Shimmering Facts About Van Johnson, MGM’s Golden Boy

November 17, 2023 | Edith Milley

Shimmering Facts About Van Johnson, MGM’s Golden Boy

At the height of his career, Van Johnson seemed to have it all: All-American charm and good looks, fame and riches beyond compare, and the love of an entire nation. His untimely and unexpected fall from grace made one thing clear, though: He had some serious skeletons in his closet and a heavy weight on his shoulders.

1. She Didn’t Want Him

Van Johnson came from humble, but tumultuous, beginnings. His father Charles was a Swedish plumber who fancied the simpler things in life, while his mother Loretta was a housewife…with a serious penchant for drinking. Van’s birth did little to help their already turbulent relationship, and Loretta abandoned the family when he was just three years old.

It may have been a fresh start for her, but for Van, it was the beginning of a long and gloomy childhood.

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2. He Craved Attention

An absent mother and an emotionally distant father made for a lonely little boy, and Van wanted nothing more than to feel like someone actually loved him. He found a solution to this problem in a surprising place. When Charles took him to the circus one night, Van saw how much the audience loved the performers. After that, knew what he was going to do.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

3. His Dad Didn’t Approve

Van wanted to be a star, but unfortunately, "I want to be famous" isn’t what most parents want to hear when they ask their kids about their plans for the future. Charles didn’t understand Van’s sudden obsession with celebrities and movies, and while he didn’t stop the boy from pursuing his passions, he didn’t hold back from insulting them either.

When an eight-year-old Van started putting on shows in the backyard, his father's response was heartbreaking.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

4. No One Believed In Him

Charles didn't believe in Van and told him that the only stage he’d ever be on would be a house painter’s. But Charles wasn’t the only one casting doubts on Van’s dreams.

The shy youth gathered enough courage to start auditioning for plays in high school, but he never got any parts. A teacher eventually pulled him aside and told him that he just didn’t have the stuff to be a star. It’s a good thing Van didn’t listen to the naysayers.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

5. He Felt Trapped

Van graduated high school with one goal: get out of dodge. But as much as he despised the man, the thought of leaving Charles alone in Newport wracked him with guilt. The guilt eventually won, and Van put his dream on hold to work as his father's accountant. And while this thrilled the senior Johnson, Van, shockingly, was more miserable than ever.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

6. He Left It All Behind

Van’s dreams had a knack for kicking off in odd places. He quit working for his father after a year, but his ambitions seemed farther away than ever—until he started working at a restaurant. It was there that he befriended one of the managers, who was one of the first and only people to encourage him to pursue acting. And with her help, he did just that.

In September 1935, a 19-year-old Van arrived in New York City with $5...and his mother’s address in his pocket.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

7. It Was Awkward

Van naively hoped that seeing Loretta again would help heal the wounds of her abandonment—only he didn’t realize just how deep those wounds had cut. Their reunion was tense and awkward, and Van jumped ship after sleeping on her living room floor for a few days. But the pain went with him, and it would be something he carried for the rest of his life.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

8. He Had A Tough Time

Van quickly learned that the Big Apple had tough skin, and he struggled to break through. The small parts he got—including a role in the film version of Too Many Girls—were all fine and dandy, but nothing that warranted a big break. Times got tough. He often struggled to pay for groceries and rent, but Van, determined to prove his father wrong, never gave up.

No matter the size of the role or the paycheck attached to it, he put his all into every job he got—and some big names were starting to notice.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

9. They Took Him For A Ride

The stars finally seemed to be aligning for Van during a run of Broadway’s Pal Joey in 1940. Impressed with his passion and presence on stage, Columbia Pictures invited him to Hollywood to do a screen test. Unfortunately, the results were less than stellar, and Van returned to New York heartbroken and without a contract.

All hope seemed lost—and then the unthinkable happened.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

10. He Got A Call

A dejected Van returned to Newport after the closure of Pal Joey in 1941, and he was seriously reconsidering his career choice. It had been six long years since his move to New York, and he had nothing to show for it—or so he thought. Two days into the trip he got a call he had waited years for: Warner Bros wanted to give him a six-month contract.

