The Tragedy of Time

Why did they kill Robert Taylor’s show before you had a chance to see it?  What will this disaster mean to a man who, after thirty years as a star, is as broke as ever.

by Cindy Adams

I have been reliably informed that this article comes from TV Radio Mirror magazine, December 1963.

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1935

1935

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1960s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Taylor, age 52, is about the last of that Hollywood dynasty that spawned kings like Gable and Cooper.  Back in the stone age, when Mr. Taylor crunched Greta Garbo to his chest in Camille, children screamed, teenagers fainted and women abandoned their husbands….Today a full three decades after he first began his reign, he is as broke as when he started.

This was the year he figured he’d finally catch the brass ring financially.  This was the year he was to star in a new TV series based on the files of a federal agency, Washington’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare.  The deal was signed, sealed and in production.  It was killed by a chronic ailment, the pre-season shakes.

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In “The Detectives,” 1959-1962.

These are the facts.  From there on, however, the situation is a blur.  The truth depends on which side you listen to.  Only three things are crystal clear as of this writing.  One) For assorted reasons, NBC axed the show.  Two) For obvious reasons Four star (Bob’s partner in the show’s ownership) then sued NBC.  No matter who wins what, the loser is Taylor.

And he can’t afford it.  Not professionally.  Not financially.

“Nobody likes to lose an opportunity to be before the public,” he’d said to me when we discussed this, “but for me it’s even more difficult for me because I’m not financially independent.  If I were, I wouldn’t mind a setback, but I’m not in that position.  Most definitely not.”

Assuming that an all-time king of the  jungle like Robert Taylor earned a fortune back in the day when taxes were still negligible, I asked so how come he didn’t have a bundle stashed away?

“Because I have every known expenditure,” he sighed, “I support two sets of mothers, There’s my wife’s mother and mine.  There are also other relatives who haven’t done badly with my help.  Besides that, we have our own two children, Terrence, who’s seven and, Tessa, who’s four.  In addition to that, there’s Ursula’s two children by her first marriage.”

After gently touching on what I knew was a sore point, he continued on quickly.  “And don’t forget, when I began working in ’32, my salary was 50 bucks a week.  Not until taxes began their slow, upward trend, did I start  making any real money.”

The hungry years

And then, of course, there were those hungry years in the 50s when, for a long while, it looked as though Bob’s career had taken the count.  Barring time out for a world war, he’d been under contract to MGM steadily from 1938 to 1958.  However, toward the end, nothing exciting was coming out of Hollywood in general or his studio in particular.  Everything was in the doldrums, including Metro’s tall, dark and blue-eyed pin-up boy.  Everybody was worried.  Especially Taylor.

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With future wife Ursula at the Golden Globes, January 1954.

“It’s pretty dismal when that unemployment fear starts eating at you,” he said.  “In fact, you get damned scared.  The truth is, I know I became plenty difficult to live with during those years when I wasn’t working much.  Things were pretty grim, and whatever pictures I made were pretty bad.  It was my 1960 series  on television, “The Detectives,” that saved me.  It not only brought me back to the limelight, but that weekly paycheck helped plenty.”

“Our farm can also be considered another nice little drain,” added his Frau, German-born actress Ursula Thiess, who sat curled up on the couch fiddling with her plain, little gold wedding band which matched her plain, little gold earrings which constituted the only fripperies she wore.

“Not only isn’t it making me a dime,” groaned the farmer-in-chief, ” but it’s costing me a bundle.  See, I’m sinking in all my dough, hoping someday I can retire to hunt, fish and have a ball.   Right now, I keep horses and I keep chickens and I hope eventually that these horses and chickens will keep me.  I want to whip that ranch into a paying proposition so I never have to worry about acting jobs again.  But right now—-wow!”

Taylor’s anxiety to realize some security was evidenced in the deal he made with that first TV series.  Rather than take all cash as his salary, he took much of it in Four Star stock.  Like Joseph in Egypt, he wanted to store it up during the good years of plenty so he’d have it again in the lean years of famine.  That’s why this cancellation is more than just a blow to his pride.

We were sitting in the Taylors’ hotel suite when they passed through New York recently.

The American actor Robert Taylor (Spangler Arlington Brough) walking hand in hand with his wife, the German actress Ursula Thiess. 1963 (Photo by Angelo CozziMondadori Portfolio by Getty Images)

Actor Robert Taylor walking hand in hand with his wife, the German actress Ursula Thiess. 1963

As he pattered inside to answer the bedroom phone, I asked Ursula how she handled him when things were black.  “Well, like any wife handles any husband.  You just keep on soothing.  What else can you do?”

