Chapter 1: Ambitions

Broadway, Hollywood, and Elia Kazan

For most of a century, Constance Dowling’s story has been made to look simple—by casual commentators, careless scholars, and self-serving lovers.

She’s not alone, of course. Many women have been reduced by history to the role of bit players in the lives of famous men. But the effect is exaggerated in Constance’s case, for reasons that will become apparent as we go along.

And as a consequence, it’s taken many (many) layers of discovery and revision to get a reasonably true picture of her life, her personality, and her influence. A year after beginning that process, I’m still realizing that often-repeated “facts” about Constance Dowling are not true at all.

But I’ve gotten much closer to a story that at least includes no outright falsehoods—and at best, weaves together a sense of one woman’s lived reality.

I’ve found out a little about the Dowling family history, and you can read about it here. There’s almost no information, though, concerning Constance’s personal life before 1937, so that’s where we begin.

Chapter 1 takes her from teen years in the chorus lines of Broadway to a co-starring role in Danny Kaye’s first Hollywood film, and through the first four years of a complicated love affair that will become even more significant in Chapter 2.

Since Constance never wrote about herself, almost all of what we know comes from her relationships with other people—and no one in her life loomed larger than the now-legendary Elia Kazan. So as we start the story, it’s important to have a sense of just who this man was . . .

Mostly about Kazan

Constance met Elia Kazan in 1937, when he was a moderately successful actor and she was an usherette. He was 28 and married, with two children.  She was 17.

Ten years later, Kazan would be the most celebrated director in America, on both coasts—known for a series of plays and films that were serious, socially relevant, culturally important.

In 1947, he won not only a Tony award for his direction of Arthur Miller’s hit Broadway play All My Sons, but also an Oscar for his film version of Gentleman’s Agreement. The play was a complex exploration of moral quandaries in postwar American life, the film an expose of genteel anti-Semitism. 

That same year, Kazan also cast newcomer Marlon Brando in a landmark stage production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  And founded the influential Actors Studio in New York City.

So 1947 was a banner year—but still only a prelude.  In 1950, he would be even more successful, and having a not-so-secret affair with Arthur Miller’s future wife, Marilyn Monroe.

As a self-proclaimed serial seducer, Kazan ran through women at an astonishing clip—and so the fascinating thing here is that he spent the years from 1937 to 1945 torn between his marriage to playwright Molly Day Thacher and his seemingly irresistible passion for Constance Dowling. 

All of which, by the way, is documented (at least from his perspective) in letters of the period, and in his tell-all 1988 autobiography. 

Kazan had been born in Turkey but was brought to America as a young child, and grew up in New York City as the almost-poor son of a Greek rug merchant. His talent gained Kazan an education at Yale, where he met and married Molly Day Thacher—a young woman from one of New England’s most respected families.

But he never got over feeling like an outsider.

Short, swarthy, and intense, Kazan was always determined to prove himself, both professionally and sexually. So he was more than interested when he noticed a beautiful, blond, and very young usherette at the Belasco Theater.

In fact, Constance was two years younger than he thought. She had lied about her age in order to get a job at the Belasco.

There aren’t any surviving pictures of the youthful Constance as far as I can find out—but here’s a snap of Kazan around the time they met, looking very Bohemian.

Screenwriter Walter Bernstein, who saw Kazan perform in those early days, later commented: “He had no great range, but he was mesmerizing: You did not take your eyes off him.” So it’s not hard to imagine why a stagestruck teenager would be flattered by his attentions.

Kazan was making steady progress as an actor. In 1940, he had a featured role in an Off-Broadway revival of the starkly depressing Liliom, co-starring with Burgess Meredith (about whom more in later chapters) and a still very young Ingrid Bergman. 

Here are the three costars in a program from the production:

Constance (now almost 20) had a bit part in the play, probably because of her connection with Kazan.

Acting was mostly a means to an end for Kazan, however. His real ambition was to become a serious director—and by 1941, he had already staged several productions as a member of Lee Strasburg’s influential Group Theater. 

Kazan’s wife was also working with the Group Theater, reading plays submitted by aspiring dramatists.  (Molly is often credited with having “discovered” Tennessee Williams.)  And in the spring of 1942, she encouraged Kazan to direct The Strings, My Lord, Are False—a play by Irish writer Paul Vincent Carroll.  It had been well received in Dublin, and although Kazan didn’t care for it, he decided to take on the project anyway.

The main reason for his capitulation, according to Kazan, was that the play had a part he could give to Constance.

Mostly about Constance

If you are already out of patience with Elia Kazan, you are in good company.

Needless to say, others noticed “something” in his demeanor toward Constance during rehearsals, and someone brought this to Molly’s attention.  The whole story of Kazan’s almost-five-year affair came tumbling out, and Molly demanded a separation.

