has 12!!!), a broken collar bone, a burst spleen, a ruptured bladder, a bleeding kidney, multiple pelvic fractures and on top of all that her feet were mangled!!!!!  Within minutes they were rushed to the Trauma Centre 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 she would live through those 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 made it.  She stayed in 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.  During this time, I was to later learn, Janet taught one of the burros at the ranch to share a Coke with her.  She and Paul joked about doing an ad for the soda company saying – “You don’t have to be an ass to like Coke.”

This was typical Janet – her humour and sense of fun were infectious.  In her book My Heart Belongs Mary Martin describes Janet this way – “My closest most special friend is Janet Gaynor.  We met in the early Hollywood days and I have loved her always.  For herself, for her intellect, her good common sense, the way she has lived her life, and the many things she has taught me.”  She continues later with – “One of my special pleasures is to visit Janet Gaynor and paint with her.  Or, more accurately, to watch her paint.  She has such concentration, talks so quietly, creates such beauty while painting….I learn a lot from watching Janet, but, most important, I have learned a new point of view about life from this very wise woman….We can learn, I am sure, until the day we die, and I for one am looking forward to each new day, each new thought.”

No truer words could have ever been written and they hold true for myself as well.  Even though I only came into direct contact with Janet for no more than a minute or two I also learned a great deal from her.  The most important for me was to never give up on my dreams, regardless of the obstacles, and also to think positive and that life is precious and to make the most of what I have.  Sometimes it’s hard but I always try to put into use the gifts Teacher gave me.

On 15 March, 1983, the Cato Thing appeared before Superior Court Judge Raymond Arata, being brought up on charges of vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving, speeding and running a red light.  Of course the Scum pleaded innocent and actually had the stinking guts to tell Paul he was sorry, as if that would bring Ben back to life or relieve Janet of the near-constant pain she was in from seven surgeries in four months!!!!!  Fortunately, Judge Arata considered Cato “callous”, among other things, and gave him the maximum sentence of three years in prison.  I, personally, believe that for his crimes, three years was an absolute joke and think that if His Honour could have sent him away for 1,000 years he would have!!!!!

Later that year the American Cinema Awards paid tribute to Janet for her outstanding contribution to the Arts.   In May, 1984, the San Diego Festival of the Arts also honoured my friend in the same way.  During these months I wrote to Teacher periodically, sending her cheerful cards and updating her on whatever story I was writing or what publisher I was sending my work to.  She had several more operations but by July, 1984, Mary reported on The Merv Griffin Show that Janet was swimming and walking a mile every day.  Her doctors at San Francisco General said it was nothing short of a miracle that she was alive and we all began to breathe a little easier, hopefully confident that the worst was behind us and that our beloved Janet was well on the way to complete recovery.

In mid August Teacher entered the Desert Hospital in Palm Springs to be treated for an undisclosed illness.  On the 29th she was released “in good shape”, according to one of the nursing supervisors.  Unfortunately, Janet soon took a turn for the worst and a week later, on 4 September, she went back to Desert Hospital for what would ultimately be the last time.  As hard as her spirit continued to fight for life her body was unable to any longer and Teacher journeyed to the House of the Dead at 1:45 AM Pacific Time on 14 September, 1984, with Paul and 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.

Ironically, about three hours later, I made a silent wish that I could see Janet just once more before she left this Earth.  When the news of her passing came on the radio at noon I was devastated.  For the rest of the day I felt numb and sick inside and wanted nothing more than to curl up in a corner to be alone.  I barely ate any dinner that night and was greatly relieved when I was finally able to go to bed.

I was lying there still feeling completely miserable when I sensed, then felt, an incredible warmth behind me.  It was the same warmth I’d felt four years, seven months before, on that blustery February afternoon when Janet squeezed my hand and brought my soul to life.  Even though I didn’t turn around to see I will swear to the Goddess until my last breath that my beloved friend was there in the room with me!!!!!  In an odd way I guess I did get my wish – Janet came to me one last time, to perhaps comfort and reassure me that she was okay in her new existence, that she was at last free of the pain and suffering she so needlessly endured because of that worthless piece of trash!!!!!

