It’s Valentine’s Day week and in the coming days I’m highlighting some of Hollywood’s most famous tempestuous twosomes. These are the duos whose passion mesmerized us but whose stories weren’t always wrapped tightly in a heart-shaped box. Our first duo represented the star power of the 1940’s: Betty Grable and Harry James.
Band leaders were the original rockstars and Harry James was a big star. Behind the bugle, James appeared to be a well-mannered gentleman who knew how to woo the ladies. Betty Grable was the pinup queen and inarguably the biggest star of the 1940’s, according to box-office records. They married in 1943 becoming the most popular power couple since Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. They were so popular, they even spawned a lyric in song sung by WWII GI’s,”I want a gal, just like the gal, who married Harry James…”
Betty Grable and Harry James met in 1940 but sparks didn’t really fly at first sight. He was reportedly not too impressed with Grable and she felt the same. He eventually fell under the same spell as thousands of GI’s and the two began dating and even appeared onscreen in the 20th Century Fox musical, ‘Springtime in the Rockies,’ in 1942. In 1943, the two married. The two had two daughters, Victoria and Jessica. They seemed like a match made in heaven but behind the scenes it was anything but.
James appeared to be a quiet man but he hid many demons from the public. James has been described by friends as a selfish man who had an appetite for booze, gambling, and women even if he was married to America’s sweetheart. Grable, friends say, never had a drink in her life until she met James. In the Harry James biography, Trumpet Blues: The life of Harry James, one of his drummers tells author Peter J. Levinson, “Harry never got close to people. I don’t think anybody really liked him.” Grable was the highest-paid star in Hollywood and one of the wealthiest women in America, at one point she made more money than the President.
James introduced Grable to horse races. The two later purchased a ranch in Woodland Hills, California. The James’ became regulars at the Del Mar race track. In the A&E biography special, a friend of Grable’s said she was at home at the track. These were her people, not the movie stars. The duo paid a high price for playing the ponies. The gambling became a problem for the two leading them into debt early on. After the war, Grable’s image became an anachronism of sorts and the emerging rock ‘n’ roll scene began to push out band leaders like James. Suddenly Grable was the only one supporting the household financially as well as the horse habit.
Their problems would only become greater. In that same A&E biography special, it’s reported that James beat Grable. Grable often hid it from friends but sometimes makeup could only conceal so much. When confronted, she told friends she would describe incidents as having a “bad session with Harry.” Their financial difficulties continued to mount. Betty Grable finished her contract at 20th Century Fox and she struggled to find work. The two found it on the nightclub circuit in Las Vegas. Their stage acts were successful and they also had many cameos on television including a memorable episode of the ‘I Love Lucy’ spinoff, ‘The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.’ But their problems proved to be too much. In 1965, after 22 years of marriage Grable filed from divorce on grounds of mental and extreme cruelty.
James would marry again to Las Vegas showgirl, Joan Boyd, who he’d later divorce in 1970. Grable found love again with dancer Bob Remick who she remained with until her death in 1973 of lung cancer. When Grable died, James attended her funeral. He died on the 40th anniversary of his marriage to Grable.