“Fortunately,” she continued, “I’m not the type who needs flashy jewels or expensive clothes.  Bob buys much of my wardrobe, and if he brings back three outfits for me, I almost automatically pick the cheapest.  And simplest.  I don’t even look at cocktail things any more because we seldom go out.  We haven’t been to a night club in years.”

The Taylors live a simple, unHollywoodish, unsophisticated existence.  Home is their 113 acre ranch, six minutes from the neon of Sunset Boulevard.  The usual evening’s festivity is TV.  Or playing with the kids.  Bob beds down early.  Ursula stays  up reading.

Bob Taylor is a man’s man.  His kick isn’t pub crawling.  His red-hot enjoyment is squatting in a duck blind, waist-high in mud and sludge and ooze–waiting for a bead on a duck.  And, if Bob digs this, so does she.  As Bob goes, so goes Ursula.

For a real swinging night is when the Taylors crowd the fireplace with  few close chums like the Ronny Reagans.  From then until it’s for Robert to hit the sack or the ducks, his guest laze around popping some edible corn, throwing some conversational corn and the piece-de-resistance is maybe devouring a home-cooked Bob Taylor pie.

“So you can see,” she smiled, “I don’t spend money on wardrobe.  My outfits consist mainly of jeans.”

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Ursula and Robert Taylor with Ronald and Nancy Reagan on the occasion of Mr Reagan’s birthday, 1950s.

From a quickie, 60 minute insight into their lives, it was obvious this is a 14-karat-gold love affair.  Sweetened by much of the bitterness they’ve shared together, it’s not the type that’s souped up for company, either.  Even when discussing their other troubles–such as Ursula’s two children by her first marriage—-it was obvious they’re together as one against the world.

Not one of us seemed anxious to push the discussion toward those bizarre newspaper headlines which recently told the difficulties with Ursula’s 21-year-old Manuela.  The latest newspaper dispatches out of Hollywood had screamed that Manuela was hospitalized again.  As a reporter I wanted to ask the real story.  But as a human being, I couldn’t.

The strain, visibly etched on the faces of these two people, was too touching.  Although her eyes glistened with unshed tears, they both voluntarily unfolded the story.  It was as if they’d been bottled up and almost wanted to spill it out…even to a total stranger.

A hopeless case

“It’s odd,” started Bob softly, “but both children came to America together.  The boy accepted everything given to him.  The girl rejected  everything.  But where she developed a resentment for what we represented, Ursula’ son had a different attitude.  His was, ‘Well the heck with it all.  My parents can straighten out everything.  They’re rich.  Famous.  They can do anything.  Nothing’s too tough for them.’  He’s not as badly off as she, but I definitely must face the fact that he’s not completely adjusted, either.  At this moment, he’s back in Germany living with his father.  We’re hoping that maybe this might help him work out his problems.  Frankly, you don’t know what to do any more.  You try everything.”

Ursula openly discussed Manuela, whom they call Monny.  “We don’t know what actually

A mid-seventies shotof Bob's family: Manuela, Tessa, Ursula and Terry; from the collection of Terrence Taylor. courtesy of Terry Taylor

A mid-seventies shot of Bob’s family: Manuela, Tessa, Ursula and Terry; from Charles Tranberg, Robert Taylor: a biography,
Bear Manor Media, 2011, page 384.

aggravated that last episode last year, but psychiatrists assure us it’s what they call a “preconditioned illness.”  It means that this something in her own personal makeup.  That Bob and me…our life…the fact that we are who we are…has nothing to do with it.”

“We’re also told that it’s hopeless,” explained Bob gently.  “It’s not a psychosis.  It’s a character disturbance.  You see, she’s not ill enough to be committed to an institution permanently.  Often she’s quite capable of recognizing the harm she does.

“We’ve tortured ourselves that her problems are triggered because we’re movie stars.  It’s the first question everybody asks us, and it’s what we’ve asked ourselves constantly.  We’ve had every regret famous people have when their children turn out wrong.  But every doctor has assured us that the answer is positively no.  That it’s a real illness.  Not the slightest engendered by us or her environment.  That her deep-seated emotional disturbance would come out anyway, and Ursula’s marrying me or being in this business was in no way responsible.”