Over the years following her death I continued to collect more treasures on Janet — rare photos, articles and magazines – and my interests also began to include Charlie Farrell.  My only regret is not having gotten to know him before his death on 6 May, 1990, at the age of 89.  He was a comedic genius who far surpassed the morons today who call themselves comedians and, like Janet, was a wonderful, warm and caring person.  I’ve a strong feeling he and I would’ve been great friends as well.

Ever since I read in Jim Parish’s The Fox Girls that on 26 March, 1951, Janet and Charlie appeared in the Lux Radio Theatre’s presentation of Seventh Heaven I was determined to get a copy.  I began my search in the early ‘80’s with no luck at all, but I did develop a keen interest and love for old-time radio.  Over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection.  My quest came to an end, though, on 26 March, 1993, when – 42 years to the date of the original broadcast – I received word from a dealer in California that yes, he did indeed have the Lux broadcast of Seventh Heaven with Janet and Charlie.  I considered it a “sign from Above” and this held true the following year when I obtained a copy of the Playbill of Austin Strong’s original Broadway play of Seventh Heaven with stars Helen Menken and George Gaul.  The date on the issue – the week of 26 March, 1923.  I get goose bumps just thinking about it!!!!!

This is another download (the dealer offered it for $65 but I couldn’t afford it at the time). It’s Janet and Charlie in a publicity still for their appearance on the 26 March, 1951, broadcast of Seventh Heaven on the LUX Radio Theatre.

A magazine article the day before the LUX broadcast. If you’re interested in reading the text let me know and I’ll be happy to send a copy.

I’ve got this photo – Janet and Charlie arriving for the LUX broadcast. He was 50, she was 44.

Janet and Charlie during the actual LUX broadcast.

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when, in mid September, ’96, I received a catalogue from McFarland Publishers.  One of the books listed caught my eye.  It was called Silent Films on Video by Robert K. Klepper.  I decided to write Rob first before ordering the book to see if Seventh Heaven was listed and the folks at McFarland were most helpful, supplying me with his home address and phone number!!!  In early October I received his reply and my heart almost stopped – not only was Heaven listed but one of the sources had two other Janet and Charlie silent classics, Street Angel and Lucky Star!!!!!

I ordered the book and all three tapes that week and received Heaven first on Friday, 25 October.  I watched it that night and fell in love all over again!!!  It was everything I remembered and more – beautiful and touching and heartbreaking and funny and tender and suspenseful.  I can’t think of enough adjectives!!!  What I hadn’t remembered was how callously Chico acts toward Diane early on.  For example, when he saves the girl’s life after she’s nearly murdered by her psychotic sister and the old cabbie Boul tells him as much, he says – “It wasn’t worth saving, Papa Boul.  A creature like that is better off dead.”

Chico – “You can’t arrest this girl, Jacques.” Officer – “Why not?” Chico – “Because…because…well….”

Chico – “Because she’s my wife!”

Then, a moment later, they all decide to eat while Diane is lying unconscious in the gutter!  Mr. Hero decides to wake her up so what does he do?  Instead of gently shaking her or wiping her face with a damp handkerchief, he cuts an onion in half, sticks it on the blade of his knife and rubs it under her nose!!!  When the poor kid does come around she’s so weak and drained of energy and will power that she can’t even lift her head.  So what does our brave Hero do then?  He scoops her up from under her arms, literally drags her to the nearby cab and plops her down like a Bloody sack of potatoes!!!!!  Then he sits back down and proceeds to bad-mouth Diane like she was an emotionless, worthless piece of gutter-trash!!!!!  I swear, I wanted to smack him up the side of his head!!!!  He would’ve needed an ice pack when I got done smacking him!!!!!

Of course I do realize that Charlie was a young actor playing a part – it’s the character I wanted to whack!!!  Then, with the kind of abuse she was subjected to by everyone, especially her sister, it’s no small wonder that moments later Diane wanted to plunge a knife into her own chest.  She is stopped at the last second by Chico and it’s at this point that his attitude and opinion of her begin to change.  Of course, if I were she, I wouldn’t put up with any mistreatment!  I’d take that knife home, wait until my sister were in a drunken stupor and slice her Bloody throat from ear to ear.  Then I’d hightail it out of Paris as fast as I could – but that’s just me.

