The Religious Affiliation of
Gregory Peck great American actor
From: Lynn Haney, Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life, Carroll & Graf Publishers: New York, NY (2003), page 32:
Gregory suited him fine. It was his father's name, one of many bonds he would share with his tall, dark-haired athletic dad. From Gregory Sr the boy acquired a sly sense of humor and an immutable code of decency -- backed up by good old Irish Catholic guilt...
Gregory Peck Sr came from Rochester, New York. His mother was an Irish immigrant and his father was of English descent. He cherished his Irish ancestry and would pass this appreciation on to his son Greg. The pride of the family lineage was Gregory Sr's first cousin, Thomas Ashe, a hero of the Irish Rebellion of 1916.
The wedding of actor Gregory Peck's parents is described. Haney, page 35:
To please her fiance, Bunny [actor Gregory Peck's mother] converted to Catholicism and their wedding took place on 4 Jun 1915 in the splendid setting of St Louis Catholic Cathedral. The Cathedral's unique design combined a Romanesque architecture exterior with a wondrous Byzantine style in the interior. In 1912 masons began installing mosaics depicting key figures in Judeo-Christian history. The project grew to become the largest mosaic collection in the world.
IMDb.com (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000060/bio; viewed 28 May 2005):
He had Catholic Armenian roots from his paternal grandfather, Sam "Peck," an immigrant from England. After he married his second wife, Veronique Passani, she had his ancestry traced and discovered the Armenian lineage. Urging him to learn of his partial Armenian heritage and to learn the Armenian language, he took Armenian classes in his middle age. But by then his public persona was fixed. "Gregory" is a common Indo-European name and Armenian surname (Gregorian or Krikorian) and was the name of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, Apostle of Armenia (332 AD).
Peck's oldest son Jonathan killed himself in 1975. Haney, pages 365-366:
Although he [Gregory Peck] continued to be miserable about Jonathan, gradually Greg's life again became full of friends and projects and aspirations. Part of his mending process was to become an outspoken advocate for gun control legislation.
Religion also played a role. Greg was not a traditional orthodox Catholic. This powerful conservative branch of Roman Catholicism holds to papal authority and historic church doctrine. Rather, Greg was a modern, liberal Catholic who took a pro-choice stance on abortion and supported gay rights. But, in addition to the heartbreak involved, the issue of suicide must have troubled him on a spiritual level. After all, Jonathan was a creation of God. It was not solely his life to do with as he saw fit. To kill oneself is to deny God.
Greg's religion was one of broad sympathies and high moral passion. He looked to the Bible for guidance in the immense mystery of death and creation. 'Faith is a force,' he said, 'a powerful force. To me, it's been like an anchor to windward -- something that's seen me through troubled times and some personal tragedies and also through the good times and success and the happy times.'
Although his beliefs and those of the Catholic hierarchy were not in sync, Greg, nonetheless, found strength in the structure and rituals of the church. Having once considered becoming a priest, he liked and respected the clergy. He counted his introduction to Pope John Paul II as a high point of his life. Without reservation, Greg swore: 'He impressed me more than any other man I've ever met and I've met a lot.'
The Pope came to Washington during Jimmy Carter's presidency in the 1970s, and the Pecks were among 500 prominent Americans invited to the White House to meet him. 'My wife and I happened to be seated on one of the aisles,' Greg said, 'and the Pope came right down and he saw me and smiled. The smile was genuine, not a politician smile, the practiced smile. He shook my hands with me and went on.
'And then Carter said, "Hello, Gregory, what are you doing here?" and I said, "Well, Mr. President, you invited me." He said, "Just a minute" -- and damned if he didn't run after the Pope, grabbing him by the arm and pulled him back. He said, "Your Excellency, this is one of our best-known, most-beloved American film actors." And he looked at me, ah! -- there was a glimmer as if somehow he must have seen me in a movie. His eyes widened and he took me in his arms. And he sort of grabbed me by the elbow and said, "God bless you, Gregory. God bless you in your mission." And he went on.'
Greg's next spiritual encounter was decidedly more bizarre. His agent, George Chasin, presented him with the script of The Omen (1976) and inquired: 'Would you be interested in playing the Devil's foster dad?' This was a tale of Satan's return to earth. [Peck did indeed star in the movie, which was a huge box office hit and restored Peck's popularity.]
Haney, pages 419-420:
Because he was such a meticulous planner, it is quite likely that Greg [Peck] talked at some length with Veronique and his children about his funeral. What better setting for a Catholic who loved a good show than the new modernistic Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral situated in the heart of LA.
