Jean Peters: biography of a forgotten leading lady October 16, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films, Film Noir , trackback
I first came across Jean Peters in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara a few years ago. It was among the films in my Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection boxset, and looked like a decent little thriller. Before long, though, I’d forgotten all about Ms Monroe; the dark-haired, green-eyed second female lead had caught me eye. Who the hell is that and why haven’t I seen her before? I thought. It’s perhaps not surprising that I’d never heard of Jean, since she and many other actresses of her time are today forgotten by all but us film buffs. Peters is at a further disadvantage for two reasons: she retired at 29, and did so to marry Howard Hughes. Thus her filmography is comparatively small, her tally of notable films can almost be counted on one hand, and on the rare occasions that she is mentioned it’s usually merely with reference to Mr Hughes and her place in his curious life.
As I watched more of Peters’ movies I started to become a real fan and, partly because I could find literally nothing beyond the most basic details of her life and career, I found myself becoming more interested. This led somewhat circuitously to the current piece on jackal’s film corner. On a whim a couple of months ago, I decided that if it’s so difficult to find anything substantial on Peters, I’d pen something myself. So I set out to find as much material as possible: obituaries from reliable newspapers archived on the net, lots and lots (and lots) of additional online research, a whole bunch of print articles (it’s amazing what you can find on ebay), as well as Raymond Strait’s long out-of-print 1971 biography Mrs Howard Hughes. I weighed it all up, filtered out anything that didn’t tally, and laid the results out in my own words. It also goes without saying that I tracked down and watched as many of her films as possible (everything from her Fox years; later TV movies and the like proved more difficult to locate). The following piece is not intended to be exhaustive, nor impressive; some sections are more detailed than others, depending on how many sources and how much detail I could find (and if anybody knows more - or better - than me, please say so). This is merely a pet project, an attempt to put the pieces of Jean Peters’ life together into a reasonably complete and coherent picture. It’s something that I’ve been working on intermittently for a while (see, Mr Jukes, I told you I’d finish it!), for nobody’s amusement but my own, and here seems as good a place as any for it to end up.
Big thanks to Carole for some of the photos that appear below.
Elizabeth Jean Peters was born in Canton, Ohio on October 15, 1926. She was 10 and her sister Shirley just a toddler when their father died and Jean’s mother opened a tourist camp alongside the family farm to earn a living. Jean soon became adept at DIY and working around the house, a trait that would stick with her even after fame struck. Growing up on a farm in small-town America, she could easily have ended up living an anonymous life as a school teacher, were it not for a friend’s casual act: when she was 20, studying to be a teacher at Ohio University, Jean’s roommate secretly entered her photo into the State Beauty Contest. Jean won, but apparently wasn’t interested in the prize: a screen test for 20th Century-Fox. Nevertheless she ended up travelling with her mother to Hollywood, where she reportedly caught the eye of Darryl F. Zanuck and was signed to a contract without even filming the test. Despite frequent clashes with her bosses, Fox would remain her home studio for the next decade.
After the whirlwind events that swept her west, Jean’s first few months in Hollywood were an anticlimax: a dull routine of publicity work and screen tests. It was only when scheduling conflicts prevented Linda Darnell from taking the female lead in Captain from Castile that Jean got her big break. The young college student suddenly found herself starring in a lavish Technicolor period adventure alongside superstar Tyrone Power. “When I first met him he seemed like some kind of god,” she later confessed. Despite a complete lack of acting experience, Peters handled the role admirably, impressing the powers-that-be, and a film career was born.
Captain from Castile would influence Peters’ career for the next few years: she was such a perfect fit as the film’s headstrong and fiery Spanish love interest that the studio tried to cast her in similarly strong, colourful female parts. At first Jean resisted being marketed as a sex symbol. Raised a Methodist and still influenced by her mother’s views (she was only 21) she refused, among others, the Anne Baxter part in Yellow Sky deeming it ”too sexy”. That caused the first of several suspensions. Jean’s tomboy personality also frustrated the studio’s publicity department. She dressed in jeans and sneakers on the Fox lot, abhorred the colour pink, wore little or no makeup and lunched on empty sets with her dresser or makeup girl to avoid the tourist groups that prowled the commissary.