Ursula Thiess, who’s often labelled The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, and who looks scarcely twenty herself, looked up.  “This type of child will to anything to get attention.  This is all a bid to be the center of attraction in the only way she thinks she can.  It seems Monny feels incapable of reaching the highest level of life like she feels we did.  So, rather than compete with us, she seeks the opposite.  She goes toward the lowest denominator.  Those with whom there’s no challenge.  Those on the bottom rung, with whom she’ll feel comfortable…even superior.  Monny’s rebellion comes out in peculiar friendships.  She gravitates to beat characters and wallows in that association–especially because she knows what it does to us.

“She begins resenting all she’s had.  She goes through periods where Oh! if only she could swallow our names.  Actually, she’s an introvert.  Maybe a long-term relationship with a psychiatrist could straighten her out.  Who knows?  Right now she’s at the U.C.L.A. Neuropsychiatric Hospital.  The doctors tell us that in their judgment it hardly seems likely this is a condition she will outgrow with time.”

They continued softly, “When she’s thinking straight, she’s a gorgeous child,” said her mother.

“She has a beautiful figure,” said her stepfather.  “She’s not only a beauty but she’s creative.  This child can write and paint beautifully.  But I guess all we can do is hope…and pray.”

1950

Rober Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck shortly before their divorce, 1950.

Ursula Thiess has occasionally jazzed up many a movie and TV screen.  However, since May 1954, she’s put her ambitions in mothballs to concentrate on being Bob Taylor’s missus.  Part of this decision undoubtedly springs from another low spot in Bob’s life: his divorce from first wife Barbara Stanwyck.

“I haven’t seen Barbara in two years,” Bob said.  “I used to drop in on the spur of the moment and we’d have a cup of coffee together.  I kind of feel sorry for her.”

He thought silently for a moment, then, “Somewhere along the line, Barbara lost out on happiness.  She’s a terrific actress.  But that’s all she ever cared about.  She could have been happier if she’d had a hobby.  Or given of herself.  Or shared the things a man likes to do.  In all these years, she’s never ever come near our house or even bothered to get to know Ursula.  It’s a shame.  Ursula could be very good for her.”

Perhaps Stanwyck isn’t why he’s loathe to have the second Mrs. Taylor win any Academy Awards, but whatever the reason, it’s agreed Ursula’s career is very minor in their lives.

“Recently I did the Tonight Show,” Bob said.  “And some old gal in the first row leaned onto the stage, stuck out her hand, and did that tired ‘remember me’ bit.  To tell the truth, I didn’t.  Finally said, ‘Don’t you remember?  I interviewed you for my school paper.  We haven’t changed a bit, have we?’

“Let’s face it honey,” he sighed.  “The ravages of age take their toll, no matter what I try.  I mean, what are you going to do?  You can’t fight it.  The only thing you can fight is the overweight bit.  But even that’s getting to be a touch struggle for me.  Time was, when I got a little flabby around the middle, I’d just exclude that second piece of pie.  These days it’s not enough any more.  I’ve really got to stick on diets a week at a time.

“And that’s why,” he said, showing the disappointment he felt over the loss of his show, “you’ve really got to grab every single opportunity that comes your way.  You’ve got to make everything count.  And what’s most important, you’ve got to try to salt away every buck you can, because there are always younger, newer guys coming up every day.”

swirlLike many people who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, Robert Taylor had an inconsistent relationship with money.

“Bob was a man never intimidated by celebrity personalities and, God knows, he met them all.  But he stood in awe of those of his colleagues who had acquired wealth through wise investments.  He had a fear of dying a pauper, and developed a strange sense of economics.  His generosity would not make him hesitate to invest in very expensive camera equipment, jewelry for his wife, a horse or other luxuries.  But the monthly milk bill would sometimes be questioned and he would ask me to watch it more carefully.  His early childhood savings trends were simply not in proportion to the realities of present household expenses.”    Ursula Thiess, My Life Before, With & After Robert Taylor, 2007, page 153.

Manuela Thiess eventually overcame her troubles and became a successful educator and photographer.  You can see some of her photographs on her Facebook page.  She is married and lives in Mexico.