But was Greg a practicing Catholic? Some years before, while Greg was attending a film festival in Tokyo, Andrew Urban of Weekend Australian, put the question to him. 'I am a Roman Catholic,' Greg answered. 'Not a fanatic, but I practice enough to keep the franchise.' He laughed. Then he became more serious. 'I don't always agree with the Pope . . . there are issues that concern me, like abortion, contraception, the ordination of women . . . and others. I think the Church should open up. Certainly, Greg's unequivocal support for Gay Rights pitted him in direct opposition to the Pope. In 1997, as a presenter at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) awards ceremony, he said: 'It just seems silly to me that something so right and simple has to be fought for at all.'
Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral is the seat of the largest US Catholic diocese. It rests on an elevated section of downtown Los Angeles called Bunker Hill, where it can be seen by millions of people each year as they travel the busy Hollywood Freeway. In its size, proportions and beauty both within and without, it is exquisite. With a total of 27,000 square feet of windows, it is the biggest installation of its kind in America. Lita Albuqueque, Greg's daughter-in-law who is married to Carey, designed the Gateway Pool and Water Well on the grounds of the Cathedral.
On Monday, 16 June 2003 Greg was laid to rest in a quiet family funeral in the crypt mausoleum beneath the Cathedral. Located across from St Vibiana's Chapel, it contains 6,000 crypts and niches for burials.
Crypts were believed to have been developed from the catacombs used by early Christians as hiding places from persecution, as shrines to saints and martyrs, as funeral memorials. Early churches often were constructed over the tombs of martyrs. At the entrance to the crypt mausoleum are two beautifully etched windows depicting guardian angels holding torches.
Mourners for the public service held after his burial beheld huge black-and-white portraits of Greg as they approached the Cathedral, designed by Robert Grayam, husband of Anjelica Huston. They then passed through the Great Bronze Doors. Church officials estimated almost 3,000 people attended. Seats were reserved for Greg's friends, a sizeable number of whom were celebrities -- they were instructed to whisper the secret password 'Atticus' to the red-coated ushers who escorted them to the reserved section -- Harry Belafonte, Anjelica Huston, Michael York, Louise Fletcher, Tony Danzy, Piper Laurie, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart. Michael Jackson, wearing a red jacket, caused a stir when he arrived 20 minutes late. Decked out in a bright blue pants suit and clutching a program with Greg's picture on it, Greta, at 92, was present looking hale and hearty.
Cardinal Roger Michael Mahoney, Archbishop of Los Angeles, presided over the service. The program included bible readings by Carey, Cecilia and Tony [Peck's children]. Mahoney said: 'He lived his life authentically, as God called and willed him and placed him in his room, with gifts and talents.'
Seventy-five-year-old Brock Peters, who co-starred with Greg in [To Kill a] Mockingbird delivered the eulogy. The film spawned a close friendship between Greg and Peters that lasted more than 40 years. 'In art there is compassion,' said Peters, 'in compassion there is humanity, with humanity there is generosity and love. Gregory Peck gave us these attributes in full measure.'
The crowd visibly warmed to a videotape performance of Greg featuring a lecture he gave several years before... he said he hoped to be remembered first as a good husband, father and grandfather. Then, with quiet strength and unforgettable presence, he added: 'I'd like to be thought of as a good storyteller.' He will be. For many years to come. All in all, it was a glorious sendoff.
Haney, pages 48-52:
By 1926, Bunny [Gregory Pecks' mother] had remarried and moved to San Francisco. Her new husband was a travelling salesman named Joseph Maysuch... She did not invite her son [Gregory Peck] to live with them; she wanted to travel with her husband. 'Since she hadn't stuck with the first husband, she was doubly determined to stick with her second,' Greg said... Now he was about to be taken away from his beloved La Jolla [where he lived with his grandparents] and required to live at a school he would later describe as run by 'tough Irish nuns and ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) drill instructors.'
[page 49] ...After romping about barefoot in La Jolla, Greg had a hard time adjusting to the confinement of St John's Military School, where he was sent in 1927. Fronting on noisy West Washington Boulevard in a drab section of Los Angeles, the three-story main building -- formerly an orphanage -- was a forbidding affair... Under the watchful eyes of the stern but kind Sisters of Mercy and the iron-jawed First World War veterans they hired to turn the boys into fit cadets, Greg was leading a highly structured life...
