By Selma Davis
Robert J. Wagner has had an unabashed, life long love affair with Hollywood and freely admits it in his new book, “You Must Remember This,” written by Wagner and Scott Eyman.
The son of wealth, Wagner rode his own horses in the corral of his Bel Air house. He always loved the buildings, the scenery, and the beautiful people – the men, and especially the women. The men were his mentors, the women were the objects of flings, and marriages (four of them, three different women).
Wagner writes about the buildings with an eye for architecture, mentioning and giving homage to the architects and interior designers. He admired also the famous restaurants of the long ago time and calls attention to their owners, chefs, and architectural designs. The Brown Derby, in the shape of a hat; The Players, owned and run by Preston Sturges with a 3-level entertainment venue – dining on the top, theater in the middle, and supper club on the lowest level.
Wagner knew he wanted to be an actor from a very early age and auditioned for every role and production that came around – from elementary school on. He took lessons in dancing, fencing, and “every class that was offered,” he told me in a telephone interview. He got into movies right after WWII and has been working in Hollywood for 75 years. 20th Century Fox signed him to a contract in 1949 but before he agreed, he asked advice from Fred Astaire (for whom he caddied) and Astaire told him to grab it. If one had acting as a career goal, there were not a lot of alternatives to the movies. TV started its influence in 1960.
In 1928, Hearst built a house for Marion Davies. As he did for San Simeon, Hearst bought entire rooms out of various European castles and installed them in Davies’ house. Jean K. Wolf, an expert in historic preservation told me that several houses in Lower Merion have elements of interiors from Europe. The largest was the Percival Roberts property, Penshurst, built by Peabody Stearns of Boston for the estate in Penn Valley. He tore it all down himself after being disgusted with LM Township on certain issues. The European sales occurred from the 19th century on until after the First World War, when war damage had left fragments and American dollars were important. Usually it was Euro-American interior dealers who purchased the stuff and sold it to Americans.
Max Buten, documenting today’s buildings for the future for the Lower Merion Historical Society wrote me that he could point to two buildings in LM with rooms imported from Europe: Michael Karp’s Lutheran Deaconess House, 801 Merion Square Rd., “Skylands” on the gatepost; and 379 Latches Lane, which was build by Albert Barnes to sell.
William Powell loved gadgets and modern technology. He installed push buttons through the house to open doors, turn on lights, and move things. However, the switches were mislabeled and instead of opening the kitchen door, a fully equipped bar would swing into the room.
In their house in Holmby Hills, Bill and Edie Goetz collected and displayed spectacular Impressionist art. Cezanne, Bonnard, Renoir, Picasso, Degas, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec adorned the walls of their home. When sold, in 1988, the collection brought 80 million dollars. But, compared to Lower Merion’s own Albert Barnes, their collection paled. Barnes commissioned one of his former high school classmates, the painter William Glackens, who had been living in Paris, to buy several “modern” French paintings for him. In 1911, Barnes gave Glackens $20,000 and. Glackens returned with 20 paintings that formed the core of Barnes’ collection. With money, an excellent eye, and the poor economic conditions during the Great Depression, Barnes was able to acquire much important art at bargain prices. Barnes’s collection grew to include 69 Cézannes — more than in all the museums in Paris — as well as 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and 178 Renoirs. The 2,500 items in the collection include major works by Henri Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Georges Seurat, Edgar Degas, and Vincent van Gogh. Today, the collection is estimated to be worth between $20 and $30 billion.
On the phone, Wagner told us that he purchased some art, but nothing like Goetz or Barnes.
Wagner used to entertain his friends by doing impressions. He was told that Hollywood already had a James Cagney and that they needed him, a unique individual.. He was emotionally moved when in “What Price Glory,: he died in Cagney’s arms.
Golf became Wagner’s go to method of relaxation. It taught him patience and perseverance in the face of failure. At one time, Wagner had a 2 handicap and Sam Snead never forgave him when, in the Shell series of Golf, Wagner defeated Snead. Wagner’s father, a west coast representative for the east coast steel mills, joined the Bel Air Country Club and later, he took over his father’s membership and eventually bought Howard Kiel’s membership for himself.
Restaurants played an important part in furthering actors’ careers. In 1937, restaurants placed telephones on the tables of their “important” diners. Mike Romanoff called Wagner “The Cad.” I asked him why during our telephone interview, and Wagner laughed and said “I still laugh at it. He thought that described me.” i can understand that – a very handsome young man, with money, who must have showed up with a different gorgeous woman every night.
His favorite restaurant, was Chassen’s since his father first took him there when he was 7 years old.
And Jen Leon carried and permitted him to run a tab. I asked Wagner what happened to his money that he was broke. Again he laughed and said that he “spent it.” I asked if he had fun and again a laugh and “I sure did.”
His first check for the movie “the Happy Years” was $76.00 and he took his parents to Dan the Beachcomber. His mother always believed in him and thought his father’s doubts were not viable.
I asked what he would have done, if acting became a nonoption. and he said that he would own horses. He has always loved them and even owned a thoroughbred that was a winner.
Wagner was part of the major Hollywood glory years. And now, he and his wife, Jill St. John, perform Love Letters and have been doing that for 9 years. When I asked him who his favorite character was, he replied immediately, “Alexander Mundy.” It Takes a Thief was written specifically for him.
I asked about future projects and without naming names, Wagner told me that he has several in the works and though he enjoys the restful and relaxing vacations with his children and grandchildren, he has no intentions of retiring. All his fans can breath a beautiful and terrific sigh of relief.