Especially in those early days, Jean was conscious of her inexperience as an actor, and sought advice from her more established co-stars. Recognition as a serious actress was what she craved most, but would never attain because, quite honestly, she wasn’t a ‘great’ actress. She was, though, always believeable, able to adapt to a wide range of parts and genres. She also brought a natural passion and fiery spirit to all her performances, and more than a little sex appeal. Among her film crews she earned a reputation as a hard worker. An early riser, she could get by on four or five hours sleep a night, and was known as the most punctual star on the lot. There, the studio-favoured nicknames of Jeannie or Liz were ignored; she was ”Pete” to everyone, and universally liked. Columnist Cobina Wright said, “I never knew Jean to have a feud with anyone.” In his biography of the actress Raymond Strait similarly remarks that “in all the research and planning that went into this book, no one ever had an unkind word to say of Miss Peters, and that is unusual.” Her circle of friends at this time included the likes of Joseph Cotten, David Niven, Ray Milland, Marie McDonald, and Marilyn Monroe. Her best friend was fellow Fox contract player Jeanne Crain, only a year her senior, with whom Jean remained close for years.
The Hollywood party scene was not Jean’s; she enjoyed dining out, attending the opera, or small parties, but avoided publicity-friendly events like the plague - acting was fun, but she hated the idea of being a ‘celebrity’ and all that it entailed. “I’ve been to only one premiere,” she declared proudly in 1955, and on that occasion she even made her own evening gown. Fashioning her own clothes was a hobby born out of necessity in her youth, and one which which she continued in Hollywood. She had a talent for it, even writing articles on dress-making for the movie magazines. Fame didn’t make Jean frivolous with money, either. She lived for some time in a modest apartment that she liked because it was close to the studio, and saved much of her paychecks, investing the money in real estate. Between movie shoots she went horse riding, painted (friends said she was quite good) and was a passionate baseball fan. At home Jean followed the Cleveland Indians, but out west, ten years before the Dodgers would bring major league baseball to L.A., she adopted the minor league Hollywood Stars as her team and kept a private box at Gilmore Stadium.
Offscreen, Peters embodied many of the characteristics of the Hawksian woman, even down to the masculine nickname, and it’s a pity she never worked with Hawks himself. Margaret Sheridan’s role in The Thing from Another World springs to mind as one that would have been ideal for Peters, but he also made several movies at Fox during her tenure and the only one that would have been an obvious mismatch is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Peters hated dancing on-screen, and even after singing lessons couldn’t carry much of a tune. Surprisingly, when she did agree to a choreographed dance sequence in Love that Brute (1950), the end product (a dubbed rendering of “You Took Advantage of Me”) was slick and entertaining - thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I’ve uploaded it here if you want to check it out. Nevertheless, it was something the actress was never comfortable with, and largely avoided.
After Captain from Castile Jean slimmed down to a trim 125lbs and got solid if unspectacular work in the likes of Deep Waters (1948) and It Happens Every Spring (1949), the latter playing into her real-life passion for baseball. She also wanted to go blonde for the picture, but was overruled by director Lloyd Bacon. The afore-mentioned Love that Brute (1950) was the best of her films from this period, pairing her effectively with Paul Douglas in a warm comedy about a good-natured gangster and the nightclub singer he romances. However, it was as Anne of the Indies the following year that Peters came into her element. The role of the tough, swashbuckling pirate captain was perfect for the tomboy actress, with Jean relishing the chance to dress up as a pirate and embody a larger-than-life character. Though the film ultimately falls short of fulfilling its potential, her glee at portraying such an appealing bad girl pervades every scene.
After this, her films began to rise in stature: she was the wife of Marlon Brando’s Mexican revolutionary in the Oscar-winning Viva Zapata! (1952), second lead in Niagara (1953) with Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe, and scored a plum role in Samuel Fuller’s desperate film noir masterpiece Pickup on South Street (1953). Peters gave a raw, punchy performance, arguably her best, as Candy, the ex-hooker who becomes involved with Richard Widmark’s cynical pickpocket Skip McCoy.
