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The Gentleman from Saint John Part 2
Once again fate
intervened. The railroad company told the Pidgeons it was impossible to get
their heavy trunks out of the sealed compartment destined for Los Angeles. "So
on we went," he said, "both feeling very afraid of the future."
struck his life on October 26, 1926, when his wife died giving birth to their
child. His mother, Hannah, got the first train from Saint John to Hollywood to
help look after the new arrival which Pidgeon's wife had already named
to Hollywood, when Hannah was 56, lasted 38 years until she died peacefully in
her sleep at the age of 94 at Pidgeon's home. "Until she was 85 she went home
to Saint John and spent a month there in the spring,". he said. "She loved the
Pidgeon was 20 she married John Aitkins, a man with no connection to the film
industry, and she presented Walter Pidgeon with two granddaughters, Pat and
never happier than when he was with them," said Mrs. Aitkins. "He became a kid
again whenever he took them to Disneyland or the circus, and he was very
generous to them, and all of us, before and after he died."
first film, Mannequin was, he said, "totally forgettable." He made five
more films in 1926 before he called a halt and urged that he be given some sort
of control over the scripts he was to perform. When none was forthcoming he
returned to New York where a lucrative starring stage role was
"It was a
bit like a seesaw," he laughed. "When I was in Hollywood, New York wanted me.
When I returned to New York, Hollywood wanted me back. But I had bought a small
home for mother and Edna in Hollywood and was happy to return."
demand any vetoes over the films I didn't like, as they do today," he said. "I
asked nicely and discovered a secret that has stayed with me for my entire
career: that a request spoken softly usually brings results and demands rarely
arrived in Hollywood, the studios that once saw him as a singer in silents
suddenly saw him only as an actor. "I found myself cast in non-singing roles in
musicals," he recalled. "But that is what is so lovable about the crazy
Hollywood I have learned to call my home for so many years."
In 1931, he
married for the second time, to Ruth Walker, a girl who had become his
secretary. It was a marriage that lasted 53 happy years until his
In 1960 he
returned to New York as a major Hollywood star, staying five years in two
plays, Take Me Along and The Happiest Millionaire. The second
play ran a year in New York and Hollywood wanted him back. Pidgeon said
received so many letters from all over the United States asking if the play
would tour after its run ended in New York," he said. "So I took a huge cut in
salary and went on the road for 14 delightful months."
nominated twice for Academy Awards for Mrs. Miniver and Madame
Curie. Twice the Oscar went to someone else.
He was on
the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild for 33 years, including five
as president. In 1974, the Guild, unhappy with the Academy's failure to give
Pidgeon an Oscar, honoured him with their own highest award, "For outstanding
achievement in fostering the finest ideals of the acting
award hung in a place of pride in his study. "It would have been nice," he said
in 1983, "to have had an Oscar to put beside it. But it's too late now."
that I sometimes had to turn people away who were asking for my autograph," he
said. "I've felt pangs of regret for them all my life. I was so grateful to be
Pidgeon was always proud to display to visitors another item in his early
scrapbook. It was the first letter he received from a fan after making his
second film, Old Loves And New.
he said. "It is a charming letter, thanking me for providing moments of
satisfaction to the writer. It was dignified yet enthusiastic. I have re-read
it many times for comfort in moments of uncertainty in my life."
answered the letter personally, as he did the majority of fan mail he received
throughout his long career and, in 1946, was making a personal appearance in
Chicago when an elderly lady came up and introduced herself "All she needed to
say was, 'Perhaps you will remember a letter I sent you 20 years ago.' I knew
who it was instantly, there seemed to be some sort of bond between us. We had
supper together that evening, but I was saddened only three weeks later to hear
from her grandson that she had died very suddenly."
recalled the early days of sound in Hollywood with pleasure.
then for the love of what we were doing. Everything was quite casual and
relaxed. No one shouted or screamed as many directors and actors do today. It
was a world that ended when making huge sums of money became the only thing in
the minds of producers and actors too."
know that I made six records, the old 78s, back in 1930," he said. "They were
all best sellers, maybe sold 50,000 copies or so, but I doubt if anyone has one
now, 50 years later. I wish I'd had the sense to keep a few. I'd like to hear
now what I really sounded like all those years ago. I croak a bit these
several early musicals like The Bride Of The Regiment, Melody Of Love, Sweet
Kitty Belairs, Viennese Nights and Kiss Me Again, but he believed
his final transition to dramatic roles came in 1937 when he made Saratoga
with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
was the big star, but when she died before the film was completed, Clark and I
suddenly found ourselves being very critically judged on our acting
as he recalled his first meeting with another Saint Johnner, Louis B. Mayer,
production head of the giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.
called to his office to discuss a long-term contract he wanted me to sign. He
told me he had been impressed by my work at other studios and that he felt I
would be an asset to M-G-M. He peered at me over his glasses and suggested I
tell him about myself. I started by saying I came from New Brunswick. That's in
Canada, I added."
where New Brunswick is," said Mayer rather snippy. "Where in New Brunswick were
John," replied Pidgeon.
to his feet and thumped on his desk. "Young man," he shouted, "you can't
influence me with lies like that. Who told you to say you came from Saint
quietened him down and convinced him I really was from Saint John." said
Pidgeon. "I had to tell him where half-a-dozen streets and buildings were that
he remembered. But I left his office with a contract for much more money than I
expected and we were friends until the day he died."