Was this the big break he’d been waiting for?

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

11. It Wasn’t What He Imagined

Er…not really. Van stepped off the train in Los Angeles, ready to conquer the City Of Angels, and found…nothing. No one from the studio was there to greet him, and when he called, they didn’t even know who he was. To add insult to injury, he found out the next day that they had placed him on a six-week, unpaid layoff.

So much for a red carpet-welcome. After a sudden surge of hope, the hopeful actor found himself, once again, flailing in open water.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

12. It Didn’t Work Out

In truth, Warner Bros had no idea what to do with Van—and the disappointments just kept coming.

His cheery demeanor was a poor match for the studio’s gritty repertoire, and six months passed by with a few meager roles. He finally got a lead part in Murder in the Big House—but the film flopped. The consequences dug Van into an even deeper hole.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

13. He Almost Gave Up

Van wasn’t surprised to learn that his contract wasn’t renewed. The stream of constant rejections started to take a toll, and he was ready to return to Broadway—but fate had other plans.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, friends he’d made while filming Too Many Girls, took him out for a farewell dinner. Luckily, an important guest was also in attendance.

Sitting next to them was Bill Grady, MGM Studio’s head of talent. In a drastic move, Ball dragged Van to his table and pleaded on his behalf. Grady graciously agreed to give him a chance.

Lucille Ball factsWikimedia Commons

14. He Felt Out Of Place

Have you ever done or said something and immediately thought, "This is going to be a memory that keeps me up at night?" That pretty much sums up Van’s first Hollywood get-together. It was an introvert’s worst nightmare: He didn’t know anyone in attendance, and his attempts at striking up conversations were disastrous at best.

He never wanted to experience embarrassment like that again, so he started wearing red socks everywhere as a conversation starter. Luckily, Van Johnson's awful luck was about to change.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

15. He Met His Idol

After almost a decade of rejection and paltry parts, Van finally got his big break when he landed a leading role in 1943’s A Guy Named Joe. The scope of the role didn’t even matter, because co-starring in the film was the legendary Spencer Tracy, who Van had idolized since childhood.

To the star-struck Van, it seemed too good to be true. Turns out he was right.

Spencer Tracy FactsWikimedia Commons

16. He Had A Horrifying Close Call

Some higher power really had it out for Van. Two weeks into filming, a horrific car accident flipped his world on its head. The other passengers, including best friends Keenan and Eve Wynn, had minor injuries—but the impact ejected Van from the car.

Doctors couldn’t believe that he survived, and they didn’t know if he’d make it through the next few days. He not only suffered a fractured skull, but broken glass cut his throat so badly that it severed an artery and almost decapitated him.

When he reached the hospital he had lost three liters (nearly a gallon) of blood. But Van was a fighter, and he wasn’t throwing in the towel just yet.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

17. It Happened In A Bad Place

Luck really wasn’t on his side that night. The accident occurred on the border of LA and Culver City, and the impact threw him onto Culver City’s side of the street. But the horror didn't end there. When an LA officer arrived and told Van—who was bleeding out—that he couldn’t help due to a zoning ordinance, Van said: "Tell me where the right side of the street is, and I’ll crawl there".

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

18. A Star Took His Side

Van may have been a fighter, but time was money, and MGM cofounder Louis B Mayer wanted him replaced in the film. Luckily for him, Tracy put his foot down. He told Mayer that he could replace Van—but it’d mean replacing him as well. Unwilling to let his biggest star walk, Mayer begrudgingly agreed to wait for Van to heal.

Van's fight for stardom had become a downright nightmare, but he was almost there.

Louis B. Mayer FactsWikimedia Commons

19. He Powered Through The Pain

Mayer didn’t have to wait long, at least. Determined to return to the studio, Van defied doctors’ orders and returned to set only three months later. Despite excruciating daily migraines, he powered through the pain and gave the performance of his life—and the pain paid off. The movie was a hit, and Van Johnson was finally a star.