The noir trend continued, although the films themselves were inferior: Vicki, a by-the-numbers remake of I Wake Up Screaming, at least gave her a glamorous starring role as a society model and the chance to work again with Jeanne Crain. A Blueprint for Murder re-united her with another pal, Joseph Cotten, but in an implausible, flat thriller that played off elements of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, to only a fraction of the effect.
Jean was by now unquestionably a star, if not quite among the front rank. When Jeanne Crain proved unavailable for Fox’s lavish new CinemaScope romance Three Coins in the Fountain, Peters was ushered in. Ironically, while the film turned out to be the most popular of her career, Peters’ role was among the weakest she ever played. Surrounded by gorgeous Italian locations and wrapped up in Victor Young’s lush music, Jean didn’t actually have much to do but look pretty in Technicolor. That, at least, was easily accomplished.
Next up for Jean were back-to-back westerns. She was loaned to United Artists for Apache, which saw her made-up as a rather unconvincing American Indian opposite Burt Lancaster. While filming in high winds, she remarked to director Robert Aldrich, “make sure you pan with my wig when it blows off”. Back at Fox, she was cast in another top-flight CinemaScope production, Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance (1954), during which there were rumours of a fling with co-star Robert Wagner (in his recent autobiography, Wagner says that their friendship never turned romantic).
Jean’s next film, A Man Called Peter (1955), generated some of her best reviews yet, but it was to be her last. Put on suspension again for refusing roles, Peters decided she was through with movies when long-time suitor Howard Hughes finally agreed to marriage.
Jean Peters and Howard Hughes first met, according to most accounts, at an Independence Day party in July 1946, shortly before Hughes’ near-fatal crash while piloting the XF-11. Ditching her date Audie Murphy, the farm girl from Ohio fell immediately for the charming Hughes, and they apparently began seeing each other very quietly. This caused consternation at Fox, whose publicity department desperately wanted to play up notions of a Hughes romance to enhance her public profile. Jean, though, insisted on her privacy and for the time being the studio relented. For Hughes the appeal in Jean was her natural beauty and lack of pretence, as well as the fact that she clearly didn’t need him; when he was in town they would go out for dinner, maybe see a show, but Jean was otherwise happy to continue her life without him, even managing to turn a blind eye to his dalliances with other actresses and the constant ’spies’ that Hughes sent to watch over and keep tabs on her.
Eventually, however, Hughes’ reluctance to commit to their relationship frustrated Peters enough to consider life away from him. In August 1953 Peters was on a flight home from Rome, where she had been on location for Three Coins in the Fountain. At the Paris stop-off, oil executive Stuart Cramer III boarded the plane and sat opposite Jean in first class. The pair hit it off immediately, and upon her arrival in LA, Jean gave Howard Hughes an ultimatum: marriage - or else, even confessing as much to Three Coins director Jean Negulesco. When Hughes still refused to commit, she began seeing Cramer, and romance blossomed. They dated for several months before marrying on May 29th 1954.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning that some make a rather far-fetched claim regarding this time: namely that during 1953 or 1954, Jean gave birth to the illegitimate son of Howard Hughes. Given her nearly unbroken filming schedule through this period (from Vicki to Three Coins to Apache to Broken Lance, to her marriage to Stuart Cramer just a few weeks later), as well as her unwaveringly slim figure on-screen, it must have been the shortest and most invisible pregnancy in history. In addition, over 50 years later, no such child has appeared, so I think we can safely put such stories in the dustbin reserved for the likes of Walt Disney’s frozen head and Ida Lupino’s wig.
The Cramer-Peters marriage was not to last, though. Hughes was jealous and may well have actively sought to break up the union. After 33 days the couple separated, and Hughes attempted to reconcile with Peters, while also hurrying along divorce proceedings against Cramer. But Jean didn’t sign the papers, and when Cramer tracked her down in Miami, they got back together for the next few months. Jean went back to Fox and starred in A Man Called Peter that autumn, apparently choosing the film on the recommendation of her new mother-in-law, who had been a parishioner of the real-life Rev. Peter Marshall, upon whose life the film was based.