Second World War was at its height, Louis B. Mayer offered Pidgeon to the
Canadian government at the expense of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. For more than a
year, he appeared at bond drives, troop shows and concerts, and once again
raised his voice in song to help raise money for the war effort. Apart from
building morale, records show he raised more than $5-million from sale of war
When he arrived to start the bond drive in Saint John for
the Third Victory
Loan Campaign of 1942, he found hundreds of fans at the
railroad station cheering
and waving autograph books. "I stayed until I had
signed every one."
It was at
M-G-M that he made his most memorable films.
call me Mr. Miniver," he laughed. "I don't really mind, it was a major turning
point in my life. Mrs. Miniver, with Greer Garson as my co-star, made my
life more secure that I had ever dared dream possible.
my first film with Greer, I'd made Blossoms In The Dust in 194 1. Later
I made seven other films with her, each a wonderful experience that I treasure.
She was a real lady among few in Hollywood."
Not many of
Walter Pidgeon's real friends were stars in the film industry. I enjoy the
company of the people who make the wheels turn, the sound men, electricians,
the set builders, and one of my best friends was, until he died in 1973, a
guard at the front gates of M-G-M."
gracefully through the years and there was no gap between his days as a
romantic leading man and his move into character roles.
just muddled through," he said. "I don't know quite when I started to get old,
but I recall very clearly, when I played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in 1954 in
The Last Time I Saw Paris, thinking how young and beautiful she was and
how old I had suddenly become."
Pidgeon returned to Saint John without any ballyhoo many times to see members
of his family and old friends.
had someone drive me to Cedar Street to see the house in which I was born," he
said. "It changed its face over the years but I always thought of it very
In 1959 he
returned to New York once more - this time to play in the highly successful
musical, Take Me Along, co-starring with Jackie Gleason. "Gleason is a
master at everything he does," he said. "Ad-libbing with him was a special
delight that we carried out every night after the final curtain. I have
wonderful memories of a great man and brilliant performer."
made by Pidgeon are still seen on late-night television and are available on
video cassette. They include the unforgettable Mrs. Miniver, How Green Was
My Valley, The Girl Of The Golden West, Madame Curie, Mrs. Parkington and
Funny Girl in 1968 as Florenz Ziegfeld.
reader of everything from the classics to Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries, he
could talk knowledgeably about any subject that was raised in his
television grew in popularity he declined many times the roles offered him, as
did the majority of the stars of Hollywood's golden years, but eventually he
agreed to help out a friend in need.
when Raymond Burr, playing Perry Mason, was taken ill and four substitute
'lawyers' had to be hired to keep the show running for a month, Gardner
himself, who I had met many times, called and asked me to be one of the guest
hosts and I agreed."
There was an
amusing sequel on a very unhappy day for Pidgeon.
Gardner's funeral in 1970 and saw a man point me out. Then I heard him telling
his wife 'That's the man who played the substitute lawyer when Raymond Burr was
ill.' Such is fame."
enjoyed his one week on a television set, he started to appear regularly on
many TV shows. "Perhaps 50 or 60 all told," he said. But his total of more than
100 feature films was never in danger of being beaten.
In 1941 he
told Sidney Skolsky, the Hollywood columnist, that he would work just 10 more
years before buying a boat so that he and his wife Ruth "could sail away into
the sunset." But Hollywood and Broadway always refused to let him
At my last
meeting with Walter Pidgeon in 1983, I reminded him that in 1978 he had
promised to let me know if he ever planned another visit to his home town. He
dropped his head for a moment and paused before answering.
nobody there now, nothing to come back for. The city is not what it was when I
lived there. New Brunswick is one of the most beautiful places in the world,
but Saint John is damp and cold and my rheumatics don't like that. I can still
hear those fog horns croaking on Partridge Island. But I'll think about it and
let you know before I make the trip.
never did return and 15 months later died at the age of 87.
have liked to live forever. Life has been so good to me." He spoke these words
on September 25, 1984, to his wife, Ruth. "But," he added, "I'm afraid no one
up there is listening."
the first words he had uttered following a series of strokes at his home in Bel
Air, California, before being transferred to a hospital in Santa Monica,
California. They were also his last words. One hour later, he died with "a
wonderfully contented smile on his face," said his wife.
and invited me to the funeral. Unhappily, I was unable to go. But I did send my
tribute to our long friendship. A bouquet of his favourite geraniums. Following
an earlier stroke, he told me on the phone at Christmas 1977, "1 can't even
tend my geraniums and you know how much I love to be surrounded by
visited her the following year, she too had a contented smile on her face. "I
had a lifetime of joy," she said. "Although I'm alone I feel Walter is here and
the memories will never go away.
It was said in Hollywood
that you were really accepted as his friend when he told you to call him
"Pidge." I am happy to recall that he told me that way back in 1958.
I have often
wondered why a street or a square has not been named after this gracious star
who brought nothing but credit to the city in which he was born. It's still not
too late. Not too late at all.
1977, Walter Pidgeon was rushed to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica after a
fall that had caused a blood clot to form on his brain.
leaked out on a television newscast that he was in a coma and unlikely to live
many hours, one Beverly Hills florist received nearly 100 orders for floral
tributes to be delivered to his home when the sad news was
time "someone up there" did hear him, and by September 23, his birthday, he was
ready to return home. As he left the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair, he
joked with the group of photographers and newsmen who were waiting outside. He
glanced up at the St. John's Hospital sign. "I started in S-a-i-n-t John, in
Canada, and there was no way I was going to die in St. John's. If they had
spelled it right I might have been more co-operative."
Charles Foster is a writer
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