The Private Blues of Julie London

 
 
    Even on her own movie set, she doesn't look much like a movie star, this pint-sized girl with the large eyes and the long child's hair. She looks more like Alice in Wonderland - a slightly disillusioned, older Alice who doesn't always get enough sleep and smokes a few too many cigarettes-but still Alice who ate the cookie and nibbled the mushroom and found herself little, big, little, big in quick crazy changes of fortune.

    Julie London was her very littlest Alice in the summer of 1953 when Jack Webb walked out of her life and the wonderland Dragnet had built ceased to be wonderful.

    She is her biggest Alice today, a solid hit on records, a busy actress with three new pictures: Saddle the Wind (just released), Voice in the Mirror, My Strange Affair---and a fourth, Man of the West, co-starring Gary Cooper, in production. She isn't quite used to herself as this somebody, she's scared but she's learning. . . .

    The first day of each new picture is still zero hour. Julie's eyes are solemn with fright, her insides shaking. But no one shunts her into a bit part, and she doesn't have to fight for a line as she did as a starlet. She is a star in billing, if not in confidence, and one of these days perhaps she'll find a cookie or a mushroom that will make her the right-sized girl forevermore.

    Right now, she's come a long way in just feeling like a human being, a free soul doing a job because she's Julie London and not because she's a celebrity's ex-wife. She doesn't wince any more when she hears "Dum-da-dum-dum." She long ago stopped listening for that certain telephone call. She's making a life for herself and her two little girls.

    It isn't strange that the girl is shaky. At 15 she left school, got a job running an elevator and met Jack Webb. That's pretty young to tackle a world where nothing's in sequence, and Julie brought with her little in the way of preparation.

    She was a dreamy girl who had grown up in San Bernardino. She didn't like school too much, she didn't like other kids too much. Her parents, singers Josephine and Jack Peck, had a radio program that was broadcast from the California Hotel; and Julie was used to wandering around in a world of adults, musicians mostly, who hung about the Peck house and talked music.

    The only close friend Julie ever had was Caroline Woods. (Caroline is still her one close friend, is living with her, and working with her as secretary and stand-in.)

    At Arrowview Junior High, Julie was "a gentle, quiet girl," says Caroline, "without much self-confidence. She was always writing poems and plays. Occasionally we double dated for dances or to see a movie. Julie never seemed to care much about dates."

    "I didn't care about dates, because I didn't have 'em," Julie says. "Caroline dragged me along but I wasn't what you'd call madly popular. I was sort of old for my age and didn't fit. A lot of people thought my silence was indifference. They still think so."

    It was because she wanted so to be free that her parents agreed, when they moved up to Los Angeles, that

Julie could quit school and try a job. "They were never strict with me. They trusted me and I never took advantage of that. They had so much faith. And they certainly never worried about me and boys. I didn't like boys much."

    She met Jack Webb in a jazz joint. He was six years older. She could feel comfortable with him. He was more like the people her parents knew. He was crazy about music and they both worshipped Bix Beiderbecke, Billy Butterfield, Benny Goodman, et al.

    There was something about Jack's restless ambition that went straight to Julie's heart. He wasn't content to be a clothing salesman, he was full of furious ideas. He'd turned down a scholarship at the University of Southern California to get a job and support his mother and grandmother.





    He'd lived a wretched childhood in a slum section of Los Angeles---he told her how he'd hunted for junk in garbage cans---and he was going to climb if it killed him.

    She understood Jack, she understood his longing and he understood her quietness.

    Their steady dating ended when he went into the service. On the walls of one barracks a year or so later, he recognized pictures of Julie. She'd become a pin-up girl, a starlet. There was one very provocative shot of her, an Esquire shot, Julie prone in a wet metallic drape. He wrote and kidded her.

    One of those quick switches had changed her life. Sue Carol, the wife of Alan Ladd, had ridden up in the store elevator where she worked and suggested Julie come in to talk about a possible career in pictures. Julie thought it was all pretty silly, she didn't even know who Sue Carol was. But an actor who was working part time at the store explained that Sue was an important actor's agent and he made an appointment for her.

    So Julie was in the movies, but not with a bang. She worked for four years, and it was a struggle every minute. In between pictures she went back to her job on the elevator.