There are a lot of delightful moments as well in Seventh Heaven.  One of my favourites is what I call the bedroom scene.  Chico has taken Diane to his garret apartment as they’re pretending to be husband and wife.  She takes off her dress, slip and stockings while he goes across the roofs to borrow a nightgown for her from Mme. Gobin (played by Marie Mosquini).  Janet pulls the gown on and climbs into bed, all the while nervously watching Charlie, who has removed his shirt (at this point in the film I started to hyperventilate!!!!!  Mmmm, mmmm!!  Talk about a perfect specimen!!!  On a scale of 1-10 I’d rate Charlie a 25!!!!!).  He’s completely oblivious to this and continues to wash up.  Diane pulls the covers up over her face so that only her eyes are exposed.  When Chico approaches she closes them tightly and pretends to be asleep, terrified that at any moment he’d climb into bed next to her!!  Of course in 1927 this wasn’t done in films so Chico takes a pillow and blanket from the bed and goes outside to sleep on the balcony.  Diane peeks from one eye when she doesn’t hear him and gets out of bed, nearly tripping on the extra-long nightgown as she cautiously looks for her pretend husband.  When she sees him on the balcony she breathes a great sigh of relief and goes back to bed, knowing her chastity won’t be violated by her live-in STUD!!!!!

This is really neat. When Heaven first premiered in May of ’27, Fox had these statues made and put up all over Los Angeles to advertise the film. They were about 10-12 feet high!!! I guess they didn’t have billboards back then!

I got outbid at the last minute on this photo but saved it to my computer and made my own copy. I just love it! It was a publicity still from Heaven and Janet looks like an angel!!!

The scenes that follow between Charlie and David Butler (playing Chico’s street washer neighbor Max Gobin) are simply hilarious!!!!!  You’ve all heard of the Three Stooges?  Well, Farrell and Butler were the Two Stooges!  I’ve never seen two men work so well off each other.  They were before Abbott and Costello, Howard, Fine and Howard and Gibson and Glover (Mel and Danny).  David went on to become an equally imaginative and brilliant director, teaming up with Janet and Charlie again in their 1929 hit Sunnyside Up (which I’ve also gotten on video) and several others.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed my copy of Seventh Heaven, though, I couldn’t help but feel there were scenes missing from it.  Don’t ask me exactly what, but according to one of the many film books in my collection, called Love in the Film – “The only print [of Seventh Heaven] available for study today is of the full, original, twelve-reel road-show version.  When put into general release, it was shorn of some 35 minutes – a rather drastic reduction from such a smoothly flowing film.”  My first print ran 117 minutes and I’ve since gotten two others at 119 minutes, all with the same missing scenes.  If anyone reading this knows anything about the road-show version, namely where I could get a copy on video, or if anyone knows where I could get video copies of Janet’s Love Boat, Over Easy, Merv Griffin and Oscar appearances, please write me.  I’d be happy to hear from fellow fans.

In my opinion, though, there are only a very few actresses in the business today who come anywhere near Janet’s rare and wonderful talents.  Joanna Going is one.  She started out in the afternoon soap operas – I first saw her in the 1990 revival of the gothic series Dark Shadows.  Joanna is beautiful with dark hair and large, expressive dark eyes and uses them along with her facial expressions to tell the viewers exactly what her character is thinking or feeling.  Another brilliant actress who utilizes her expressions is Linda Hamilton, known mostly for her role of Sarah Connor in the Terminator films and as attorney Catherine Chandler in my beloved Beauty and the Beast TV series, where she had the same type of chemistry with co-star Ron Perlman that Janet had with Charlie.  Linda is a versatile, talented actress and, if given a decent script, will most definitely prove herself to be Oscar material.

There’s another young actress who reminds me very much of my darling Janet.  Her name is Noley Thornton and I first saw her when she was maybe five or six years old in an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation called “Imaginary Friend”.  She was so cute and physically almost resembled Janet with her auburn hair and big brown eyes.  Also, like Janet, Noley was quiet, thoughtful and uniquely intelligent and took her work seriously.  Hard to believe she’s over 21 now!  In the early ‘90’s she gave a beautifully heartwarming performance as Heidi in the Disney production.  I have several versions of the Joanna Spyri classic on video and her’s is among the best.

