Robert Taylor: the Man Behind the “Slick Pan”
by Louis Pollack
He gave up the cello to make music with Garbo, Harlow, Ava and Lana. Couldn’t act much [grrr!] but is the longest lasting lover of them all.
In Beatrice, Nebraska, a musically inclined high school student, improbably named Spangler Arlington Brugh, once decided to give up the saxophone and banjo to study the cello. Spangler’s cello studies never made him a cellist, but did lead indirectly to his becoming a movie actor—Robert Taylor.
Over the next quarter of a century—although he wasn’t much of an actor [grrr!]—he became the most durable and one of the most highly paid screen lovers of all time. From Garbo and Harlow to Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor, and including Myrna Loy, Irene Dunne, Joan Crawford, Hedy Lamarr, Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner, Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson and Julie London to name a few—Taylor wooed them all. Today he is starring for the second year on the A.B.C. television network in Robert Taylor in the Detectives.
Despite this long career of filmed romance and, currently, adventure, Robert Taylor is
probably the least known of the big stars. Partly, this might be attributed to an innate mildness which keeps him out of newsworthy scrapes; partly from a deep seated modesty that makes it impossible for him to believe that anything he does off-screen is worthy of notice.
His reticence also stems from self-consciousness about his appearance developed when his widow-peaked profile and full face first shone from the screen. He looked the smooth lady-killer so perfectly that even some of the female fans reacted resentfully. This got back to him but there was little he could do about it. “One thing was sure,” he said recently, looking out on the 113-acre ranch where he lives not far from Beverly Hills. “I knew it wasn’t about to drive me out of the money I could make in the movies—not with my father’s Pennsylvania Dutch heritage!”
Taylor still cringes at what happened to him in Washington D.C. When he was a young star. He was eating alone in a restaurant there when he noticed a matronly lady standing next to his table. “Oh, Mr. Taylor,” she cried, “I think you’re the handsomest man in the world!” Taylor paled, got up and walked out, leaving his meal unfinished.
On his way to star in A Yank at Oxford in England, he picked an unfortunate morning to detrain in New York. The previous evening novelist Ernest Hemingway had slugged—and been slugged by—critic Max Eastman over an Eastman statement that Hemingway had “false hair” on his chest. The story was on the front pages.
“Have you got any hair on your chest, Mr. Taylor?” asked an inspired reporter, as Taylor stepped off the train. For perhaps the first time in his life Taylor lost control of himself, and swung at the newsman. As hairy-chested as the next man, he also swings about as wildly. He was separated from the reporter without damage to either party. The afternoon’s papers really hurt him, though. They decided—on the front pages—that as a pugilist he was more funny than ferocious.
The stories were picked up world-wide, and, by the time Taylor arrived in London, columnist Louella Parsons noted that “poor Robert Taylor is going to try and make a
comeback with his English picture.” His only comfort was that groups of English girls forced their way into his hotel and a half-dozen even got into his room. Taylor was grateful for the compliment.
Except for his marriage to, and divorce from, Barbara Stanwyck, he never made the front page again with his personal affairs. During the war he quietly joined the U.S. Navy and logged 2,500 hours as a flying instructor. When he married Ursula Thiess, a young German actress, the ceremony took place on a cabin cruiser in the middle of Jackson Lake, Wyoming. There were no reporters within fifty miles.
Taylor was born 49 years ago in tiny Filley, Nebraska (Pop. 149—1960 census). His father, a grain merchant, discovered his wife had heart disease, and decided to help her by studying medicine. He earned his degree and practiced in Crete, Nebraska. Taylor can’t remember his parents ever quarreling. Dr. Brugh forbade his wife heavy tasks and laundered the family wash in his office. Mrs. Brugh is living today. Dr. Brugh died 28 years ago, a comparatively young man.
Taylor entered Doane College in Crete, majoring in medicine and economics and studying music under Professor Herbert Gray. When Professor Gray transferred to Pomona College in California, about 30 miles from Hollywood, Taylor followed, lugging his cello. It was a fateful decision, since it was at Pomona that he went out for school theatricals. “I wasn’t stage-struck,” Taylor recalls, “It was just that I was lonesome and thought I would meet more girls that way…a little idea that certainly worked out.”
He had good looks and a good timbre to his voice but was otherwise unimpressive. He also had a distressing tendency to rephrase his lines into a combination of western and Pennsylvania Dutch idiom. One night in a school performance, he was supposed to pluck an artificial rose and cry out “Oh! Prickly thing!” He grabbed carelessly and pierced his finger on a pin. “Dammen it all to hell!” he yelled, going Dutch.
Out in the audience, a half asleep man stirred. He was the late Ben Piazza, talent scout for M-G-M. Up to then he had been unmoved by what he later described as Taylor “slick pan.” Now he caught a flicker of fire behind the facade. He kept an eye on the boy, and, after Taylor graduated, signed him to a movie contract at $35 a week.