[page 50] Dramatics weren't stressed at St John's; still, the school nurtured Greg's thespian instincts. An actor lives off what he has stored up in the way of impressions and experiences. And what could be more dramatic than daily mass -- particularly when it was recited in Latin -- and students such as Greg had a chance to be altar boys. 'I got very thoroughly indoctrinated,' Greg said later. Three days a week, he went to the sacristy, laid out the priest's garments and poured the sacramental wine. Then he would put on his black altar-boy robe with white lace and assist the priest during the service. Greg memorized the entire Latin mass. 'I knew the whole routine by heart,' he said, 'when to ring the bells, when to swing the incense burner, and somehow I took to that.'
Producer Martin Scorcese, a friend of Greg's, has drawn heavily on his Catholic boyhood for film inspiration. He notes: 'The church and the movie house both are places for people to come together and share a common experience. I believe there is spirituality in films, even if it's not one that can supplant faith. I have found over the years that many films address themselves to the spiritual side of man's nature, from Griffith's Intolerance (1916) to John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940) to Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) to Kubrick's 2001 (1968) and so many more . . . It's as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious. To fulfill a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory.'
The indelible mark of Catholicism was being pressed into Greg's mind and heart. Prior to enrolling in St John's, he hadn't given much thought to sin. Now he was learning the fine points of mortal and venial transgressions. Sin produced blemishes on the soul that could keep him out of Heaven, put him in Purgatory for years, or, God forbid, hurl him into Hell forever. Prayer was a safeguard against sin. In fact, the nuns commanded memorization of prayers under pain of humiliation a the business end of a ruler. Plus, they expected their charges to be brave, charitable, obedient, respectful, and pure in thought, word and deed.
He longed for his chums in La Jolla. They didn't have to polish their shoes or worry about sin; they could lark around shooting spitballs, passing notes, making fun of teachers, and generally having a good time. Yet it is characteristic of Greg that he didn't rebel at St John's. Instead, he suppressed his disappointment at being parked there by his family and made the most of it. He began to idolize his spiritual advisor, Father Timothy Crowley, and even considered becoming a priest.
Perhaps without realizing it, Greg absorbed the activist philosophy of the Sisters of Mercy. While these nuns were academically narrow, they were fiercely committed to social justice. The order, established in Dublin in 1831, had a history of caring for the less fortunate -- and they infused their students with this fervor. (One huge stain blots their record on human rights. Sisters of Mercy ran at least three of Ireland's infamous Magdalene Laundries. In these barbaric institutions, which were under the auspicious [sic] of several Catholic religious orders, the mentally inform, victims of rape or incest, or girls who were potentially promiscuous were locked away and forced to atone for their sins by washing the dirty linen of the Catholic clergy. The Sisters of Mercy's founder, Catherine McAuley, was a stylish, cultured woman whose personality and adventures were the stuff of Hollywood... An Irish artist of the time described McAuley as 'remarkably well made, attentive to good grooming and conservative in her dress.' She 'lived in what is usually called good style . . . went into society.'
Catherine McCauley's gentle manner masked her radicalism. She had a passion for the plight of the poor and spent her time in the slums of Dublin, a commitment that won her loyal friends. When she was 40, she inherited a fortune from a childless couple that she had befriended. With the money she established the Sisters of Mercy as a community of 'walking nuns' who would live outside convent walls. Their mission was to introduce Catholic education and health care to immigrants in poverty-stricken communities throughout the world. When they arrived in the United States in 1854, they lived in whatever space was available, sometimes ins tables, railway cars and quarantine or 'pest' houses. At the same time, they nursed victims of cholera, earthquakes and floods. In some towns, anti-Catholic feeling ran rather high and they were driven out.
Putting down roots in Los Angeles, the good sisters opened orphanages, shelters for working girls, hospitals and a tubercular sanitarium. Their purpose in founding St John's was to develop future Catholic leaders out of a select group of boys. These students would be given a solid education in the importance of activism on behalf of social justice. Irish culture permeated the school. Athletic teams were named 'The Shamrocks'. Embracing the culture, Greg took 'Patrick' for his confirmation name.
According to biographer Michael Freedland, Greg's best friend at St John's was Augustine Mackessy, a recent Irish immigrant and the undisputed hero of the school, who came to the United States after his father, a Dublin policeman, had been killed by a bomb thrown by Eamon de Valera himself.
On Sundays Greg and his school chums liked to hop on a trolley to see a movie, often going from one film to another. 'We really went overboard about them,' Greg recalled.
