The Mystery of William Powell — Part I (1932) 🇺🇸
He came from a family untouched by the theater and he was destined for the law — but he became an actor.
by Evelyn Gray
William Powell is one of the fortunate men who carved his own destiny.
He wanted to be an actor. He was born to be an actor.
How or why, nobody could figure. There were not any actors in the Powell family. Never had been. No knowledge of nor contact with the theater had ever touched the members of the rather clannish circle.
By all the laws of heredity William Powell should have been a quiet, respectable, orderly business man. By careful training and early environment, he was intended to be a lawyer.
Fervent distaste for routine and time clocks kept him from being the first. A mad, romantic youthful passion destroyed his intentions to be the second.
He fulfilled his own desires. He is the thing he wanted to be — and his family all admit that it has turned out very well indeed.
In the latter part of July, 1892, a little house on Pittsburgh’s north side began to show signs of unusual activity. Neighbors noticed a lady arrive in a carriage. Another appeared on foot. Soon another carriage, with more well-gowned ladies, arrived. Wicker suitcases of amazing proportions were carried in.
All along the street lace curtains were pushed back. Curious eyes peeped out, taking in these unusual occurrences. “Nettie Powell must be going to have her baby,” said one housewife to another. “I see her mother and sisters have come.”
In those days, women had their babies at home. Hospitals, baby wards, obstetricians would have been regarded with scorn, not to say suspicion. The family doctor officiated, with the family in eager attendance. A cup of tea instead of a can of ether was administered for comfort.
Young Powell was late for his first entrance. He held up production for days, even weeks. The neighbors watched eagerly. Nothing happened. The star performer was still delaying matters.
Then early one morning Nettie’s husband, Horatio, dashed out of the house minus his collar and returned in a few minutes, nervously hurrying another man who carried a little black bag.
In the afternoon, the door of the little house crashed open again. Pa Powell skipped down the walk and headed for a corner several blocks away. He pushed open a pair of swinging doors and cried, “It’s a boy, boys, it’s a boy. Seven and a half pounds. Mother doing fine. They’re on me. Set ‘em up for everybody.”
In good Dutch beer, the gang toasted the newcomer.
“What’s his name?” they inquired.
“William,” said Horatio Powell. “William Powell, after his grandfather.”
“Here’s to William Powell,” said the friends and hoisted steins.
William Powell has been toasted since then many times in many lands. But never in better beer nor with more honest good wishes. Because Horatio and Nettie Powell were very popular in Pittsburgh. Fine young couple. Doing well. The right kind of American citizens.
“You want to know where Will got his acting trend?” said Father Powell to me. “Look at his mother. What an actress she would have made. Never had a chance to do it, of course, but I don’t believe there’s anyone on the stage would have made a better comedienne. She had it in her.”
Bill’s handsome, gracious, white-haired mother blushed a little, but there was a twinkle in her eye. Certainly there is no question as to where the hero of “Street of Chance” and “For the Defense” got his distinguished good looks.
Many people imagine that William Powell has a foreign look. His first big stage success, his first big picture roles, were all in foreign parts — Spanish, Italian, Cuban. As a matter of fact, he is American to the core. Perhaps that look is his heritage from a paternal grandfather named Brady. The black Irish fit into any nationality. There is, too, a good strong strain of Holland Dutch, and a bit of French and English. But to know Bill well is to realize that once again the Irish predominates over all other ancestry.
“The first thing this baby did to distinguish himself from all the other babies of Pittsburgh was to sit up in his crib at the age of five months, wag his right forefinger at his admiring parents and remark, “I umpha basha arga.” Not once, but many times he did it. Long before he could talk in any accepted terms. Powell, junior, made speeches from his crib and highchair. There was no question that they were intended to be speeches, because they were accompanied by gestures and a noble, intent expression.
“I umpha basha arga” became a tradition in the Powell family.
“I have made speeches since that were less coherent,” said Bill, with the slightly sheepish look that comes over all men when their infant days are highlighted by the older generation.
After watching him for some time Mrs. Powell said breathlessly to her husband, “I’m sure he’s going to be a preacher.”
Father Powell demurred. Billy Sunday hadn’t yet pointed the way to millions through the ministry and Bill’s father had the American ambition to see his son in something that would be profitable as well as successful.
“He’s going to be a lawyer,” he said. “Look at the way he uses that forefinger.”
For eighteen years, Horatio Powell cherished the delusion that he was the father of a lawyer.
He might have been, if it hadn’t been for a girl named Edith. Why is it that there is always an Edith in every man’s life? The first girl— the dream girl of adolescence?
If Bill hadn’t fallen in love with Edith in high school in Kansas City he might now be playing “For the Defense” in real courtrooms instead of those built by stage carpenters.
He doesn’t think he would have been happy. Acting was the one thing he ever really wanted to do.
Right from the beginning, young Bill showed a trait that has never left him. His passion for conversation with men — all kinds, anytime, anywhere. He and Ronald Colman — you must know that they are inseparable friends — talk an entire week-end away in Ronny’s cottage at Malibu.
