The year 1959 clearly was meant to be Warren Beatty’s moment in time. On the same February day as Beatty’s first screen test with Jane Fonda, the head of production at Warner Brothers in Los Angeles sent a letter to Elia Kazan, who was rehearsing Sweet Bird of Youth
on Broadway, promising to “alert the boys here” to look for a boy of nineteen to twenty-one to star in Splendor in the Grass.
Kazan wanted to start filming in August, unless he was contractually obligated to Twentieth Century Fox to direct the film Wild River
The timing coincided with actress Natalie Wood’s return to Warner Brothers that February after a seven-month suspension. The studio had resolved its dispute with the former child star using the lure that she could play Deanie Loomis, the fragile teenager in Splendor in the Grass
whose first love ends in tragedy, a role with painful parallels to Natalie Wood’s own life. Natalie Wood was drawn to Deanie as a moth to the light, just as she was to “Gadge” Kazan, whose psychologically nuanced work she revered.
William Inge, who already had cast Warren Beatty mentally as Deanie’s athlete boyfriend, Bud, was at first “dubious about Natalie,” whose promise in Rebel Without a Cause
seemed to flicker after Warner Brothers put her in a pair of shallow movies with Tab Hunter that featured only her beauty. “But Gadge wanted her,” Inge said later, “and he was right.” After meeting privately with Wood, the director discovered she was “disgusted with her image” and had a “desire for excellence” in her work. Kazan preferred to cast actors whose personalities matched the characters they were playing, and he quickly assessed the vulnerable and intelligent Natalie Wood as “true blue with a wanton side held down by social pressure,” similar to the sweetnatured Deanie.
Inge was still rewriting the screenplay, further refining the part of the high school football hero to fit Warren Beatty, who continued to visit the playwright frequently at his apartment on Sutton Place. Jane Fonda, who had become pals with Beatty while they were preparing to costar in Parrish,
thought at first that he was Bill Inge’s boyfriend.
After both Beatty and Fonda were famous, she often would be included on the long list of his girlfriends, but their relationship was more like brother and sister. “Warren and I became friends—not lovers, but friends,” said Fonda. Beatty’s intimate circle recognized the distinction. “He did only hang out with Jane,” affirmed Verne O’Hara, who still sometimes shared her husband’s hotel suite with Beatty, and was thus able to observe his bedroom partners firsthand. In O’Hara’s evaluation, “Warren was of the good girl/bad girl school in those days.” Jane Fonda, who had graduated from Emma Willard—similar to the seminaries for young ladies both Tat and Blanche MacLean had attended—was the former. As Tom Laughlin noted, “Jane was not a sex machine. She was a sensitive, beautiful, caring person…what would you look to, Eva Marie Saint? That kind of sensitive, beautiful quality.”
When he went out with Jane Fonda in 1959, Beatty entertained her with tales of his carnal adventures, which seemed to surprise and amaze the essentially Baptist son of Ira and Kathlyn Beaty as much as they did the sheltered Fonda. “We mostly talked about sex,” Fonda recalled, laughing. “I mean, we talked about lots of things—I’m not saying that we didn’t talk about professional things, but…maybe it was because I was just his friend that Warren would talk to me about his lovers, which I found fascinating.”
Beatty described himself then as a “kid in a candy store,” slightly overwhelmed but enormously pleased by his unexpected good fortune. Harry Crossfield, a writer-producer of Captain Kangaroo
who became acquainted with Beatty when their mutual friends Mitch May and his wife offered him their Blackstone suite, observed that he had “an insatiable thirst for sex. It was twenty-four hours a day…I mean Warren would stop women in the street. He had a great gift of picking up ladies. He would just put on the charm, and women thought he was just the cutest little thing that ever came around. Not sophisticated, but just a cute boy, with a sweetness.”
It was Beatty who introduced Crossfield to the woman he would marry, Anna Maria Barraque. “I was doing the backer’s audition for Mitch’s musical on Broadway,” explained Crossfield, “and Warren had asked whether he could bring these two Cuban girls. And I said, ‘Do they have any money?’ ‘I don’t know.’
I said, ‘Are they going to invest in this show?’ ‘I don’t know.’
So they came, and that’s how I met my wife.”
According to Crossfield and to Mitch May’s first and second wives, the Blackstone Hotel belonging to May’s Bronxville-based parents was the site of innumerable sexual romps during Beatty’s temporary residency there. “It was an orgy room,” in the description of Crossfield, who stayed there from time to time as a bachelor. “Warren enjoyed orgies…he was game for anything.”
Gita Hall, a Swedish actress who married Mitchell May after he and Verne O’Hara divorced, recalled a second embarrassing incident at the Blackstone involving Beatty, Mitch May, and the inopportune arrival of May’s mother. “Warren had some girl there—I guess they both had a girl, definitely Warren did—and Mitch’s mother walked in and opened the door, and there they were. She was not expected. So she walked in on a sort of compromising situation, and of course Warren and Mitch both blamed each other, and tried to hide. And I guess they were caught with their pants down. I think Mitch’s mother quickly closed the door as I remember—he never did
tell me what punishment she inflicted, but it had to be something severe.”
“It happened all the time,” revealed Crossfield. “One time we even put a tape recorder under the bed when Warren was there and taped him.” Crossfield, similar to Jane Fonda, would recall, “When Warren wasn’t talking sex, or women, I don’t remember what he was
talking about…we were all very screwed up in that way. Immature.” In his sixties, Beatty offered a similar rationale for his hypersexual behavior then, analyzing that his Protestant upbringing had constrained him from “acting out” the way he should have in his teenage years, implying he had a delayed adolescence.
