Jane Wyman was an Academy Award-winning actress who very nearly landed the role of First Lady of the United States. For real! In the span of her six-decade-long career, she went from struggling to ingénue to full-fledged diva. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though—there were more than a few failed marriages and famous feuds all along the way.
1. She Was A “Misery-ian”
Sarah Jane Mayfield (AKA Jane Wyman) had a pretty idyllic middle-class childhood. She was born in 1917 in St. Joseph, Missouri to a laborer father and office assistant mother. But while things looked good from the outside of her Tudor-style home, her life took an unexpected and dramatic turn when she was just four.
2. Her Mother Abandoned Her
Wyman’s parents unexpectedly disturbed their suburban bliss. Without explanation—or none that we’ll ever know—Wyman’s parents divorced. Just three months later, her father died. Her mother must not have been able to bear the dissolution of her white-picket-fence dream, because she moved to Ohio…and left little Jane behind.
3. Her Childhood Became A Nightmare
Jane Wyman, now orphaned, moved in with foster parents. Sadly, for Wyman, the old trope of the mean foster family held true. Her new foster parents were the chief detectives in St. Joseph, and they laid down the law. Wyman later said, “I was raised with such strict discipline that it was years before I could reason myself out of the bitterness I brought from my childhood.” It definitely affected her later in life…
4. She Was A Dropout
Jane Wyman moved to California with her foster mother briefly in 1928 when she was just 11 years old. The City of Stars must have left quite an impression on the little Wyman, because it wasn’t long before she imagined herself up on the big screen. When she moved back to Missouri, she kept those dreams, and then made a drastic decision.
Wyman dropped out of high school so that she could move right back to Hollywood.
5. She Got No Credit
Wyman’s dreams were harder to attain than she had originally expected. It would be a while before she would see her name on the marquee. While she did manage to get some work in film, her first 20 appearances on screen went completely uncredited. If she was going to make it in Hollywood, then she was going to have to get creative.
6. She Was 13 Going On 30
While most people would love to be younger, Jane Wyman was aiming for just the opposite. In order to pay the bills while she worked on her acting career, she needed to get a job. There was just one problem. She was too young. So, Wyman lied about her age and worked as a manicurist and switchboard operator. She fooled everyone—but it was about to get her into big trouble.
7. She Kept A Secret From Her Husband
Wyman might have been having a hard time finding work in Hollywood, but her luck was better in other areas of her life. About one year after her arrival in California, Wyman found love. In 1933, the Wyman tied the knot to the first of four husbands, Ernest Wyman. There was just one wrinkle. She was hiding a big secret from her new hubby.
8. She Was Underage
As far Wyman’s marriage certificate—and her husband—was concerned, she was 19 years old and of great marrying age. In actuality, however, the nuptials weren’t exactly according to the letter of the law. When Wyman said “I do” for the first time, she was actually just barely 16 years old. It’s not clear if Wyman ever told her husband the truth—but it wouldn’t matter for long.
9. Her Marriage Ended Abruptly
Much like her parents’ marriage, Wyman’s marriage to Ernest dissolved without warning. After just two years, Wyman and Ernest decided to take a trip to Splitsville. Details of their divorce are scarce, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with Wyman’s big secret. She kicked Ernest to the curb but kept his surname throughout her career.
10. Her Career Took A Turn
Things finally started to look up for Wyman in 1937. After appearing in almost 30films—and lying her way into a marriage—she finally got to see her name on the marquee. She received top-billing in Public Wedding. That’s kind of a coincidence because, less than two years after she divorced Ernest, she had her own public wedding.
11. She Barely Knew Her Husband
In 1937, Jane Wyman walked down the aisle for the second time in four years—this time, as an adult. She married Myron Futterman, a dressmaker. It was Wyman’s opportunity to make the stable family she never had. Or was it? Wyman and Futterman must not have spent too much time talking on their dates, because they don’t seem to have known much about each other.
12. Her Marriage Was Short-Lived
Wyman’s wedded bliss didn’t last very long. After just three months, Wyman and Futterman separated and filed for divorce shortly after that. The reason for their split was something that most people find out on the first date. Wyman wanted kids and Futterman, well, didn’t. They could at least have discussed that on their way to the chapel!