However, the performer who truly captures everything that was Janet is my Beloved Queen, Lady Sarah Brightman.  For those unfamiliar with her work, Sarah is the former wife of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and was the original Christine in Andrew’s The Phantom of the Opera with Michael Crawford.  She also premiered his Requiem with Placido Domingo, was the solo (Song) performer in the TV premier of Song and Dance, had enormous success as Rose in Aspects of Love both in London and on Broadway and appeared in a studio recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel as Carrie.

Sarah began with dance lessons at the tender age of three and by age 11 was firmly committed to a life in the arts.  At 16 she joined a dance troop called Pan’s People and the following year became the lead singer in a disco/pop group called Hot Gossip.  In 1980, while auditioning for a role in Cats, Sarah met Andrew and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the years Sarah has had phenomenal success in her career.  With her wide, innocent eyes and delicate physical frame she’s able to portray the same fragility that Janet spent her career perfecting.  Both are what I term “physical actresses” – Janet started in silent films where everything had to be conveyed through the eyes, facial expressions and various body movements.  Sarah takes on each and every role and concert the same way and, like Janet, is a Star in the truest sense.  Today, her dancing skills are equaled only by Mikhail Baryshnikov and I would love to see them teamed in a ballet version of Janet’s Sunrise, with Andrew writing the score, of course.

I know this memoir is about Janet, but I had to include this beautiful photo of my Beloved Sarah Brightman. It’s one of my favourite photos of her, used for her La Luna concert tour in 2000.

I would also greatly enjoy seeing him turn Seventh Heaven into another blockbuster musical like The Phantom of the Opera.  I know it was unsuccessfully remade in 1937 as a talking film (although I have it and thought Jimmy Stewart was the best part of it!) and in the mid 1950’s as a Broadway musical with Ricardo Montalban and Gloria DeHaven that lasted all of seven weeks, but only Andrew could do it justice.  He could take all the best elements from the original Broadway play, the Janet and Charlie film and the Lux production (and see what went wrong with the other versions!) and come up with his next mega-hit for a whole new generation to love.

In my dream cast for Seventh Heaven (should Lord Andrew ever decide to do it!!!) Lady Sarah will, naturally, be Diane and Michael Crawford will portray the dashing-but-with-ulterior-motives Col. Brissac.  Nana, Diane’s abusive, psychotic, alcoholic sister will be played by Jennifer Little, an absolutely brilliant actress and singer I saw in the role of Carlotta in a 1995 touring company production of Andrew’s The Phantom of the Opera.  Uncle Georges, the girls’ mean, crotchety, holier-than-thou uncle – Philip Quast, who was so brilliant as Javert in the Les Miserables 10th Anniversary concert.  Papa Boul, the mischievous old cabbie – Dick Van Dyke or maybe the adorable and cuddly Lord Richard Attenborough.  Father Chevillion, the well-meaning but sometimes meddlesome local priest – Tom Bosley.  Max Gobin, Chico’s street washer neighbor – Burke Moses, an absolute STUD of an actor who was so brilliant as the original Gaston in Disney’s Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast.  As for the director/stunt coordinator, no one could be more perfect that actor/director Michael Hurst, who co-starred with Kevin Sorbo in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys.

Janet’s three Oscar-winning film roles – The Wife in Sunrise, Diane in Seventh Heaven and Angela in Street Angel. The magazine this came from made an error and called her Maria.

Now as for Chico, our heroic leading man, I had originally considered Davis Gaines.  Davis is a wonderful man and a brilliant performer (not to mention drop-dead gorgeous!), but he’s a baritone like Michael Crawford.  Lady Sarah is a lyric soprano with an absolutely stellar vocal range (an almost-unheard-of eight octaves!!!!!) and, as such, needs a lyric tenor who could equally match her or the poor chap will be drowned out.  My solution is José Cura, a beautiful young tenor with a voice so powerful it could probably blow the roof off the Royal Albert Hall!!!  I first heard him on Sarah’s international hit album Time to Say Good-bye, where they do two songs together.  José has also done several other albums which I highly recommend.

