Chapter 2: Unraveling
Careers, affairs--and the question of Constance
|Cynthia Giles||Nov 10, 2020|
At the beginning of 1944, Constance Dowling had been featured as Esquire’s “Western Beauty.” A short profile and a glamorous fold-out photo . . .
By the beginning of 1945, much had changed. And Constance must have experienced a significant feeling of dislocation. At the age of 25, she could no longer think of herself as a starlet--and after two years in Hollywood, with two failed movies behind her, her chances of becoming a star seemed slim.
There were other complications, as well . . .
Up in Arms had been a middling film. Not really awful but not actually good. So even though Constance’s debut performance was also middling, it might have been forgotten if she had quickly gone on to something better.
But Knickerbocker Holiday was such a disaster that you will find it even now on lists of epic screen-fails.
Constance must have realized the effect of this misfire on her fledgling career—and it might have seemed even more frustrating in light of the fact that sister Doris had been cast in a potentially star-making part.
That’s Doris, perched in the lower-right of this iconic poster for Billy Wilder’s now-classic film The Lost Weekend.
When the film debuted early in 1945, reviewers praised Doris’s performance. There was even mention of a possible Oscar nomination for her supporting role. That didn’t happen, but the film went on to win for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.
Doris had made the best of a big opportunity—an opportunity that came her way mainly because she was involved in an affair with Billy Wilder. Like Elia Kazan, Wilder was on the brink of becoming a major celebrity, and in the midst of messy personal complications. He was actually having two affairs while filming Lost Weekend, and complained to friends about the difficulty of keeping his wife from finding out about Doris, and Doris from finding out about his other girlfriend, singer Audrey Young.
Still—at the end of 1944, neither Dowling sister knew what lay ahead in their personal and professional lives. Constance and Doris left for a USO tour in Italy, where they joined other entertainers (most notably, Bob Hope) in stage shows for military audiences. On the trip, they met(or met up with—it’s not clear) the already well-known photojournalist Robert Capa and his war-correspondent buddy, Charles Collingwood.
The four planned a Christmas rendezvous in Paris, but it was disrupted by wartime exigencies. According to Capa’s biographer, the men were detained but sent flowers to the already reserved hotel rooms. The ladies never arrived.
Back in Hollywood, Doris soon started filming The Blue Dahlia, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. There was a lot of buzz for the film, which would feature the first original screenplay by popular mystery writer Raymond Chandler.
Meanwhile, Constance was picked up for a modest part in Paramount’s romantic comedy The Well-Groomed Bride . . .
The Well-Groomed Bride again placed Constance in what should have been good company. It featured Olivia de Havilland’s return to the screen after two years spent suing another studio for release from her contract. She hadn’t won the suit (yet), so when Paramount offered her the film despite her complicated legal status, she took it.
Paramount came up with two other bankable names for the film—Ray Milland (who was about to win an Oscar for The Lost Weekend) and Sunny Tufts (who had just had two successful outings in romantic war stories). Constance was cast as a dressed-up fourth wheel.
Here she is with Tufts:
But The Well-Groomed Bride wasted its star power on a painfully clumsy script. the movie tanked at the box office--and Constance again became collateral damage.
On the other hand . . . The Blue Dahlia was a runaway success. And both films were released in the spring of 1946, a month apart, making the contrast even more obvious.
There’s no reason to think that Constance and Doris saw their situation in those terms. And yet--in an industry driven by ambition, where success attracted opportunity, while failures were unlikely to be forgotten—there’s no question that the siblings seemed to be on different trajectories.
So by now, Constance had been miscast in three movies, including two flops, while her younger sister had been well-cast in a pair of hits.
Doris and Constance had become well known in the Hollywood social scene, and were often referred to in gossip columns as the “glamorous Dowling sisters.” But by the beginning of 1946, Doris was also becoming known as a good actress, while Constance was beginning to seem like a has-been.
But professional challenges had only been one part of 1945 for Constance. Early in the year, Kazan had broken off their long, episodic affair. Not surprisingly, his exit was melodramatic and completely devoid of grace.
