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Brian Aherne and Friends: Private Letters of Hollywood Stars

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Posted: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 12:00 am

Brian Aherne

Chateau de L'Aile

Vevey, Switzerland

31st July, 1971

Dear Mr. Ragan:

I seem to have retired from the acting business, so I am afraid I have no exciting announcements to declare. Last year, however, I wrote—as so many members of my profession seem to be doing—a book about my life in which anybody who is interested may read all about me. It is called "A Proper Job" and was published by Houghton Mifflin of Boston and received wonderful reviews. This encouraged the publishers to over-print in the belief that they had a best seller. It wasn't that, however, so I feel they have copies to spare. Like all writers, I wish now that I could rewrite it. I recorded it myself for the American Foundation for the Blind.

My wife and I live in a beautiful but crumbling old chateau overlooking Lake Geneva with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. We are very happy here. I play golf on the course at Lausanne and we travel about Europe from time to time. In the winter we spend a few weeks at our New York apartment, hoping to find something worth seeing at the theatre, and we go to London with the same object, but not always with success. About once a year we go to Santa Monica, Calif., where I still own my great house on the beach which we rent furnished. When the tenants leave we have to go there to repair all the damage they have done. To me, California is sad now, and Hollywood a ghost town. Everybody I knew seems to have either died or gone away.

The last parts I played in the American theatre were Higgins in My Fair Lady, and G. B. Shaw in Dear Liar. The last picture was Rosie with Rosalind Russell.

Sincerely yours,

Brian Aherne

No handsomer actor than blond, blue-eyed Brian Aherne graced Hollywood's screens in the 1930s. Tall at 6-foot, one-inch, he was dashing and utterly masculine, even though his good looks bordered on beauty.

Born May 2, 1902 in King's Norton, Worcester, he was trained for the stage while a child under Britain's most illustrious drama coach, Italia Conti. He first appeared on the stage at age nine. In his early twenties, he starred in plays in England's provincial theaters where he discovered to his dismay that he was a magnet for other actors. Like a gentleman of the old school, he found a tactful way to defuse any misguided romantic interest in him by engaging in a few friendly bouts in the boxing ring.

Starring in a string of silents led to two 1931 British talkies, The W. Plan and Madame Guillotine both with Madeleine Carroll as his leading lady. Following these, he answered Hollywood's call.

Arriving in America in 1933, he would spend the next 35 years here while being seen in 34 movies. Paramount immediately assigned him to star with their sensational glamour girl from Germany, Marlene Dietrich in her fifth U.S. film, Song of Songs. Marlene had complained bitterly that, except for Gary Cooper, she wasn't getting leading men sufficiently masculine and romantic. What Marlene wanted, Marlene got, and so Brian was a perfect co-star.

In Song of Songs, his Hollywood debut, Brian played a young sculptor for whom his lover (Marlene) poses in the nude. Off screen, according to Maria Riva, Marlene's daughter, a real romance blossomed between the two actors. Meanwhile, Hollywood's loveliest femme stars all but stood in line to claim his services as Brian became a hot romantic lead.

Some of the lucky ladies who shared close-ups with Brian include: Ann Harding (The Fountain), Helen Hayes (What Every Woman Knows), Joan Crawford (I Live My Life), Katharine Hepburn (Sylvia Scarlett), Merle Oberon (Beloved Enemy and First Comes Courage), Olivia de Havilland (The Great Garrick), Bette Davis (Juarez), Carole Lombard (Vigil in the Night), Madeleine Carroll (My Son, My Son), Loretta Young (A Night to Remember), and Rosalind Russell (Hired Wife, My Sister Eileen, What a Woman, and his last movie, Rosie). In the 1950s and '60s there was a handful of major character roles, with Barbara Stanwyck (Titanic) Jean Simmons (A Bullet Is Waiting), and Grace Kelly (The Swan) among others. After that, he decided to quit Hollywood.

Living in retirement in Switzerland with his second wife, Eleanor de Liagre (Joan Fontaine briefly had been his first), he remained well connected with America's entertainment world. Wife Eleanor was the sister of wealthy Broadway producer and socialite Alfred de Liagre, Jr. the husband of actress Mary Howard. (Before her 1945 marriage and retirement, Mary Howard had been groomed by MGM as their new Norma Shearer. In MGM's Technicolor Billy the Kid, Mary was Robert Taylor's love interest. A star of refinement, she also gave a memorable role as our 16th President's lost love, Ann Rutledge, in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. After retiring, one of Mary's favorite causes was the Recording for the Blind program.)

