The Early Years
Jane Wyman (her professional name) always allowed an aura of mystery to surround her birth date in St. Joseph, Missouri. Even though the date of January 4, 1914 was often given because, like many people in the film industry, Jane initially wanted to be seen as older for career reasons the State of Missouri issued a birth certificate for Sarah Jane Mayfield on January 5, 1917 to Manning J. Mayfield and Gladys Hope Christian, a doctor's stenographer and office assistant. Friends who have seen Wyman's driver's license and passport also confirm her 1917 birth date.
In 1921, her parents divorced. Her father died unexpectedly the following year of pneumonia at age 27 while working in San Francisco for a shipping board. The five-year-old eventually assumed the name Sarah Jane Fulks in honor of her Missouri neighbors, Richard and Emma Fulks, who unofficially adopted her after her father died. While Sarah Jane remained with the Fulks family, her birth mother, Gladys, went to Cleveland, Ohio, to work and came to visit Sarah Jane from time to time. Richard Fulks was chief of detectives in St. Joseph, a strict disciplinarian and a remote man, but a steady provider.
It was the second marriage for Sarah Jane's adoptive parents and both were in their 50s when Sarah Jane was born. Sarah Jane's interest in singing and dancing may have started before she was 10, after she saw a road-show company musical in town. She soon convinced Mrs. Fulks to give her dancing lessons at the Prinz School of Dance in St. Joseph.
Richard Fulks died March 23, 1928, when Sarah Jane was eleven and Mrs. Fulks, then 62, continued raising her, moving with her to Los Angeles. Some writers have seen the move incorrectly as an effort to get both Sarah Jane and Mrs. Fulks into Hollywood. In truth, Mrs. Fulks had two grown children there a married daughter, Elsie, and a son, Morie, an eye-and-throat doctor. Mrs. Fulks moved in with Elsie for financial reasons, after renting her home in Missouri.
Sarah Jane and Mrs. Fulks moved back to Missouri in 1930. That same year, Sarah Jane began a radio singing career under the name "Jane Durrell" and likely added years to her age to work legally.
Career - Movies
By 1932, Sarah Jane had dropped out of high school, moved back to Hollywood, and taken a waitress job at a coffee shop. She began her Hollywood movie career as a chorus girl. She likely got help breaking into movies from LeRoy Prinz, a successful Hollywood dance director in films and the son of her St. Joseph, Missouri, dance teacher. Sarah Jane modeled herself after Betty Grable, another youngster coached by LeRoy Prinz, plucking her eyebrows into a pencil-thin arch and bleaching her natural brown hair to platinum. For the next few years, she appeared in bit parts or as a chorus girl in films The Kid from Spain (1932), Elmer the Great (1933), College Rhythm (1934), and in 1935, All the King's Horses, Stolen Harmony and Rhumba. In 1935, she contracted with the Small and Landau Agency, getting small parts in 1936 films King of Burlesque, Anything Goes (she had a crush on the star, Bing Crosby, and later starred and sang with him in two musical comedies) and My Man Godfrey. During these Depression years, Sarah Jane's paychecks were sorely needed by her family
To Sarah Jane's great relief, Warner Brothers signed her to a $60-a-week contract on May 6, 1936, after insisting she change her name. In the name-changing meeting with her agent and sometime actor, William Demarest, she dropped her first name, which she didn't like anyway. She asked to change her last name to "Weymann," the same last name as her adoptive siblings her mother had first been married to a Dr. Weymann. So the studio executive shortened that to "Wyman." Jane Wyman was her name from then on.
Warner Brothers cast Jane for two years in B-picture comedy roles as a "dumb blonde." In reality, those who met her saw her as an intelligent, very articulate and ambitious woman. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons recognized Jane's talent and tried to help her escape typecasting by including her on a nine-week, 1939 "stars of tomorrow" vaudeville tour that also included her soon-to-be second husband, actor Ronald Reagan.
