Robert Taylor was born in Filley, Nebraska on August 5, 1911. The photo above is the main street of Filley in 1936. Mr. Taylor’s original name was Spangler Arlington Brugh. At some point the Spangler and Brugh families intermarried, causing the unusual first name. His parents were Spangler Andrew Brugh (1881-1933) and Ruth Adela Stanhope Brugh (1887-1974). Andrew was a grain merchant who became an osteopath in order to care for his ailing wife. He died in 1933, shortly after his son’s graduation from college. Ruth Brugh survived her son by five years. Robert Taylor always felt a strong connection with Nebraska and visited frequently.
Young Arlington, or Arly, was 6 months old when this picture was taken. Dressing baby boys like girls was very common at the time. With her health problems, Ruth was unable to care for her baby, necessitating a live-in Nanny. Arly was apparently a fragile child who survived a serious illness in 1912 and another in the flu epidemic of 1918. The family moved to Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1917.
This picture is from 1912 and shows Arly at the age of 18 months. The Brugh family moved frequently in Beatrice, generally moving up to better premises. E.A. Kral in Robert Taylor’s Nebraska Years says: “Taylor’s father was by all accounts an excellent osteopath,very considerate of everyone and a wonderful neighbor.” Robert Taylor was also known for his good manners and faultless courtesy. Greta Garbo called him a “kind and well-bred” young man.
Date unknown. From E.A. Kral: “Taylor’s mother was a quiet and sometimes reserved person, of a smaller build, 5’2″ tall, 120 pounds in weight, fragile appearing but underneath strong and occasionally demanding, and always concerned about her family.” In later years Ruth would recall that neither her husband nor her son,”liked me to work. that he liked to find me dressed up pretty and sitting down with a book in the parlor when he came home” (Gladys Hall)
I don’t have an exact date for this picture but to me Arly looks to be around 4 or 5 years old. Ruth dressed him in sailor suits and Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits and kept him away from other children for fear that he would get dirty. As a boy Arly loved to read, mostly adventure stories for boys. The famous widow’s peak makes an appearance here, although not as prominently as it would later.
This family portrait comes from 1914 when Arlington was three years old. Later he would go to school in outfits like this one and have to defend himself from other boys who called him a sissy. Robert Taylor commented much later that it was then he became a fast runner. Ruth, Arlington and Andrew are in the front row, other relatives in the back. One poignant comment by Robert Taylor looking back on his child is as follows: “I was almost always alone. I went to school. I was a good little boy, I am afraid. I liked school.”
Also from 1914, 3 year old Arly with a suitcase. When he was quite young, Arlington accompanied his doctor father on his rounds through rural Nebraska, helping with surgery by laying out the instruments. Mr. Taylor once described the smell of his home as a combination of hot chocolate, hot cornbread and formaldehyde. He also tried to teach himself Latin. At one point Arly developed a serious stammer and was sent to live with friends on a farm. Allowed to dress like a regular boy and play with kids of his own age cured the stammer, which never came back.
Wearing his boy scout uniform, Arly is seated on his pony Gypsy or Gyp at the age of 8. From Gladys Hall, Robert Taylor’s True Life Story, 1937. Quoting Robert Taylor: “One day when I was ten, I made up my mind to ride Gypsy to Filley. It was about 16 miles from Beatrice. My parents offered no objection. They always encouraged me to take the adventures that called on self reliance…..well, a few miles out of Beatrice, Gypsy balked. I fought her but she was stronger willed than I. I let her take her head then, and ramble on to a lonely farm house. There I phoned my mother. ‘Gee, I’m marooned here. Gyp won’t go any farther. We’ll have to come back.’ And then mother’s voice came over the wire saying, ‘You just cut yourself a switch, young man, and make her go. Never let a horse be your boss.,” Despite more difficulties, Arly and Gyp made it safely to Filley.