Haney, pages 54-55:
...at St John's [Gregory Peck] was developing a bulldog tenacity that impressed the nuns, priests and veteran military officers. He was promoted to Cadet Captain Peck and was given the responsibility of whipping 60 of the youngest students, aged from eight to ten, into shape. 'I shouted at them like Erich von Stroheim,' he recalled, acknowledging that his martinet tendencies were evident even then. 'God knows what I did to the psyches of those poor little kids. But having put the fear of God,the Pope and the school chaplain into them, we won the gold medal for drill.'
Greg gorged on books, reading everything from Zane Grey to Walter Scott... Obedient and dutiful, he also proved adept at winning the support of teachers and other adults.
The pressure to be a 'good Catholic boy' points up the limiting quality of this impressionable period of his education and proved to be a liability in some of the roles he played as an actor. It encouraged a self-imposed constipation, a rigidity of posture that translated into conventional heroics rather than the go-for-broke intensity we see in actors like Marlon Brando and James Cagney that really strikes a nerve. Still, St John's imbued him with sensitivity to the social importance of authority figures and a high regard for persistence, which enabled him to stretch his modest talent to the limit. Recalled Greg: 'One of the things that you didn't do there was quit anything once you'd started. You went to the finish.'
Haney, pages 60-61
 With his $125-a-month salary [as a truck driver], he [Gregory Peck] bought himself a Ford Roadster... With he-man truck and a convertible, it's no wonder he soon had a girlfriend. Her name was Betty Clardy. Her two brothers were friends of Greg... Betty Clardy's family took him under their wing. They were Irish Americans and Greg fit right into their home life. This was fortunate since he was once again experiencing domestic upheaval. Doc Peck [Gregory Peck's father] planned to marry again, this time to Harriet Harrington, a conservative Protestant from Denver. Greg didn't get along with her and for her part she was wary of the tall, stubborn, brooding 18-year-old.
Haney, pages 7-8:
Even by the wartime standards of the early 1940s, the nuptials were extremely impromptu. Greg [Peck] and Greta [Kukkonen] invited a ragtag group of friends to a Yankees game, the 1942 World Series, New York Yankees vs the St Louis Cardinals... Following the game, the gan repaired to the Palm restaurant on Third Avenue and feasted on $5 steaks. Wildly expensive. 'Ah, but that steak,' Greg recalled with relish. Then they paid a visit to Christ Church United Methodist on 71st Street and Park Avenue. There, a casually dressed minister named J Gordon Chamberlain, agreed to perform the service at short notice. (Now 89 and still writing articles and occasionally teaching, Reverend Chamberlain says, 'I was just four years out of the seminary and much was new to me.') The vows were exchanged at 9.20 p.m. in the men's lounge that was located in the path to the WC. Greg recalled: 'it was in the lounge where the men's club meets. We wanted it informal, not in the church. The minister was one of those regular guys -- didn't wear his collar backwards or anything.' (Greg was raised as a Catholic but since Greta was divorced, getting married in the Catholic Church was out of the question.) Although the only relative who attended was Greta's brother Paul, her mother sent them a lace tablecloth she made herself.
Because of Catholic prohibitions about divorced persons receiving Church weddings, Peck's second and final marriage was performed by a Justice of the Peace. Peck was married to Greta Kukkonen from 1942 to 1955. The couple had three children together. Peck married Veronique Passani on 31 December 1955 and was with her until he died 12 June 2003. They had two children together. Haney, page 254:
When [Gregory Peck's] divorce [from his first wife, Greta] became final on 30 December 1955, he married Veronique 19 hours later. For the wedding, officiated by a Justice of the Peace, Greg chose the ranch of his friend Channing Peak in Lompac, California. Only Greg's parents, their spouses, the Peaks' children and a few friends attended.
Peck had a reputation, generally well-deserved, as a family man and a man who exhibited great fidelity toward his wife. The dissolution of his first marriage when he fell in love with French reporter Veronique Passani was something of an aberration for him. By Hollywood standards, Peck was a remarkably monogamous, faithful husband. Around 1953 a Los Angeles theater owner said (Haney, page 232):
Peck's name on our marquee is the best box-office insurance we can have. Thousands of women in this neighborhood, I guess and every neighborhood, feel that here is one guy who would sooner chop off his right arm than cheat on his wife.
Haney, page 316:
Off screen, Greg reveled in the role of father. He regarded his children as the most rewarding part of his life. In raising his three boys by his first marriage, he had a supportive partner in Greta [his first wife]. Back when they were together, he had said to her: 'I think we'd be better friends if we weren't married.' And that turned out to be the case. Greta valued Greg: 'He gave me three wonderful sons.' Plus, he had been her magic carpet to Hollywood glamour.