But there was a dark truth behind Van’s fame, and it haunted him.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

20. He Couldn’t Answer The Call

Van's accident—which happened three months after Pearl Harbor—spared him from the subsequent draft that had claimed many of Hollywood’s young actors. His lack of service would be a source of shame for the rest of his life, and he frequently visited military hospitals to make up for it.

As the guilt gnawed at his heart, he watched as dreams finally became a reality.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

21. He Shot Into The Spotlight

The release of Two Girls and a Sailor the following year launched Van’s career as a national superstar. His role as the boy-next-door had girls swooning across the country, and they let him know it. He went from living a relatively quiet life to needing escorts to help him navigate the crowds of up to 5,000 that waited to catch a glimpse of him—and this was only the beginning.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

22. The Ladies Loved Him

By the end of 1944, Van was getting 8,000 fan letters a week—the most of any Hollywood star—but some fans took things too far when they started showing up at his house. Things took a terrifying turn when two teenagers broke in and locked themselves in his bathroom, and he ended up moving shortly after.

But for Van, these were just minor nuisances. He was finally getting the love he so desperately craved as a child—but he quickly learned that fame had a dark side.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

23. People Asked Questions

With fame came rumors, and people were starting to wonder why America’s hottest heartthrob didn’t have a gorgeous gal by his side. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of ladies, among his co-stars were June Allyson and Esther Williams; Van just didn’t seem interested. When questioned about his love life during an interview, he joked that he was married to MGM.

And while this answer may have appeased his adoring fans, one person saw it for the cover-up it was.

June Allyson factsThe Life and Sad Ending of June Allyson, Celebrity Hollywood

24. There Was A Rumor

Louis B Mayer was privy to whispers about Van’s real love life, and he knew the scandalous truth behind his hesitancy to date: He was gay.

Mayer feared that this would become public knowledge and worked furiously to orchestrate a romance between Van and literally any woman. But Van wasn’t exactly helpful in his reluctance, and the closeness he had with bestie Keenan Wynn only raised more eyebrows.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

25. He Was At The Top

Despite the questions surrounding his love life, Van’s popularity continued to skyrocket. By the end of 1945, he was the fastest-rising male star in the country, the second highest-paid actor behind Bing Crosby, and MGM’s most valuable asset. He received almost 50,000 letters a month—so many that MGM had to hire people to handle it all.

But through it all, one person remained unimpressed.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

26. He Felt Rejected

At the height of his success, Van invited his father Charles to visit him and took him to Chasen’s, a high-end restaurant renowned for its steak, to try and impress him. He told Charles to order whatever he wanted and eagerly waited for his dad to pick a lavish meal from the extravagant menu. His heart shattered when he ordered a simple tuna sandwich.

To Van, it was the ultimate rejection of his status and success, and their relationship never recovered. When asked about his dad some years later, Van became angry and said that Charles was a "horrible man, an awful man".

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

27. He Had An Odd Nickname

Van went from an awkward introvert to being on par with Frank Sinatra as a national heartthrob. He even earned the nickname "The Voiceless Sinatra," which was a little odd considering that Van had starred in several musicals and was a talented singer. But being compared to Sinatra was a big enough honor that he didn’t mind.

All this, however, wasn't enough to keep the actor out of trouble.

Marlon BrandoWikimedia.Commons

28. He Was In Trouble

Despite Mayer’s hard work, word continued to spread among Hollywood’s elite about Van’s unconventional nightlife. Van had—according to (gay) playwright Arthur Laurents—been caught "performing" in public washrooms one too many times, and Mayer’s leniency reached an end. He took measures into his own hands and made a drastic move.

It would have dire consequences.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

29. She Didn’t Know Him Anymore

Lucille Ball was no stranger to the rumors surrounding Van’s troubled love life, but she couldn’t have cared less. A strong proponent of gay rights, she adored and supported Van—but even her support had its limits.

She couldn’t believe it when he showed up at her house one night and tearfully declared his love for Eve Wynn—Keenan’s soon-to-be ex-wife.

She once believed that nothing could change Van’s sweet nature, but her opinion did a 180 after that night. She later said that while she still liked Van, fame had turned him into a selfish egomaniac. Ouch.