When Taylor was christened Spangler Arlington Brugh, a family friend predicted, “He’ll never live to maturity with that tag.” The prophet was correct. Ida Koverman, executive secretary of Louis B. Mayer, then head of M-G-M Studios, conjured up the name Robert Taylor. So he became Robert Taylor on the M-G-M roster of actors. He stayed on the payroll for 24 years, the longest acting term contract in Hollywood’s history, exceeding even that of the late “King,” Clark Gable.
But Taylor’s beginning gave no hint of his staying power. Platinum-haired Jean Harlow said his live-making in Personal Property (1937) amounted to no more than “gawking at me.” Irene Dunne completely outshone him, and nearly smote him dumb with her regality and her $125,000 salary for their picture, Magnificent Obsession, (1935). Taylor was getting a steady $85 a week. It was “no contest” as to who got the best camera angles when he co-starred with Joan Crawford in The Gorgeous Hussy. “But it was Garbo who gave me my first real education in acting.” he said recently, with a wry laugh.
“When shooting started on Camille,” he recollects, “Garbo had nothing to say to her Armand (me) that wasn’t to be spoken in front of the camera. This went on for six weeks, and I started stumbling around, because I felt she disapproved of me. She wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence off the set. I was miserable because of her dismissal of me as a person.
“Then one morning she smiled at me. Not only that—she said, ‘Hello, Bob,’ in that husky intimate voice she usually reserved for the chaise-longue scenes. I practically fell over myself getting to my place. And from then on I was an awakened man—and an awakened actor. It got so that while waiting for new setups, Garbo didn’t retire to her dressing room alone, but spent the time with me. On location in Griffith Park, we went for walks in the woods, holding hands.
“When the final scene was shot and the director, George Cukor, waved his satisfaction, I turned eagerly to Garbo but she was already walking away. I called to her but she took no notice. And although we both worked in the same studio for a couple of years more, I never saw her again.” Taylor hypothesizes: “As Armand I was a dead weight in front of the camera and Garbo figured that I could use some real-life stimulation. Once the picture was finished…so was I.”
Taylor met Barbara Stanwyck at a Hollywood party hosted by Zeppo Marx. Seated beside her at dinner he found no words to say but when the music started they danced—every dance. Taylor knew he wanted to see her again and managed to blurt out a request for date. She hesitated and she was ready for a public appearance after her recent divorce from Frank Fay. She suggested that Taylor dine at her house.
Taylor came to dinner and stayed to admire. He found Miss Stanwyck fascinating, both as
a woman and an actress. She had danced in night clubs, acted in the legitimate theater. She knew show business—and he didn’t. He sat at her feet—and she coached him, evaluated scripts and gave him acting tips it would have taken years to learn. A year after they met Taylor telephoned her from England and proposed. Stanwyck accepted but they were not to marry for two years.
“The studio scared me out of it,” he said, shamefaced, rubbing a day old black beard. “The front office’s unwritten rule was that a star either got married and divorced with dispatch or stayed single. Barbara was hurt but she understood my fear of slipping. A man has to make a living and I couldn’t do anything except act. I shouldn’t have had any qualms. My biggest successes actually came after we got married.”
Taylor was 28 and Stanwyck 32 when they were wed in San Diego one minute after the end of May 13, 1939. The marriage lasted nearly 12 years. “You could say,” he offered, “that our profession, which brought us together, also helped separate us.”
Stanwyck is happiest near the studios and gets all her traveling in movie location trips. For Taylor acting has been a living, but not the direct source of his day-so-day satisfactions: “When I got the money to live like I wanted to, I turned to the outdoors. I learned to fly in 1940, bought me a plane, and flew where I wanted—usually fishing or hunting.”
Stanwyck went along a few times but was bored. When Taylor wasn’t away on movie
location (which she forgave) he was as likely to be shooting game in Northern Canada or Mexico—and this she resented. But it was when he was making Quo Vadis in Italy that trouble broke out. He was away too long—seven months in Rome—and talk drifted back linking him to an Italian beauty.
The signorina was Lia de Leo. Stanwyck flew to Rome, saw for herself and had a conference with her husband. “We came to a realization that it was no go,” is the only comment he will make of that meeting.
Her suit for divorce was granted in 1951. He gave her their $100,000 Brentwood mansion and 15 percent of his net earnings during her lifetime or until she remarried. Stanwyck was candid about her heartbreak. “Why pretend?” she was quoted. But she and Taylor are good friends today.
When he met his present wife Taylor commented that they both had cleft chins. This discussion, somewhat amplified, lasted for the best part of a year, after which they eloped to that boat on Jackson Lake. There are now two more cleft—or dimpled—chins in the family. One belongs to Terry, their son, who is five, and the other to one and a half year old daughter Tessa.