 

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About giraffe44

I became a Robert Taylor fan at the age of 15 when his TV show, "The Detectives" premiered. My mother wanted to watch it because she remembered Mr. Taylor from the thirties. I took one look and that was it. I spent the rest of my high school career watching Robert Taylor movies on late night TV, buying photos of him, making scrapbooks and being a typical teenager. College, marriage and career intervened. I remember being sad when Mr. Taylor died. I mailed two huge scrapbooks to Ursula Thiess. I hope she got them. Time passed, retirement, moving to Florida. Then in 2012 my husband Fred pointed that there were two Robert Taylor movies that evening on Turner Classic Movies--"Ivanhoe" and "Quentin Durward." I watched both and it happened all over again. I started this blog both for fans and for people who didn't know about Robert Taylor. As the blog passes 200,000 views I'm delighted that so many people have come by and hope it will help preserve the legacy of this fine actor and equally good man.
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21 Responses to The Tragedy of Time

  1. David Foe says:

    This came from an issue of TV Radio Mirror magazine. I have the issue. It shows a picture of RT in “Camille” and a contemporary photo, with that headline that really has nothing to do with the story, but is certainly an attention grabber.

  2. He does not mention another big drain on his income, the 15% alimony he had to pay to Barbara Stanwyck for the rest of his life after their divorce.

  3. Oh, very good point Dianne. I wonder if that was from his gross or his net income. I thought the article was interesting although I’m not crazy about Cindy Adams’ constant use of sentence fragments. Nice to hear from you. Judith

  4. slimbrowning says:

    He could have challenged the divorce settlement if his finances were so dire. He chose not to. Ursula could have worked to supplement the family’s income. She chose not to. He was very cold and cruel to Barbara, as evidenced by his comments in this interview. I used to feel that he was a good man who made some mistakes but this article has certainly shed some light on the kind of man he really was. Now, I have no sympathy for him whatsoever.

    • You’re certainly entitled to your opinion. I do believe that Ms. Stanwyck was being vengeful when she demanded the 15%. She had much more money than he did. It was a way of hanging onto him. She would have done better to let him go so he wouldn’t resent her so much. Apparently she tried to get more money after his death. I think that the whole money thing was done by her out of genuine pain but it was a mistake.

  5. Mr. Taylor did not mention or complain about the divorce settlement in this article. He accepted his responsibilities for caring for all persons who depended on him – his wife, his ex-wife (who was NOT financially dependent), his children, his stepchildren, his mother, his mother-in-law, at one point his maternal grandmother. He was a gallant gentleman, a fine actor, a patriotic American & a wonderful human being in the perception of this long-time fan who has read everything she could about him & seen almost all of his movies & TV shows.

  6. Hi, Dianne, I think you sum up Mr. Taylor’s character beautifully. In the words of an earlier time, he was a gentleman, a gentle man, a good man, someone you could trust. There don’t seem to be a lot of them around any more, more’s the pity (my husband excepted, of course). Thanks for writing. Judith

  7. fulvia says:

    I agree with Judith: Mr.Taylor was a gentleman that kept many people and Barbara Stanwick had more money than him.

  8. Al Perry says:

    I have a number of things to say about this subject from a personal point of view, but I hesitate to upset anyone who may have already drawn their own conclusions from reading limited unsubstantiated “stories” from the Internet or without knowing or fully vetting the “honest story” about the Taylor/Stanwyck connection. I’ll decide later whether or not to post what I do know “first hand” about Robert Taylor’s personal life when I personally knew him, not just as an employer, but also as a personal friend when I simply called him ~ “Bob”.

  9. Al, anything you have to say would be valuable as we have so few first hand sources about Mr. Taylor. Don’t worry about upsetting anyone. The truth can hurt but it hurts fairly. Judith

  10. June Alexander says:

    For those who may be interested, comments about Robert Taylor by Al Perry were made in Judith’s blog dated September 24, 2016

  11. Right, June, thanks for the reminder. Judith

  12. dianne345 says:

    He talks about making bad pictures in the 1950s. I think he must have meant the late 1940s, after WWII, when his career was in a slump. Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe & Knights of the Round Table changed all that, & I think most of his 50s movies were quite good, including the last 2 he made under his MGM contract, The Law & Jake Wade & Party Girl. I was surprised when he went into TV in 1959, but I loved The Detectives. His second TV series, which never got off the ground, involved cases from the Department of Health, Education & Welfare & might have reflected his personal conservative views & offended the Johnson administration in 1963. Just a theory.,

  13. Dianne, I think you’re right. “Undercurrent” wasn’t all that great algthough I think “High Wall” is. On the other hand, he hated “The Hangman” in the late 50’s. I have read that it was the government who backed out of the HEW series although for unspecified reasons. Judith

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