Well, we’re one day into April’s Robert Taylor Star of the Month coverage on Turner Classic Movies and I’ve got a treat for you (and me!). I referred to Linda Alexander’s Taylor biography Reluctant Witness in my SOTM schedule posting stating that I’d have more on the book as the month progresses. Well, I was keeping it under my hat but I’d requested Linda answer some questions I had both about Robert Taylor and her book, and boy, does she come through in this post!
Linda Alexander had published four books prior to 2008’s Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood, and Communism and is currently working on her newest book, A Maverick Life: The Jack Kelly Story.
In addition to her books, Linda has published dozens of articles, several celebrity focused, just as many not, plus even fiction and poetry. She has appeared on the Oprah Show, The Sally Jessy Raphael Show and Lifetime TV’s Attitudes With Linda Dano.
You can find Linda Alexander’s complete biography on her personal website. She also created and has maintained a Ning community focusing on Robert Taylor that you’re welcome to join. Linda also invites you to connect with her on both Twitter and Facebook. In addition here is a Facebook fan page Linda has created for Fans of Jack Kelly.
I tried asking questions which would elicit a wide range of response from Linda about both Taylor’s life and work as well as specifics as to her book. If I missed anything please do comment below and perhaps we can lure Linda back over to answer. Hope you enjoy it:
Question: Your extensive bibliography includes interviews dating as far back as 1993. When--and why--did you first decide to write about Robert Taylor?
Linda Alexander: I started writing the book in 1991. It wasn’t published until 2008. I’ve had a fascination with him for as far back as I can remember, and some of it really has had no solid basis. My most “logical” response to why I wrote about him is that he physically reminded me of my dad for many years. Since I wasn’t raised by my dad, the image of Taylor, seeing his pictures off and on … particularly “Death Valley Days” in real-time … stuck in my head. That may sound like psycho-babble, and maybe it is, but he’s been in my conscious memory as long as I can remember, so when I decided I was going to write a biography, I naturally chose Robert Taylor.
Q: You did an amazing job showing Robert Taylor's personal growth throughout his lifetime. There certainly seemed to be a clear-cut evolution from self-conscious child to self-made man with stops at all points in between. Whether it be because of the domineering personalities of his mother and Louis B. Mayer, I had the feeling Taylor didn't really have the opportunity to sew his oats and enjoy a true adolescence until the time of his marriage to Barbara Stanwyck. Was it this relationship more than other life experiences which helped Taylor evolve most finally reaching a point in his life where he truly was comfortable in his own skin?
LA: Thank you for that comment. That’s exactly what I intended. If a biography simply lists facts, basically a chronological recitation of stats, it’s too easy. When I read a life story, I want to find out what make that person tick, and that’s what I wanted to do with Taylor.
Putting pieces together, it became evident to me that he never really had a childhood. He’d never been allowed to as you put it, sow his wild oats. He wasn’t even allowed to really play with children when he was young, and even when he developed friendships in later school years, they were metered, adult-like.
It was only a few years later when he was under contract to MGM and while everything was offered to him, he was carefully monitored by Louis B. Mayer and as someone who lived to that point as a rule-follower, it never crossed his mind to do much otherwise. Marrying Barbara Stanwyck was, again, a move of self-control, in my opinion.
She was a dominant figure and helped him learn the ropes of Hollywood, expecting his love and loyalty, and in some ways obedience, in return. He grew up while he was married to her and the result was that they no longer fit. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her. He truly loved her. Yet he had become his own man, finally, and it was something of an epiphany for him that he could run his own life, and he enjoyed doing so.
Q: What would you say in defense of Bob to those critics who still hold a grudge against him for his testimony before HUAC? Furthermore, what would your response be to someone who felt that in attempting to clarify Bob's positions you had inadvertently defended him?
LA: In response to someone who felt I’d defended Bob Taylor with this book … I’d say that’s good. It wasn’t inadvertent.
There comes a time when a wrong needs to be made right, and the constant cry that Robert Taylor was a “fink,” his testimony before HUAC ruined careers of fellow movie industry folks, that he’d “named names” … all untrue. All one has to do is read his testimony, his actual words, to see facts.
Yet the misinformation has been regurgitated over and over and now, with the internet our daily form of communication, people who aren’t old enough to have a clue who Taylor was repeat these details simply because they’ve read it all online. This in addition to the folks who truly do still believe Bob Taylor named names of Communists in the film industry. I’d gently suggest to anyone who still holds that grudge that they DO read his actual testimony—and maybe even challenge them to read my book. It’s that simple really.
And I do not believe there’s any reason a book cannot be written in such a way as to, as I said, right a wrong over 40 years old. Taylor didn’t lose his career—while he was alive, but he did lose his legacy once he passed away. My book was written to make a case for the idea that Robert Taylor may very well have been intentionally forgotten by the movers and shakers of an industry that felt he had done them wrong.
