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Van Johnson, Closeted Hollywood Heartthrob, Dies at 92

Johnson1

Hollywood heartthrob Van Johnson died on Friday in Nyack, NY. He was 92. The mainstream media makes no mention of the fact that he was a closeted gay man. It's Merv Griffin all over again.

Johnson2The NYT obituary:

"Mr. Johnson shocked MGM and dismayed his fans in 1947 when he stole the wife of his best friend, the MGM character actor Keenan Wynn. But by the time he married Evie Wynn, he was too big a star for the studio to punish. They had a daughter, Schuyler, in 1948, separated in 1962 and were divorced in 1968. Mr. Johnson did not remarry."

The L.A. Times:

"In January 1947, Johnson married Eve Wynn, the former wife of his close friend, actor Keenan Wynn. Johnson married Wynn, the mother of two young sons, in Juarez, Mexico, only four hours after she had obtained a Mexican divorce. (The marriage, which produced a daughter, Schuyler, ended in divorce in 1968.) Johnson's marriage had a profound effect on his youthful female fan base. A widely circulated joke at the time said that when Johnson's young female fans found out that he had gotten married, they wore their bobby socks at half-mast."

In the photo above, Johnson and Evie Wynn with Liz Taylor and Conrad Hilton at their wedding in Beverly Hills in 1950.

Evie Wynn's obituary in The London independent in 2004, went into far greater detail about her relationship with Johnson:

"Many of his fans were alienated when he married Evie the day after her divorce from Wynn, while those who were aware of Johnson's sexual ambivalence wondered how genuine the marriage could be. In 1999, when Evie was bitter and near poverty, she finally stated that MGM had persuaded her to marry Johnson, one of their top stars of the Forties. 'They needed their 'big star' to be married to quell rumours about his sexual preferences,' she said, "and unfortunately, I was 'It' - the only woman he would marry.'"

"In January 1947 Evie and Wynn were finally divorced, and the following day she and Johnson were wed. Although rumours quickly circulated that the MGM chief Louis B. Mayer had ordered the union to cover up potential scandal, the truth is cloudy. The writer Arthur Laurents states in his memoirs, 'A sunny male star caught performing in public urinals once too often was ordered by his studio to get married. His best friends, a young comedian and his wife, divorced so that he could marry the wife.'

"In 1960 Evie sued Johnson for divorce, citing cruelty and his causing 'grievous mental suffering', and a few weeks later she sued Wynn for 'fraud and breach of contract' in their property settlement and for failing to pay child support. She was briefly reconciled with Johnson and travelled with him to London in 1961 when he starred on stage in The Music Man, but the couple finally parted when Johnson began an affair with a member of the show's cast. Ned Wynn writes that his mother told him that Johnson had left her 'for a man - a boy, really. He's the lead boy dancer.'" Their eventual, acrimonious divorce (Johnson called it 'the ugliest divorce in Hollywood history') was made final in 1968."

Van Johnson, Film Actor, Is Dead at 92 [nyt]
Van Johnson, MGM's boy-next-door, dies at 92 [la times]
Obituary: Evie Wynn Johnson [independent]

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Comments

  1. I remember seeing him on I Love Lucy earlier this year and thinking "Jesus, he is so obviously gay, how was he working in hollywood in the 50s?"

    Posted by: John M | Dec 15, 2008 12:09:24 PM


  2. Oh, and to add, I had no idea who he was or anything about his sexuality before seeing him in the episode, I had to look him up after seeing him on the episode.

    Posted by: John M | Dec 15, 2008 12:15:23 PM


  3. Van Johnson gay? I did not know that. Good thing my poor old mother didn't live to know this, the shock alone would have killed her.

    Posted by: davefromtampa | Dec 15, 2008 12:16:55 PM


  4. Evie was obviously ok with it as Keenan Wynn was also gay. I'm surprised she didnt marry Tab Hunter & Rock Hudson while she was at it.