13. She Found A Rat
Wyman and Futterman had different dreams for their future, but their marriage probably wouldn’t have lasted anyway. In 1938, when Wyman was finalizing her divorce from Futterman, she was also working on the set of Brother Rat. Behind the scenes, sparks began to fly between Wyman and one of her co-stars. She was in for one wild romance.
14. She Was Feeling Presidential
By the late 1930s, Wyman had been divorced twice and her career had kind of stalled. But things changed dramatically on the set of Brother Rat. Wyman met a man who would help boost her profile and her career. While filming, Wyman began a flirtatious relationship with a future president of the United States—one Ronald Reagan.
15. She Was In The Dark
Reagan was over the moon for Wyman. The couple announced their engagement at the historic Chicago Theater in 1940. Later that year, they tied the knot. Whereas Wyman had the one keeping secrets in her previous marriage, this time she was the one in the dark. There’s no indication that Reagan ever told Wyman about his presidential ambitions.
16. She Carried A Torch-y
On the surface, Wyman's relationship with Reagan seemed perfect—but decades later, the dark truth came out. Wyman had been so desperate for Reagan to marry her that she had threatened to take her own life if he didn't propose. Her threat had the desired effect, and Reagan asked her to marry him soon after.
17. She Acted Her Marriage Out
Jane Wyman must have been eager to show off her newfound happiness. In 1940, she brought her wedded bliss to the big screen in Angel from Texas, acting alongside her husband, Ronald Reagan. In the film, Wyman and Reagan played, not surprisingly, husband and wife. But Reagan wasn’t the only one that she was getting intimate with on-screen…
18. She Set Records
Her husband, Ronald Reagan, wasn’t the only one that Wyman was cozying up to on film sets. For years, Wyman and her You’re in the Army Now co-star, Regis Toomey, held a sensational record. The two locked lips on screen for a record-setting three minutes and five seconds. I don’t even think that I can hold my breath that long.
19. She Was A Working Mom
If Reagan was jealous of Wyman’s marathon kiss, then he didn’t show it. The couple paired up once again on the set of Tugboat Annie Sails Again. This time, any intimate action happened off-screen. Wyman was pregnant with her and Reagan’s first child, daughter Maureen, throughout the making of the film. No such thing as maternity leave for would-be Oscar winners.
20. She Predicted The Future
In 1942’s Footlight Serenade, Wyman’s character unintentionally doubles as a fortune teller. Her character mocks her understudy by saying, “You have as much chance of going on [stage] as I have of becoming First Lady.” Considering that Wyman was married to a future president, I’d say that the chances looked pretty good.
21. She Worked On Countless Films
Jane Wyman worked on over 80 films throughout her career. Needless to say, with all of those credits under her belt in her decades-long career, she came across more than her fair share of demanding directors—and co-stars. The director of 1946’s family western The Yearling, for example, had some very unusual requirements for Wyman.
22. She Basked In The Sun
Wyman was too pale to convincingly play the role of a Western pioneer farmer in The Yearling, or so her director thought. In order to better embody her character, her director had an odd request. The director demanded that Wyman sit out in the sun during filming in order to get a tan and, presumably, a very bad case of sunburn.
23. It Had An Unexpected Effect
The Yearling was more trouble than it was worth for Jane Wyman. Apart from sunburn, the film left a different kind of scar. An emotional one. The film nearly tore her family apart. For reasons that we don’t know, Wyman’s daughter, Maureen Reagan, refused to speak to her for two weeks after she saw the film. What on earth happened in that film? Worth a watch, maybe?
24. Her Big Break Was Unusual
Wyman was a star but she wasn’t quite yet the superstar she had dreamed of being. Her real big breakthrough role—the one that would make her a superstar—came in an unexpected way. She spent six months preparing to play the role of a deaf and mute victim of assault in 1948’s Johnny Belinda. She might have taken the role a little too seriously.
25. Her Silence Was Deafening
Wyman’s hard work in preparation for her role in Johnny Belinda was all worth it. She received won the Academy Award for Best Actress at the 21st Academy Awards. The strange role made Wyman the first actress since the end of the silent era to win an award for a role without lines. And she was still in character when she took the stage to accept that golden statuette.
26. She Got To The Point
Jane Wyman held the record for longest on-screen kiss and she was about to set the record for shortest speech. When she took the podium to accept her Oscar, Wyman’s speech shocked the audience at the ceremony. She said something along the lines of, “I accept this, very gratefully, for keeping my mouth shut for once. I think I'll do it again,” and walked off stage.
