After writing about Brian Aherne's account of his friendship with George Sanders and Sanders' unforgettable advice on how to write memoirs, the Siren just had to order her own copy of Aherne's autobiography, A Proper Job.
And it's a wonderful book, despite Aherne's rather slighting his Hollywood films to devote more professional reminiscences to his theatrical career. Aherne was British and seems to have had the attitude often attributed to British actors, that films should be what one did to supplement one's theatrical calling. His career as a Hollywood actor was never as front-rank as that of his first wife, Joan Fontaine, a fact she alluded to with some asperity in No Bed of Roses and which he also admits, in a roundabout fashion. And his theatrical career had some brilliant high points, including his having originated the role of Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street on Broadway opposite the legendary Katharine Cornell.
Aherne was handsome and showed definite sex appeal in movies such as the strange and wonderful Sylvia Scarlett, as well as Merrily We Live and The Great Garrick (now available via the Warner Archives and yes, David Ehrenstein, the Siren promises to order it). But for whatever reason--luck, timing, lack of a killer instinct, probably all of the above--he never became a huge star. (CinemaOCD has a good rundown of his Hollywood parts here, with a link to many of the pictures from A Proper Job.) Eventually he moved gracefully into character parts, maintaining a stage career with roles like Professor Higgins in the touring production of My Fair Lady.
But the Siren has found that often it's the people on the margins of stardom who give the best picture of Hollywood life, and Aherne's book is remarkable not only for his intelligence, but for the compassion with which he treats the Hollywood figures he knew. It isn't hard to imagine why the saturnine Sanders kept returning to Aherne for companionship, year after year. Aherne was not a judgmental type. Even when describing a taxing experience, such as working with Bette Davis on Juarez, he does so wryly: "I even found Bette Davis attractive, when I played Maximilian to her Carlotta and, brilliant actress though she is, surely nobody but a mother could have loved Bette Davis at the height of her career."
While Aherne doesn't go out of his way to disdain the movie colony, he does permit himself the occasional joke at its expense. At one point the actor goes into a small California bookshop and complains to the manager that the poetry selection is too slight: "'What's the use of carrying more?' said the man. 'Only you and Katharine Hepburn buy it!'"
The small, precise portraits of Hollywood notables include John Gilbert, spinning out his contract while the studio tries to make him so miserable he will terminate it. "If motion pictures don't want him, where can a great screen star go? What can he do?" asks Aherne. "The gods and goddesses cannot jostle with the crowd, cannot take a job in an office..."
Aherne doesn't bother to add, but the reader can deduce, that he preferred his own fate. He found diversion in farming and flying, eventually married a woman with theatrical ancestry but no ambitions, took the roles that still came and took pleasure in things like the commotion of Sanders' occasional visits. Aherne does show some regrets, as when he ruefully describes how he lost the part of Sidney Carton to Ronald Colman, or how he repeatedly turned down Captain Blood (thus ensuring that Jack Warner forever cursed him for saddling the studio with the ever-troublesome Errol Flynn). But Aherne evidently felt it was better to be an occasionally working actor than a burnt-out star.
If any additional evidence was needed, there was also the fate of Aherne's good friend Ruth Chatterton. He advised her to take the part of the wife in Dodsworth, but Chatterton told him it would end her career to appear as a middle-aged woman. She took it anyway, gave a brilliant performance, and never got another Hollywood offer. Chatterton, whose Pre-Code talkies continue to bowl over critics, wound up in the Connecticut countryside, writing books and living happily with her husband until he died. Hollywood, however, never did come around to pay the great Chatterton her due:
I am happy to remember that my wife and I visited [Chatterton] shortly before her death. The walls of her bar were hung with photos of friends whom she had entertained lavishly at her home on Palm Drive in earlier days. I asked her if she had ever heard from any of them. No, she said, and when she had played Los Angeles some years before not one of them of had even sent her a word.
Aherne gives a wistful description of an afternoon at Pickfair toward the end of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford's marriage. As Aherne's visit wound down, Pickford entered and, spurred by not very much, went to the window, looked out at the garden and spoke "almost tragically of the futility of ambition and the evanescence of fame." Aherne hastens to add that after her career ended, Pickford found great comfort in religion and Buddy Rogers. But he doesn't sound entirely convinced himself, and the Siren found herself thinking Billy Wilder's initial casting instincts were not far off when he approached Pickford about Sunset Boulevard.
