Peter Ford's Glenn Ford: A Life: Son's New Book About His Celebrity Dad, With Dish on Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland
|A boy's life: Scenes from Peter Ford's childhood, with father Glenn Ford and mother Eleanor Powell|
He had a one-night stand with Marilyn Monroe, a six-month fling with Judy Garland and a 40-year, on-and-off affair with Rita Hayworth.
After a 16-year marriage to film star Eleanor Powell, he married three more times, even as he chased a series of younger and younger women, gold diggers who plundered his hard-earned fortune and then left him.
He developed a drinking problem so severe that it nearly killed him. For a decade before he died, in 2006 at age 90, he was unable to walk.
And he tape-recorded the most famous taper in history: The secret telephone recording system he installed in his Beverly Hills mansion recorded intimate conversations with his many Hollywood lovers (143 at last count) and some big-time politicians, including President Richard Nixon.
Those are just a few of the juicy revelations in a biography bearing the remarkably understated title Glenn Ford: A Life, written by Ford's son, Peter, and released last May. And Peter Ford has the documents to back them up: Every letter his parents exchanged, every one of his father's day-by-day diaries and boxes of reel-to-reel tapes from his secret phone recording system.
"I found one labeled 'Peter's conversations,' " Ford tells the Weekly. Although he was offended by his father's invasion of privacy, he admits: "It was kind of fun to listen to myself as a teenager."
Books written by children of Hollywood legends have become a literary genre all their own over the last 40 years. There are three basic subgenres: Daddy was a drunken tyrant who beat the hell out of me (Bing Crosby); Mommy was a drunken monster who tried to control every aspect of my life (Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich); and Daddy was a wonderful man in every way, and anyone who says he was gay doesn't know what they're talking about (Cary Grant).
Now Ford, the only child of Glenn Ford, has invented a new subgenre: Daddy drank way too much and cheated constantly on my beloved mother -- but was still a great actor and did the best he could, given his incredible journey from a no-luxuries upbringing in Santa Monica to a no-limits life as a 1950s Hollywood star.
"I had to walk a fine line between telling the truth and not discrediting my father," Ford says of his seven-year struggle to turn out the manuscript.
His approach resulted in a deeply nuanced portrait of a real human being, with Ford's strengths and weaknesses laid bare. It doesn't highlight the scandals he uncovered. Instead, they are revealed casually, as afterthoughts in the narrative that flows from his father's California childhood and his prime adult years to his brutal old age.
Nor does the book supply the vicarious primal emotions of emotional patricide and long-awaited revenge that can generate mass-media book reviews and a place on the New York Times best-seller list. Although Peter Ford's book has sold more than 5,000 copies since its release by the University of Wisconsin Press, it has been all but ignored by the mainstream press.
That's why Ford was at the Beverly Hills Library on a recent Sunday, answering questions after a screening of one of his father's classic films, Blackboard Jungle.
It was roles like that film's idealistic, straight-laced teacher, as well as idealistic, straight-laced police detective Dave Bannion, who takes on a corrupt city government in 1953's The Big Heat, that helped establish Ford's public persona: a good-guy gentleman with a steel backbone, an ordinary man forced into heroic action by extraordinary circumstances.
Without a script, however, Ford was a self-absorbed man who loved his liquor, could be short-tempered and tight with a buck, and was driven by an unsuccessful quest for lasting love.
"The image Glenn projected on the screen was not like him at all in private life," says Vicki Dugan, an actress who dated Ford in the 1960s and showed up at Sunday's event on her own initiative. "He was exactly the opposite."
As Peter Ford tells it, he was a lonely child who longed for a normal relationship with a normal dad. He finally came to grips with the reality that it was never to be, when his father broke a promise and failed to show up at his high school graduation.
"Being the child of a Hollywood star is a killing field, filled with suicides and drug addicts," says the bearlike Ford. An imposing 6 foot 2 and 250 pounds, he has his father's chiseled good looks and great hair. "I finally realized I couldn't keep hoping against hope for what would never happen."
After that epiphany, father and son became more like brothers. As Peter ventured into music and films, he often accompanied his father on set, where he had minor roles; he also worked with his father on dialogue and served as a carousing companion when his father was between women.
But in the mid-70s, as the elder Ford acquired yet another new, young wife, the pair became estranged for more than a decade. Peter left showbiz to become a contractor, building homes for the rich and famous in L.A. But in the mid-'80s, devastated by the loss of the sexy wife he'd been so proud of, Glenn Ford invited his son and wife Lynda -- who will celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary next month -- back into his life.
The couple moved back into Ford's mansion roughly 10 years later to care for him. (They live there still today.) The once-virile man was confined to a bed and wheelchair, overtaken by mental and physical problems that kept him from leaving the house. Glenn grew progressively worse for a decade, until he finally died in 2006.
The more than 75 fans at the Beverly Hills Library auditorium were spellbound by Peter's summary of his father's life. During the Q&A, he was urged to write a biography of his mother. (Powell actually was the bigger star -- Fred Astaire called her the best dancer in history, male or female -- when she married Ford in 1943.) Audience members also repeatedly prefaced their questions by mentioning their favorite Glenn Ford film.
Most often it was Gilda. An erotic noir thriller released in 1946, Gilda was such a box office hit that it elevated both Ford and his co-star, Rita Hayworth, from promising talents to full-fledged stars.
Although they had worked together before, it was Gilda that brought Hayworth into Ford's romantic life. The volatile passion on-screen was real: It was the start of a 40-year affair that eventually led Ford and Hayworth to side-by-side houses in Beverly Hills during the 1960s. Ford even had a gate cut into his back fence so that Hayworth wouldn't be seen visiting.
And Peter Ford adds a new wrinkle to their long-rumored affair: Ford got Hayworth pregnant while they were filming The Loves of Carmen in 1948, he says, but she went to Europe for an abortion.
The affair during the making of Gilda was the first time his father cheated on his mother, his son avers. In fact, the diaries reveal that, just a few months earlier, Ford had rejected the unsubtle advances of Bette Davis, who picked him out of the crowd of contract players to star alongside her in A Stolen Life.
The first mention of any affair in Peter Ford's book is on page 62, the first mention of Ford's alcoholism is on page 120 and the first mention of his secret phone taping system is on page 129.
At Sunday's event, Ford acknowledged he could have sold a lot more books by highlighting those scandals.
"I have no regrets," he says. "I wanted to tell the truth in a way that was cathartic for me. He was a very complex guy with a big dark side. But he was also a great actor."Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter. Reach the writer at email@example.com