27. She Stayed Out Of Her Husband’s Business
From the heights of her career, Wyman’s life took a sudden and precipitous turn for the worse. Her husband, Ronald Reagan, started talking about his political ambitions. Wyman, in stark contrast to her husband, could not have been less enthused by the goings-on in Washington. In her own words, “I don’t know a thing about politics.” And that wasn't the only problem in their marriage.
28. She Was Partisan
According to a biography of Reagan, he'd been jealous of her Oscar nomination for The Yearling and her success as an actress. The book also claimed that Wyman had quicked grown bored of Reagan after their marriage. By 1950, Wyman and Reagan had gotten a divorce. While she claimed not to know anything about politics, Wyman publicly cited politics as the primary reason for their separation. Wyman was a registered Republican while Reagan was, at the time, a Democrat. Couldn’t she just have faked it until they got into the White House? Everyone else does.
29. She Was Raw As A Nerve
It looks Wyman’s divorce stirred up some of her insecurities surrounding her tumultuous childhood. Right after she ended things with Reagan, she went into full-fledged diva mode. 1950’s Stage Fright was one of the first films that Wyman made following her divorce from Reagan. Her raw nerves and emotions were on full display.
30. She Was Made Up
After her Oscar win and divorce from Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman changed drastically. According to co-stars, she proved to be a nightmare to work with after all the upheaval in her life. While playing a maid on the set of Stage Fright, she was concerned about looking dowdy and unglamorous next to her co-star, Marlene Dietrich.
To the horror of director Alfred Hitchcock, Wyman secretly applied makeup to make herself appear more glamorous.
31. Her Double Was Famous
Some of the opening scenes in the film Stage Fright saw Wyman’s character driving dangerously. Instead of relying on green screen magic or, you know, doing the driving herself, Wyman left it to the stunt department. But they ran into a problem: The only stunt person who bore any resemblance to Wyman was director Alfred Hitchcock’s own daughter.
32. She Let Them Eat Cake
Filming of Stage Fright took place in London. There was just one issue for Wyman; she didn’t like the local cuisine. Wyman wasn’t about to give up her Hollywood life though. Instead of surviving on canned tuna and bread, Wyman dined on steaks and roasts that Hitchcock had flown in from the US and prepared in fancy restaurants. According to Hitchcock, “Ladies must be well fed.”
33. Her Co-Stars Didn’t Like Her
Marlene Dietrich wasn’t a fan of her Stage Fright co-star. In an interview Dietrich gave later, she said of Wyman, “I heard she'd only wanted to do it [Stage Fright] if she were billed above me, and she got her wish…She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn't play a woman of mystery…Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve.” Ouch.
34. She Was Bossy
Marlene Dietrich and Alfred Hitchcock weren’t the only Hollywood peers that Jane Wyman had managed to rub the wrong way. On the set of The Glass Menagerie, Wyman mouthed off to Kirk Douglas. Douglas and the film’s director were working out their creative differences when Wyman coolly instructed her co-star to “listen to his director.”
35. She Found Happiness Again
Jane Wyman had (temporarily) gotten over her diva behavior by 1952. Perhaps it was because, once again, she found love. Wyman married music composer and director Frederick Karger. But it still wasn’t the wholesome and stable family life that she wanted. In fact, it was a wild rollercoaster ride with more than just a few big drops.
36. Her Marriage Ended Without Explanation
Wyman’s marital bliss didn’t last long. Turns out that the third time isn’t actually the charm. Almost two years after Wyman married Karger, the two filed for divorce. It’s not clear what caused the couple to call off their marriage but, given what happened next, we can rule out irreconcilable differences. It was definitely reconcilable.
37. She Remarried…The Same Man
I have a riddle for you: Wyman was married five times but she only had four husbands. How could this be? That’s right. She married the same man twice. Six years after Wyman and Karger finalized their divorce, they went crawling right back to one another and remarried in 1961. It seems like they were both just very confused.
38. She Walked Out Of The Marriage
In 1965, Wyman divorced Karger once again. The secretive Wyman left the tabloids scrambling to find out why the marriage had ended—and the tabloids weren’t the only ones left dazed and confused. Karger later stated that Wyman had simply “walked out” and their marriage was over. From the looks of what she did next, she was turning over a new leaf.