Haney, page 40:
Not being suited for full-time motherhood and sorely missing the big-city lights, Bunny [Gregory Peck's mother] left young Greg in the care of her mother and moved to Los Angeles. There she worked as a telephone operator for an advertising agency. At this point, Doc [i.e., Gregory Peck's father, Gregory Peck Sr., who went by the nickname 'Doc'] was working nights in San Diego as a pharmacist for Ferris and Ferris. He didn't have the time to look after a young child. However, he faithfully visited every Thursday.
...Greg's three years with Grandmother Kate represented the happiest in his childhood... On Sundays, Grandmother Kate and Greg [Gregory Peck, the actor as a child] joined Mytle and Charlie Rannell and their family for Sunday service at St James Episcopal Church. The group would then make their way back to the Rannell's house to prepare for Sunday dinner.
Haney, pages 103-105:
Principal photography for The Keys of the Kingdom got underway on 15 November 1943... he had the whole personality of Father Chisholm deeply engraved in his psyche. Still, his idea of a priest came from the provincial, narrowly educated immigrant Irish clerics who oversaw his spiritual training at St John's Military School. He couldn't quite grasp how Father Chisholm broke through to the Chinese.
Fortunately, Fox, like other studios, relied heavily on consultants, offering employment to large numbers of people with a great variety of skills -- all in the service of manufacturing dreams. In Peck's case, they brought in Father Albert O'Hara, a Jesuit priest who had spent several years as a missionary in China and spoke the language fluently. Renowned for their scholarship in every conceivable field as well as for being saintly (41 saints and 285 blesseds), the Jesuits had been sending missionaries to China since 1853. The order was very receptive tot he customs and values of the Chinese civilization. They took the daring step in China of trying to integrate Confucian values and Chinese cultural traditions with the Gospel message.
In Father O'Hara, Greg saw 'that grave courtesy and respect for each person as an individual.' The two became close friends and correspondents until the priest's death in Taiwan. Over the years Greg served as a stalwart fundraiser for the priest's missions. And the input of Father O'Hara on Greg's characterization worked well enough to impress the author of the novel -- no mean task. A J Cronin marveled: 'I just can't understand how any actor could so well catch the clumsiness in the beauty of Father Chisholm's character.'
[page 105] ...With the release of The Keys of the Kingdom Greg [Peck] burst through on to the public consciousness. The role of Father Chisholm established him as a man of honor and deep spirituality. 'I was beyond good guy,' he recalled. 'I was a walking saint.'
Haney, page 397:
[About 1987] In collaboration with his son Stephen, Greg [Peck] produced and narrated a cassette recording of the New Testament. 'The work brought us closer,' Stephen said.
They chose to use the King James version of the Bible, as the actor says, because 'the language is the most fulsome and poetic and rich -- excepting the fact that some of the passages are difficult to understand and others are full of redundancy. As an actor you find yourself at times wanting to do some editing. We didn't fool around; it's word for word.'
Gregory Peck's last film credit before he died was as the narrator and host of the award-winning documentary "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith" (2000). Directed by Lee Groberg and produced by Vermont Public Television, this PBS documentary presented a in depth look at one of the most famous and influential religious figures in American history: Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Peck starred in the controversial movie Duel in the Sun. Haney, pages 134-136:
Marathon editing sessions got the film [Duel in the Sun] out for its 30 December  premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, just in time to qualify for the Oscars. Jennifer [Jones]'s ex-husband Robert Walker [a major Hollywood actor, and a Latter-day Saint] and his longtime pal Jim Hennigan went to see Duel in the Sun at the Egyptian. Walker was stunned by what he saw. Sickened. After leaving the theater, the two men went up the street to Musso and Frank's restaurant, but Walker couldn't eat a thing. Hennigan recalled him saying bitterly, 'That bastard, that goddamn bastard.' Then Walker clutched his hands to his head and let out a piercing shriek: 'David Selznick!' Hennigan concluded: 'I think that eventually he'd have been able to accept Jennifer's leaving him for another man -- a handsome man, say, like Gregory Peck -- because of his own deep-rooted inferiority about his physical appearance, but what he couldn't accept was that a girl he had worshiped, the mother of his children, could have left him solely to gratify her own blind ambition.' Certainly Selznick's drive to possess Jennifer Jones contributed to the deterioration of Robert Walker's already poor state of mind that would lead eventually to his sudden death from drugs and alcohol in 1952.
