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Esther Williams Is All Wet, Say Friends of the Late Jeff Chandler

Movies * Angry colleagues and others close to the '50s screen hunk react to cross-dressing claims in tell-all book.

October 27, 1999|GLENN LOVELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Outraged friends and colleagues are rallying to the defense of late '50s screen hunk Jeff Chandler to offset damage done to his reputation by Esther William's racy bestselling autobiography, "The Million Dollar Mermaid."

According to Williams, who began a love affair with Chandler during the shooting of "Raw Wind in Eden" in 1956, Chandler was "happy and secure only in women's clothing." Cross-dressing, she writes, gave the actor a sexual thrill.

Recalling the evening she allegedly found Chandler in red wig and flowered chiffon dress, Williams writes, "Here was my lover--a strong, manly figure by anyone's estimate--who had just been standing before me in high heels and a dress. This was no joke. He enjoyed that kind of thing. He was a cross-dresser."

To which actress Jane Russell, who played opposite Chandler in the 1955 melodrama "Foxfire," responds: "I've never heard of such a thing. Cross-dressing is the last thing I would expect of Jeff. He was a sweet guy, definitely all man."

Without checking into the story, network news magazines, including "Dateline NBC" and "Entertainment Tonight!," aired segments that gave credence to the revelations. Those who knew the actor say such posthumous "Mommie Dearest" stories are both unconscionable and immaterial.

"It made my jaw drop," says actress Marsha Hunt of the accusations in Williams' book. Hunt co-starred with Chandler in "The Plunderers" (1960). "I never heard a word or whisper that intimated that about Jeff. He was widely liked and admired . . . a very dear man and a generous, unassuming actor." Adds Fess Parker, who appeared with Chandler in the 1959 western "The Jayhawkers," "I was shocked and surprised to read something like that. I can tell you that there was no conversation, joking or otherwise, about that kind of thing on the set."

What really galls the actor's friends is that he can't defend himself against Williams' charges. Chandler, known for his rich baritone voice and prematurely gray hair, died in 1961 as the result of a botched operation for chronic back pain. He was 42.

"What good does it do to speak ill of the dead?" says writer Norman Corwin, who knew Chandler from a 1960 Pasadena Playhouse production of his drama "The Rivalry." "I think it's crass."

Williams waves off the backlash to her book as "naive." The so-called revelations about Chandler's fetish, she says, are "common knowledge," dating to the '60s and a Chicago Tribune interview she gave to Gail Sheehy. She repeated them in her autobiography as a means of introspection.

"If you really think about it," says the former MGM contract player famed for her swimming roles, "the one who was the victim was I. . . . I'm searching my own mind, asking 'Why did I attract this particular aberration?' "

Athletic and tall (6 feet, 5 inches), the Brooklyn-born Chandler (born Ira Grossel) was perfect for wide-screen CinemaScope and full-figured leading ladies, like Williams and Russell. He was a favorite of macho directors like Budd Boetticher ("Red Ball Express") and Sam Fuller ("Merrill's Marauders.") His specialty: men of integrity who quietly endured the worst that the enemy or society could dish out.

In the 1950 western "Broken Arrow," Chandler appeared opposite James Stewart as Cochise. The role, which he reprised in two other films, brought an Oscar nomination. In 1957, he tangled with Orson Welles' corrupt rancher in the B-movie thriller "Man in the Shadow."

Off screen, Chandler was both a civil rights activist and die-hard baseball fan known to suit up with the Dodgers for spring training. He spoke his mind, recalls Hunt, and paid the consequences (he was suspended by Universal for turning down assignments).

Russell recalls being in Honolulu in 1960 for a fund-raiser when Williams sought her out and expressed misgivings about her relationship with Chandler. "She said she just had to get away and think, but she certainly never mentioned anything like what she has in her book," Russell recalls. "If there was anything going on [with cross-dressing], she would have told me then. She didn't.

"Esther has a naughty side. She likes to nail people to the wall."

Williams fires back: "Why in the world would I tell Jane Russell about a personal problem as intimate as that? That would be sheer gossip."

Corwin and others believe that Chandler is the latest victim of high-stakes celebrity publishing, in which each subsequent tell-all must tell more. "This is a community where rumor is rife; there's never a shortage of fuel for the gossipers," says Corwin, who teaches at USC.

"But in all these years, for there never to have been any allusion to [cross-dressing] strikes me offhand as being extremely unlikely. Unfortunately, that kind of revelation of sexual behavior, about someone who's dead and can't defend himself, has become commonplace."

Williams counters that the public has become inured to smut. "After Bill and Monica, I don't think anybody is shocked by anything," she says. "You want to hear scandalous, look at Eddie Fisher's book about Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds. We live in a tabloid world."

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