Meanwhile, Robert Klepper and I became great friends and in the spring of ’99 McFarland Publishers published his second book called Silent Films: 1877-1996, A Critical Guide to 646 Movies.  It’s 616 pages long with 183 photographs (the one from Street Angel supplied by me) and I highly recommend it!!!!!

Sadly, Bobby’s dream of a third book was never realized.  On 2 February, 2000, my dear friend made his own journey to the House of the Dead after a long illness.  Ironically, it was my 20-year anniversary of meeting Janet.  While I shall always miss him, it’s comforting for me to think that perhaps it was she who guided his soul to that most perfect place, where he’s joined the spirits of those great Stars we both cherish.  I’ll always be immensely grateful to him for all the joy he brought into my life and for the friendships I’ve made since and I know for sure that, like Janet, he’ll live in my heart forever.

On a lighter note, in the fall of ’99, I answered an ad in a film magazine I was reading at the time called Classic Images.  It had been placed by film historian Gene Vazzana seeking submissions to his latest zine The Silent Film Annual 2000.  I took a chance and submitted to him an abridged version of this memoir.  In November I received the exciting news that he’d be including the “mini-memoir” in his zine.  He even sent me a sample of what it would look like and in January I received the final copy.

Seven months later my father got me a wonderful birthday present – three tickets to see Lady Sarah in concert for her latest tour La Luna.  The 27th of September was a night that will live in my heart always.  Not only did we enjoy a wonderful concert but my parents and I were graced with the immense pleasure and good fortune to meet my Beloved Lady Sarah afterwards in the autograph line at the venue’s stage door.  I got to hug and kiss her and it made my whole year, as did my first meeting with Janet 20 years before.

Two months later I received more exciting news in the form of a letter from Lisa Van Eyssen, Associate Producer at Van Ness Films in L.A.  Lisa had gotten my contact information from my good friend Diane MacIntyre at The Silents Majority and informed me that the Arts & Entertainment station was producing a new BIOGRAPHY on my darling Janet!!!  They were seeking information on Janet’s older sister Hilary and hoped I could help!!  Unfortunately I didn’t know anything more about Hilary that I’d read in the various magazines in my collection, so I put Lisa in touch with the Buhl family in Florida, who’d been Janet’s cousins on her mother’s side of the family.  I didn’t know if there were any Buhl’s left but thought it was worth a try.  Lisa was overjoyed and promised to put my name in the credits at the end of the show.

I love this shot. When Gene Vazzana first published the “mini-memoir” in January, 2000, he used this photo to illustrate it along with one from Lucky Star.

By May, 2001, A&E aired its latest BIOGRAPHY and I received my own copy in the post a few days later.  I watched it eagerly that very night and loved every frame.  The last few minutes were dedicated to the crash that took her life.  Whenever I watch it, that part still fills me with a cold rage.  A few months ago I did a GOOGLE search on “Robert Cato” and read of someone with that name fighting a drunken driving conviction in Texas.  What are the odds, dear reader, that it’s the same walking SCUM that took the lives of Janet and Ben and Goddess knows how many others?!!!

Anyway, as the BIOGRAPHY finished and the credits rolled by I began to search for my own name.  Odd that, where was I?  Had I missed something?  I rewound the tape and paused it at every new frame.  There was Paul and Robin, the Buhls and everyone else.  Apparently someone goofed for I was nowhere to be seen.  I wrote to the producers and heard from one – Ted Nelson.  He apologized for the mix-up but said it was, unfortunately, too late to change the credits.  To make up for it he sent me a pair of extra copies that I sent to friends.

In June of ’03 I became part of the wonderful eBay community and have made many friends of the folks I buy things from.  One of those is a man named Cliff Aliperti.  As is typical of the sellers I deal with, Cliff sold movie memorabilia but he also had a special site full of newsletters containing wonderful articles on Hollywood’s greatest Stars.  I took a peek one day and noticed he didn’t have anything on Janet.  So I wrote and asked him if he’d be interested in seeing the “mini-memoir”.