And the Siren was mightily amused by the description of Marlene Dietrich: "She baked me a fabulous Viennese cake; she is a great cakemaker." According to Maria Riva, who was deeply fond of Aherne, he was making a great deal more than cake with Marlene. But the lady was alive and still technically married at the time the book was published, and chivalrously Aherne breathes not a word of their affair, though he admits to wondering "how I could manage to bake Miss Dietrich." George Sanders must have rolled his eyes over such determinedly uncommercial discretion.
But the story that caught the Siren was one she had never heard before, that of Aherne's affair with the stage actress Clare Eames. Eames was married to playwright and director Sidney Howard, who later wrote the screenplay for Gone with the Wind. Howard was in London to direct his play The Silver Cord, and Aherne was cast opposite Eames. All went smoothly until Howard returned to America and the play began its run, whereupon the attraction between the two actors swiftly became a headlong, passionate romance. "I forgot she was a married woman with a child," says Aherne. "I forgot she was six years older than myself. I forgot my Puritan upbringing. I forgot that I was nothing but a penniless young actor. I heard the angels sing. I was lonely no more."
The affair, as might be expected, caused as much pain as it did joy. Early on Eames gave Aherne a copy of Anna Karenina. The actor fretted that he "might become her Vronsky;" Aherne must have known he already was. Howard, according to his rival, played Karenin to the hilt. "He did not care for Clare, but he cared deeply about what people said," says Aherne. Howard "cut off financial support, refused a divorce, and insisted upon the return of the baby and her nurse."
Over the three years of their relationship Eames and Aherne struggled to find work. Howard's stature made New York nearly impossible, and the romance coincided with the British acting unions cracking down on the use of American actors. Eames tried at one point to reconcile with Howard, but it didn't work. "Young as I was, I doubt I fully realized the tragedy of her position," says Aherne, and he evokes Anna Karenina once more when he describes his lover slipping into her former house to see her child when Howard was out. Eames was sick, and getting sicker, although Aherne never says precisely what the trouble was--severe abdominal pain, is all we are told.
Finally, as Aherne was playing a wordy, difficult part in a dismal failure of a play, Eames became extremely ill. She had an operation, and the night after it took place Aherne slogged through a nightmarish performance in front of a tiny audience. When the curtain finally came down, a car was sent and Brian was driven, through a driving rainstorm, to Clare's bedside. They told him she needed sleep, but the rain had turned into a deafening thunderstorm, and Clare died as he held her hand.
"I went on blindly running for the next twenty years," says Aherne. You don't have to be as romantically inclined as the Siren to wonder if he ever stopped. Joan Fontaine certainly felt Clare's ghost when she married Aherne a full decade later. In her memoirs, Fontaine paints a picture straight out of Rebecca: Barely finished with her honeymoon, she was dragged to Connecticut to visit Eames' dying aunt, and found herself staring at pictures of Brian and Clare on the piano.
The daughter Eames stole time with was Jennifer Howard, who married Samuel Goldwyn Jr. in 1950. Their four children included Tony Goldwyn, most famous for playing an evil yuppie in Ghost.
It is this scene, which took place only a year or so after Clare died, that the Siren can't get out of her head. It is as cinematic as anything she has ever found in a star's memoirs. Aherne had returned to Hollywood, but in a stage production of Barretts, again with Katharine Cornell. The audience for the opening included everyone from the Thalbergs to Charlie Chaplin.
Afterwards, Ruth Chatterton gave a smart party for Miss Cornell at her beautiful house in Beverly Hills. Stepping back from the buffet with a plate in my hand, I bumped into someone who stood, hard and unyielding, behind me. I turned in surprise; it was Sidney Howard, looking straight in my eyes, a few inches away. He said, 'I seem always to be in your way, Brian!' For an instant we looked at each other, and then I said, 'I am sorry, Sidney,' and moved away. I never saw him again. He remarried and died tragically, crushed by a tractor against the wall of his barn in Massachusetts.