I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of late. These days, most are marvels of narrative nonfiction. I just finished Jean Harvey Baker’s work on Mary Todd Lincoln, (via Michelle Dean at the New Yorker), which taught me that the much-reviled First Lady was less a loon than a feminist that coulda been.
And sometimes the most enjoyable part of my research for Ain’t Marching has been checking in with bios: Roy Morris’ Alone in Bad Company, about Ambrose Bierce, and Kate Larsen’s spectacular Harriet Tubman bio, Bound for the Promised Land: Portrait of an American Hero.
And now I’m blown away by a book about one of my favorites in my WWII chapter: Lewis Ayres, who went from being Greta Garbo’s last silent screen kiss to being the iconic Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front to earning the apt subtitle given a new book by Lesley Coffin. I started the book meaning to only read the opening chapters and finish it that night — and couldn’t put it down, racing to the end like a tween just gifted with The Hunger Games.
Coffin, who tweets at @filmbiographer, hooks us early with Ayres’ Minnesota childhood (he worked as a golf caddy at 10 years old and dropped out of high school at 14 to help out) and his early days as a silent starlet who loved to make music.
An alert reader can see in the earnest young man the Ayres I’ve spent much time with, the one who went to the “conchie” camp in 1942 and then became one of the most famous 1-A-O objectors, training as a medic and then becoming a chaplain’s assistant as his unit deployed to Asia. (At left, YANK Magazine shows Sgt. Ayres in action.) And true to its cinematic focus, the book also lets us in to how war first had Ayres swearing off Hollywood, promising to dedicate himself to the ministry, and then changed his mind, after he realized how important movies were to the common soldier.
I’d known about this book from its beginnings, actually. I’d tracked down Ayres’ son Justin (who looks more like his dad every day, at least from his photos on Facebook) who said to me instantly, “But you have to meet Lesley!”
I wasn’t surprised that she finished her book before I did, and am glad to report that it not only has exceeded my expectations, but taught me a lot. I hope it made it into the Christmas stockings of many movie fans, who’ll thrill to its glimpse of 50 years of Hollywood history (including Ayres’ early marriages to Ginger Rogers and his romance with Jane Wyman before she met Ronald Reagan). I AM sort of glad her only mentions of Howard Hughes were as a romantic rival, and she left out the hilarious Western Union message in which Hughes told All Quiet director Lewis Milestone how little he thought of Ayres’ acting.I’m hoping to include that one in Ain’t Marching!
It also sent me scurrying to as many of the old movies as I could find (though Kildare is kind of a jerk), and wishing I could see some of the visual art to which he devoted himself in old age. Read Coffin’s book for a multi-faceted portrait whose prose is a joy.
I’ll leave you with two video clips. First, the moment that made Ayres spark so much dissent, in which he describes PTSD and thus some of the costs of war:
Then, from a few years later, Ayres as the the young hero of a thriller in which Basil Rathbone is actually the bad guy. It was only a few years later that Ayres went from being the toast of Hollywood to something much more complex.