  Today she and Caroline will look at each other in moments of sheer astonishment, "Did you ever think we'd grow up and drive around in a Cadillac?" And the answer is---no, they didn't. Caroline had married one of the musicians she met at the Pecks' house. Julie was happy just having a job---$150 a week at a studio, or $10 in the elevator. She was free, on her own, alive. She lacked completely the furious drive Jack had.

    He was even more restless when he came back from the Army. She visited him once in San Francisco where he was working on a local radio program called Pat Novak for Hire. He went at it as if he were on a coast-to-coast show with top rating and fighting to stay there. He was hungrier than ever, especially since his hunger now included her.

    They were engaged in San Francisco and got married when first the writer, then Jack, quit Pat Novak and came back to Los Angeles. Jack had a 1941 Buick convertible, a battered typewriter and a thousand feverish ideas. He worked as a freelance radio actor and scrambled for bit parts in movies.

    "When I got pregnant, we were completely broke," Julie says. "Jack tried to dream up a 13-week show so that we could pay for the baby. He dreamed up Dragnet."

    The idea had been suggested to Jack some time before by Sergeant Marty Wynn, a detective from the robbery squad who acted as technical adviser on a film, He Walked by Night. Wynn, talking with Jack on the set, beefed about the hokey quality of crime and crime detection Hollywood style, and suggested a radio series based on actual cases. With the baby coming, Jack looked up Wynn. June 3, 1949, Dragnet had its first airing over NBC as a summer replacement.

    It was as if Jack and Julie had nibbled the mushroom. Within two years, they shot up to a white house in Hollywood (payments $150 a month)---Dragnet was the most popular show on radio. In nothing flat they jumped to a $200,000 house with five servants---Dragnet was the biggest thing on television.

    But there was a price. Jack was all things to Dragnet, organizing, directing, acting in and sometimes writing 50 high-quality TV films a year.

    It was bewildering. Julie had known he had drive, but she'd had no idea how desperate that drive was. "All of a sudden, Jack and I couldn't even sit down at the kitchen table and eat a sandwich together. We were lost."

    At least she was lost. She trailed about the big house, took care of the children like a mechanical girl. Jack was working so frantically, 18 hours a day with his brain child, and another six dreaming about it.

    One morning, as he left for the studio, he said, simply, "Goodbye." Julie said, "Goodbye, see you tonight." He said, "Fine." He kissed her.

    She didn't see him for two days. She called him at the studio.

    "I just wanted to find out if you're coming home for dinner."

    "I don't know," he said, and she didn't recognize the voice, it was that far away.

    "Well, when you find out let me know," she said.

    The weeks passed and Julie went to Europe, when it became evident that he was never coming. . . .

    It was a very small Julie who stumbled off that tourist flight in Paris. She carried seven-month-old Lisa, three-year-old Stacy clung to her skirts. They were all three suffering bad reactions to smallpox vaccine. They'd been awake all night.

    For three months this pathetic trio wandered vaguely about Paris, with side wanderings to Rome and London. They knew no one, spoke no French, no Italian. It was pretty lonely.

    One day, sitting on a park bench, Julie started dreaming of a peanut butter sandwich. On the instant, she sat bolt upright, staring at the children as if she hadn't seen them in a long while. "If I'm homesick," she thought, "what about them?"

    Julie pushed the carriage and dragged Stacy, as fast as she could go, to the nearest steamship office.

  And soon they were on the Queen Mary homeward bound. She'd made a mistake. She'd tried running away and found it didn't work.





    "I guess I was in a state of shock. The divorce in November, 1953, was a major shock. My mother and dad had been so happy and well-adjusted. I'd never thought of divorce. I'd never been around it."

    She'd run away partly because she didn't want to talk about it. She still doesn't. "That part of my life is over and gone. Why keep bringing it up? Why make Jack miserable? Or me? The important thing to learn is that you're not sentenced to that life, you can have a different one. What you have to do is face it. Be with people you know, people who love you. Let them help you.”

    Julie's dad helped. "Stop brooding about your lost happiness," he said. "If you have to look back, look back at the unhappy moments."

    The children helped. "This is where I was lucky. I had always wanted babies, all my life, and I had them. They were there needing love and I wanted them to have it, a whole world of it as I had when I was a child."

    After about six months, Stacy asked the inevitable: "Are you married to my daddy?"

    "No, darling, not any more."

    "But he is still my daddy?"

