Book Review – Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew by John Oller

During the past three weeks, I read a biography of the extremely secretive Jean Arthur, the “American Greta Garbo”, who lived a very private life, in view of the blogathon I’m hosting in her honour in a few weeks. I wanted to prepare myself well and wanted to do so by doing more than just watching her films. Happily, Quebec’s National Library had this book: Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew written by John Oller and first published in 1997, six years after the passing of the queen of screwball comedy. So, off I went with my mask to take hold of the object. The favourable reviews on Goodread convinced me. I started reading it on a bench in the park next to the library with a coffee and a chocolatine to eat.

Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew was, to say the least, an ambitious and daring project. So, I have to raise my glass to John Oller for accepting this challenge and, overall, accomplishing it with brio. Why was it such a challenge? Because, as I’ve mentioned previously, Jean Arthur was probably one of the most private people in Hollywood. She very rarely attended parties with other movie stars, refused to participate in film publicity and very rarely took part in interviews. She prefered enjoying a life as quiet as possible, far from the spotlight. So, it is obvious that she wouldn’t have written an autobiography and, according to a few testimonies in the book, she very unlikely would have done it and was, overall, not someone who really liked to write.

Through testimonies of various people who knew Jean and in-depth researches, John Oller succeeded to tell us more about this mysterious actress. As a result, the book is a complete and very informative one. We learn about Jean’s background, her family, what she liked, what she didn’t like, what kind of person she was, etc. Moreover, the book is well-written and reads itself well.

However, if it is overall a good book, Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, is not without flaws. Jean’s story begins in a captivating way with a touching and immensely enjoyable prologue and first chapters. That prologue really grabbed my attention and made me want to continue the book because it presents Jean on her most favourable day and is written with a lot of sensibility coming from the author. I particularly enjoyed the anecdote on how she chose the name Jean Arthur (she was born Gladys Georgianna Greene) in honour of Joan of Arc, her heroine (just like it was the case for Ingrid Bergman) and King Arthur. I think it was quite a fascinating combination! Her other hero was Peter Pan. I also liked to read about her family and that her maternal grandparents were from Norway.

However, I would say that, from the moment the writing dives into the beginning of Jean’s career in Hollywood, it becomes a pretty standard biography. It’s still good and very informative, but it might lack the warmth of the prologue or the type of emotion you could find in an autobiography, for example. Of course, one mostly expects a biography to be that way and as objective as possible because, after all, the author is not the subject he is writing about.

On another side, I observed that on some (but rare) occasions, the author makes some assumptions about Jean that are a bit clumsy and not necessary. To be honest, I don’t have a precise example to give you, but I remember reading some parts and thinking “hum…”. Luckily, those aren’t numerous and, overall, don’t spoil the book.

Jean in the 20s. She really made her break in the 30s

One of the flaws and, at the same time time, qualities of the book is that the author sometimes takes time to give more depth to some information. For example, he constantly talks about Jean’s friendship to Roddy McDowall (I tell you, he indeed was everybody’s friend!), but it takes time before we know how they actually befriended each other. But, at least we know in the end. So, better late than never, I guess.

About the subject itself, Jean Arthur, it goes without saying that she was an ambiguous person. The book, however, breaks some myths about her. For example, I thought that she had never granted an interview. However, she did on a few occasions while being very selective of the questions that were asked to her. While reading the book, our opinion of Jean changes constantly. As an actress, she was, undeniably, immensely talented because, despite her extreme timidity and inferiority complex, she always managed to give a stellar performance on screen and was greatly admired by her peer and the public for that. As a person, she is, at time, fascinating and at time yes, we agree, difficult. I liked reading about her liberal views, her love for animals and nature. One thing that particularly struck me is when she is quoted saying that when people see a bug, they crush it instead of being curious and observe it. On my side, I agree with her and try as much as possible not to crush them.

Jean and a dear furry friend

It goes without saying that Jean was a complex person who fought internal battles. She might have had the “difficult actress” label (many stage production in which she appeared were cancelled because she wouldn’t go on with them for various reasons), and we kind of feel sorry and sad for her. But we would have loved for her to be more comfortable with herself (and I don’t necessarily mean not having a private life – that was, as a matter of fact, quite admirable), but just to trust herself and the life around her more.

The book is not judgmental and presents Jean Arthur from every angle, the good and the lesser good ones, and lets us form our own opinion.

Jean in The More the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943), her Oscar-nominated role

Because Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew is a very good and almost great book, I give it a rating of *** 1/2 and highly recommend it to those who want to know more about the life of this extremely underrated actress!

The next book I’m going to read (I have already read the first chapter actually) is Sidney Poitier’s autobiography, This Life!

See you!