The original caption for this picture says: “No screen lover is this, but an all-round American boy at the age of 16. His father was Taylor’s favorite companion, but tragically he didn’t live to see his son famous. A likeness between father and son can be seen, but it was a likeness of character as well as physiognomy. ” Lydia Calvert, writing the history of the screen’s greatest lover since Valentino, tells of his life in Filley, Neb., where the photo was taken.
The Brugh family in 1929. Arly was 18. After High School he enrolled at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska to study music with his favorite teacher, Herbert Grey. Grey later transferred to Pomona College in California, and Arlington Brugh followed him, a decision that completely changed the direction of his life. At Pomona he became active in the dramatic society and played leading roles in a number of plays, including Camille.
In his senior year, Arly, also called Doc, starred in the play Journey’s End. There was a talent scout from MGM there and the rest is history. Actually there a number of versions of what happened next, but there is no question that young Doc and MGM did find one another.
This is probably the High School String Quartet in the late 1920s. The members were Ora Dunn, Clyde Pfaff, Gerhart Wiebe and Arlington Brugh. Except for Arly, I don’t know who is who. Gerhard Wiebe was a very close friend who even lived with the Brugh family for a while in California. Robert Taylor’s love of music continued through his life and he sings and plays the piano in several pictures. Jack Benny and Robert Taylor once played a violin and cello duet on Benny’s radio show.
Arlington Brugh in high school in Beatrice Nebraska. He was quite a snappy dresser and fully aware of his attraction for the opposite sex. The young man loved movies and went to as many of them as possible. He was also attracted to the theater and acted in a number of high school plays. A neighbor named C.B Dempster reportedly said: “Some day that boy of yours will be a big movie star!”
Andrew and Arly in 1933, shortly before Andrew’s death. His father’s death hit Robert Taylor hard. The two had visited a few weeks earlier when Andrew Brugh first became ill. It was the last time they spoke. “I’m glad my last words to him were, “Whatever I do, I want to make good at it–for you and Mother'” (Gladys Hall) This was a vow Mr. Taylor kept, caring for his mother all his life and making provision for her in his will. After Andrew’s funeral, Bob Taylor took his mother with him to California, where he supported her and his grandmother, on $35 a week at first.
Ruth Brugh and Robert Taylor on the set of Magnificent Obsession, 1935. Ruth was supportive of her son’s career and became very proud of being “Robert Taylor’s mother.” She depended on Mr. Taylor financially for years although he drew the line at supporting her male friends. Ruth was a manipulative person and used her supposed poor health to keep Mr. Taylor with her on his wedding night when he married Barbara Stanwyck. He got very good at handling her and keeping her from having as much influence as she wanted.
1932-1933. Robert Taylor (second from left) in Green Fire at the Little Theater in Padua Hills, California. Mr. Taylor acted in off-campus productions to get experience. He took his work very seriously and never passed up an opportunity to improve.
Original caption: ” Jacob A. Brugh, grandfather of Arlington Brugh, better known as Robert Taylor, high ranking movie star, has been placed on the relief rolls as a $16 a month pensioner of Beatrice, Nebraska, it has been revealed. It is said dissension among his relatives caused it.” Life Magazine, always antagonistic towards Mr. Taylor, published a story about Jacob Brugh, implying that his wealthy grandson couldn’t take care of the old man. Robert Taylor had been unaware of the situation and remedied it as son as he was informed.
An irate magazine reader wrote the following:
(March 15, 1937) Sir: I wish to take as violent an exception as is possible to your photographs of Jacob A. Brugh and the letter accompanying them as published in LIFE for Feb. 22. I know the Brugh family and have known them for many years. They are entirely normal people, having all the civilized characteristics of other people of the middle class. They would cheerfully support the old gentleman but he won’t let them. He is in that state of advanced senility where he enjoys having the public think he is severely abused by his children and particularly by his grandson, now known as Robert Taylor, the Great Lover.
You are putting Arlington Brugh, or Robert Taylor, on an extremely hot spot. He either has to admit that he is a tightwad of the first order or that his grandfather is nuts and a contrary old rascal to boot.
