Evelyn Keyes, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister Suellen in “Gone With the Wind” and counted director John Huston and bandleader Artie Shaw among her famous husbands, has died. She was 91.
The actress died July 4 of uterine cancer at her home in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, producer and close friend Allan Glaser said Friday.
Glaser said the news was withheld because lawyers wanted to wait until the death certificate was filed.
Keyes’ personal life often overshadowed her acting career. Besides her often turbulent marriages to Shaw and directors Huston and Charles Vidor, she lived with the flamboyant producer Mike Todd for three years during his preparation and filming of “Around the World in 80 Days.” She played a cameo role in the movie and helped on publicity.
Todd sent her to the premiere in Caracas, then called her abruptly from Paris with this message: “Listen, I have to tell you. I’ve fallen in love with Elizabeth (Taylor).”
“Oh well, nothing lasts forever,” she philosophized in 1977. “The good part was that I invested all my money in `Around the World in 80 Days,’ and that set me up for life.”
Keyes gave a frank account of her romances and marriages in her 1977 autobiography, “Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister.” Her role in the 1939 classic led to a contract at Columbia Pictures and stardom.
Among her notable roles: as Robert Montgomery’s lover in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941), the Ruby Keeler role as Al Jolson’s wife in “The Jolson Story” (1946), and as Dick Powell’s wife in “Mrs. Mike” (1949).
She also starred in B pictures that were later praised by movie critics as prime examples of film noir: “Johnny O’Clock” (1947), “The Killer That Stalked New York” (1950), “The Prowler” (1951), “99 River Street” (1953) and “The Big Combo” (1955).
Keyes’ marriages and divorces made her the darling of gossip columns and fan magazines. Her first marriage, to a handsome Englishman and heavy drinker named Barton Bainbridge, ended in headlines when he fatally shot himself during a separation.
Vidor, a handsome Hungarian who directed her first Columbia film, “The Lady in Question,” became romantically involved with Keyes, though both were married at the time. When her husband committed suicide and Vidor’s wife, actress Karen Morley, divorced him, Vidor and Keyes married. The marriage ended two years later when she discovered he was unfaithful to her as well.
Husband No. 3 was Huston. She was impressed when they met at a Hollywood dinner party, and more impressed when he took her afterward to his Tarzana horse ranch and made no effort to seduce her.
Their marriage in 1946 led to an adventurous life. Just one of the examples she recalled in 1971 involved Huston returning home from the 1949 film “We Were Strangers,” with a gift from actress Jennifer Jones, a pet chimpanzee.
“The chimp fell in love with John, and he brought it home to live with us in our all-white apartment.”
David Niven wrote in his memoir “Bring on the Empty Horses” that Keyes became exasperated at the non-housebroken animal and issued an ultimatum: “One of us has to go. It’s the monkey or me.”
According to Niven, Huston replied, “Honey, it’s you.” Keyes reported in her own memoir that it was the chimp that got the boot.
The Huston marriage did end in 1950, however, and Keyes sought analysis to recover from the failure. Her conclusion: “I was always looking for the same man — a strong father figure.”
Keyes’ marriage to Shaw in 1957 seemed to follow the same pattern. He had given up his brilliant career as a clarinetist and bandleader and had been seeking intellectual challenges.
Shaw played Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle, giving her a new name, Keri, introducing her to literature and leading her on his world travels. For a time they lived in Spain. After several years she tired of his dominance and they separated. They divorced in 1985.
After Shaw died in 2004 at age 94, she battled in court for a share of his estate, saying he had promised it to her. A jury backed her in 2006, but the executor of the estate vowed to appeal.
Keyes was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1916, according to state birth records; some references give a later year. She grew up fatherless and poor in Atlanta. A glowing blond beauty with an alluring figure, she danced in nightclubs and at 17 set out for Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille signed her to a seven-year contract and cast her in “The Buccaneer.”
After a few minor roles at Paramount, she appeared in “Gone With the Wind” and then moved to Columbia, where her career blossomed.
After her film career and marriages ended, she turned author, producing an autobiographical novel, “I Am a Billboard,” two memoirs, “Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister” and “I’ll Think About It Tomorrow,” film scripts and articles.
Keyes took a frank view of her life and career in a 1999 interview:
“To become a big movie star like Joan Crawford you need to wear blinders and pay single-minded attention to your career. Nobody paid attention to me, including me. I was the original Cinderella girl, looking for the happy ending in the fairy story. But my fantasy prince never came.”