Los Angeles saw the 138-minute Duel in the Sun and word spread. The picture would not open in the rest of the country until the spring of 1947... Hedda Hopper was outraged by the movie. She reared up in the Los Angeles Times: 'Duel in the Sun is sex rampant. Jennifer Jones as Pearl Chavez is no Bernadette. Gregory Peck as Lewt McCanles is no Father Chisholm. But these two are hotter than a gunman's pistol.'
The bishop of Los Angeles forbade Catholics from seeing Duel, and it was censored in Memphis and Philadelphia and run out of Hartford.
For Selznick, this was a serious matter. The Roman Catholic Church, through its agency, the National Legion of Decency, dominated the American film censorship scene in the 1930s and 1940s. The National League of Decency was formed in 1934 to combat immoral movies. People took a pledge, in church, against bad movies. They pledged not only never to go to any morally objectionable movie, but never even to go to any movie theater that had ever shown a morally objectionable film. The Legion claimed membership of over 11 million Americans -- about one moviegoer in 12 -- and had the power to bring moguls such as David O Selznick to their knees.
There was also, of course, the volatile notoriety of Selznick and Jones themselves. Playing on her performance in The Song of Bernadette, the media had a field day with headlines such as 'From Saint to Sinner in Just Three Years!'
Selznick needn't have worried too much. Often when a parish priest ranted against a movie, it aroused the curiosity of his parishioners sufficiently for them to rush out to see it.
As the tempest over Duel mounted, Representative John Rankin (Democrat in Mississippi and a longtime enemy of Hollywood) felt compelled to bring the matter before Congress. He took the floor and read a letter from Lloyd T Binford, head of motion picture censorship in Memphis, Tennessee: 'This production contains all the inequities of the foulest human dross. It is sadism at its deepest level. It is the fleshpots of the Pharaohs, modernized and filled to overflowing. It is a barbaric symphony of passion and hatred, spilling from a blood-tinted screen. It is mental and physical putrefaction.'
...Though many critics panned the film, their reviews are a joy to read as minor masterpieces of sarcastic wit that Duel's publicity campaign had virtually begged for. Here's a selection:
It cannot be said that in putting together this hymn to the West Mr. Selznick has stinted on anything. He has provided actors enough for a dozen movies... and cliches enough to make his film an imposing example of specious vacuity.
When a single movie offers murder, rape, attempted fatricide, train-wrecking, fisticuffs, singing, dancing, drunkenness, religion, war, prostitution, fancy equitation and sacred and profane love, all in 135 minutes, the fact that it has neither taste nor art is not likely to deter the unsqueamish.
- Life magazine
Haney, pages 147-150:
Good fortune blew Greg's way when Darryl Zanuck asked him to star in Gentleman's Agreement, a film about a magazine writer who poses as a Jew in order to experience and expose anti-Semitism in America. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents later described Gentlemen's Agreement as 'the movie that says you better be nice to a Jew because he might turn out to be a gentile.'
Seen in the light of all that has happened since, Gentlemen's Agreement seems a mild assault on snobbism as practiced against Jews at suburban white-collar clubs. But when it first appeared in 1947, it was hailed as a brave and outspoken denunciation of bigotry in the enclaves of establishment America.
It posed the question: what happens when a successful member of the middle-class community of a fashionable town applies to join a local club that has an unwritten ban against blacks and Jews? Everyone thinks he is a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), but he turns out to be Jewish. The title of the film was taken from the concept of the unwritten 'gentleman's agreement' that keep religious prejudices alive in every area of life.
Cary Grant refused the role because he contended he was Jewish and thought he looked Jewish. He maintained: 'The public won't believe my portrayal of a gentile trying to pass himself off as a Jew. After that, Greg [Peck]'s agent, George Chasin, told him it would be too risky. 'This is going to hang around your neck,' Chasin said. 'People are going to think you're a Jew for the rest of your career.' Greg rejected this advice because he was impressed with the quality of the script and he felt it was the right thing to do. 'I know it's good to get the subject out in the open,' he contended. 'Entertainment is all right, but entertainment with an idea behind it is much more important. it's time the industry took a stand on a lot of things; instead of hanging on the tail of public opinion, we should be leading it.'
Darryl Zanuck harbored a burning desire to make a breakthrough film. In the case of a movie about anti-Semitism, he had a personal reason to hand over $75,000 for the rights to Laura Z Hobson's best-selling novel on which the film was based. Although one of the few movie moguls who was not Jewish (insiders referred to Fox as the goy studio), he had an experience as a young man starting out in Hollywood in which he was the target of just the kind of anti-Semitism portrayed in the novel.