Q: I believe the magnitude of Robert Taylor's actual stardom is underappreciated today--Bob wasn't a shooting star who fell to supporting and character roles in later years, he maintained that first class stardom throughout his long career. Why is it today that his name isn't on the tips of our tongues with the other legends: Gable, Bogart, Cagney, even Flynn or William Powell? Is it the missing Oscar? Is it his politics? Has his work just not translated as well over time as the other legends?
LA: I agree, obviously, about Bob Taylor’s underappreciated stardom in today’s world. Why? There’s never really one easy answer to such a complicated question. But if there had to be one major center … I’d say it was his politics via his upbringing.
As I said earlier, Taylor may have been intentionally forgotten. His politics were a result of his upbringing. He was raised by strict Methodists country gentlefolk who believed in hard work and dedication to ideals of a country that had done well by them. Bob was taught that that at the end of the day, if he did as he was told by his superiors or his elders, followed his personal credo, and worked hard, he’d get his just reward.
The unfortunate part of this is that he made his living in an industry that was—and still is—nearly a polar opposite to what he was taught to believe and learned to accept on his own as right and true.
Q: When I made mention of your book in my recent post looking at TCM's Robert Taylor Star of the Month coverage I mentioned that despite the title your book doesn't concentrate solely on Taylor's politics but was indeed a true biography. So why "Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism" and not "The Life of Robert Taylor"?
LA: I like this question, and I get it a lot. I titled the book as an intentional play on words. The term, “Reluctant Witness,” was a qualifier during the HUAC for someone who appeared in front of the committee but had made it widely known he/she didn’t want to be there. A “Friendly Witness” went willingly.
Taylor was first publicly touted as a “Friendly Witness” and the general press picked up on that. However, after he decided the Committee wasn’t playing fair with him, he wrote a letter that begged them not to put him on the stand, and he gave them a rather large piece of his mind as to what he thought about the entire “circus,” as he called the HUAC. As we all know, he did appear but his status was changed to “Reluctant Witness.”
This wasn’t shared with the press, and it never transferred so he ultimately went into history as a “Friendly Witness,” and that was not the case. This is only part of it, though. I contend that Robert Taylor was a “Reluctant Witness” to a great amount of history—not only political, but military and entertainment history … and even in some ways, to his own place in history. So the bottom line is that the first part of the title relates not only to the word Communism but also to the other two words, as well.
Q: What do you consider Robert Taylor's best roles? TCM is giving us a chance to view over 50 of Taylor's films this month, we need to know which ones to put a star by! Finally what is you own favorite Robert Taylor movie?
LA: I am most fond of Taylor on film in his later years. I have three absolute favorites—one an earlier movie and with Lana Turner, Johnny Eager (1941), and the other two, Party Girl (1958), and Johnny Tiger (1966). Don’t know what it is about those “Johnny” roles. ; >
In Party Girl, he played so against type—a physically weak man, tortured, working for the wrong side of the law but in his heart, wanting to find a way to do the right thing … and to be loved for himself, despite his ailments.
In Johnny Eager, it wasn’t too hard to tell, as far as I’m concerned, that he had a thing for Lana Turner … he really had a thing for her, not just in the script. They played off of each so well, and the movie proved that film could be sexy without being blatant.
And Johnny Tiger was a favorite of Taylor’s. He was aging, he knew he was in a different place in his life and, honestly, reaching the end of his career. It was a big disappointment when the movie didn’t catch on because he’d hoped this storyline would help move him into his already-there mature stage. He played a teacher, wore glasses and tweed, was allowed to get into the role and not worry so much how he looked. He was in top form, though.
Another—I guess an “Honorable Mention” though it was an extraordinary film and, again, against type for him, was the brutal role he played in The Last Hunt (1956).
Thank you so much Linda for taking the time to give us such detailed answers!
Johnny Eager airs next Tuesday night, April 13, on TCM at 11:45 pm EST; The Last Hunt, which I really want to catch after Linda referred to it as “quite possibly, the most striking role of his entire career” in Reluctant Witness (294), airs Tuesday night, April 27 at 11:45 pm; Party Girl airs later the following morning, April 28 at 6:30 am. Unfortunately Johnny Tiger wasn’t selected for TCM’s 54 film schedule.
Once again you can find TCM’s entire Robert Taylor SOTM schedule on this page of Immortal Ephemera illustrated by vintage movie collectibles such as those shown on this page.
Earlier I’d mentioned Linda’s currently hectic schedule, here’s another recent bit of press on her from her local FrederickNewsPost.com, Local author calls actor a ‘Reluctant Witness,’ just published earlier today.