During those five years, Constance had been trying to gain a foothold for herself in the theater world. From descriptions, we know that she was long-legged, with honey-colored hair and a compelling personality. She must also have been ambitious and energetic—while still a teenager she got a night job dancing at the Copacabana, and by day, paid for classes at the New Theater School by working there as a receptionist. 

One day, Shelley Winters stopped by the school looking for advice, and almost at once the two young hopefuls struck up a friendship that would last for decades. In those early days, they took whatever theater work they could get—which for Constance was mainly dancing.  

It’s written just about everywhere that Constance was in the chorus line of Panama Hattie, a very popular musical that premiered in October of 1940 and ran for 501 performances. But like many things that are regularly included in biographical notes about Constance, this item is untrue.

The Dowling in Panama Hattie was Constance’s younger sister, Doris, who had started her own pursuit of a show business career. That particular chorus line is often referenced because it included future stars June Allyson (the archetypal girl-next-door) and Vera-Ellen (one of Fred Astaire’s partners).

Constance was dancing at the time in a different musical—Hold on to Your Hats, the last stage production starring legendary entertainer Al Jolson.  It ran from September of 1940 to February of 1941, at the Schubert Theater.

Hold on to Your Hats was followed at the Schubert by Liberty Jones, a musical allegory written by Philip Barry and featuring a score by Paul Bowles. Constance continued as a dancer in this new production . . .

Barry’s The Philadelphia Story had been a great success in 1939, and Bowles—though he is much more famous now for his novels—was at the time a sought-after composer.  The elaborate production was directed by John Houseman, already well-known for several collaborations with Orson Welles. (Houseman will return later in the Constance story.)

But despite all that creative talent, Liberty Jones was a disaster.  It ran for just 22 performances.

I can’t find any records of what Constance did between the abrupt close of Liberty Jones, and May of 1942, when Kazan gave her a part in The Strings, My Lord, Are False. He later wrote that, although that role was small, it was an important opportunity—the first good part she had ever had.

But the play was savaged by critics and ran for just eleven performances, so whatever Constance’s performance may have been like, it went unnoticed. Not for the first time (or the last), her fledgling career became collateral damage.

As for Kazan . . . the ambivalence continued. He desperately wanted Molly back, and wanted Constance just as much. 

After some self-flagellation (according to his autobiography), Kazan decided in August to break off with Constance.  He wrote her a tortured letter, and not long afterward, she wrote him a brave note of appreciation for their time together.

Molly was not convinced, however. She refused to take him back, and Kazan—now without either of his love objects—threw himself into work.  His next project was Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth, and as the director, Kazan had to make a very strange play accessible to the audience. In the bargain, he had to manage a set of temperamental thespians that included the notoriously volcanic Tallulah Bankhead.

But whatever the challenges may have been, this play marked the beginning of his golden-touch rise to fame.

When it opened in the fall of 1942, Skin of Our Teeth garnered critical acclaim, landslide box office, and several awards.  It was also the occasion for a passionate reunion with Constance, who had called to congratulate him on a great success. 

Of course one thing led to another . . .

You can never tell what to trust in Kazan’s account of his own life, but I find this revelation believable.  On their first night back together, according to Kazan, he suddenly realized that Constance was not just a girlfriend, but a real person.  A bright, sensitive, and ambitious person, with her own hopes and plans.

He also learned that she was soon to leave for California . . .

So Kazan would be left alone to sort out his existential ambivalence. In a continuing pattern of indecision, he wanted the warmth of a nurturing family and the prestige of having a literary wife from a respected family. At the same time, he wanted unlimited personal freedom, and needed something Constance alone seemed to give him.

Chapter 2 offers some speculations about just what that might have been—and it’s not exactly what you may think.

But to stay with the narrative: Kazan had another stage success in 1943, directing Helen Hayes in a very popular play about Harriet Beecher Stowe.  And here’s how the newly successful, broodingly serious Kazan looked around that time:

Professionally he was unquestionably in ascendance. But personally he was at loose ends. So by the end of the year, he had decided to join Constance in California.

Welcome to Oz

Another of the incorrect things written about Constance is the story that Samuel Goldwyn spotted her in The Strings, My Lord, Are False. That seems an odd idea on the face of it, since Goldwyn apparently envisioned his new discovery as a musical comedienne—and Carroll’s play was a grim melodrama set in a Scottish town under bombardment by the Germans.  

A different and more likely account is given by Elia Kazan in his autobiography.  In 1941, when he was still primarily an actor, Kazan had spent some weeks in Hollywood filming the jazz melodrama Blues in the Night.  He recalls that Constance wrote him frequently—and in one letter, mentioned that she had met a representative of Samuel Goldwyn, who promised to introduce her next time Goldwyn was in New York.

Which apparently happened sometime in 1942.  Goldwyn liked her, and Constance was invited to Hollywood for a screen test.