Brian Aherne's best friend in Hollywood was actor George Sanders. With his air of superiority, and icy diction, it is natural that Sanders should be typecast as the consummate cad, a role which won him an Oscar for his Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Brian knew this image was an act and when he wrote his affectionate book about Sanders he was being completely ironic when he gave it the title "A Dreadful Man".

The mysterious and much married Sanders may have had one or two wives before anyone started keeping track. First of his well known wives was Elsie Poole who had been a waitress at the famous Brown Derby restaurant. Number two was Sari Gabor who soon would dub herself Zsa Zsa. It is said that when Zsa Zsa was married to millionaire Conrad Hilton and seven months pregnant, she saw George in The Moon and Sixpence and announced that he would be her next husband—and he was for almost six years. When she divorced him in 1954, she declared, "I fell out of love with George, but he never did". Number three was the joyful Benita Hume who married George in 1958 after the death of her husband Ronald Colman. Benita first wrote a note of congratulation to George after he won his Oscar. Eight years later, George wrote to Benita after Colman's death to express his sympathy. The two struck up a correspondence that led to marriage.

Benita's husbands could not have been more different. Sanders was a sybarite who lavished money on Benita with extravagant gifts and trips to exotic locales. Colman was slightly monastic and avoided Hollywood night life. "Fame," Colman said, "has robbed me of my freedom and shut me up in prison". He complained that even though his cage was golden, that did not make his confinement any more tolerable.

Colman was considered an elusive bachelor during his early days in Hollywood. At the time, one industry insider claimed that Colman had no interest in women. In fact, back in England Colman already had a wife, a stage actress who shared the flat of this once-struggling actor while she was still the wife of an Australian millionaire. In the subsequent divorce, Colman was named as co-respondent. It is said that Colman then tolerated his shrewish wife for four years before leaving for Hollywood. After he became wealthy and famous she, naturally, sued and secured a handsome settlement before she granted Colman a divorce.

Colman had a quiet and happy marriage to Benita Hume and together they starred on radio and TV in the weekly series The Halls of Ivy. In 1947 Colman won the Oscar for A Double Life, a title that could have described him. When Ronald and Benita's daughter wrote a biography of her father, she titled it "A Very Private Man".

When Benita married George Sanders she became very close to her husband's great friend Brian Aherne and his wife Eleanor. Benita wrote often to Brian and Eleanor and praised husband George as "definitely an angel, compassionate, imperturbably good humored, the sprightliest mind imaginable, 'unto himself true', without guile, and as far as I am concerned, a man to make every day one to which I look forward with joy".

This mutual devotion lasted nine years until Benita died in 1967. George was devastated. Lonely, he married again in 1970 to his former sister-in-law Magda Gabor, but this lasted a mere two months.

During their Hollywood years, studio-scripted bios of George and his brother, actor Tom Conway, were almost identical. Both bios asserted that the George and Tom were born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the sons of a British father (a rope manufacturer) and a Russian mother who fled to England during the Revolution. The boys then were educated at the best British schools.

George's friends knew that Sanders feared boredom above all else and sought perpetual change. Explaining this, he said, "Variety and only variety is worth the price of admission to this vale of tears". Variety with accompanying joy went out of his life with the passing of Benita Hume. Mainly, what remained was moviemaking, but doing more pictures no longer was enough. On April 25, 1972 George Sanders took his own life, leaving behind a note of nine poignant words: "Dear World: I am leaving because I am bored . . . ."

His story, however, was not quite finished. Some time after his death, his sister came forward to say that despite his English upbringing, name, and accent, George actually was "the illegitimate son of a Prince von Oldenburg [in northeast Germany] and a very beautiful Russian countess whose name I have so far been unable to discover."

Not even devoted friend Brian Aherne in all his Hollywood movies, ever starred in a film with a plot as farfetched as that.

A gentlemanly embodiment of the Golden Age, Brian Aherne passed away in Florida on February 10, 1986. By that time, the Hollywood he and his friends had known was long gone.