Lucille Ball factsWikipedia

30. His Marriage Was Scandalous

America waited with bated breath for its most desirable bachelor to wed, and Van’s choice of bride shocked them—and not in a good way. Van married Eve in Mexico on January 25, 1947, just hours after her official divorce from Keenan. Keenan didn’t make a public fuss about it, but he didn’t have to, seeing as the entirety of America did it for him.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

31. His People Turned On Him

Van’s fall from grace was just as quick as his rise to it. In one day, he went from America’s sweetheart to hated homewrecker, and his fans weren’t shy about sharing their opinions on the matter. Fan mail turned into hate mail, and people across the country promised to never see another film of his again. The backlash became so intense that Van refused to do interviews for a while.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

32. The Truth Was Ugly

The truth behind Van’s marriage was far more sad and sinister than people knew. He was no homewrecker but a victim; as were Keenan and Eve. Remember that drastic action Mayer took? This was it.

He presented Eve with an evil ultimatum: Marry Van or ruin Keenan’s career. He would "prove" that Van was straight, and this was how. But in trying to save Van’s career, Mayer only brought it to ruin—and he was nowhere to be found in the wreckage.

Lana Turner factsWikimedia Commons

33. They Were A Family

Neither public nor professional opinion would stop Van from becoming a father. Despite doctors’ orders to not have more children after a difficult pregnancy with Keenan’s second son, Eve gave birth to a daughter named Schuyler in 1948. Van was ecstatic—he finally had the chance to be the father he wished he’d had.

But history tends to repeat itself, and fatherhood was harder than Van thought.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

34. He Didn’t Know How To Be A Dad

Turns out that parenting is a lot more work than Van had imagined. He may have had good intentions when Schuyler was born, but parenting just wasn’t his strong suit. He wanted nothing to do with messes or discipline or conflict and left the harder parts of child-rearing to Eve—who, as doctors had predicted, nearly passed after giving birth.

It was the beginning of the end for the ill-fated couple.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

35. His Career Suffered

Turns out that marrying your bestie’s ex is kind of frowned upon (who would’ve guessed), and Van’s career tanked. It had a small revival following 1949’s Battleground, but the lack of roles coming his way and whispers of film becoming a dying art had Van on edge. He decided to return to live shows after a pep talk from Marlene Dietrich.

It may not have been as lucrative or exciting as film, but it brought some life back into Van—especially since his shows sold out almost every night.

Marlene Dietrich FactsWikimedia Commons

36. He Was In The Presence Of Royalty

Being famous means mingling with a lot of big names—including royal ones. In 1951, Van and Eve met the heiress to the English throne, Princess Elizabeth, while attending King George VI’s last command performance. The first thing the princess did was check if Van was wearing his signature red socks, and to her delight, he was.

Wedding FactsGetty Images

37. He Had A Near-Fatal Experience

Van’s part in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny was his biggest since his marriage fiasco—and it was almost his last. While swimming in the ocean for a scene, a shark approached. Van was oblivious, but a sharp-eyed navy rifleman spotted it and took action. He nailed the shark before it got any closer, sparing the star from a potentially grisly end.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

38. He Fell From Grace

The Caine Mutiny was a huge success—so why did Van still struggle to get big roles? Word on the street was that Van was volatile and difficult to work with, and people were reluctant to hire him.

When Edward Dmytryk, the film's director, wanted to cast him again, studio executives warned him that Van had become "box office poison". Talk about a bad look.

But Van knew when he wasn’t wanted. In 1956, he and Eve set sail for Europe in hopes of finding a fresh start.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

39. She Sued Him

There was one person who took advantage of the film’s success, though—and not in the way Van wanted. In November 1954, his mother—who recently lost her job as a dietician at MGM—sued him for $900 a month in support. Van refused to pay her that much, arguing that she didn’t support him in his childhood, and they settled the matter out of court for $400 a month.

But sadly, this fiasco was only the beginning of his financial (and legal) woes.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

40. He Scared Them

Van quickly learned that demons can follow you anywhere, and he continued to struggle in Europe’s film scene. His poor professional life was starting to take a toll, and he took out his frustration in horrifying ways. He became violent with his wife and daughter, once throwing Eve over a table and hitting Schuyler so hard that she flew against a wall.

