October 6, 1906– Janet Gaynor:
“I think all I really have is sincerity, That’s what has carried me through the change from silents to talkies. My voice has been criticized, brutally sometimes, and I think I’ve gotten by only because I am sincere.”
Gaynor was a superstar of the silent screen. She won the very first Academy Award, in 1927, for the three films Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel (that’s how they did it at the start of the Academy’s giving out of awards). She held the record as the youngest Best Actress winner for almost 60 years (until Marlee Matlin for Children Of A Lesser God in 1986, in case you are trivia minded). Gaynor:
“Naturally, I was thrilled but being the first year, the Academy Awards had no background or tradition, and it naturally didn’t mean what it does now. Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I’m sure I’d have been overwhelmed. At the time, I think I was more thrilled over meeting Douglas Fairbanks.”
Unlike most other actors from the silent era, Gaynor successfully made the transfer to sound films. She was Oscar nominated again for the original and best version of A Star Is Born (1937), this one with Fredric March and directed by William Wellman. Not the one with Barbra Streisand with an afro.
In the 1930s, Gaynor was the highest paid female in Hollywood. She made 36 films in 10 years for Fox Studios, including: Delicious (1932) State Fair (1933) and The Farmer Takes A Wife (1934). She was shining in light comedies and musicals that exploited her special qualities of innocence, vulnerability and natural sweetness. But, she had real acting chops.
Fox used Charles Farrell and Gaynor in a series of 11 romantic melodramas and light comedies. As a box-office incentive of sorts, studio publicists and the fan magazines came up with a Farrell-Gaynor off-screen love affair as well. Never mind the fact that the two were not lovers, in fact they were both gay. Farrell was also mayor of Palm Springs from 1948 to 1953. They had terrific on-screen chemistry and were friendly in real life, and for the sake of their careers, they were more than happy to oblige photographers with pictures of the two of them canoodling.
Gaynor may have frequently played the naive waif in films, but in real life she was quite worldly and rather tough stuff. An early advocate for better roles and more money for females in the biz, she did the seemingly unthinkable by going on strike against Fox Studios, paving the way for future stars to throw around their clout.
Gaynor was also a gifted painter, doing mostly pictures of florals. She had several solo shows of her work at galleries in Palm Springs, Chicago and New York City.
She moved to Brazil and lived there nearly full time in the 1950s and 1960s. This seems to have been a way to get away from the gossip magazines that had begun paying attention to her special closeness to Broadway star Mary Martin, who had a farm right next to Gaynor’s in Brazil. Martin, known for her role as Nellie Forbush in the 1949 musical South Pacific, as the original Maria in The Sound Of Music (1959), and as Peter Pan (1954). Martin won three Tony Awards for her work on Broadway. She won an Emmy Award in 1955 for the television version of Peter Pan.
All three of Gaynor’s husbands were gay. Her second was MGM’s legendary costume designer, Gilbert Adrian, whose credits ran simply as “Gowns By Adrian”. Gaynor was noted for her demure femininity on screen, but she was a feisty butch thing in real life. Adrian made the trousers and Gaynor wore them. The couple had a son, Robin Gaynor Adrian. Rumor had it that during labor, doctors told Adrian his wife might lose the baby, to which he replied:
“Oh no, I’ll have to go through that again!”.
William Mann’s terrific, juicy, meticulously researched book Behind The Screen: How Gays And Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969 (2001) says that Gaynor wasn’t bisexual at all, but a real lifelong, softball-playing lesbian, seriously involved with at least two other stars, fellow silent film actor Margaret Lindsay and Martin.
Cutie pie actor Robert Cummings once quipped:
“Janet Gaynor’s husband was Adrian, the MGM fashion designer. But her wife was Mary Martin.”
Late in life she went back to work. In 1980, Gaynor played Maude in a Broadway stage version of the film Harold And Maude (1971) which ran for just four performances, although Gaynor received enthusiastic reviews. She filmed an episode of the television series The Love Boat (1977-1986), sadly her last screen appearance. In 1982, she toured in the play On Golden Pond, her final acting role.
In 1984, a San Francisco taxi that Gaynor and Martin were riding in was hit by a drunk driver. The serious crash killed Martin’s manager and injured the other passengers. Gaynor was left with 11 broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, pelvic fractures, an injured bladder and a damaged kidney. Gaynor would die two years later from complications from her injuries. She was 77 years old when she took that final bow.
Always intensely private, Gaynor’s acting work was her legacy, as she probably would have wished. It remains a powerful record even today. If she was forced to live a closeted life, like so many actors of her era, at least did it on her own terms during her time in the spotlight.