Saturday, October 30, 2010

James MacArthur: Success and a Mystery

One of James MacArthur's early movies, and a good one at that. Movie poster courtesy of

Actor James MacArthur died this week at the age of 72. His life was long on success and adventure. But he also lived with a mystery. I'll get to the mystery in a minute: first the success and adventure.

His adoptive mother was Helen Hayes--often called the "First Lady of the Theater." His adoptive father? The writer Charles MacArthur, who, with his pal Ben Hecht, authored a score of terrific plays and movie scripts, including The Front Page (1930) (remade in its best version as His Girl Friday (1939), the Twentieth Century (1934), and Gunga Din and Wuthering Heights, both produced in that magical movie year, 1939.

Both his parents were fixtures among the Algonquin Round Table crowd, the gathering of intellectuals who inhaled alcohol and exhaled witticisms at a special table in New York's Algonquin Hotel. "Let me slip out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini," is attributed to more than one of them. Hayes became part of the circle because she was the toast of Broadway, though she didn't drink and said she was much too dense to trade bon mots them.

"This puzzling acceptance became clear to me later in life," she wrote in her autobiography. "Egocentrics are attracted to the inept. It gives them one more excuse for patting themselves on the back." (From On Reflection, by Helen Hayes, 1968).

Hayes and MacArthur had a daughter together, Mary, and wanted another child. They adopted James, who was born in Los Angeles in 1937.

Few people in the entertainment business begin life with as many advantages as did the young James MacArthur. He was good-looking, bright, and well-connected. And he had talent. A lot of people in Hollywood with those advantages are happy to make a mess of their lives, but MacArthur never did.

His sister died of polio in 1949. His father was brilliant, but an alcoholic. He coped with those sorrows too.

And though he never became a huge star, he did well. He started out in a small part in one of his mother's plays, when he was eight years old. He went on to play handsome young man parts, notably in several Disney films including the Swiss Family Robinson (1960).

His biggest success was as Jack Lord's sidekick in the television series Hawaii Five-0, which ran on CBS from 1968-1980. When the bad guys had been caught and the story wrapped up, Jack Lord would turn to MacArthur, who played state police officer Danny Williams, and say "Book em, Danno," a line that earned a place in American pop culture.

MacArthur was a smart enough businessman to stick with the show and then hang on to his royalties. He spent the last decades of his life enjoying himself, acting occasionally, and playing golf. His third wife, from 1984 until his death, was H.B. Duntz, a pretty, blonde, former LPGA professional.

He was always a smart businessman. In his twenties he started a telephone answering service with a couple of his actor friends, and at one point owned a magazine.

Which leads me to the mystery: he was good-looking, intelligent, and talented and was born in Los Angeles in 1937. He was adopted by very famous people who had very famous Hollywood friends. Who were his real parents? Was his mother--or father--known to the MacArthurs? LA was a small town back then. His parents' close friends ranged from Lillian Gish, to the Marx Brothers, to Hollywood executives, to George Gershwin (who, coincidentally, died in December of 1937).

Sometimes, after a death, these are among the things that are revealed. After Loretta Young died, her daughter, Judy Lewis, revealed that she was indeed the daughter of Young and Clark Gable--something that had long been a rumor. Loretta Young "adopted" the baby the year after a torrid winter she spent stuck with Gable in the snowy North shooting the appropriately named Call of the Wild in 1935. When you see Judy Lewis, the first face that comes to mind is Gable's, she looks so much like him ... anyway ...

Judy Young Lewis, at right, is the biological daughter of Loretta Young and Clark Gable. Young "adopted" her after taking a year off from the movies, suffering, she said, from "exhaustion."

That story is one of the stories that has always made me wonder about James MacArthur. Somewhere, amidst the swirl of Hollywood in 1937, is the rest of the James MacArthur story. I understand it is none of my business. But I'm enough of a reporter, still, to want to know what it is.

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Don Meuler said...

I know you interviewed Lillian Gish, and she was his godmother - any thought to that possibility?

Robin Chapman said...

Gish was James MacArthur's godmother--so anything is possible. She was a "friend" of D.W. Griffith at that point, who was a little bit past his peak by 1937, drinking too much and unable, or unwilling to divorce his wife--but no one has ever said one way or the other what the relationship was between Gish and Griffith--other than professional. Her sister Dorothy even wrote that the two "walked out together" but that she didn't know more than that. It is a good mystery, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

According to my friends and relatives whose families have lived in Nyack, NY for 3 generations and also where Helen Hayes and MacArthur lived, Lillian Gish was Jamie MacArthur's mother. My grandfather sold the house to Helen Hayes that years later was sold by another relative to Rosie O'Donnell. Jamie once served as a shepherd in the church Christmas pageant in which my mother played Mary. Both Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish were in the audience.

Robin Chapman said...

Fascinating comment!

This is a difficult subject, because at this point we are just speculating. But here are some facts to consider: Lillian Gish was born in 1893, so when James MacArthur was born in 1937, she would have been 44 years old. Not an impossible age for motherhood, but certainly rare for that time.

Another possible suspect might have been her somewhat more jolly sister Dorothy Gish who was born in 1898, and toward whom Lillian always felt protective. Dorothy made no films from 1931-1943, and from 1920-1935 she was married to James Rennie (note his first name). A final, post divorce fling could have produced the James adopted by the MacArthurs. In 1937, Dorothy would have been just 39.

Lillian, by the way, never married, so there has always been speculation about her orientation.

Anonymous said...

Less than a few hours after he died, the following was posted on his Wikipedia entry. Could be true.

"Born in Los Angeles, California, the product of an affair between Charles MacArthur and a mistress, he was adopted as an infant by his biological father Charles MacArthur and his wife, Helen Hayes."

Robin Chapman said...

That also sounds plausible, since Charles MacArthur did get around and his wife, Helen Hayes, was a devout Catholic who had a reverence for life.

RobinChapmanNews definitely has retained its nose for news and this story is indeed leaking out as we suspected it would. I hope MacArthur's widow will let us all know the truth, since it can harm no one, any longer.

Anonymous said...

In a couple of articles from many years ago, MacArthur talked about his mother and father handing him an envelope on his 18th birthday which contained the names of his birth parents. He declined to open it, threw it into the fireplace and told them he thought of them as his 'real' parents. Whether this incident actually occurred or whether it is a carefully concocted story told for the benefit of the press it's hard to tell, but that was the official story from his end.

Betsy CLARK said...

I recently read Miss Hayes' 3rd Autobiography in which she describes, for the first time, the actual circumstances of their adopting of their son. She said she had to meet some doctor on a street corner in LA and was handed a baby wrapped only in an old hospital sheet-no diaper or shirt, nothing. Who adopts a baby this way?

Robin Chapman said...

I think nobody does. I think the stories that the baby was related to one of them--and probably not to Mis Hayes--are much more feasible.