Actor's habits created a treasure trove of memorabilia
If you’re a fan of old movies, you’ll recognize what the classics “Gilda,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” and “Fastest Gun Alive” all have in common: Glenn Ford. Oddly enough, though he appeared in around 100 feature films, the first biography on Ford was only published in 2011.
Ford’s son, Peter, authored “Glenn Ford: A Life,” and talked about his dad and the book, which is an insightful Hollywood bio filled with stories of one of film’s most underappreciated actors. In addition to acting, Ford had a number of other interests including a great fondness for women, which Peter approaches with objective candor without ever turning into a trashy memoir.
“He’s perceived by the public as a ‘Jimmy Stewart’ – a wholesome, all-American guy,” Peter told me. “He was that, but he also had a lot of ‘Errol Flynn’ in him. In reviewing all my sources, I counted 146 women he had a dalliance with, including Marilyn Monroe.”
Those sources included Ford’s own writings.
“My father kept a diary every day of his life since 1933 and I have every one of them. So there was an enormous amount of material there,” explained Peter. “If you picked any day since then, I could tell you what he had for breakfast, where he went, what he did, what he thought, who he talked to, etc.”
Glenn Ford was also a packrat of monumental proportions. When Ford died in 2006, Peter says he donated many of his father’s personal items to charities. Other items he sold, including a piano given to Ford by Judy Garland, a slot machine from Frank Sinatra, and a couch on which he “entertained” Ms. Monroe.
In fact, an auction house hauled off two 26-ft long trucks filled with “stuff” – and that still barely touched the surface of the contents of Ford’s 9,000 square foot home in Beverly Hills.
“He saved everything,” said Peter. “I have every letter he ever received and copies of letters he wrote. I have his baby teeth, the lock of hair from his first haircut, the dish he used as a baby, and every report card from school. There [were] also thousands of photographs, and thousands of books. Wherever he went, he would take scraps of paper and write his thoughts. Often, he would stick these randomly in books, along with letters, Christmas cards and even money.”
Peter donated hundreds of those books to libraries, but had to check each one in case his father had left some long forgotten treasure within its pages. In one, he found many letters from singer Sophie Tucker.
Another Ford “hobby” was to secretly record telephone conversations. In the late 1950s Ford, unbeknownst to his family and friends, installed a phone tap on the family’s phone. After his father died, Peter discovered hundreds of old reel-to-reel and cassette recordings of celebrities and politicians.
“He has some of President Richard Nixon,” said Peter with a chuckle. “Isn’t that ironic? The most infamous taper himself getting taped!” Maybe we now know where Tricky Dick got the idea.
Peter also recalls childhood Sunday morning walks with his dad along Santa Monica Boulevard. The two would often stop under a leafy ficus tree and Ford would ask his son if he wanted some chewing gum. Adept at sleight of hand tricks, Ford would appear to pull some chewing gum from the tree, leading young Peter to believe there really was such a thing as a “gum tree.”
In another story, Peter remembers flying in a private plane with his dad to Cody, Wyoming, for the dedication of the Buffalo Bill Museum. The ceremony culminated with a live buffalo dangling in a harness from a helicopter, flying over the crowd. But as the pilot hovered above the assembled dignitaries, the terrified animal’s bladder and bowels proved somewhat unstable. When combined with the downward force of the chopper’s rotor blades, Peter says it was a most memorable event.
Glenn Ford was a complex man, which led to difficulties and intricacies in his professional and personal life. Peter’s revelations about his dad – as well as his mom, the great dancer, Eleanor Powell – provide a fascinating glimpse of the golden age of Hollywood.
Nick Thomas’ features and columns have appeared in more than 300 magazines and newspapers, and he is the author of “Raised by the Stars,” published by McFarland. He can be reached at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com.