Much to my delight Cliff said yes and I sent it along.  On 31 May, ’05, I got an excited e-mail from him saying that not only was he going to publish my piece on his web site, but that it would be put in that night’s issue!!!!!  Talk about bouncing off the walls!!!  I sent everyone in my address book an e-mail with the exciting news and the URL.  In case you’ve not read it, the direct address is – www.things-and-other-stuff.com/movies/profiles/janet-gaynor.html.  Hope you enjoy it.

Finally, my latest piece of exciting news is that I am now working with documentary film-maker Sarah Baker on her current project – a long-overdue dual biography/career study of Janet and Charlie!!!  Sarah is wonderful and we share a love of a long-forgotten screen couple.  I’m looking forward to the completion of this project and any exciting adventures it may bring in the future.  Check out Sarah’s web site dedication to them at – www.flapperjane.com/FarrellGaynor.htm.

After Janet’s death Jimmy Stewart was quoted as saying that as long as movies survive she’ll never be forgotten.  He was right.  Even though it’s been over 21 years since my friend lost her life in Palm Springs, not a day has gone by that I don’t think of her or miss her, especially when I think of all the things I could have shared with her.  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 Teacher’s films that have survived is fully restored and released on home video.  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.

Gina LoBiondo

December, 2005

Bonus Photos

This is an early scene in Heaven. Diane (Janet) has been sent to the local sleazy bistro by her psycho sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell) to buy a bottle of absinthe with a stolen watch. It’s no wonder she’s a psycho – that stuff literally eats holes in your brain!!!!! Oh, brother!!

This is one of my favourite shots from Heaven, when Charlie first takes Janet to his flat. Janet and Charlie about to be separated by World War One.—  This is one of my favourite shots from Heaven, when Charlie first takes Janet to his flat.

Janet and Charlie about to be separated by World War One.

This is one of my favourite photos of Janet from 1927/1928. It captures both her beauty and endearing innocence.

Here’s another publicity photo of Janet and Charlie from the LUX presentation of Seventh Heaven, 26 March, 1951. You could just tell how much they really loved each other.

This is another sample of Janet’s amazing artwork; what an incredibly talented lady !!

This is probably one of the last pics taken of Janet and Charlie together, from 1979.

          Well, I hope you enjoyed this memoir and the bonus pics, dear reader.  If you’d like to share your ideas and comments, just click here for my contact information or the link above.  Mark the e-mail as Re: Janet Gaynor Memoir or I might not know who you are ^_^.

***I want to thank any and all of the folks connected to Sarah Brightman for the use of her photo.***

6 thoughts on “Janet Gaynor — Star, Legend, Friend and Faerie God-mother

  1. Janet Gaynor(1906/1984), was the biggest angel from Hollywood,had a delicate beauty,unforgetable features and bright brown eyes. “Street Angel”,is the movie i would Janet Gaynor from paradiso.Gaynor, joined the “U.S Delegation’s ist Film Festival in São Paulo”(Brazil), in 1954,13th and february 26th. In decade 50, brought a farm in Anapolis/Goiás(Brazil). It was another famous neighbor:Mary Martin. Was in the historic city Ouro Preto(Minas Gerais), on days ,14,15 and 16 March 1954.In the year 1979,in Washington, received from brazilian ambassador,João Pinheiro,the award “The Order of Southern Cross”.

  2. My daughter who was 4 saw Janet in ON GOLDEN POND..at the World Playhouse in Chicago. Do you have a list of the other cast members?

    • Hi, Gerald, sadly no. I’m still trying to get a Playbill but haven’t seen one yet. I have an ad for the play but not the programme…yet! If I come across one I will let you know. Your daughter was indeed a lucky little girl. When I saw Janet in Harold & Maude it was the highlight of my whole year. ^_^

  3. Hi! This was very informative. I am nominating Janet Gaynor for a historical marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. I was unsure where to place it and so I thought placing it at a local community theater is a good idea. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Hi, Robyn, that’s awesome. Janet lived on Wister Street when she was little — maybe a marker somewhere on the street would be a better option. I would imagine the PA Historical and Museum Commission could find out which house was hers and put the marker there.

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