I couldn’t track down exactly when this happened. The only account seems to be in Kazan’s autobiography, which rarely gives dates. The best timeline I could derive looks like this:
He and Constance were already having problems during the shooting of his first big film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. That would have been in the period from May 1 to August 2 of 1944.
In March and September of 1944, Kazan was back in New York, directing Broadway plays.
In April of 1945 he was in Europe on a kind of PR junket.
Sometime before the Europe trip, he left Constance and went back to Molly.
According to Kazan’s account, Constance’s collapsing career, along with his postponement of a divorce, created escalating tension between the two. And unbeknownst to Constance, had begun to see a psychoanalyst in New York.
This came about—like most things having to do with Elia Kazan—in a complicated way. Sometime in 1944, Molly surprised him by announcing that she had been working with an analyst, and in the process had changed her mind about a divorce. She was now determined to wait it out until he tired of Constance.
And to speed up the process, she insisted that Kazan go into analysis himself.
There will be more about Kazan’s subsequent life in a later chapter. But for now, you just need to know that the analysis finally forced him to a conclusion. He decided his attachment to Constance was drawing him toward an ordinary life, and away from what he really wanted: an extraordinary career.
Moreover, he believed that marriage to Molly was likely to support his future success—and about that, he was exactly right.
During his stays in Hollywood, Kazan had always kept an apartment at the Garden of Allah Hotel. Long-famed as a place where stars (and ambitious directors) could enjoy both luxury and privacy, the G of A had not only rooms and suites, but tent-like private pavilions.
Though Kazan’s memoir records his early pavilion days with Constance, as he spent increasing amount of time either working or traveling, he moved into the main building. Constance had a key, he recalls, and often stayed overnight.
So when he finally decided what he wanted—Kazan left a “Dear Constance” note for her to find in his Garden of Allah apartment, and boarded a train to New York.
As bad as that was, he managed to make it worse. Weeks after he had abandoned their years-long relationship in the most cowardly way imaginable, Kazan was still obsessed with Constance. He wrote to say how much he missed her, how he “thought of her day and night.”
She responded with this succinct note:
Why don’t you act like a man for a change. Forget about me. C
This time, Kazan had clearly burnt his bridges. But we have to wonder--why couldn’t he get over her for so long? And what made him fall so hard for her in the first place?
The answers to these questions, as far as I can suggest them, may not be exactly what you expect.
Lovely . . .
Back in 1942, just after she’s learned about her husband’s affair with Constance, Molly Day Thacher reportedly said “If it had been anybody but that stupid, cheap, no-talent little blonde . . . that’s what I can’t forgive.”
To which Kazan replied (or so he claims): “Actually, she’s quite a nice person. I like her—as a person.”
That seems like an inadequate response under the circumstance, but it sets up a very important point.
Everyone—literally everyone—who ever says anything about Constance Dowling says how nice she was. Shelley Winters represents a collective opinion when she describes Dowling this way: “as lovely inside as she was outside.”
Unlike so many people trying to make their way up in Hollywood, Constance acquired no enemies, engaged in no feuds, and inspired no invective. In fact, she was very little talked about, when compared to many other aspiring Hollywood actresses.
So putting together a picture of her personality is not easy. But here’s an attempt.
Though a few of her contemporaries became famous enough to write memoirs, hardly any of them included a mention of Constance Dowling. One memorable anecdote came from Farley Granger, though. He recalls meeting her for the first time when they were both on contract with Goldwyn.
Granger was on his second audition for a part, and Constance was brought in to read with him. His partner in the first audition had been “sweet and pretty, but . . .
. . . she didn’t look at me much during the scene, which made it hard for me to feel anything about her. [On the other hand] when Connie looked at me and spoke, I felt as if I had known her all my life, and what a difference that made. To read the scene with someone who could act and was able to feel it emotionally helped me to feel it, too. We ended up crying in each other’s arms.”
There are a couple of things to point out here. First--sometime after accidentally meeting Constance at the reading, Granger began what he later described as a “lifelong love affair” with her best friend Shelley Winters. So presumably he got to know Constance a bit in the context of their social relationship, and that may have colored his memory of the original encounter
Second, no one ever enthused about Constance’s acting. She was certainly capable of turning in a workmanlike performance, and under the right circumstances even a bit more, so it’s fair to say that she “could act.” But I think perhaps the quality that Granger perceived in Constance was not exactly acting ability.
