Answer Man

Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman’s love story had an unhappy ending

Q: Since Nancy Reagan died Sunday, they’ve repeatedly pointed out that she was Ronald Reagan’s second wife. What can you tell me of his first wife and marriage?

Jeri Iwasczuk, of Belleville

A: In 1938, Ronald Reagan was just beginning to get his feet wet in Hollywood as a member of the Warner Bros. B-film unit.

“(The producers) didn’t want them good,” he later often joked of his early movies. “They wanted them Thursday.”

But after being cast as Dan Crawford in “Brother Rat,” he not only had earned one of his first starring roles, but the handsome 27-year-old bachelor also quickly won the heart of co-star Jane Wyman.

Although just 21 at the time, Wyman already was headed toward her second divorce. Hoping the third time would be the charm, she would walk down the aisle with Reagan in 1940, give birth to their first child, Maureen, and agree to adopting their second, Michael, in 1945. She also would garner an Academy Award nomination for her work in “The Yearling” in 1946 before taking home the Oscar for “Johnny Belinda” in 1948.

By that time the couple’s marriage already had lost its glitter. If the strain of pursuing their individual acting careers weren’t enough, the death of their prematurely born daughter, Christine, on June 26, 1947, seemed to push Wyman over the edge.

“Janie is still a pretty sick girl,” Reagan wrote to Lorraine Makler Wagner, a fan he had met in 1943, when she asked him about divorce rumors. (His 276 personal notes to Wagner over 50 years were published in the 2003 book “Reagan: A Life in Letters.”) “But I’m still hoping that things will be different when she gets over this nervousness. I know she loves me, even though she thinks she doesn’t.”

But the love was indeed gone, and in 1948, just months after their daughter’s death, Wyman filed for her third divorce, a move that ultimately would make Reagan the only divorced U.S. president in history.

It was a real-life role that Wyman had learned early. She had been born Sarah Jane Mayfield on Jan. 5, 1917, to Manning Mayfield, a meal-company laborer, and his wife, Gladys, a doctor’s stenographer and office assistant. In October 1921, her mother filed for divorce, and her father, just 37, died the following year.

“She grew up in a cheerless home in which her mother’s time was devoted to her seriously ailing husband,” an Associated Press obituary reported when Wyman died in 2007 at age 90.

After his death, her mother picked up stakes and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, leaving little Sarah Jane to be reared by foster parents Richard Fulks, the chief of detectives in St. Joseph, and his wife, Emma. The change of scenery did not help.

“I was raised with such strict discipline that it was years before I could reason myself out of the bitterness I brought from my childhood,” she once said.

Her fortunes began to turn in 1930 when she started a singing career on a St. Joseph radio station as Jane Durrell while attending Lafayette High School. Her local fame likely convinced her to drop out of school, add two years to her age and move to Hollywood, where she landed odd jobs as a manicurist and switchboard operator. It was all she needed to get her foot in the movie studio door. Even at 15, she began winning bit roles in a raft of films before her breakthrough in the 1937 “Public Wedding” as the lead character, Flip Lane.

Known for her husky voice and diminutive stature (5-foot-5), she is thought to have married Eugene Wyman as a 16-year-old although the somewhat murky union may have lasted only a month even while it gave her a last name she would use for the rest of her life. By the time she walked onto the set of “Brother Rat” in 1938, she was the wife of New Orleans dress manufacturer Myron Futterman, whom she had married the previous June.

Soon after she started to work with Reagan, the romantic sparks apparently began to fly off screen, and Wyman filed for divorce. After her petition was granted Dec. 5, 1938, she and her new beau would announce their engagement at the Chicago Theatre before tying the knot Jan. 26, 1940.

She was 23, and her career was taking off with big parts in “The Lost Weekend” as well as those Oscar roles soon to come. As World War II broke out, however, Reagan’s career was sidetracked. Instead of becoming a leading man, he was inducted into the Army Air Force in 1942 and was assigned to a production studio in Culver City, Calif., where he helped produce more than 400 training films. After his discharge in 1945, he tried to make up for lost time, which some speculate may have added friction to the marriage.

Reagan, still a Democrat at the time, joined the Screen Actors Guild, becoming its president in 1947. Even Reagan later realized the new duties further strained a marriage that had been hit hard by his baby’s death the same year.

“Perhaps I should have let someone else save the world and saved my own home,” he said once.

But while Reagan was reigniting his career and helping his fellow actors, Wyman reportedly was finding a sympathetic shoulder to cry on in Lew Ayres, her co-star in her biggest movie, “Johnny Belinda.” And while that budding relationship burned out quickly, there was no saving the Reagan-Wyman union. She filed for divorce in 1948, and it was granted in 1949. According to actress Patricia Neal, Reagan was deeply hurt.

“It was, you know, just terrible because he was very unhappy,” she said in an interview. “He was in an apartment by himself. He was heartbroken. He really was, because he didn’t want a divorce from her. But Jane wanted it.”

But after that, their matrimonial success took radically different turns. By 1965, Wyman would wind up marrying and then divorcing Fred Karger not once, but twice, never to marry again. In 1949, Reagan would find the love of his life when Nancy Davis asked him for help to maintain her employment as a guild actress and have her name removed from the Hollywood blacklist. They married March 4, 1952.

“I guess I just don’t have a talent for it,” Wyman said once. “Some women just aren’t the marrying kind — or, anyway, not the permanent marrying kind, and I’m one of them.”

Afterward, neither said much about each other for the rest of their lives.

“It’s not because I’m bitter or because I don’t agree with him politically,” she said in 1968. “I’ve always been a registered Republican. But it’s bad taste to talk about ex-husbands and ex-wives, that’s all. Also, I don’t know a damned thing about politics.”

In 1951, Reagan wrote this to a friend who was threatening to give up men after a bitter divorce:

“My personal belief is that God couldn’t create evil, so the desires he planted in us are good and the physical relationship between a man and a woman is the highest form of companionship,” he told her. “If I can, I want to say all this to my daughter: Love is not a magic touch of cosmic dust that preordains two people and two people only for each other. Love can grow slowly out of warmth and companionship and none of us should be afraid to seek it.”

No wonder they called him the Great Communicator.

Today’s trivia

According to Guinness, in what movie did Jane Wyman once establish the record for longest kiss in film history?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: In 1734, Robert Harper would be given a 125-acre tract of land at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers that became known as Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., thanks to the ferry service he started across the Potomac in 1761. A century later, it would become the site of radical abolitionist John Brown’s bloody raid in 1859.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer