by Nick Thomas
Fans of old movies will probably be familiar with the films of Glenn Ford, including such classics as Gilda, Blackboard Jungle, Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Teahouse of the August Moon, and Fastest Gun Alive. Oddly enough, though he appeared in around 100 feature films, there has never been a biography on Ford … until now.
Ford’s son, Peter, recently authored “Glenn Ford: A Life” published by the University of Wisconsin Press. Peter talked with me about his dad and the book, which is an insightful Hollywood bio filled with stories about one of film’s most underappreciated actors.
Throughout his life, Ford had a number of interests in addition to acting. He apparently had a great fondness for women, a subject Peter approaches with objective candor without ever turning into a trashy memoir.
“He’s perceived by the public as a ‘Jimmy Stewart’ – a wholesome, all-American guy,” Peter told me. “He was that, but he also had a lot of ‘Errol Flynn’ in him. His libido was engaged until the day he passed! In reviewing all my sources, I counted 146 women he had a dalliance with, including Marilyn Monroe.”
Those sources included Ford’s own writings.
“My father kept a diary every day of his life since 1933 and I have every one of them. So there was an enormous amount of material there,” explained Peter. “If you picked any day since then, I could tell you what he had for breakfast, where he went, what he did, what he thought, who he talked to, etc.”
Ford was also a packrat of monumental proportions. When Ford died in 2006, Peter says he donated many of his father’s personal items to charities. Other items he sold, including a piano given to Ford by Judy Garland, a slot machine from Frank Sinatra, and a couch on which he “entertained” Ms. Monroe.
In fact, an auction house hauled off two 26-ft long trucks filled with “stuff” – and that still barely touched the surface of the contents of Ford’s 9,000 square foot home in Beverly Hills.
“He saved everything,” said Peter. “I have every letter he ever received and copies of letters he wrote. I have his baby teeth, the lock of hair from his first haircut, the dish he used as a baby, and every report card from school. There [were] also 1000’s of photographs, and 1000’s of books. Wherever he went, he would take scraps of paper and write his thoughts. Often, he would stick these randomly in books, along with letters, Christmas cards and even money.”
Peter donated hundreds of those books to libraries, but had to check each one in case his father had left some forgotten treasure within its pages. In one, he found many letters from singer Sophie Tucker.
Glenn Ford was also quite an autograph collector. During a 2004 interview, Ford was asked which autograph of a historical figure would he love to have in his collection, and what would he have asked that person to write in an accompanying inscription.
“I would have to say Jesus of Nazareth,” Ford answered. “Although I am not sure I would feel too comfortable asking for his autograph, let alone an inscription – I’d be afraid of what he might say to me!”
More than likely, the good Lord may have frowned on one of Ford’s other “hobbies” – namely, secretly recording numerous telephone conversations. In late 1950s Ford, unknowingly to his family and friends, installed a phone tap on the family’s phone. After his father died, Peter discovered hundreds of old reel-to-reel and cassette recordings of celebrities and politicians.
“He has some of President Richard Nixon,” said Peter with a chuckle. “Isn’t that ironic? The most infamous taper himself getting taped!”
Maybe we now know where Tricky Dick got the idea!
Peter’s book also recalls childhood Sunday morning walks with his dad along Santa Monica Boulevard. The two would often stop under a leafy ficus tree and Ford would ask his son if he wanted some chewing gum. Adept at slight of hand tricks, Ford would appear to pull some chewing gum from the tree, leading young Peter to believe there really was such a thing as a “gum tree!”
In another story, Peter remembers flying in a private plane with his dad to Cody, Wyoming, for the dedication of the Buffalo Bill Museum. The ceremony culminated with a live buffalo dangling in a harness from a helicopter, flying over the crowd. But as the pilot hovered above the assembled dignitaries, the terrified animal’s bladder and bowels let loose. When combined with the downward force of the chopper’s rotor blades, Peter says it proved to be a most memorable event.
Of course, not all the tales in Peter’s book are humorous. Ford was a complex man, which led to difficulties and intricacies in his professional and personal life, but these are honestly described by his son.
Film fans will not be disappointed in this book and the stories by his only child, Peter Ford, and the revelations about his dad – as well as his mom, who was the great dancer, Eleanor Powell!
More information about “Glen Ford: A Life” can also be found at the glennfordbio.com website.