Glenn Ford: A Life explores the complicated life of a Hollywood legend

by Mark Burger

In 1958, Glenn Ford was the top boxoffice star in the world.

Almost 50 years later, on a sweltering July day in 2006 and accompanied by actor friends Matt Holly and Louis Farber, I accepted an invitation by Peter Ford to visit his father Glenn’s home in Beverly Hills. It was a visit we treasure. Last August, at Louis’ wedding, we again recounted that day, all of us still slightly awestruck that it really happened.

I wrote a column about the visit for the newspaper I then worked for. It was one of my most popular — and, I daresay, one of my best — resulting in a flood of positive e-mails and phone calls from Glenn Ford fans who voiced their appreciation. (One or two, it should be noted, expressed surprise that Glenn was still alive!) Three weeks to the date of the story’s publication, Glenn Ford died at age 90. I therefore was one of the last people — and surely the last journalist — to have seen him alive.

Peter Ford, our gracious host and Glenn’s devoted son, told us he was working on a book about his famous father — the first ever. It’s taken time, but the wait was worth it. Glenn Ford: A Life (University of Wisconsin Press, 312 pages) is a thorough, detailed and powerful work, as told by the person who knew Glenn Ford the best. In the last years of his life, Peter and his family moved into Glenn’s house to care for him, and Peter worked closely with his father to lay the foundation for the book.

There were 85 feature films to cover, including such classics as Gilda (1946), The Big Heat (1953), Blackboard Jungle (1954), Ransom! (1956), The Teahouse of the August Moon (also ’56), the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Experiment in Terror (1962) and Superman (1978), in which he played the Man of Steel’s Earth father, Jonathan Kent. Glenn Ford was one of the best-liked and most popular actors of his time. Yet, as Peter notes in the book, he outlived his celebrity. Despite lobbying the American Film Institute, the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Peter’s efforts to have his father recognized never came to fruition. Fans, however, have remained steadfast in their admiration and affection for the actor, whose stature has grown since his death.

Published last May, the book has received glowing reviews and was the University of Wisconsin Press’ best-selling book for 2011. “It’s really an act of self-discovery and selfacceptance,” said Kevin

Thomas, longtime film critic for the Los Angeles Times and friend of the Ford family. Thomas was an invited guest to Peter’s 1970 wedding to the former Lynda Gundersen at Glenn’s house, where his date was showgirl Choo Choo Collins (!).

“[Glenn Ford: A Life] is one of the great Hollywood books,” said Thomas. “It gets what Glenn was — his faults and strengths, and everything in between.”

The book is as much a biography of Peter’s mother, legendary dancer and starlet Eleanor Powell, and Peter himself as it is of Glenn. Peter was devoted to his mother, who died in 1982. After his birth in 1945, she put her career on hold. After she and Glenn divorced in 1959, she devoted her life to her Christian faith and charity work, living modestly. She never married again, nor had any serious relationships after the divorce.

Glenn, however, was an entirely different story. Married four times, he also romanced Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Hope Lange, Loretta Young, Maria Schell, Joan Crawford, Eva Gabor and Rita Hayworth (with whom he made five films, including Gilda), yet a lasting relationship eluded him. Some of his later relationships proved emotionally, financially and, due to his increasing alcoholism and depression, physically destructive.

“I could’ve sold a lot more books if it had a more salacious tone, if I’d focused more on his womanizing and other problems, but I chose not to do my father a disservice,” Peter said.

Indeed, for the difficulties in their relationship, Peter said there were many happy times. “There were a lot of them,” he said. “Personally, I’ve had a good run. I’ve met presidents, world leaders, movie stars and dignitaries, and I never would have had these opportunities had I not been their child. Yet I had to make my own living.

“He gave of himself so much in his work that he just maybe didn’t have enough for us when he got home,” Peter observed. “Someone, it may have been Katharine Hepburn, said that being a parent and being a movie star are incompatible, and I believe there’s truth to that.”

When it came to his three children, Peter said that his mother and father informed his own parental perspective, for different reasons. “I hope I’m more like my mom, because she was an angel,” Peter said.

Glenn, who never told Peter he loved him, could be distant and even dismissive, Peter chose the opposite tack. He takes pride in his children and their accomplishments, always making time for them. And, perhaps to atone somewhat for their rocky relationship, Peter said proudly that Glenn was a caring grandfather to Aubrey, Ryan and Eleanor (named for her grandmother). Looking back, he said, “for me, it’s all good. Even the bad was good.”

The official University of Wisconsin Press webpage for the book is: books/4293.htm. Peter Ford’s official website devoted to his father is: www.glennfordbio. com.