The size, if not the quality, of her roles improved in the early 40s. For example, she appeared with famous comic actors Phil Silvers and Jimmy Durante in You're in the Army Now (1941). In that film Jane and Regis Toomey reportedly hold the record for the longest kiss in cinema history -- lasting three minutes and five seconds, or four percent of the film's running time.
Despite the rising quantity of Jane's roles in the early 1940s, it wasn't until she appeared opposite Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) that she was finally noticed, and began her transformation from a cute blonde walk-on to a respected [and brunette] Oscar-winning actress. In that movie she demonstrated her talents as a serious actress, wearing her hair a natural brown with little makeup, and with camera close-ups focusing on her expressive eyes. It was a grim war movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1945. Jane's performance led to better roles as a major star. For her work as a hardened mother afraid to lose her only child in MGM's The Yearling (1946) opposite Gregory Peck, she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Jane was now referred to in print only by her last name, "Wyman," like other major stars who had made the big time stars like Garbo, Dietrich, Bacall, Cagney and Olivier.
In January 1940, while Jane was on the Louella Parsons tour, she saw the play Johnny Belinda on Broadway, and from that moment wanted to play the part of the deaf mute, Belinda, onscreen. Her friend, producer Jerry Wald, sold the idea of a movie to Jack Warner on the basis that its subject matter would generate box-office appeal. He wrote: "You are dealing with the most primitive emotional subject in the world an unwed mother who is having her child taken away. The mother, in order to defend the child, kills the man who is attempting to do this."
Wald's decision to cast Jane as the drab, tortured Belinda was easy, especially after seeing Jane in her unglamorous role in The Yearling. Jane threw herself into preparation, mastering sign language, lip reading, putting wax in her ears and studying the eyes of a Mexican girl she had befriended who had been born unhearing. Jane became great friends with co-star Lew Ayres, who played the doctor who saves Belinda and her child and stands up against a bigoted, self-righteous town.
Johnny Belinda was released in 1948 and Jane won the "best actress" category for both the Academy Award and Golden Globe. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said: "Wyman brings superior insight and tenderness to the role. She makes [Belinda] glow with emotional warmth."
At the Oscar awards, Jane was sitting with Jerry and Connie Wald and Lew Ayres. Jane was quoted saying: "We were just two rows behind Irene Dunne. There was something about the line of her neck that convinced me she was going to get the prize. I was slumped low in my seat, sort of trying to hide so that I could sneak out. I was so sure I wouldn't win that when I heard my name called out, I didn't recognize it. I didn't get up. But Jerry Wald poked me, and my handbag dropped to my lap. My lipstick and everything went rolling onto the floor. I must have been quite a sight trying to pick up things and get to the stage at the same time. I was the most surprised girl in the world."
When Jane reached the stage, she had not thought of anything to say. But, she later said, "You always think of something to say." Her Oscar acceptance speech was one of the shortest on record. To thunderous applause, she said: "I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut. I think I'll do it again."
In addition to her Oscar win for Johnny Belinda, Wyman garnered a total of three other Oscar nominations for Best Actress in The Yearling (1946), The Blue Veil (1951) her favorite film for which she also won Golden Globe best actress honors and as Rock Hudson's Magnificent Obsession in the 1954 Douglas Sirk melodrama.
After her 1948 Academy Award, she also starred in romantic comedies like Frank Capra's Here Comes the Groom (1951) with Bing Crosby. During the film she and Crosby sang Johnny Mercer's Oscar-winning tune, In the Cool Cool Cool of the Evening. Years later, Wyman would often sing that song at dinner parties at the drop of a hat.
Wyman also worked with other noteworthy directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock on Stage Fright (1950), and with Michael Curtiz on The Story of Will Rogers (1952).
Even after Wyman began appearing on television, she also continued performing in films, including another Sirk movie, All That Heaven Allows (1956). One of her last notable feature leads came in the Disney film Pollyanna (1960), in which she revisited the role of the stern matriarch who learns to love, a role she had played in The Yearling. Her last movie was the 1969 comedy, How to Commit Marriage with Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason.