And things were about to get even worse.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

41. He Regretted It

With his film career in steady decline, Van gave television a try. In 1959, he was offered the lead in The Untouchables, and while he wanted to take it, Eve had other plans. She rejected the offer on his behalf and demanded double the pay. The person who offered Van the role—none other than his friend, Desi Arnaz—simply ignored the demand and hired Robert Stack instead.

To Van’s dismay, the show was a massive hit. Not only did it revive Stack’s career, but it also won him an Emmy.

Lucille Ball factsPicryl

42. She Left Him

Van blamed Eve for missing out on the success of The Untouchables. It was the final nail in the coffin for their already rocky relationship. She quickly grew tired of his volatile behavior and escaped to California, taking Schuyler with her. She filed for divorce soon after and sued Van for extreme acts of cruelty causing mental suffering.

But would it really be a Hollywood love story without a twist?

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

43. They Tried Again

Van appeared quite happy to be alone in Europe. He remained there for six months, only returning to New York after accepting a role in a musical. Surprisingly, one of the first things he did was call up Eve and ask for a second chance, which she accepted. But tension still hung between them—and Van was about to hand her the ultimate betrayal.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

44. He Was No Longer Ashamed

The explosive (and permanent) end to their marriage came in September 1961, while Van was in London for The Music Man. Eve discovered that Van was not only having an affair, but that his mistress was actually a mister—and the lead dancer of the production.

The ensuing fight was the most volatile yet, and it ended with Van packing his bags and leaving. He finally embraced who he was…but at what cost?

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

45. Karma Came For Him

Van didn’t get away with his affair so easily, though. During a performance of The Music Man, he caught his middle finger in the door of a prop train, and his attempt to free it left him with a gruesome injury. He severed the tip and left mid-show to go to the hospital. Doctors successfully reattached it, but he was out of commission for the next two weeks.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

46. She Didn’t Hold Back

Van’s divorce from Eve was one of the most heated in Hollywood history. Both suffered heavy financial losses by the time it was finalized in 1968, and now that she was free, Eve didn’t hold back with the press.

She accused Van of being a raging woman-hater (yikes) with mommy issues, who believed women only wanted money from him. And while this drama was great for the press, who enthusiastically ate it up, they forgot about the innocent victim caught up in it all.

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

47. He Didn’t Want Her

Get ready for some majorly tragic irony here. Schuyler remained with Eve throughout the separation and divorce, and with no chance of reconciliation and no desire to return to California, Van bailed on his fatherly duties. Schuyler tried for years to write and call him to no avail. Heartbroken and confused, she—here it is—felt like he had abandoned her.

In 1963 he admitted to having no clue where she was, and in later years, said he had no idea how old she even was. Dad of the year, anyone?

Van Johnson FactsGetty Images

48. He Had A Big Scare

As if a highly-publicized divorce didn’t cause him enough stress, Van had the fright of his life when he discovered a blemish on his thigh in March 1963. A biopsy confirmed his worst fear: cancer. He underwent surgery to remove it but was back in the hospital within eight months when it reappeared. Thankfully, he stayed cancer-free the second time around.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

49. He Tried Something New

Van had enough glitz and glam for one lifetime, and in his golden years pursued more simple passions. He had been an avid painter since early adulthood but didn’t start to take it seriously until his 70s. He had a natural talent—not only did he paint a piece a day, but his pieces sold for up to $10,000 each at his art shows.

Van Johnson FactsWikimedia Commons

50. It Was The End Of An Era

Van’s final years resembled his lonely childhood in many ways. He retired from acting in the 90s and lived quietly in New York with few friends and no contact with his daughter. In 2002, he moved to an assisted living facility and passed peacefully on December 12, 2008. He was one of the last stars from Hollywood’s golden age, and with him died an era.

But the golden age wasn’t the only thing to die with him. Van never publicly discussed his sexuality, and many questions remain. At least one thing is for certain: He lived one heck of a life.

Percy ShelleyShutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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