Despite the relatively brief reunion, the marriage faltered in 1956 and Peters, once again on suspension from Fox for her ‘difficult’ behaviour, went back to Hughes. When the Cramer divorce became final in December 1956, Hughes and Peters married just days later in January 1957. Jean’s friend, the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, was gifted the story.
Jean acquiesced to her husband’s desire for privacy and not only quit movies - much to the dismay of Fox, her friends, and fans - but also studiously avoided the public eye in any way. For the first couple of years the couple lived together in California, but as Hughes became increasingly reclusive and suspicious of outsiders, he moved to his Las Vegas penthouse and left Jean alone in a grand home in Bel Air. She would fly out occasionally on weekends, but was otherwise left to her own devices.
Jean had always been wise with her money, but suddenly finding herself the bored wife of a billionaire, she developed a taste for shopping. She frequented the high class boutiques in Beverly Hills, often buying numerous outfits, only to forget all about them until a courier showed up on her doorstep with an armful of packages. A friend from her days at Fox bumped into her in a store and had to politely decline the outrageously expensive dresses Jean tried to buy for her.
Jean would go out to shows when she visited Vegas, but her husband never came along. Accompanied by friends, she would sit at the best tables, but was seldom recognised, “unless one of my movies had been on TV the night before”. Back in California she would go to a ballgame or the opera with friends, Hughes’ invisible bodyguards always trailing quietly behind.
By the mid 1960s Jean was so stifled by solitary life that she went back to college for something to occupy her time, enrolling for classes at UCLA under her real name of Elizabeth Peters. Dressing casually and wearing sunglasses whenever possible, she got by for several months, ranking among the top students in her class, before an anonymous tip alerted reporters and she had to drop out. By this time her contact with Hughes was mostly by telephone; the marriage existed only on paper. Finally, Jean filed for divorce.
The precipitating factor for this seems to have been Jean’s involvement with Fox executive Stanley Hough, whom she first met on Captain from Castile in 1947, when he was an assitant cameraman. They had known each other, on and off, ever since (he worked also on Three Coins in the Fountain and most probably other films with Jean). When the Hughes divorce came through in June 1971, she was awarded $70,000 a year for life, to be adjusted for cost of living increases. In return, although Hughes didn’t insist on a confidentiality agreement, Jean promised not to talk to the press. She never did, telling Newsweek only that ”my life with Howard Hughes was and shall remain a matter on which I will have no comment”. Hughes’ aides said that Jean was one of the few people he was never heard to bad-mouth.
A year after her divorce from Hughes, Jean and Stanley Hough were married. She decided to return to acting, but Hollywood had moved on in the 20 years since her Fox contract, and she found it impossible to shed her identity as Mrs Howard Hughes. Her first reappearance was on TV, in Winesburg, Ohio (1973), and generated a level of press interest out of all proportion to the relatively insignificant production. “I’m not so naive as to think your only reason to be here is your interest in my career,” she remarked to the attendant press.
Shortly before his death in 1976, Hughes sent Jean a letter claiming he had always loved her, but second-hand platitudes were no substitute for fifteen years of a largely empty marriage. Jean subsequently returned to acting only occasionally, instead concentrating mostly on charity work. She also returned to college, finally getting the teaching degree that had eluded her all those years earlier. She intended to make use of it in the classroom, but never found the opportunity in the end.
Jean made her last screen appearance in a 1988 episode of Murder She Wrote. At 62, she had aged gracefully, and was perfectly cast as a reclusive ex-movie star, in a story that made much use of her old publicity photos and memorabilia for verisimilitude. It wasn’t a high-class exit - Murder She Wrote is hardly the pinnacle of TV drama - but was somewhat nostalgic nonetheless.
Following the death of spouse Stanley Hough in 1990, Peters left Beverly Hills and moved to Carlsbad, California, to be near her younger sister Shirley. In her early days Jean had spoken optimistically about her future: a long marriage, eventually children perhaps, much like her friend Jeanne Crain enjoyed, but it didn’t work out that way. She gave interviews only rarely in her later years, but on one occasion, talking about her childhood, confessed, ”I liked my small town. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had remained there.” Jean died on October 13th, 2000, two days shy of her seventy-fourth birthday, and is buried next to her third husband in Culver City, Los Angeles.