39. She Was A Convert
Jane Wyman must have given up on her hopes of having the stable home life that she never had as a child. After she divorced (i.e., walked out on and never came back to) Karger, Wyman never married again and decided to focus on her career—and her faith. Wyman converted to Catholicism. Remember that. Because she took her faith to her grave. Literally.
40. She Found Her Rock
Wyman starred alongside a nervous Rock Hudson in Magnificent Obsession. While she had feuded before with the likes of Marlene Dietrich—and would have more feuds in the future—Wyman was kind to the rookie star, even as he struggled through his scenes. Hudson later told Wyman at a Hollywood party, “You were nice to me when you didn't have to be, and I want you to know that I thank you and love you for it.”
41. She Left The Big Screen
In 1969, after nearly four decades in Hollywood, Jane Wyman made a huge decision. She decided to retire from the big screen, making her final film appearance in How to Commit Marriage—a topic that, even she would admit, even she had a lot of experience with. But if Wyman thought that the smaller screen would come with smaller drama, then she was sorely mistaken.
42. She Went Full Tyrant
Wyman retired from film and went on to a hugely successful television career that lasted almost as long as her film career. Her biggest role on the small screen—and the one that audiences know her for—was a starring role in Falcon Crest. She portrayed a ruthless and tyrannical matriarch. According to insiders, her role wasn’t too much of a stretch.
43. She Ordered Writers Around
Wyman’s Catholicism played a big role in her later years. The actress demanded that the writers of Falcon Crest scrap a storyline with a lesbian romance because of her religious views. She ordered the writers to change the story and make the lesbians sisters instead. That was just the tip of the iceberg of her frosty behavior on the successful soap opera.
44. She Had An Iron Grip
Wyman’s tyrannical ways on the set of Falcon Crest knew no bounds. Anyone working on the show, be they cast or crew, who didn’t fall in line soon found themselves…well…not on set. According to some of Wyman’s own co-stars from the show, she ruled the set with an “iron grip” and forced them off the show. There was one co-star, however, who wasn’t going down without a fight.
45. She Had Mortal Enemies
Wyman’s tyranny on the set of Falcon Crest didn’t go uncontested. The former Oscar winner feuded constantly with one of her co-stars, Lana Turner. Their characters were mortal enemies in the show and the feuding didn’t stop when the cameras did. Thankfully, the bickering did. The two apparently refused to speak to each other when the cameras stopped.
46. She Was Bitter
Lana Turner turned media informant after she left Falcon Crest—though there’s some evidence that Wyman had the writers nix her character. Turner alleged that the reason that Wyman was mean on set was that she was bitter and angry that her ex-husband, Reagan, was occupying the Oval Office at the time. Wyman had some fighting words of her own.
47. She Had Good Taste
Jane Wyman gave another reason for her tyranny on set. In response to Turner she said, “It’s not because I’m bitter or because I don’t agree with him politically. I’ve always been a registered Republican. But it’s bad taste to talk about ex-husbands and ex-wives, that’s all.” Considering the next tidbit, it doesn’t seem like Wyman held any animosity towards Reagan.
48. She Got Political
It seems like Wyman was telling the truth. She still remained friendly with Reagan after their divorce. Or, at least, friendly enough to support him in his presidential ambitions. According to Wyman’s personal assistant, Wyman voted for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984. She later called the man “great, kind and gentle.”
49. She Had Direction
Lana Turner wasn’t the only one that an ageing Jane Wyman feuded with on the set of Falcon Crest. She also butted heads with Robert Foxworth—and it was incredibly petty. Allegedly, the two stars measured the size of their dressing room trailers to ensure that neither was bigger than the other’s. And when the studio made Foxworth a director, Wyman demanded the same…even though she never directed an episode in her life.
50. She Had A Quiet Exit
After battling with her co-stars, Wyman retired from acting altogether and became something of a recluse. She was no longer fighting with her co-stars—she was fighting complications from diabetes and crippling arthritis. After dazzling audiences and a handful of husbands for six decades, Wyman died peacefully at the age of 90.
51. She Had A Habit
Wyman took her earlier conversion to Catholicism very seriously. And, at the end of it all, she might have wondered if the path she had taken was the right one. Or, perhaps, she had missed her true calling—so she made a bizarre request. Wyman asked to be laid to rest in a nun’s habit. This from the woman who once said, “I never go into anything except with both feet and a lot of enthusiasm.”
Well, whether it was career, romance, or religion, she proved herself right.