Each time the Siren takes a look at celebrity news she is confronted with Somebody's Kid, to the point where it seems stardom has become as heritable as a dry-cleaning business. Talent, however, is often a recessive trait. The Redgraves and Barrymores are the exception, not the rule.
For a while, in the first half of the 20th century, it seemed the Bennetts might become a true acting dynasty. As Brian Kellow details in his fine book, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, it didn't work out that way. Richard Bennett was a legendary theatre actor. Two of his daughters, Constance and Joan, gave good performances in a number of movies, including four the Siren would nominate for immortality. And now, the last of the Bennetts live quietly. Whatever acting fire was in the genes is either extinguished, or banked up awaiting another generation.
Richard Bennett was primarily a stage actor, although he did good work for John Ford in Arrowsmith and worked twice for Orson Welles, who had seen Bennett on stage and, according to Kellow, "felt that he had the greatest lyric power of any actor in the theater." Bennett's final film role was as a Greek captain on a fishing boat in Journey Into Fear. By then his drinking had made him incapable of remembering lines, a difficulty Welles solved by having the captain speak no English. But Bennett's grand moment was as the Major in The Magnificent Ambersons, life ebbing from him as he sits by the fire, eyes fixed beyond the camera on an expanse of utter loneliness: "And he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste beside what concerned him now. For the Major knew now that he had to plan how to enter an unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson." One scene like that is all an actor needs for immortality, as far as the Siren is concerned.
But, though it would no doubt displease the blustery Richard, the Siren wants to concentrate on his daughters. There were three of them, as anyone who's read Lulu in Hollywood knows: Constance, Barbara (who never had a real career) and Joan. True to the conventions of fairy tales the youngest, Joan, was also the most beautiful, the kindest and the most talented. Despite this undeniable fact, the Siren found herself spellbound by the smart, mercurial and brazenly selfish Constance. A recent viewing of What Price Hollywood?, which Kellow wisely points to as Constance's best movie, added to the fascination. The Siren suspects something similar happened to the biographer. At times Kellow halts the narrative for a minute, unable to resist an aside concerning Constance's never-ending supply of chutzpah.
We meet the oldest Bennett daughter shortly after her birth in October 1904, a date she would spend the rest of her life obfuscating along with the birthdates of all three of her children and, for the first two, even the identity of their fathers. Richard Bennett came home to his actress wife, Mabel, after a tour undertaken during a rift in their marriage. Summoned by a telegram, he went upstairs to the apartment his wife had rented and heard a baby caterwauling. After making up with Mabel, Richard took a look at his new daughter and was thoroughly alarmed. Her face was red, her fists were clenched and she was raising such a ruckus her father was afraid she was sick. Mabel told him, "She wants attention, dear."
As any parent can tell you, temperament shows up from the first slap on the behind. What Constance wanted, Constance got, and she wanted a great deal. When refused something as a child, she'd retreat to her room and bang her head on the floor. As she grew into a young woman, and throughout her life, she maintained a figure so slim they called her "the human coathanger." Capable of steely self-discipline as well as willfulness, Constance observed her father's ruinous alcoholism and never took a drink. When Barbara's sad life also began to descend into a miasma of alcohol and self-destructive behavior, Constance lost patience early on, telling Joan that anyone with sense should be able to look at their father's binges and know it was wise to abstain.
She grew into a beauty who immediately set about felling a string of men. Her first marriage was to Philip Morgan Plant, the heir to a vast railroad fortune. The pattern of this first marriage was quite like some of Constance's movies, including What Price Hollywood?. His mother tried to discourage the romance but she needn't have bothered. Constance, already launched on a career in silent films, never even tried to charm Mrs. Plant as she got engaged and un-engaged to Plant several times. Finally an engagement stuck, and they were married. Things unraveled in no time flat, as Philip was no slouch in the drinking department himself. In December 1929 she and Plant signed a divorce decree in Nice. At the end of January, Constance appeared in New York with a baby boy. She was cagey about whether or not son Peter was biologically hers, and over the years she increased the confusion, at first claiming he was adopted, later insisting he was Plant's. She was, she said later, fearful that Plant's family might try to take the boy away. Philip always acknowledged the boy as his and, after he died and Constance wound up in court with his family, a trust fund was established for Peter.
Constance moved on to Gloria Swanson's ex, the Marquis de la Falaise de Coudray. While married to him she had a daughter, Lorinda, who may have been Henri's or, then again, may have been the daughter of the glamorous Latin actor Gilbert Roland. Constance divorced Henri, married Roland and had another daughter, but in the early 1940s she tired of Roland and took a new lover, a nine-years-younger Army Air Corps colonel named John Coulter. They met at a party Coulter attended with his wife, who was in a wheelchair due to a recent car accident. Constance vamped into the room in full evening regalia and that was all she wrote for the unfortunate Mrs. Coulter. Constance had her new man arrange for Gilbert's assignment to an aerial mapping squadron working over South America--with blithe disregard for Roland's acute fear of heights. As Kellow remarks at this point, "how can we not admire Constance's skill as a master puppeteer?" Forget Scarlett O'Hara. Constance would have steamrolled her, too.
The Siren's growing enthrallment with Constance took a huge hit, however, with the actress's conduct during her marriage to Coulter. She was in charge of her son Peter's trust fund, and as her career waned and she tried to maintain a star's lifestyle with Coulter, Constance began to tap into the fund to supplement her income. Eventually the fund, which was about $300,000--in 1952 dollars--was completely depleted. Peter threatened a lawsuit unless Constance and her husband turned over their house. Constance, knowing when to fold 'em, signed it over. Mother and son did not speak for more than a decade, but Constance had raised him even better than she realized. Eventually he wrote her a letter asking for a reconciliation before it was too late. She invited him to dinner and when he arrived, she opened the door and her first words were, "Let's not talk about it." Later Constance's friends told Peter she had been tormented by their years of silence, but she had asked him not to bring it up, and he never did. Their reconciliation probably added years to her life.
Usually by this point in a post the Siren has brought up a film or two, but Constance's life fascinates as much as even her good movies, and certainly a great deal more than something like Sin Takes a Holiday. Sister Joan was a Democrat, who with her husband Walter Wanger supported a number of liberal causes; but Constance was a fierce Republican who late in life would entertain guests by reading out loud from The Conscience of a Conservative. When Richard hit up his eldest daughter once too often for a loan, she wrote back saying that unfortunately Roosevelt had already bled her dry. She was a skilled poker player, one of the few women allowed to play in high-stakes regular games with moguls like Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck. Permitted, hell--she frequently took them to the cleaners. Another lady with a perfect poker face? Constance's friend Kay Francis, who once complained of the expense of maintaining her mother. Constance told her to knock it off--"we know you support your mother on your poker winnings." It was Constance who, it is said, watched Marilyn Monroe sashay across a set and remarked, "There goes a broad with a future behind her."
Despite the trust fund debacle, Constance is remembered with affection by her children, who all turned out sane and stable. But they admit she was no picnic, as you may guess. Remember the Christmas-gift-giveaway scene in Mommie Dearest? Constance did the same thing to her two daughters, demanding that their favorite gift be given away to an orphanage. (This incident is dryly indexed under "Bennett, Constance...child-rearing philosophies of.")
"My personal feeling is that Mummy should never have been a mother," said daughter Lorinda. "But she was one hell of a woman. I am very happy that Mummy was this fantastic woman: intelligent, great sense of humor, full of all kinds of wonderful things. Someone I respected so much as a person. I much prefer that she was someone like that than a 'good mother.'"
(Next up, if all goes according to plan (which, my patient readers know, isn't always the case) are notes on Constance's actual acting.)