Taylor’s ranch, which he bought two years ago, hasn’t a flat area on it except where the white brick, farmhouse—style house is set. Taylor has considerable money; he has always been a conservative. He also was and remains a blood-loyal Republican, and was a member of Vice President Nixon’s Celebrities Committee.
Because he loves to travel, Taylor has accepted a number of movie assignments in remote parts of the of the globe. His next picture, an adventure story, is entitled Formosa and current plans are to film it on location on that strategic island.
Recently Taylor said, “There has been no drama at all in my own life. I never battled for success—my genes took care of that. My face was my fortune and my only sore trial. The years have given a more rugged cast to his features and added poundage to his once reedy frame. “I bet Garbo would never recognize me now,” he says. “But then, of course,” he adds, “except for that one period, she really never did.”
Interesting article. One of the better magazine articles I’ve read about RT. I chuckled at his comment that he was a “dead weight” in front of the camera during the filming of “Camille.”
It is different, isn’t it? I just hate the way he always runs himself down, although frequently in a humorous way. There’s a story that Garbo asked Mr. Taylor to her home one night although he would never say just what happened. Thanks for writing.
Louis Pollack’s contention that RT was “not much of an actor” is ridiculous. It is true that he was self-deprecating about his acting ability but that showed a deep & rather mysterious insecurity rather than reflecting a lack of talent. It is probably true that he would not have become a star without his extremely good looks, but I think he was always a good actor & improved consistently over the years. But I’ve been a fan for more than 60 years, since I saw “Quo Vadis” for the first time when I was 12, so what do I know?
Mr. Pollack doesn’t even mention the real-life drama that resulted from RT’s controversial HUAC testimony, which probably precluded even a nomination for an Oscar, although I think if RT had been able to quit smoking & lived longer he might have eventually at least been nominated if he got a good part in a good movie at some point after spending 3 years working exclusively in TV on “The Detectives.” As much as I enjoyed the series, I never thought it was a good career move for him.
I get so frustrated at Mr. Taylor’s lack of belief in himself. Probably it was a combination of his mother, Louis B. Mayer and Barbara Stanwyck who kept his self-image so low. As you say, Mr. T. grew enormously as an actor. Compare “Society Doctor” to “Johnny Eager” or “Waterloo Bridge.” I did think “The Detectives” was a good move both because he was having difficulty getting good roles at his age and that it exposed him to a whole new generation (including me). I’d never heard of Robert Taylor when my mother asked me to watch the show with her. I was hooked immediately. I do think he did it for the money. He wrote a number of letters describing the ownership deal he had. Mr. Taylor kept saying he wanted “one good picture” in his fifties but sadly he didn’t get one. Both the HUAC mess and the stereotype that looks and talent don’t go together worked against him. Thanks again for your comments.
You are right. “The Detectives” was probably a good career move. Because I was so familiar with RT from being a huge fan in the 1950s, who began to watch his earlier films on TV in the late 1950s, it didn’t seems so to me, although I did my best to watch every episode I could. I think RT ran into some bad luck that kept “The Detectives” from lasting longer than its 3-year network run. First, it was up against the quirky “Twilight Zone,” which appealed to a lot of young people, then it was moved into a time slot in which “Route 66,” a youth-oriented show, was already established, & “The Detectives” was not renewed for a third year. Those dreadful pre-VCR days! Although reruns were broadcast, they were not in my TV area (Pittsburgh) as far as I knew.
Both Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart had TV series around the same time, which did not even last 3 years. Yet these 2 (& I’m a big fan of both) were able to jump right back to the big screen seamlessly. Both were aging also, but that didn’t seem to keep producers from casting them in major roles in feature films. If only Universal hadn’t put “Johnny Tiger” on a double bill with a Munster movie! I saw it on TV & thought it was a good movie & RT was excellent in it. I taped it (with commercials during my working hours) & eventually bought a used copy on Amazon that had been a rental. The color was dark & the VHS package was redesigned to give Chad Everett first billing (obviously because of the success of “Medical Center”), Geraldine Brooks second billing, & Robert Taylor THIRD! I ripped off the front cover; the billing on the back cover gave RT the first billing that he got in the original ads & in the film itself.
“The Detectives” lasted for 3 years and was not renewed for a fourth. There was another series about the investigators for HEW that they filmed a few episodes of. Then there was a conflict between the govt. and NBC and it fell through. I liked “Miracle of the White Stallions” but didn’t think the “Johnny Tiger” role was right for Mr. Taylor. He must have been devastated, though, at the way the studio treated it. It deserved better but the sixties were not kind to people over 40–remember all the youth culture stuff? Never trust anyone over 30? I do wish that he had gotten the “one good picture” he so wanted.