Jean Darling – A Personal Reminiscence by Jay Weissberg
- Jean Darling, actress, singer, author, passed away in September
- A documentary is being planned about her incredible life; find out more and about how you can help
- Jay Weissberg, Variety film critic and director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, shares fond memories of his friendship with a very special lady
Jean Darling, c.1940s
What I’ll remember most is her voice. Jean’s voice so perfectly matched her personality, and she knew how to use it like a master musician uses an instrument: fairy-tale sweet one moment, then ringingly brassy the next. I spoke with her just ten days before she died: I wanted to tell her of my upcoming marriage, and she was, as expected, enthusiastic, funny, and loving. There were no signs of illness – “I’m working on my 94th year,” she told me, and was still figuring out how she was going to get to Pordenone. So her death was a shock, even though many tell me how grateful I should be that she lived to 93.
I’ve never quite understood that argument: surely the longer you know someone, the greater the loss becomes, even when they’ve reached a “grand old age.” In truth, I didn’t know Jean long. Just shy of ten years, I think, so I feel cheated somehow. We met in Pordenone, though I can’t recall who introduced us. I do remember vividly her reaction when I told her I write for Variety: “the Bible!” she exclaimed, and we instantly formed a conspiratorial bond as members of the same club. You see, Jean was first mentioned in Variety in 1924, already doing vaudeville at the age of 2, so even though she didn’t read the paper anymore, it remained an important part of her life. She even inscribed her second book of memoirs, Buttercakes and Banana Oil (is there any better title?) to “the ‘Biblical’ Jay.”
We often spoke of how the magazine had changed, yet how vital it was during her years in the business. Whether in person, on the phone, or through letters and e-mails, our conversations were wide-ranging – Jean could root around in the past when prompted, but she wasn’t living there. She didn’t break with it to the extent of Diana Serra Carey, who tossed aside the Baby Peggy moniker to claim her life as an independent adult, but Jean had a remarkably balanced view of her long roller-coaster existence. She was angry, but not bitter – angry at a mother who forced her on stage too early, who robbed Jean of her earnings in order to throw them at fly-by-night churches and charlatans. She was angry too that her mother, as a good church woman, refused to consummate her relationship with Stan Laurel (though Jean certainly knew that even if her mother had acquiesced to Laurel’s importuning, she would never have held him).
Surprisingly, she spoke of the ups and downs of her career with a sense of balance (for those looking for a career rundown, it won’t be here. Go to her two autobiographies, along with the wealth of interviews on YouTube). Hollywood feted her and dropped her, as did vaudeville, as did Broadway. In 1936, in a syndicated Q&A column about the movies, a woman wrote in, “What has become of the girl we used to know as Jean Darling?” I often marvelled at Jean’s ability to accept a life that was rarely, if ever, easy, yet she understood her privileged, brief place in Hollywood’s starry firmament, and I often had to pinch myself while listening to some of her stories. I was foolish: I should have been writing them down immediately after talking with her, but I never did. So I can remember how nice Joseph Schildkraut was, and how sweet Clark Gable was when he read her stories from the fairy tale books he bought for her. I recall Jean telling me about Marie Dressler accepting Jean’s congratulations after winning her Oscar, saying something akin to, “yeah, but where am I supposed to go from here?” And I will never forget her phone call in April last year, when Mickey Rooney died. “Did you hear?” she said when I picked up, without so much as a hello, “that little s-h-i-t died. He always accused us of stealing his pencils – made us turn our bags upside down all the time. We never stole his pencils!”
Jean was FUN. I never ended a conversation, live or on the phone, without revelling in an enormous, lingering sense of glee. She was sassy and flirtatious, and boy, did she know how to act. After all, she’d been a performer for practically 93 years. Her concerts with Donald Sosin in Pordenone were a joy because she relished in the banter, playing salacious one moment and serious the next. It was extraordinary watching how she won over a room full of rather sullen Italian teens who arrived wondering why they were being brought to hear some old lady sing: by the end of the performance, they all wanted their photo taken with her.