    Posted by: secretagentman | Dec 15, 2008 12:19:43 PM


  5. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/dailymusto/archives/2008/12/the_truth_about.php

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Dec 15, 2008 12:26:49 PM


  6. i remember an appearance of his on johnny carson where he pointed out that he was the uglier of the van's (van heflin being the handsomer). and i thought, what a queer! this was when, yours truly, was soon to be a major homosexual with a cast of thousands. it's a gawd-awful shame that gays then (and even now) find the need to hide. life would be so much more simple for gays, their families, friends, and beards.

    Posted by: nic | Dec 15, 2008 12:33:10 PM


  7. Calling Van Johnson "closeted" isn't exactly fair. The more complex details are that at the same time he realized he was in love with a man and that his marriage was a very bad idea, he deepened a great deal as an actor and as a man. This was part of why he turned from his showboy roles to respected dramatic performances, as in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. The story among older Hollywood gays was that he made it clear he would no participate in any studio efforts to portray him as heterosexual, and was widely noted for his stance, and for saying that having an open homosexual life saved him. But he did not want to be the subject of profiles in Confidential (and unlike Rock Hudson, he didn't have a wide array of lovers), so he lived in a kind of middle ground. After all, it's not like any other actors came out in 1962. It's possible he might have come out later in life if anyone was still interested.

    Posted by: coolbearinmd | Dec 15, 2008 12:41:40 PM


  8. Hmmm I didn't know Johnson was gay either though to be honest it was only through Lucy Ricardo's obession with him that I even know who he is at all. Jeez I love that broad!

    Posted by: Giovanni | Dec 15, 2008 12:45:49 PM


  9. Well i for one can tell you that at 82 Van was VERY frisky and quite comfortable being Gay.

    I used to work in a Restaurant on the Upper East Side and Van and his scaregiver would come in at lunch and always sat in my station and even at that age had Noooooooooooo problem hitting on me. LOL

    Posted by: Wolfie | Dec 15, 2008 1:14:48 PM


  10. The item of interest to me is: who was the "Boy lead Dancer" that led poor Van astray?

    Surely someone out there who has a musch stronger collection of knowledge about musical theater than I do, knows the cast of 1961's _Music_Man_ in London and can give us an educated guess as to who this "lead boy dancer" was. Maybe he was someone who later became famous? or just was especially hot, for the era...

    prurient, I know.. but this is the way my mind works around the holidays... well, honestly all the time.

    Posted by: dego | Dec 15, 2008 1:23:18 PM


  11. What we need is a photo of Rock, Van and Merv all together! Use it to raise money to fight Prop 8 or something.

    "Scaregiver"? I could only imagine what that involves!

    Posted by: anon | Dec 15, 2008 1:34:31 PM


  12. Hey, DAN B.,

    you haven't commented yet. If anyone had that wholesome all-American boy look it was Van Johnson.

    I never even thought about the possibility of Johnson being gay. Now, it's like every other former Hollywood star was gay--which is all right.

    Damn, next you'll tell me that John Garfield was gay or atleast "trade"! Yum yum.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Dec 15, 2008 1:42:23 PM


  13. Call me when Jason Momoa from Stargate comes out. Ok, I know he's with Lisa Bonet but A boy can dream........

    Posted by: Derek Washington | Dec 15, 2008 3:42:25 PM


  14. COOLBEARINMD: Are you sure this is the word on the street, that Johnson was basically out just not professionally? Because his daughter wrote about their strange set-up (or was interviewed about it, and confirmed) and she painted a far more secretive picture. I believe they remained estranged even up to his death.

    Posted by: Matthew Rettenmund | Dec 15, 2008 5:30:35 PM


  15. Van Johnson always wore red socks, "code" of the time period for being gay.

    Posted by: paul | Dec 15, 2008 9:39:49 PM


  16. Santa always wore red socks.

    Posted by: Mansize Johnson | Jan 5, 2010 7:21:21 AM


  17. Its so sad that another mgm star had to hide his true needs. He always seemed gay to me, I collect all mgm films and never found him to be all that great, but now that i know that he had to hide all that he really was sexually, that makes up how bad he was on screen

    Posted by: tsmith | Dec 19, 2012 1:21:19 AM


  18. Was anybody in Hollywood normal? Seems like 99% of them were queers, dykes, psychopaths, or into anything outright crazy.