    “He will always be your daddy, darling."

   And, fortunately, the children can see him on television. They never miss a show. Stacy tells Lisa all about him. This helps bridge the time between visits.

    The biggest problem Julie had was to become a whole girl again, to find some way of life. It wasn't a matter of money. The divorce settlement had dumped in her lap $100,000 plus her car and a share of the house, plus a $100,000 trust fund for herself and a $50,000 trust fund for the children, plus $18,000 a year alimony. The newspapers had made much of that.

   Julie thought of dress designing, she thought of dress manufacturing, she thought of a record company. She didn't have the courage.

    Bobby Troup helped. Bobby and his trio were playing at a small bistro in Los Angeles when Julie dropped by one evening with friends. He thought her "the most strikingly beautiful girl I'd ever seen" and they talked long that night.

    Afterwards, Julie said, "I felt like a girl again, like a woman out of limbo. Here was a nice guy who wasn't trying to rush me. He liked me!"

    For a year and a half, Bobby told Julie she could sing and should sing. He couldn't argue her into auditioning. But he kept the piano humming at her house, and Julie sang in spite of herself. One night they were having dinner at Johnny Walsh's 881 Club. She said casually that if she ever did sing in a club, this would be the kind. Bobby put the thought into immediate action, and she found herself booked there.

    The morning of her opening night, she wakened---with laryngitis and a huge fever blister on her lip. The doctor sprayed her throat but, when it was almost time to go on, she hadn't the least idea what would happen.

    The 881 was packed. Her mother and dad and Caroline were there and a lot of other people, strangers who'd probably come just to see somebody's ex-wife. That's how it felt. Bobby was playing across the street, and she'd made him promise to stay away.





    And then she was standing in a small spot of light and the boys were playing, "From This Moment On." "I opened my mouth and noise came out. All the faces blurred and ran together. "

    Johnny Walsh had booked her for three weeks, he kept her ten. Bobby Troup brought over some people from Liberty Records and they signed her for an album, "Julie Is Her Name." "Cry Me a River," from the album, went right to the top. It was a natural for a girl who had cried a river. Overnight, Julie was a new size, but she didn't believe it. There are five thousand people who make one record. She had to prove this success wasn't just an accident.

    Bobby Troup arranged more recording sessions. The first one had gone easily. Julie had sung the songs she had been singing for ten weeks, with the boys who'd worked with her at the club.

    She made two more successful albums. But when she walked in to record the fourth, she recalls, "there were 26 musicians running a wild brass figure that almost blew you out of the room. It sure blew me out. I was so scared 1 didn't come back for a week. And when I did, it was to sing against the sound track they'd recorded."

    This album, "About the Blues," proved another natural. All her life, the blues will be her song. She was taking steps, gaining strength; and Bobby was there behind her, believing in her, handling all the business details.

    The night before production started on The Great Man, Julie walked the floor at home wishing she could break a leg. José Ferrer had called her in at Rosemary Clooney's suggestion to play the highly dramatic part of the nightclub singer, another quick shift in scene and fortune. "I didn't know whether to be honest and tell him I didn't think I could play it, or just get to the set and let him find out."

    She got to the set and played it to the hilt. Overnight she was an actress, with picture bids rolling in.

    Julie still has to keep proving that success isn't an accident. And she'll probably keep on proving it all her life. But with each step, she is an iota less frightened.

    She worried, for example, that she might not be able to cry for the hysterical scenes in Voice in the Mirror. She not only cried, she was still crying when the scene was over and the crew had gone to lunch.

    "It's a pleasure, this career, the greatest pleasure I've ever had. I can't claim victory yet, but I'm a better person for what's happened. Things happen to everyone-unexpected, dreadful things-it's hard to know why. And you either fall on your face or become a richer person, valuing what you have."

    Someday, perhaps, this pint-sized girl with the quart-sized eyes and the long child's hair will nibble a cookie or a mushroom; and, like Alice, she'll rub her eyes and sigh, "I have had the most curious dream."

 

Coronet Magazine

June 1958

By: Jane Kesner Ardmore

Jack Webb’s frenetic wooing of success contributed to his ultimate breakup with Julie.

Julie’s sophisticated air, as she appears on TV show with Bob Hope, is a pose, not a fact.

Shown with Julie and her daughter, Bobby Troup helped to put Julie back into the swim.

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