Eleanor Powell always relied on God during tough times – especially when her faith was being tested.
The actress, who went toe-to-toe with Fred Astaire as a dancer during Hollywood’s golden era, is the subject of a new book, “Eleanor Powell: Born to Dance,” which puts a spotlight on her life and career.
Authors Paula Broussard and Lisa Royère, who began their research in the ‘70s, spoke to numerous sources who knew and worked with Powell, as well as Powell herself. The actress died in 1982 at age 69.
“We felt that Eleanor’s legacy had fallen to the wayside,” Broussard told Fox News Digital. “She left films relatively early. Many other musicals in Hollywood with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland certainly became more known. But frankly, I’m really surprised she isn’t as known today.”
Powell’s story has largely been overshadowed by that of her ex-husband, Glenn Ford. The actor, who died in 2006 at age 90, was the subject of a 2011 biography written by the couple’s son Peter Ford, “Glenn Ford: A Life.” It gives an intimate view of his personal and public life, including his notorious affairs with many of his leading ladies.
It’s been reported that Ford had a 40-year on-and-off affair with Rita Hayworth, who was called Hollywood’s “Love Goddess” after men across the country worshiped her as a sex symbol.
Ford married Powell, his first wife of four, in 1943. The union lasted until 1959.
“Glenn was a player, as we would say in modern times,” Broussard explained. “They had been married a very, very short time when they had their son Peter. I don’t think he was ready to be a father at the time. He didn’t warm up to that right away. I think in some way he was a little jealous of the attention Eleanor gave to Peter. And Eleanor tried to overcompensate many times because Glenn was away.”
Powell starred in several glitzy MGM musicals, such as “Born to Dance” (1936), “Rosalie” (1937), “Lady Be Good” (1941) and “Thousands Cheer” (1943). When Peter was born in 1945, Powell immediately immersed herself in motherhood.
Ford sought comfort elsewhere.
“She was a devoted mother,” Royère explained. “Peter said himself she was a great dancer, but a greater mother. She always put her child first. She tried her best to cope with Glenn’s lack of availability. Sometimes she went a little too far, but she was very attentive to her son’s needs. That was her priority.”
But Powell was aware of Ford’s wandering eye.
According to the book, sparks immediately ignited between Ford and Hayworth on the set of 1946’s “Gilda.” It didn’t take long for rumors of an on-set affair to reach Powell’s ears. The news left Powell “unsettled” and “devastated.” The book noted that Ford’s relationship with Hayworth “would be only the first of dozens of infidelities to come.”
“In those days, everything was filtered,” said Broussard. “It was filtered through gossip columnists, through the studios – through the press machine they created. Anything bad was quickly reworked for the public. Eleanor went along with that. She did not want Glenn’s career to be affected by Rita. And you won’t find much from that period about Rita and Glenn. It would be much later when we learned stories of their relationship. We went through many reports from the period, and we didn’t see it in the press. Everything was reworked and presented differently. It wasn’t mentioned on purpose.”
“Eleanor went along with things and just put up with it,” Broussard added.
Over a 25-year period, Hayworth and Ford made five films together. Every time their romance rekindled, gossip columnists pumped out damage control stories. At one point, Powell told Ford, “I don’t trust that hussy – you know I’m jealous of her.” That didn’t faze her husband.
The book claimed that at one point, Hayworth discovered she was pregnant. But during her affair with Ford, she was also romantically involved with Howard Hughes. The pilot and director, who had zero interest in fatherhood, was “furious” about the pregnancy and pressured Hayworth to get an abortion. The press reported that Hayworth suddenly “grew ill.” Peter later claimed that Hayworth intimated to Ford that he was the father. The book noted that it’s likely Powell wasn’t aware of the pregnancy as columnists continued to keep quiet about the affair.
“She told me she believed in God from a very early age,” Royère explained. “She told me that whenever she would dance, whether it was in Broadway or Hollywood, she would dance for the Lord. She would imagine that she was dancing for him. And that was the attitude that she had all through those years.”
“She was involved with the first Presbyterian Church of Beverly Hills for many, many years as a Sunday school teacher,” Royère continued. “She became the first person to produce a children’s TV show (‘Faith of Our Children’) in Los Angeles. She won five Emmys for it… [The studio] wanted it to go national, but they had some demands, and she did not concede.
“She was also sticking up for racial inclusion. It’s probably one of the first TV shows to show a racially mixed group of children in a classroom. Some of the higher-ups didn’t like that, and she was reprimanded for it… The following week she came back with all Black children in her class.”
But when it came to her personal life, Powell eventually had enough. The couple finally called it quits. Ford continued his womanizing ways, alleging he had a six-month fling with Judy Garland and a one-night stand with Marilyn Monroe. A sofa on which Ford allegedly had sex with Monroe was up for auction in 2008.
“Eleanor took her marriage very seriously,” said Royère. “She tried her best to make it a success. And even though it wasn’t… she tried to soldier on… And I think keeping busy being on the road to earn money helped. She knew it was one thing that she was good at, and she wasn’t a failure… And I think the marriage lasted as long as it did because she was protecting her son.”
The marriage was over, but Powell’s life wasn’t. The book chronicled how Powell, who received a low settlement from her divorce, was ready to go back to work. The public embraced her with open arms, and she enjoyed a successful comeback career in Las Vegas.
“She was worried that fans had forgotten her,” said Broussard. “But she came back as a beautiful, slim, powerful dancer. She hadn’t lost her charm from the movies. She astounded everybody… And she had a very wholesome appeal. She was the girl next door with this incredible talent. She was a very natural, all-American girl who would just erupt into these wonderful dance numbers.”
In 1960, it was reported that Ford bought the lot next to the Beverly Hills home Hayworth shared with her husband James Hill. When Hayworth died in 1987 at age 68, he was among the pallbearers that helped lay her to rest.
After 1961, Powell retreated to her private life and was heavily involved with her church.
“Faith always stayed with Eleanor,” said Royère. “She developed cancer… and when you get cancer, you can do one of two things. You can either turn away from your faith, or you can reach out to God and ask for help. She did the latter. She said, ‘I trust the Lord. I know he’s holding my hand through this. I know he’s got me. Whatever happens, I trust him.’ That’s how she ended her life, clinging onto her belief in God and being comforted by it.”
Today, Broussard and Royère hope that their book will encourage readers to rediscover her films.
“I hope people are inspired by Eleanor,” said Royère. “She persevered through it all, through the ups and downs. And she handled it all with grace. She wanted to lead a life that was right for her… She deserves to be remembered.”