When one works in the film industry, assumptions are made. How could Zanuck be in the same business as Zukor, Mayer, Cohn and Warner and not be Jewish? Yet, he clearly wasn't. He was born in Nebraska, on the plains, a second-generation middle-class American. It was a white, Episcopalian-Methodist upbringing. Still, when he applied for membership to the exclusive Los Angeles Athletic Club, he was turned down. He learned from an inside source the reason: no Jews. Ignoring the bigoted rules of the club, he persisted and obtained membership. But the incident of his initial rejection and the outrage he felt at the time were never forgotten. Zanuck stashed it away in his fertile brain, and later on, when he had more power, when the climate was more suitable, he used it.
Now, one would think in a town built by Jews -- junkmen, cobblers, pelt traders and glove salesmen -- who fled the shtetls, the ghettos where Jews were confined in Eastern Europe,in search of something better, that prejudice would not be tolerated. Not so. One day Zanuck was confronted by a group of powerful Hollywood Jews -- Sam Goldwyn among them -- who pressured him not to make the film. 'We're doing fine,' they argued. 'Why stir up trouble?'
Their opposition ignored the prejudice around them. For example, no Hollywood star could have a Jewish name. Princeton, Dartmouth and other colleges supported Jewish quotas. On the floor of the House of Representatives, Republican John Rankin called radio commentator Walter Winchell a 'kike.' This attack triggered a standing ovation. The prejudice was then both cruel and pervasive.
Still, the fact remained Zanuck wasn't a Jew and vulnerable to the particular kind of prejudice the studio bosses were coming up against. The studio bosses had to get their films approved by Joseph Breen, a professional Catholic who was the driving force behind the Motion Picture Production Code that censored the content and image of Hollywood films. According to Mike LaSalle, author of Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood (2001), Breen was an anti-Semite, who repeatedly called Jews 'lice' and 'the scum of the earth.' In various letter and memos, Breen referred to Jews as 'a dirty, filthy lot,' 'a foul bunch, crazed with sex . . . and ignorant in all matters having to do with sound morals,' and 'simply a vile bunch of people with no respect for anything but the making of money.'
At the end of the meeting with the Hollywood Jews who sought to advise him, Zanuck told them to mind their own business. He was equally adamant with Catholics who opposed the film because the female lead was divorced, yet romantically involved with the hero.
And if Zanuck was go get away with that, the movie just had to be a box-office success, because he knew that if he failed with this one, his Board of Directors would refuse to give him a second chance with another...
The tale of intolerance in Gentleman's Agreement is built on a simple premise about living in someone else's skin. It's the story of Phil Green (Peck), a non-Jewish magazine writer who assumes a Jewish identity for six months to gather material, write a series of articles, and better understand discrimination and anti-Semitism. The primary setting is New York City at the end of the Second World War. Green has moved to Manhattan from California, taking a staff job at Smith's Weekly magazine. At first he is stumped by the assignment he's given to write a long story on anti-Semitism. Then -- flash! -- Christian that he is, he'll simply pretend to be Jewish like his best friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield) and see what happens.
At work, only his editor, John Minify (Albert Dekker) knows about the ruse. Although Smith's has a decidedly liberal slant, Green quickly discovers an undercurrent of religious discrimination in the office. He is told he's 'too sensitive' or 'too pushy' or 'that way'. Only the rag's spunky women's editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm) treats him like one of the gang. Even Green's secretary, Miss Wales (June Havoc), is overtly anti-Semitic -- and she is Jewish. [More about Jew, anti-Semitism, and the movie A Gentlemen's Agreement, pages 150-155]
Haney, pages 154-155:
Gentleman's Agreement became a landmark film about the evils of anti-Semitism. It helped establish Greg [Peck] in the public mind as a stand-up person who was not afraid to fight for his beliefs. In later years, the actor recalled the movie with pride and conviction. 'We felt we were brave pioneers exploring anti-Semitism in the United States -- today, it seems a little dated.'
According to people close to Greg, the prejudice exposed by the film took a personal tone. Many 'exclusive' clubs in the Los Angeles area, clubs that did not admit Jews, blackballed him because they felt so threatened by the film. For many years they would not permit Greg to be invited to functions at their facilities. In the 1960s and afterwards these same clubs did extend invitations to Greg, but he returned the favors of the 1940s and 1950s and declined to attend.
Haney, page 9:
 Theater folks didn't regard Hollywood as a step up. Legitimate thespians often dismissed film acting with contempt. Stolid British actor Cedric Hardwicke, who played with Greg in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), reflected: 'I believe that God felt sorry for actors, so He created Hollywood to give them a place in the sun and a swimming pool. The price they had to pay was to surrender their talent.'
