Good marriages are made in heaven; books about them often are not.
In 1928, Charles MacArthur, newspaperman and playwright, married Helen Hayes, whose acting ability had been acclaimed by critics since she was in her teens. He was a wit and a womanizer, with a fondness for the bottle and a wife back in Chicago. At 26, she was a shy, unworldly Roman Catholic who still lived with her mother and epitomized the dictum that "a woman was not supposed to know she was a virgin until she ceased to be one."
They met at a party and for her it was love at first sight. In an oft-told anecdote, he charmed her by pouring peanuts into her hands, murmuring, "I wish they were emeralds." If he was similarly struck down by love, he managed to pick himself up and go on. Almost six months elapsed before he made another attempt to see her. When they did begin to date, their friends predicted disaster. Alexander Woollcott took Helen to dinner to tell her, "Helen, you can't possibly win . . . To him you're just a pretty little stage-door fling!" The Roman Catholic bishop warned her she would be excommunicated if she married a divorced man, as MacArthur by this time was. MacArthur's preacher father called her a sinner and announced that "No son of mine will ever marry an actress," while her mother consoled her with the thought that, "A week after the honeymoon, he'll leave you for another woman."
The marriage lasted 28 years, troubled though it must have been by his drinking, her time on the road and the death of a much-loved daughter.
And yet, unlike Nigel Nicholson's "Portrait of a Marriage" which told how love had enabled two very unconventional people to make accommodations to each other and build a lasting marriage, "Front Page Marriage" lives up to its journalistic title. It is a collection of aged anecdotes culled from newspapers, magazines and the biographies of contemporaries, interlarded with examples of wit, which, like many a wine, has not traveled well. It never touches on what makes a good marriage or why two such very different people were able to twine their lives together and survive not only the bad times but the ones that were too good, too full of wine, women and song.
We must take it on faith that Charlie MacArthur was a very special person, on faith and on the testimony of his wife and friends who speak of his charm, his tolerance, his wit and his gaiety.
But what we are given is a man who once put gelatin in a toilet bowl, adding boiling water so that it would melt and eventually set, who squirted orange juice through a peephole into the eye of a censorious bouncer. Ah, those madcap days and crazy nights! Perhaps you had to have been there and perhaps, having been there, you had to be drunk, since so many of the stories reek of fraternity boys on a bender.
Take the following, about how Groucho Marx had gathered the film world's intelligentsia to his side in California's version of the Algonquin Round Table:
"At the first few luncheons that MacArthur attended he was very quiet. Then he introduced a secret handshake, which endeared him to Marx: Left hand under right knee; then grab your fellow member's hand firmly and wheeze three times.
" 'But that was peanuts compared to the other ideas he hatched at our table,' recalled Groucho. 'If I live to be 118, I'm sure I'll never see such brilliance again!' "
Or this, a "long running ceremonial with the town druggist:
"Druggist: How are things going?
"Charlie: For one thing they're putting more brown paper in the Bull Durham all the time.
"Druggist: I'm afraid that's a sign of our times. What can I get for you?
"Charlie: I'd like 5 cents of your best liniment.
"Druggist: Got a sore back?
"Charlie: Not my back. It's for a cantankerous mule.
"Druggist: Didn't know you had a mule.
"Charlie: Got one all right. Know what he says? There's no mule like an old fool!
"The druggist . . . and the other shopkeepers agreed that Charlie was 'truly a card.' "
Such anecdotes, either incomprehensible or lame with age and weary from too many trips around the track, do no service to the man. MacArthur was a man of gifts if not of greatness and he remains elusive in ways that Helen Hayes does not. She is, after all, First Lady of the Theater, a woman of talent and character who is well known to millions.
When asked what she would do today, if she had to start a career and a family, she said, "I guess I would do just as I did before. I would decide on what really mattered to me and fight for it all the way."
Perhaps it is such simplicity that makes a marriage work. "Front Page Marriage" doesn't tell.