Gone with The Wind actress who, in her own words, was interested 'in the man of the moment . . . and there were many such moments'
Published 20/07/2008 | 00:00
Evelyn Keyes, who has died aged 91, was the smouldering screen beauty best known for her role as Suellen O'Hara, younger sister to Vivien Leigh's Scarlett, in Gone With The Wind (1939).In all she appeared in more than 50 films, yet she never attained the dizzying heights of stardom reached by such near contemporaries as Ann Sheridan and Lana Turner.
She had, though, as colourful a private life as any film star. "I was always interested in the man of the moment," she once said, "and there were many such moments."
Evelyn Louise Keyes was born on November 20, 1916 at Port Arthur, Texas, the daughter of an oilman who died before she was a year old. After the father's death, Evelyn's mother took her young family to live close to her own parents in Atlanta, Georgia.
At school there Evelyn excelled at the piano, tap-dancing and theatricals, and also became a well-liked cheerleader for the football team. "I was a popular girl even then!" she recalled.
In 1935 a screen talent scout visited Atlanta and held a competition for a "New Screen Beauty for 1936". The winner was to be given a screen test by Universal. Evelyn's sister sent in a photograph of her 18-year-old sibling and, out of hundreds of hopefuls, Evelyn was selected.
The screen test was a flop, but Evelyn persuaded one of the judges to write a letter of introduction to a Hollywood agent. She then set off for California, where she soon encountered Cecil B DeMille.
Struck by her unspoiled looks, DeMille cast Evelyn Keyes in her first film role, as Madeleine, a demure Southern Belle, in The Buccaneer (1938).
"Years later I heard DeMille detested women with painted nails," Evelyn recalled. "I hadn't had the chance to make myself up since a car was sent early to take me to his office. He signed me to a long-term contract on the spot!"
Signed by DeMille for seven years, she went on to play Mary Patterson, the love interest in Sudden Money (1938), and the heroine, opposite Tim Holt, in the Western Sons of the Legion (1939); but the rest of her film roles at the studio were minor.
Given a small role in Paris Honeymoon (1938), with Bing Crosby, she asked the director what was required of her. He replied: "Just swoon, darling, every time you hear Bing croon."
It was her next role, as Suellen O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, that brought Evelyn Keyes to prominence, as well as to lasting fame. For decades afterwards fan mail would arrive daily at her home at Montecito, near Santa Barbara, California -- which itself was a replica of "Tara", the O'Hara house in the celebrated saga.
While shooting a film she became romantically involved with her director, Charles Vidor. Her marriage to Barton Bainbridge had ended with Bainbridge's suicide in 1940; but as Vidor was married to the actress Karen Morley, their romance made headlines in the gossip columns. They were married in 1944.
After divorcing Charles Vidor in 1945, Evelyn Keyes went out with Howard Hughes and was romantically linked with Glenn Ford. Then, during shooting of the film noir Johnny O'Clock, in which she looked at her most beautiful, in July 1946 Evelyn Keyes married the director John Huston.
Piqued by this turn of events, the Columbia film mogul Harry Cohn, who had himself wanted to marry Evelyn, told her that she would never be a bigger star than she was now.
Frustrated by the way her career was going, Evelyn Keyes boldly sued the studio for breach of contract; but she lost her case and thereafter found herself obliged to freelance.
In 1949 she had a success as Kathy Flannigan, playing opposite Dick Powell, in Mrs Mike. Then, after The Iron Man (1952), with Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler, she left Hollywood (she and John Huston had parted company in 1950) for Mexico and then Europe.
She returned to the American screen as Helen Sherman, the vacationing wife of Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) in The Seven Year Itch (1955), starring Marilyn Monroe.
She was now on the arm of director Mike Todd, who cast her in Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), with David Niven, Marlene Dietrich and other great stars.
Mike Todd was a great romantic. He bought Evelyn a Thunderbird car to match the colour of her hair (then brunette); and when he left her to become engaged to Elizabeth Taylor he gave her diamond and emerald bracelets as parting gifts.
In September 1957, Evelyn married the bandleader Artie Shaw, and the couple made their home in Spain, in a castle near Barcelona. From then on, except for the odd television appearance, Evelyn lived quietly until the publication of her novel, I am a Billboard, and she and Artie Shaw returned to the United States.
A long-running tour, with Don Ameche, in the revival of No, No Nanette came next, and in 1977 Evelyn Keyes made headlines again with her "tell-all" autobiography, Scarlet O'Hara's Younger Sister: My Lively Life In and Out of Hollywood.
"I was supposed to be secretly ashamed of acting in movies instead of raising a family," she wrote of her Hollywood days.
She returned to acting in the mid-1980s, appearing in A Return to Salem's Lot (1987) and in a cameo role in the fantasy horror Wicked Stepmother (1989).
During the height of Evelyn Keyes's career, it was predicted that she would win an Oscar, but the coveted statuette eluded her. "To become a big movie star like Joan Crawford," she said in an interview in 1999, "you need to wear blinkers and pay single-minded attention to your career. Nobody paid attention to me, including me. I was the original Cinderella girl, looking for the happy ending in the fairy story. But my fantasy prince never came."
Although divorced from Artie Shaw in the mid-1980s, following Shaw's death in December 2004 she became involved in a legal wrangle over her entitlement to part of his estate.
Evelyn Keyes, who died on July 4, is survived by a son adopted during her marriage to John Huston.