Now just 23, Constance had grown up in New York, supported herself on the fringes of Broadway, and spent almost a quarter of her life in an intense affair with a charismatic older man. But when a real career opportunity finally arrived, she took it—which says a good deal about her ambition, and also her courage.

So Constance Dowling seems to have spent much of 1943 being groomed for stardom by Samuel Goldwyn and his studio apparatus.  The powerful producer was personally coaching his latest protege on how to “behave like a star,” and had ordered a full-court press from his PR team. 

His vision of Constance’s potential star quality is illustrated in these stills from a 1943 Life photoshoot, orchestrated by the Goldwyn publicity machine.

According to the Goldwyn PR people, Constance was that rare “triple threat” who could sing, dance, and act with equal skill. Which accounts, one supposes, for the awkward combination of acrobatic agility and emotional posing displayed in these promotional photos.

Looking at images from her time in Hollywood, I often think that Constance didn’t photograph all that well. I never found a picture that seemed to capture the impression she apparently left in person—the impression that attracted Elia Kazan for years, the impression that prompted Samuel Goldwyn to put her under contract, the impression that would later constellate Cesare Pavese’s deepest desires.

There’s a kind of coolness and distance in many of these promotional shots that critics would later note in her onscreen performances. She also seems a bit mature for someone just starting out. Several actresses exactly her age—Gene Tierney and Maureen O’Hara, for example—had made their first movies before turning twenty, and were already recognized as stars.

But at the beginning of 1944, encouraged by the head of a major studio and about to debut in a major Hollywood movie, Constance had every reason to think she was on the way to joining them.   

She had been joined on the quest by her friend Shelley Winters, who moved to California in 1943.  Writing years later in the first of her two memoirs, Winters recalls feeling disoriented and homesick during her first weeks in Hollywood. 

Constance, already acclimated and living in what Winters describes as a “posh” apartment, gave her friend this advice:

“Look, Shelley, don’t worry.  Nothing’s real here so just pretend you’re in The Wizard of Oz, and you’ll be all right.”

There are very few records of anything Constance said or wrote, but what remains always suggests this spirit of optimistic realism, along with flashes of what Winters describes as her friend’s “wicked Irish wit.”

Constance’s first movie was Up in Arms—an okay-enough example of wartime comedy, revolving around a pair of military misfits and their mixed-up romantic relationships. 

It was the first screen appearance for Danny Kaye also—but he was already well known as a stand-up comedian and novelty singer. In the film, he plays a nerdish hypochondriac attracted to a comely nurse (Dowling). Of course she is interested in Kaye’s friend (Dana Andrews), who is interested in her friend (played by popular songstress Dinah Shore), who is interested in Kaye.

Hi-jinks ensue.

Dowling managed adequately in a screwball plot that involves smuggling her onto a Navy ship--but her performance leaves almost no impression. And Samuel Goldwyn immediately realized she was not, after all, going to be the next big thing. 

In the overcrowded, increasingly competitive environment of wartime Hollywood, missing on a first try carried heavy penalties. And so it was that Virginia Mayo, already waiting in the wings, became the new object of Goldwyn’s attention.

In fact, he had wanted Mayo for the part that went to Dowling. For the story around that decision—along with some insights on Goldwyn’s approach to casting women—check out this note.

Elia Kazan wrote that he realized the Mayo threat right away, but that Constance seemed oblivious. Whether she was naive (as he suggests), stubbornly optimistic, or just putting up a good front, we’ll never know. However, there’s no question that Constance was already out of favor with Goldwyn.

She did have a contract, which put her ahead of the many other aspirants flooding Hollywood. But under the studio system in those days, contract actors—even successful ones—were treated more or less like chattels. They had no say over what parts they were cast in, what directors they worked for, or what they had to do for publicity’s sake.

So Constance was loaned out to another studio, where she was even more miscast opposite Nelson Eddy in a film version of the popular Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday.  Well known for his baritone voice and operetta outings with Jeanette McDonald, Eddy couldn’t act even a little, and it’s doubtful that anyone would have survived being seen with him in this dreadful movie. 

But if you make yourself scan Knickerbocker Holiday on YouTube, you can observe Constance and her friend Shelley Winters in ridiculously bad period costumes, trying not to look miserable. Here they are in a production still:

Knickerbocker Holiday flopped hard—and though Dowling was by no means the worst thing in the film, she was clearly finished as a singing-dancing-acting triple threat. 

And in truth, she was actually much more suited to the darker roles then becoming plentiful in film noir.  By 1946 her image had been completely remade, leaving behind the acrobatic ingenue of Goldwyn’s fantasy to become the sophisticated bad girl of Black Angel and Blind Spot.

How did that transformation take place? Find out in the next two installments—and learn more about the personal qualities that swept Constance Dowling into a series of remarkable relationships . . .