June Allyson, the sunny, raspy-voiced “perfect wife” of James Stewart, Van Johnson and other movie heroes, has died, her daughter said Monday. She was 88.
Allyson died Saturday at her home in Ojai, with her husband of nearly 30 years, David Ashrow, at her side, Pamela Allyson Powell said. She died of pulmonary respiratory failure and acute bronchitis after a long illness.
During World War II, American GIs pinned up photos of Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, but June Allyson was the girl they wanted to come home to. Petite, blond and alive with fresh-faced optimism, she seemed the ideal sweetheart and wife, supportive and unthreatening.
“I had the most wonderful last meeting with June at her house. ... We were such dear friends. I will miss her,” lifelong friend Esther Williams said.
With typical wonderment, Allyson expressed surprise in a 1986 interview that she had ever become a movie star:
“I have big teeth. I lisp. My eyes disappear when I smile. My voice is funny. I don’t sing like Judy Garland. I don’t dance like Cyd Charisse. But women identify with me. And while men desire Cyd Charisse, they’d take me home to meet Mom.”
Her life wasn't all sunshine
Allyson’s real life belied the sunshiny image she presented in films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. As she revealed in her 1982 autobiography, she had an alcoholic father and was raised by a single mother in the Bronx. Her “ideal marriage” to actor-director Dick Powell was beset with frustrations.
After Powell’s cancer death in 1963, she battled breakdowns, alcoholism and a disastrous second marriage. She credited her recovery to Ashrow, her third husband, a children’s dentist who became a nutrition expert.
Born Eleanor Geisman on Oct. 7, 1917, Ella was 6 when her alcoholic father left. Her mother worked as a telephone operator and restaurant cashier. At 8, the girl was bicycling when a dead tree branch fell on her. Several bones were broken and doctors said she would never walk again. Months of physical therapy helped her to defy that prognosis.
“After the accident and the extensive therapy, we were desperate,” Allyson wrote in her autobiography. “Sometimes mother would not eat dinner, and I’d ask her why. She would say she wasn’t hungry, but later I realized there was only enough food for one.”
After graduating from a wheelchair to crutches to braces, Ella was inspired by Ginger Rogers’ dancing with Fred Astaire. Fully recovered, she tried out for a chorus job in a Broadway show, “Sing out the News.” The choreographer gave her a job and a new name: Allyson, a family name, and June, for the month.
As June Allyson she danced on stage in “Very Warm for May” and “Higher and Higher.” For “Panama Hattie,” she understudied Betty Hutton and subbed for her when Miss Hutton got the measles. Her performance led to a role in “Best Foot Forward” in 1941.
Perfect movie wife
MGM signed her to a contract, and she appeared in small roles. Then in “Two Girls and a Sailor” (1944), her winsome beauty and bright personality connected with U.S. servicemen. She starred in “Music for Millions,” “The Sailor Takes a Wife,” “Two Sisters from Boston” and “Good News.”
Allyson appeared opposite Johnson in several films, and she was Stewart’s wife in “The Stratton Story,” “The Glenn Miller Story” and “Strategic Air Command.”
Only once did she play an unsympathetic role, as a wife who torments husband Jose Ferrer in “The Shrike.” It was a failure.
In 1949, she starred with Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and Margaret O’Brien in “Little Women.”
In 1945, Allyson married Powell, the crooner who turned serious actor and then producer-director and television tycoon. The marriage seemed like one of Hollywood’s happiest, but it wasn’t.
She began earning big money after leaving MGM, “but it had little meaning to me because I never saw the money, and I didn’t even ask Richard how much it was. ... It went into a common pot with Richard’s money.”
The couple separated in 1961, but reconciled and remained together until his death in 1963. They had two children, Pamela, who lives in Santa Monica, and Richard Keith Powell, who lives in Los Angeles.
A few months after Powell’s death, Allyson married his barber, Glenn Maxwell. They separated 10 months later, and she sued for divorce, charging he hit her and abused her in front of the children and passed bad checks for gambling debts.
On Oct. 30, 1976, she married Ashrow. It was a very peaceful time for her, Powell said, because she and Ashrow were free to travel and spend time with family and their dogs.
Guest star, pitch woman and more
After her film career ended in the late ‘50s, Allyson starred on television as hostess and occasional star of “The Dupont Show with June Allyson.” The anthology series lasted two seasons. In later years the actress appeared on TV shows such as “Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote.”
For the last 20 years, Allyson represented the Kimberly-Clark Corp. in commercials for Depends and championed the importance of research in urological and gynecological diseases in seniors.
“Mom was always so proud of representing a product that provided such a service to senior citizens, including at that time, her own mother,” Powell said.
The company established the June Allyson Foundation in honor of her work.
In 1988, she was appointed by President Reagan to the federal Council on Aging.
“For nearly 60 years, we have been hearing how much she meant to so many people from all over the world. She still gets fan mail from places like Germany and Holland. They send old photos. It was wonderful to us,” Powell said.
Besides Ashrow and her children, she is survived by her brother, Dr. Arthur Peters, and her grandson, Richard Logan Powell.
A private family memorial will be held in Ojai. A day of remembrance will be scheduled in the fall, Powell said.