Haney, pages 44-45:
Like Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Greg was discovering there was an undercurrent of evil amidst the quotidian joys of La Jolla... In 1923, when a black family rented a house on the outskirts of town, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on Mt Soledad.
'None of us youngsters knew what it was all about,' said Greg. 'But even with the sheets we could recognize some of the hot bloods of the town. They made quite an impression on us.
...Started [by Southern Baptists] after the Civil War, the KKK experienced resurgence in the 1920s. Members of the terrorist KKK presented themselves as defenders of the white against the black, of Gentile against Jew, and of Protestant against Catholic. They thus traded on the newly inflamed fears of credulous small-towners in places like La Jolla. Their message appealed to ordinary men with an infantile love of hocus-pocus and a lust for secret adventure. By setting a cross ablaze in the night, they aroused fears of burning houses, beatings and sometimes lynching.
When Greg [Peck] was older he was able to appreciate the immense power of movies as propaganda. As Darryl Zanuck liked to say: 'The movies are the greatest political fact in the world today.' In the case of the KKK, the organization benefited greatly from D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). This controversial, explicitly racist movie set up a major censorship battle over its vicious, extremist depiction of African Americans. Nonetheless, the film was a huge box-office moneymaker, raking in $18 million by the start of the talkies. It was the most profitable film for over two decades, until Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Haney, page 46:
The Granada Theater, seating 712, was opened [in La Jolla, where Gregory Peck grew up] on 25 March 1925. Grandmother Kate saw to it that Greg received a solid film education. 'We went to the picture show two or three times a week,' said Greg. 'We didn't care what was showing.' They even increased the church attendance in several denominations because sometimes there was a movie after the service.
The popularity in Hollywood of the religion known as Freudianism is discussed. Haney, page 119:
For shrinks, Los Angeles was the land of opportunity. Leo Rangell, a psychiatrist who arrived in the Movie Mecca in 1946 found the residents possessed a fascinating mix of great ambition, visibility, exhibitionism, cultism, and exciting and eccentric ideas.
To no one's surprise, a mutual infatuation developed between movie makers and psychiatrists. Mary Romm, the colorful 'Queen of Couch Canyon,' parlayed her role as David O Selznick's personal analyst into a plum assignment as his advisor on Spellbound [starring Gregory Peck]. The producers evangelized psychoanalysis and led the way in making the Freudian-led science -- with all its contemporary offshoots -- an integral part of American life. Quipped Nunnally Johnson: 'As long as Hollywood stands, no freeborn American need surrender to an inferiority complex. It is the greatest boon to psychiatrists since sex. Hollywood never gets the credit due to it.'
Haney, pages 121-122:
While Spellbound was in the works, Selznick returned one day from a meeting with psychiatrist Mary Romm to find Bergman's husband, Peter Lindstrom, had been waiting for him in his office. Lindstrom was concerned about his wife's extramarital imagination.
Instead of commiserating with the beleaguered husband, Selznick shared an insight he had gleaned from his shrink. 'You'll understand this,' he said to Lindstrom. 'I have a problem with Irene. I found this other girl, whom I love. It was terribly hard on me. How could I explain this to Irene and to myself? So I went to this woman psychiatrist. I pad her double her fee. She gave me a scientific explanation why I had to leave my wife. I wanted you to know there is a scientific basis!'
...Hitchcock waved off Spellbound as 'just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo psychoanalysis.' And esteemed critic James Agee dismissed its treatment of psychiatry as lightweight, maintaining it contained 'just enough of the Id as could be displayed in Bergdorf Goodman's window.' Other critics dismissed the whole psychoanalysis business as one of Hitchcock's 'McGuffins', a device giving impetus to the plot but having little significance in itself.
Haney, pages 329-330:
Clearly, Greg [Peck] needed something to lift his spirits. Fortunately, he was presented with a delectable mood-enhancer in the shape of Sophia Loren. The belle of Naples had signed on to do a picture with him.
Born 31 years before, illegitimate, in a ward for unwed mothers, Loren had gone on to become a rich and talented actress. Commenting on her extraordinary emotional equilibrium, columnist Rex Reed noted: 'For a woman who has spent most of her life in the headlines, been threatened with excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church, jail sentences by the Italian government, rape by German soldiers, robbery at gunpoint by thugs, scandal and sometimes even death, she remains sane, natural, and unpretentious.'
Webpage created 28 May 2005. Last modified 28 May 2005.
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