You dealt with the case of Edward Maileham in an intelligent manner. You left no room for doubt that the ancient poet was a fine man, had accomplished something, was respected, loved by all who know him, but was, withal, senility-stricken and had to have his affairs administered by a guardian. The same thing is true for Jacob A. Brugh, except that he has lost his money and therefore needs no guardian. His sons have repeatedly offered him a good home.
In May of 1939 Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck married. (I have written about that elsewhere on this blog). At the time of the marriage, Mr. Taylor acquired an instant family in the form of Dion Fay, Barbara’s adopted son. From Linda J. Alexander, Reluctant Witness: “[Mr. Taylor] was 27 when he married Barbara, and certainly old enough to have been a father. The fact that suddenly he now had a child living under his roof threw a wrench in his very structured, adult-centered environment. He had been raised to follow rules, never get dirty or argue, obey elders without question….make no waves whatsoever. In other words, don’t act like a child. Period. He figured that’s how Dion should act in his home.” Nonetheless, Robert Taylor made a huge effort to win over Dion, taking him fishing, to the races, the circus, shooting and the like. Dion, however, wasn’t outdoorsy and the two had very little in common. As an adult, Dion recalled his stepfather as a decent guy who tried and called him “Gentleman Bob.”
The Taylor-Stanwyck marriage ended in divorce in 1951. Robert Taylor played the man-about-town until he met the lovely German actress, Ursula Thiess. After a long and turbulent courtship, they married on a boat in Jackson Lake Wyoming on May 15, 1954. Once again Mr. Taylor acquired a family as Ursula had two children, Manuela and Michael. Ruth Brugh is said to have disapproved. Both children had great difficulty adjusting to America and their new stepfather. For two German speaking children to be tossed into an alien country and way of life was very difficult. Michael died of a drug overdose in 1969. Manuela, after some rough times, turned her life around and is today a successful educator and photographer.
This picture shows the Taylor family and photographer Dmitri Kessel in Wyoming in 1961 during a photo shoot for Life Magazine. Ursula Thiess gave up her film career to be a wife and mother. Her relationship with her husband is best described in a passage from her book. The Taylors were in Cairo while he was making The Glass Sphinx. From Ursula Thiess, But I Have Promises To Keep: “When I arrived at the Nile Hilton, not expecting Bob to be at the hotel yet, I signed in and was ushered to the 9th floor. Simultaneously with the opening of the elevator, the last door on the long corridor opened as well, presenting a freshly showered, bathrobed Bob. I stopped and looked at him as he stood there, still 100 feet away, with a big smile on his face, his legs spread apart, cowboy-fashion, and his arms stretched out for an embrace. As my heart started pounding and the pit of my stomach knotted with excitement, I ran toward my husband like a 17-year-old, carried on the wings of first love. I felt an emotion of total commitment.”
The adult Tessa and Terry are autographing books at the celebration of Robert Taylor’s 100th birthday in Beatrice, Nebraska in 2011. Terry was 14 and Tessa 9 when they lost their father. Both have fond memories of him and both have worked to keep the memory of their father’s legacy alive. I suspect that they are pleased with the revival of interest in Mr. Taylor in the last few years. Two very good biographies have appeared, Robert Taylor movies are available through Warner Archive and You Tube, he has been Turner Classic Movies’ star of the month twice. Linda Alexander’s book has led to a re-evaluation of Mr. Taylor and the controversial HUAC (House un-American Activities Committee) hearings in 1947.
Alexander, Linda J. Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood, and Communism. Tease Publishing, 2008.
Broman. Sven. Conversations with Greta Garbo, Viking, 1991
Hall, Gladys. Robert Taylor’s True Life Story. Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1937
Kral, E.A. Robert Taylor’s Nebraska Years. 2009
Thiess, Ursula. “…but I have promises to keep.” My Life Before, With & After Robert Taylor. Xlibris Corp, 2007.
Tranberg, Charles. Robert Taylor: A Biography. Bear Manor Publishing, 2010.