    Posted by: Robert | Feb 14, 2013 4:08:01 PM


  19. I would think that the "lead boy dancer" in The Music Man would be the juvenile lead character, Tommy Djilas. It's a major dancing role and was played in the 1961 production in London's West End by Ben Stevenson. He is a former ballet dancer with Britain's Royal Ballet and English National Ballet who has served as co-director of National Ballet of Washington, D.C., artistic director of Chicago Ballet, artistic director of Houston Ballet, and is current artistic director of Texas Ballet Theater.

    Posted by: Martin | Mar 9, 2013 11:58:21 PM


  20. I grew up watching a lot of Van Johnson's films, and though I was surprised at hearing about his sexuality, I could care less. His acting performances were good. At least back then, you associated actors with the roles they played. Today they run around today hugging and kissing the late Hugo Chavez, or collaborate with our enemies, and their political persuasion over shadows their body of work. When Van Johnson's B-25 crashes on the China coast in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" and he collapses on a monsoon soaked beach and exclaims 'I lost my ship...I LOST MY SHIP!'...priceless.

    Posted by: Joe Burns | Mar 16, 2013 6:21:12 AM


  21. I saw Van Johnson in a summer stock production of Send Me No Flowers at the Ogunquit (Maine) playhouse, back when I was about 14. In the '70's. I was with my mom, and I persuaded her to wait with me by the stage door to get his autograph. He was a nice guy; I wrote him a fan letter later on because I was a big fan of some of his old movies. He sent me his picture signed in red marker. I've met a few stars since then, but he was the first. After he shook my mom's hand, when we turned away to leave she said the immortal line, "I'll never wash this hand again."

    A few years later I went to school with a girl who lived near him in NYC and told me he was gay. It didn't surprise me, especially, though I hadn't really given it a lot of thought.

    Some things were different back then. Stars were more remote - we didn't know all about their personal lives, and I don't think we cared. Private lives were more private then they are today. Not just of stars but all of us.

    Posted by: Dave | May 26, 2013 8:49:05 PM


  22. I saw Van Johnson in a summer stock production of Send Me No Flowers at the Ogunquit (Maine) playhouse, back when I was about 14. In the '70's. I was with my mom, and I persuaded her to wait with me by the stage door to get his autograph. He was a nice guy; I wrote him a fan letter later on because I was a big fan of some of his old movies. He sent me his picture signed in red marker. I've met a few stars since then, but he was the first. After he shook my mom's hand, when we turned away to leave she said the immortal line, "I'll never wash this hand again."

    A few years later I went to school with a girl who lived near him in NYC and told me he was gay. It didn't surprise me, especially, though I hadn't really given it a lot of thought.

    Some things were different back then. Stars were more remote - we didn't know all about their personal lives, and I don't think we cared. Private lives were more private then they are today. Not just of stars but all of us.

    Posted by: Dave | May 26, 2013 8:49:05 PM


  23. I never heard of him until the I Love Lucy episode.

    Posted by: Antonio | Dec 8, 2013 11:08:20 AM


  24. I meant him in Sacramento, CA. when he played the Music Man on the round stage. I saw him daily, watched him rehearse and even had lunch a few times. He did not hide the fact he was gay and had a partner. He was very kind, a happy person, talented and fun to be around. I miss him and loved his films. He gave his best. Love you Van.

    Posted by: joann loffler | Dec 10, 2013 11:57:43 PM


  25. It sounds like he was a bisexual man, who had the capability to be attracted to men and women.

    Bisexual men and women are often "closeted" simply because they are involved with a member of the opposite sex at a point in time. When -- and if-- they meet a member of the same sex that is attractive, they may or might not act on that attraction.

    Posted by: Stella Omega | Jan 16, 2014 1:54:40 PM


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