Career - Television
Wyman blazed yet another trail when television was in its infancy in the mid-1950s by not only hosting but producing her first TV series, The Jane Wyman Theater. Airing in prime time, the half-hour anthology featured a different drama every week much like its predecessor, The Loretta Young Show. Wyman's series ran three years (1955-1958) and garnered her two Emmy nominations.
Until 1980, Wyman guest-starred from time to time on TV series and in made-for-TV movies. In 1981 she began a nine-year acclaimed portrayal of ruthless matriarch and vintner, Angela Gioberti Channing, on CBS's prime-time soap opera, Falcon Crest.
Wyman won an additional Golden Globe award for her TV work: Best Actress - TV-series - Drama for 1984 Falcon Crest (1984). On February 8, 1960, Wyman had two stars unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one for motion pictures at 6607 Hollywood Boulevard and one for television at 1620 Vine Street.
Wyman's roles in more than 80 movies and many television series demonstrated her wide-ranging versatility over a long 61-year career in both comedies and tearjerkers, whether sensitively communicating mainly with her eyes in her portrayal of deaf-mute rape victim Belinda MacDonald, or singing and dancing with Bing Crosby, or playing the nasty mother in Falcon Crest. As Jerry Wald's widow Connie recently said, "She has earned a special place among American film stars because she had such variety in her abilities. She started as a dancer and singer and gradually became a very fascinating, magnificent actress, as her work in Johnny Belinda showed. It was a beautiful, touching performance."
Marriages & Children
Jane Wyman was married four times. She married Myron Futterman June 29, 1937, and they divorced November 1, 1938. Futterman was a courtly dress manufacturer from New Orleans, 15 years Jane's senior. She met him while he was on the rebound from a divorce. Because Wyman wanted a baby and Futterman did not, they separated in 1937 after three months of marriage. Wyman filed for divorce two months later and soon reached an amicable settlement. California law required a year for the divorce to become final; the decree was issued late in 1938.
Her second husband, from 1940 to 1948, was actor and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, with whom she had daughter Maureen Reagan, born in 1941, sometime actress, singer and White House adviser who died of skin cancer in 2001. In 1945 they adopted a son, Michael Reagan, currently a bestselling author, radio program host and guest commentator on FOX-TV. They also had another daughter, Christine Reagan, who was born June 26, 1947 four months premature and died the following day. After the Reagans' divorce in 1949, neither party ever spoke publicly about their marriage or divorce, except in brief references.
She later twice married and divorced Fox film-studio musical director and vocal coach Fred Karger first marrying him in 1952, divorcing two years later, marrying him again in 1961 and divorcing again.
Less known by fans than Wyman's 61-year acting career was her philanthropy for the Arthritis Foundation and Catholic church.
"Jane was probably one of the most important philanthropists for the arthritis cause," said Stanford Rubin, former national chairman of the Arthritis Foundation. "In 1977 she became the second recipient of the Charles B. Harding award the highest national award given by the Arthritis Foundation. In turn, the local Southern California chapter created the Jane Wyman Humanitarian Award. Afflicted with arthritis and diabetes herself, Jane was the lead person running the local annual arthritis telethons for about 20 years, many times appearing with her daughter, Maureen Reagan. Jane acted as the Foundation's national chairperson for many years, flew around the country promoting the cause and was a substantial benefit from an awareness standpoint."
Wyman also was a devout Catholic convert and supporter of the Catholic church. Michael Mesnick, her longtime business manager since before Falcon Crest, said, "She was a tough lady, but a nice lady. She had a real strong backbone and took no nonsense. Her mind was determined in what she wanted to do. In her own way, she was very giving and loving. For example, even though her prime charity was the Catholic Church, she once gave some money to one of the priests there, not because she wanted something back or any recognition, but because that was her way of saying, ‘Hey, I'm paying back.' Her philanthropic and charitable giving were admirable, and she didn't do it with any ulterior motive in mind."
Wyman also was a strong supporter of Hollywood's Covenant House and Our Lady of the Angels Monastery.
Ms. Wyman, who had been in failing health for several years, passed away September 10, 2007 at her home in Rancho Mirage, California.