It wasn’t all laughs, of course. Jean wrote movingly of her experiences with the USO, singing for the troops in the European theatre. Especially the one soldier, James F.C. Hyde, Jr., blinded at Anzio, who she visited daily at his bedside in Naples. Jean knew perfectly well how to tell a story, masterfully gauging its effect on people, but it wasn’t just an act. She was bruised by show biz but was never cynical; disappointed in relationships but never hardened by them. I often thought how tiring it must have been always having to perform, for everyone: not just the audiences that came to see her from the time she was an infant, but the fans who expected fresh stories about Our Gang, or Laurel and Hardy, or Carousel. Jean always gave them what they wanted, but for those able to recognize it, she imparted far more. She offered glimpses into a lost Hollywood filtered through an alternately fragile and tough, mischievous, deeply intelligent sensibility. I’ll never forget her singing to me over the phone, “Non ti scordar di me.” No, Jean – never.
Here is a 1940 syndicated column that appeared in dozens, if not hundreds, of newspapers throughout the States, when Jean was a 17-year-old showbiz veteran, and is just marvelously evocative.
George Tucker, “Man About Manhattan,” Lockport Union-Sun and Journal, February 23, 1940, p. 6
NEW YORK, Feb. 23—Come down off that magazine cover, Jean; we know you. Yesterday you posed three hours for McClelland Barclay and tomorrow you’ve got to put in four hours with James Montgomery Flagg. You’re seventeen and blonde and a handsome gal. But we remember you when you were five, with pigtails, playing with a lot of nasty little boys who dreamed of dead cats and splattered the white stucco houses of the town with mud pies.
You played with Joey Cobb, the fat boy, and Farina, the little black boy with ribbons tied to his twists of hair; and you played with Freckles.
Well, Freckles is down south now, in vaudeville. Joey Cobb is in radio on the coast; and Farina is freelancing in pictures.
We know you, Jean. You’re Miss Jean Darling, the five-year-old heroine of Our Gang Comedies. You’re in New York now, and a trifle more ladylike than you were in the old days. If you stepped out of those high French heels you’d be five foot three. You’ve got blue eyes, and a great big burning yen to sing in opera.
Yeah, that’s it. The Met, and all that sort of thing.
You sure? Are you dead sure? To become a great opera star, Jean, you’ve got to bulge in the wrong places. You’ve got to grow double chins and live in a world all your own, a world with a high blue wall of funk around it. You’ve got to know how to fly into tantrums. You’ve got to forget about current events, and wars, and going to dances with great big good looking boys. It’s all up or down, Jean; no middle course. You’ve got to be walking on clouds or stumbling around in the blue, blue bottoms.
And after you grow those chins and begin to bulge in the wrong places, Jean, nobody is going to call you a “goddess,” as the magazines did recently; nobody is even going to call you darling, no matter how sweetly you sing. Not even Joey, or Freckles.
But they’ll call you Madame. That’s something I never could quite understand, why all opera divas are called Madame.
Well, nuts. Maybe you’ll be good at opera. Maybe you can pitch those arias the way you used to pitch those mud pies. Go on. Work at it.
After all, you’ve got your clippings and the old magazine covers to remember things by. The old covers are fun sometimes, pasted in a book. You have two books; one for the covers and the other for the things the critics will say about you at the Met.
Say, Jean, do you know there’s a movie[house] on Sixth ave. that plays all the old silent movies of ten, twelve, maybe even 20 years ago? Sure. Sometimes they have Our Gang comedies, too, with a little blonde girl and a gang of nasty little boys who swing dead cats by the tail and slip banana peels under their unsuspecting elders. Right down there on Sixth avenue. I bet nobody at the Met ever gave you a tip like that.
We’re making a documentary about Jean’s wonderful life: find out more here.