In April of 2011, I was fortunate enough to meet Jane Withers, Anne Jeffreys and the late Ann Rutherford at the Vanity Fair party after the Gala screening of An American in Paris. Jane Withers and I chatted for quite awhile about our families and our rings, and how much fun we were having.
In April of 2013, I found myself having an extended visit with the gal who started out taunting Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes, and had a featured role in the George Stevens epic Giant. Jane Withers’ faith in God and humanity has seen her survive Hollywood, a severe bout with rheumatoid arthritis which led to her featured role as Vashti Snythe in the screen version of the popular Edna Ferber novel, and allowed her good health to attend the Vanity Fair party after the Gala Premiere screening of Funny Girl on Thursday, April 25.
During her introduction of Giant at the Turner Classic Film Festival 2013, Withers discussed with TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz how she would wash James Dean’s favorite pink shirt because when he would send out his laundry, his shirts would “disappear.” So she volunteered to wash his favorite pink shirt every night, and the last evening before he left on hiatus, he stopped by to leave her the shirt, but he never returned to retrieve it because of the fatal accident, and Withers stated she has kept it ever since, as well as her lovely memories of the young man she befriended in Marfa, Texas, in 1955.
Evidently while Jane lived in Marfa, she had a house, and would have parties almost every night with food, cards, Monopoly, and bridge, and “almost everybody” from the crew would come and enjoy the evening. She said that Rock Hudson came most of the time, but Elizabeth Taylor only came once because she liked to go to a country club about sixty miles away. The only night she did drop by, she said how much fun it was, and why didn’t she come by more often. But Withers did seen to form a bond with James Dean. One night after almost everyone else had left, she went into her bedroom, and he was lying down with his hat over his head. “Is that you, Jimmy?” Withers asked. She wanted to know why he hadn’t come through the front door, and he said he didn’t want to see all those other people, that he came just to see her. Well, Withers claimed she always carried a tool kit with her, and took her hammer, and nailed the window shut while Dean was watching so that the next time he came, he had to come through the front door.
When Withers left California for Marfa, Texas, she knew that she might be gone for over a year, so she brought lots of books to read, as well as her tool kit, and Dean would come over and read books from her makeshift “lending library,” and they would read aloud to each other, many times it would be plays. One night she was reading The Bible and quoted Matthew 21:22 to him, and told him that she tried to live by that verse: And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive. She repeated this verse to me during our conversation, and said that it was one of her favorites.
Long before Withers ever signed a contract for Giant, she suffered a debilitating case of rheumatoid arthritis, and had to be hospitalized for a lengthy stay. While she was cared for at the hospital, she became friends with a young orderly, and he invited her to his graduation. Once Withers was well enough, she was able to attend his graduation ceremony, and after the ceremony, a man tapped her on the back, and as she turned around, director George Stevens introduced himself, and said that he had wanted to talk to her about a part in his next movie, Giant. The next week, Stevens called, but Jane was busy fixing lunches for her children to take to school, and said, something like, “right, you are George Stevens. Well, I have to finish fixing these lunches. I can’t talk right now.” Later the next day, Stevens’ secretary called and told her that Stevens wanted to take her to lunch to discuss with her a part he had in mind for her. It turned out to be Vashti Snythe, the quintessential no-holds-barred Texas gal from Giant. And she again stated how she knew God had a hand in it.
Withers, supportive of the effort of Turner Classic Movies to continue to broadcast films and original programming without commercial interruption, exclaimed that “I am so thrilled that these people at TCM continue to air classic films, and I want you to tell everybody how grateful I am to them for what they have done and accomplished. They are all so wonderful, and they have been so good to me.” (Her eyes were tearing up when she said this.)
Miss Withers was also elated about the reissue of several of her films from the 1930s and 1940s. Her starring role opposite Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934)was secured after Director David Butler had auditioned thirty young girls, but when he heard Jane Withers imitation of a machine gun, he chose Withers to play nasty Joy Smythe.
Withers had a hand in the discovery of another Hollywood heartthrob, a young lady by the name of Rita Cansino. While Withers was on one set filming Paddy O’Day, she went to another adjacent set and saw a young dancer who fascinated her, and she talked about how wonderful the dancer had been that she had seen on another set. Withers was impressed, and told her director and others how this young lady had “it” and she needed to have her own films because she was going to be a star. So at eight years of age, she recognized the luminous qualities and talents that helped Rita Hayworth become a world-wide film queen, and remained ever in awe of that talent she discovered, finally delivering the eulogy at Hayworth’s funeral in 1987.
As one of several high-profile Presbyterians, Jane (and she asked me to call her Jane!) was also happy to remember how every Wednesday evening, fellow Hollywood Presbyterians would come over for a prayer meeting. Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, June Haver and Fred MacMurray, and several others often arrived on a Wednesday, and Jane said that Jimmy Stewart, whose father was also Presbyterian, would usually say the prayer. Jane stated several times during the course of our hour-long conversation that her faith has sustained her in times of deep trouble, and she felt that all the opportunities she had and all the “luck” that came her way existed because of her religious faith.
Spending time with Jane Withers is energizing and exciting, and I only hope I have that much energy when I am 87! She reveals that she and her friends, like Ann Blyth, get together at least once a month to go to lunch. Our delightful conversation culminated in a discussion of one of our favorite topics, jewelry!
Jane’s last role was as the voice of the gargoyle in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and she had to take over the role following actress Mary Wickes’ death in 1996, imitating her voice exactly. (Producers claimed that during the editing, they couldn’t tell when Wickes’ voice ended and Withers’ voice began. Withers reprised the role in 2002 for the sequel.
For more information about her recently released films, follow this link: http://www.reellifewithjane.com/2013/05/20th-century-fox-releases-seven-classic-films-starring-jane-withers/
For another in-depth interview with Jane Withers, follow this link: http://www.reellifewithjane.com/2013/05/exclusive-interview-jane-withers-child-star-who-discovered-rita-hayworth/
Jane Withers and Anne Jeffreys at the TCMFF 2013 Vanity Fair party, bidding each other adieu as Anne had to leave a little earlier than Jane.
Jeffrey’s last role was as Susanna in 2012’s Sins Expiation, and she and Jane have known each other for quite a while. Jeffreys, Amanda Croft on Falconcrest, Marion Kerby in the Topper series, Irene Buchannon on Baywatch, and the Duchess of York in 2008’s Richard III, has also had a busy and varied career.