Harry Crossfield, who produced a short-lived musical with Mitch May on Broadway in 1959, had an exquisite tenor voice, and, for a lark, performed in piano bars with Beatty—similar to the lounge act Dustin Hoffman and Beatty would parody thirty years later in Ishtar.
Beatty and Crossfield even used foreign accents as part of their cocktail-lounge shtick. “Warren really wanted to learn how to sing well,” remembered Crossfield, who toured as an opera singer, “and I took him to one of my voice teachers at the time, a guy named Carmen Galliardi. I don’t know how long that lasted, because Warren didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”
Beatty even entertained the idea of composing music. In addition to studying with Galliardi and the voice coach he employed at Stella Adler’s, Beatty collaborated with composer Rick Besoyan, and sang with an accompanist he referred to girlfriend Jeanne Rejaunier. Ira’s influence still shadowed him. “I have a pretty good voice,” Beatty said at the time. “I never recorded professionally, but I made a demonstration record that my agents thought was pretty good. Might do something about it some time. But it’s like my piano playing. I studied for a year or so, was pretty talented, but I’m sloppy.”
Beatty nonetheless exuded confidence that he would be a movie star, buoyed by his five-picture contract with Josh Logan commencing with Parrish,
and by the devoted patronage of William Inge, who had positioned him for Splendor in the Grass.
When Tom Calhoun, Beatty’s high school football buddy, was flown to New York that spring by accounting firms recruiting him from Duke, “Warren kept trying to get me to stay in New York [and act] with him. I remember he said, ‘All you need to succeed in this business is brains,’ and he knew that I had brains. But what he didn’t know was I’m not a risk-taker—it would have seemed so outlandish to me. And, too, I didn’t think I had any talent, and I’m sure that’s true, and I was pretty skeptical that all you needed was brains. I was pretty sure you needed talent. At least some talent.”
Warren Beatty’s strategy, then as always, was to cultivate exceptional mentors; or as Jane Fonda expressed it, “He had a way of collecting talent. You know, he hadn’t even kind of been discovered yet, but he was already looking for talent in [writer] Mead Roberts, William Inge. He was already creating…making friends with people who had talent. It seemed like he knew a lot of really talented people.”
Beatty’s alliance with Inge bore fresh fruit just before spring, when the Pulitzer Prize—winning playwright summoned the actor from his hovel on West Sixty-eighth to Inge’s Sutton Place apartment. As Beatty told the story, “Inge called me one day and asked me to come over right away to read a play he had finished, even before he had it typed up…he said that he had a part in a play for me. I was recovering from an attack of food poisoning. I had been sick for three or four days, hadn’t shaved or anything, but I left the house immediately. On the way I stopped in at a cafeteria and ate some food and came out thinking to myself that tasted pretty good, that’s all right. Suddenly three husky fellows closed in on me. For a moment I thought they were going to hold me up right there in the middle of the day; then one of them flashed a badge in front of my face and another stuck a gun in my back. They turned out to be the FBI, but they had the wrong man. It frightened me so much that I ran back into the cafeteria and was sick all over again.”
The play Inge had in mind for Beatty, A Loss of Roses,
was a tense triangle with oedipal overtones about a young gas station attendant living with his widowed mother in Depression-era Kansas. Their lives are thrown into turmoil by a middle-aged tent-show actress whom the son seduces. “I had deliberately set out to write a play about…how it is between a mother and a son, how it really is when there is too much love.” Inge, who was afraid to fly, wrote a first draft on a train ride in 1957 but set it aside after becoming discouraged. The play “suddenly looked good” to him at the end of 1958, when he envisioned Warren Beatty as the son, whom Inge described in a letter as possessing such sexual confidence “he feels a wreath has been hung on his penis.”
The Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, announced that A Loss of Roses
would have its world premiere there in June, then canceled it on February 26 for lack of funds, foreshadowing a long, tortuous saga that lay ahead for Inge. A few weeks later, the theater press reported A Loss of Roses
as William Inge’s next Broadway play. Inge asked Elia Kazan to direct, and sent a letter to Kazan in March wondering if he should change the title and suggesting actress Shelley Winters to play the possessive mother. Beatty told his publicist later that year that both Inge and Kazan had offered him the lead in A Loss of Roses
on Broadway, with Kazan directing, a dream scenario that evaporated in March. “It’s a fine play and it’s going to be a sure as hell hit…but I’m caught,” Kazan wrote to Inge on March 24, referring to his obligation to direct the film Wild River.
“I’ve ducked and dodged the 20th Century Fox business for three years…if their script doesn’t turn out soon, I’ll do Splendor.
If it does, I’ll do our picture next.” A few days later, Inge issued a press release saying he had shelved A Loss of Roses.
To Beatty’s further frustration, Parrish
collapsed like an undercooked soufflé at the end of March, his twenty-second birthday. Josh Logan had been unable to persuade Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable to play Parrish’s mother and stepfather, and he himself had severe misgivings about the final script. Logan withdrew as the director of Parrish,
taking his two new contract players, Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty, with him.
In less than a month, Beatty went from three starring roles in a Broadway play and two movies—A Loss of Roses, Splendor in the Grass,
—to none, leaving him with only a bit role as “somebody’s boyfriend” on the soap opera A Brighter Day,
and a dormant contract with Joshua Logan. He decided it was time to go to Hollywood.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Warren Beatty by Suzanne Finstad. Copyright © 2005 by Suzanne Finstad. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.