According to the authors of "Jane Wyman," the most important thing about the award-winning film star, now one of the highest-paid performers on television, was her brief marriage to, and divorce from, Ronald Reagan. "Chances are," write Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein, "when television is a relic of the past, when all film has turned to dust, when all awards are forgotten, Jane Wyman will still be written about, talked about, wondered about: her place is assured as the first ex-wife of a president of the United States. In fact, there are people who contend that Ronald Reagan would not have become president if Jane Wyman had not left him."
Putting aside a momentary feminist pique at the idea that a lifetime of Wyman's extraordinary professional achievement should be so casually dismissed -- outweighed by an eight-year marriage during a relatively youthful period of her life -- one must admit that not all high achievers get or merit biographies. Although being the first presidential ex-wife is not something Wyman chooses to discuss, much less exploit, it does provide an obvious commercial hook for such enterprising writers as Morella and Epstein, who already have turned out a dozen books on the movie industry, including "Rita, Lana, Brando, Lucy" and "Judy."
Based on the authors' premise about Wyman's place in history, as well as the book-jacket blurb that promises, "Now for the first time, the true story . . . " etc., readers have a right to expect an in-depth investigation and analysis of her life and character, as well as some juicy "inside" details. Instead, we get a superficial, deadly dull potboiler that, while probably factually accurate, hopscotches rather confusingly back and forth in time. It also fails to provide a filmography, bibliography or list of sources. Frequently mentioned within the text, however, are newspaper critics and articles, the reigning Hollywood gossip columnists, and excerpts from movie magazines. Many of the quotes from friends and colleagues seem to have been taken from secondary sources.
The Wyman-Reagan match was touted as the perfect Hollywood marriage. During the war the publicity mills (with which they cheerfully cooperated) continued to churn out disinformation about their life -- picturing her as a housewife, him as a soldier far from home. In reality, he was posted to the Hal Roach Studios, where the First Motion Picture unit of the Army Air Corps was stationed, and she was aided by a nanny and two household servants.
But though they were viewed as The Ideal Couple, and though they genuinely cared for each other, they did have problems. Wyman, ne'e Sarah Jane Fulks of St. Joseph, Mo., a dancer turned actress, was totally career oriented. Though a conscientious team player, she also possessed a mercurial, complex personality, loved dancing, sports, horses and the outdoors.
But mostly, he loved to talk. Time and again we are told that Reagan was a compulsive, nonstop talker on almost any subject. After the war, according to Morella and Epstein, as her career waxed and his waned, she became increasingly bored and irritated by his political tirades and his preoccupation with the inner workings of the Screen Actors Guild, of which he was elected president in 1947.
During the 1948 divorce proceedings Wyman, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, " . . . told the court that she and Reagan engaged in continued arguments on his political views. Despite her lack of interest in his political activities . . . Reagan insisted that she attend meetings with him and that she be present during discussions among his friends. But her own ideas . . . 'were never considered important.' "
Those were turbulent years in Hollywood, with the House Un-American Activities Committee searching for Communists in the film industry, and the secret blacklist shattering lives and careers. The authors sum it all up in two sentences: "The Communist infiltration of certain Hollywood unions was receiving a great deal of publicity. The House Un-American Activities Committee had begun its investigations of Hollywood." They also neglect to report the content of Reagan's testimony before the committee.
Morella and Epstein have neither uncovered secrets nor probed very deeply into their subjects. However, if one really wants to know about what seems like every film and award Wyman made and received; about her various romantic attachments and marriages; about her television career as actress and business executive, and perhaps just a little about the problems of Maureen and Michael growing up in the care of cooks and nannies and later shunted off to boarding schools -- why then, this mundane little book might fit the bill.
The index is helpful and the photos are fun to look at. But for more colorful reading, sharper insights and anecdotes, and a more interesting point of view, Laurence Leamer's "Make-Believe -- The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan" covers some of the same material, only better.