I think it was empathy.
In fact, I think the capacity for empathic connection with others must have been an important key to her appeal. It certainly figures into the Pavese part of her story (which gets started in Chapter 4), and perhaps shaped her experiences afterward.
From what I can discern, Constance was not a “blank slate” (one of my original guesses). But it does seem that people saw in her what they needed to see.
And since Shelley Winters and Elia Kazan were the only two people to document their relationships with Constance Dowling, we turn back to them for further insights.
A good deal of Kazan’s commentary focused on their physical relationship. He describes Constance as—let’s just say—sexually enthusiastic. And by his rather indiscreet account, for several years they pursued a mutual attraction just about anywhere, at pretty much any time, and as often as possible.
So that part is a given.
Both may have had other dalliances throughout their episodic affair, though it’s hard to tell when and with whom, since Constance left no comments on her own activities and Kazan’s late-in-life memoir does not seem entirely trustworthy. (In fact, some things he says are demonstrably wrong, as we’ll see in a later chapter.)
The possibly self-serving account he wrote in 1988 presents only a retrospective view, with details selected—or even invented—to fit the picture of himself he wished to present. Fortunately, though, we have some points of reference, because Kazan talked about his relationship with Constance in letters written during the 1940s.
Strange as it may seem (to me, anyway), the most significant insights can be found in letters written to his wife Molly. There he explained that Constance was “tender and simple and uncomplicated.” She was “loving and graceful,” he continued, and made his life “what it should be: enjoyable and pleasurable.”
So, “in some ways,” he was “crazy about her.” But he denied being in love with her. But he admitted to wishing he were.
Et cetera . . .
In 1944, he wrote to Molly from Hollywood:
“The best thing for me right now is to live with Constance, and I don’t care about the ulterior values. I don’t care how long it will last. I don’t care whether she’s good enough for me, or vice versa. A lot of people here think I’m not good enough for her.”
Although Kazan doesn’t say this outright--and may not have realized it--I came away from reading his letters with the impression that Constance gave him an acceptance he couldn’t find elsewhere, and couldn’t give himself.
That interpretation fits in with the scattered things other people have said about Constance. Taken all together, these comments suggest that she was an exceptionally generous person, with a gift for saying things that made people feel better about themselves.
A key example comes from Shelley Winters, who had a lot of love affairs, and at the same time, a lot of self-doubt. Once, when Winters was feeling down about her prospects, Dowling offered her this reassurance: “You must understand that young beauty is its own passport, to anywhere and anything.”
Winters takes the idea of a “beauty passport” to heart, repeating it two more times in her book--though she interprets it more as a reminder of possibilities than as a literal statement. But the anecdote gives added insight about Constance: She had a sense of her own beauty as perceived by others, and she believed in its value.
Equally important, as her friend remembers--she wanted to wrap others in the same cloak of empowered attractiveness.
Winters, who is remarkably open and humorous about her own life, always emphasizes that Dowling was not only a supportive friend but also as a source of common sense and candid feedback. Her memoirs are scattered with stories in which Constance counsels her, stands up for her, and solves problems that range from needing a doctor to needing a safety pin.
By contrast, Kazan, who takes himself with extreme seriousness, often characterizes Constance as “simple” and at times even childlike.
For now I’ll just say that these different views may reflect Constance’s willingness to be what others needed her to be. So Shelley Winters--often uncertain and self-conscious--remembers Constance as an acute observer and an original thinker. Someone to turn to or lean on.
And Elia Kazan--complex and endlessly introspective--remembers Constance as a nymph who enveloped him in a sort of pleasure-bubble . . . .
I think the ability to become what someone else needed may have been Constance’s greatest gift. But at the same time, it may have been the reason her life became almost completely overshadowed by other people’s stories.
So where does all that leave us, as we move on to Chapter 3?
Somewhere in 1946—post-Kazan, post-Goldwyn, and looking for work.