His close friendship with Dick Barthelmess began with a conversation that lasted three days.
One of his first pictures was “The Bright Shawl,” with Barthelmess. Neither one was pleased about the casting. Powell thought Barthelmess was just another star. Barthelmess thought likewise that Powell was just another actor.
On the boat bound for Havana, they ignored each other ‘ pointedly for twenty-four hours. Passing on deck, they didn’t speak. Inwardly, Powell said to himself, “Ham.” Inwardly, Barthelmess said, “Ham.” Finally, they bumped each other smartly coming around a corner.
“G-rrr-rr,” said Barthelmess.
“Same to you,” said Powell.
“Well,” said one, glaring bitterly.
“Well,” returned the other.
“Do you drink?” said Barthelmess.
“Yes,” said Powell.
Without more ado they repaired to the star’s stateroom and didn’t come out for three days. They talked for twenty-four hours without sleeping, and they’ve been pals ever since.
In his youth, Bill’s hobby was street care conductors and blacksmiths.
He was a slim, sturdy little youngster with startlingly blue eyes. With serious mein, he would walk quietly out the back-door and disappear. Later, Mother Powell would be seen running around the block looking for her offspring. Horatio Powell, coming home from his accounting offices, would take up the search. He soon developed a system. His first stop was at the blacksmith shop, three blocks away.
“Seen anything of Will today?” he’d ask the brawny man, busy at his glowing forge.
“Sure. He was in here for a couple of hours early this afternoon. We had a long gab about why horses have four legs and humans have only got two. That feller can ask more questions than any kid I ever saw.”
“Where’d he go?”
“I dunno. He borrowed a nickel off me and skidaddled.”
That nickel was the clue. Nickels meant street cars to Will. He would finally be discovered deep in discussions with the motorman or the conductor upon whose car he had made six round trips with that nickel. Nothing could break him of this habit. Besides, he was so intent upon gaining information that his parents didn’t have the heart to punish him. He was getting an education of sorts.
Incidentally, Bill Powell never felt the stern hand of parental discipline. Never as a child was his little spank spanked. His mother says it wasn’t necessary. She employed more subtle and more effective methods.
By the way, I don’t mind telling you now that William Powell’s mother thinks pretty highly of him. After thirty-eight years of intimate acquaintance, she will contend he’s the best man she knows — except his father. The three of them live together, which shows real love and understanding. Bill is the sort of bird who likes liberty and would quickly resent any curtailing of his privileges. Their apartment in Hollywood is charmingly arranged, run for Bill’s convenience, and his complete comfort.
“It wasn’t ever necessary to punish Will,” said Mrs. Powell. “It wouldn’t have done any good anyway. You had to reason with him. He was very obedient, if he understood a thing. But you had to explain all the whys and wherefores. Then, if it looked logical to him, he would do it without any trouble. If it didn’t he’d convince you you were wrong. That was another reason I thought he’d make a good lawyer. He was so reasonable.”
She heaved a little sigh. Even now that her son is one of the great movie stars, I think Mrs. Powell remembers her dreams of seeing him administer justice from the bench.
It seems to me that Bill has run true to form in all the predictions of his childhood. His character fundamentals are about the same.
“There was one thing about Will that was different from most other children I have seen,” said Mrs. Powell. “He could always amuse himself.”
Give him a box of blocks when he was quite small and he was good for a whole morning. He didn’t want anyone else to build houses or arrange them for him. In. fact, he rather resented interference. Apparently he had ideas of his own that must be carried out. He was never depending on anyone else in order to be happy and well occupied. Later pencil and paper, books and pictures took the place of blocks.
William Powell is still like that. He doesn’t mind being alone. If he has enough books, he is perfectly happy and contented. Not all the time, of course. He likes a bit of whoopee as well as the next man, and is a most convivial and entertaining companion. But he is a real book lover. When he comes into my library at Malibu, he touches the volumes gently, examines the bindings, picks out a few and peeps into them, reading a paragraph or two. Also, he is one of the few people who borrow books who always return them.
This summer I saw him stretched out in the sun, hour after hour, alone, with a big stack of books piled on a table beside him. They were never allowed to touch the sand.
“Was he always careful of books as he is now? I asked his mother.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I remember how he cried one time when a book he liked and had read a dozen times was chewed up by a neighbor’s dog. He took wonderful care of his books. But then, he took wonderful care of all his things. His room was always neat, his clothes always hung up where they belonged. He folded his pajamas every morning. He could never be happy if anything
was in disorder around him. So different from my grandson, Bill’s little boy.” Baseball and sand lot football interested Bill Powell in his grammar-school days. But athletics never became a strong passion with him. He liked talk, reading, people too much. Athletics seemed slightly a waste of time. His friends were usually older boys who were too big for him to play with but not too smart for him to talk to.
IT is an awful thing to admit, and I will say in all fairness that he shows no signs of it now, but in school Will was “teacher’s pet.”
His first battles were fought at school because the boys used to call him that in a manner not too polite.
“I was in a tough spot and didn’t know it,” he told me. “I made companions of my teachers and profs because I liked them. They always talked about things that were interesting. I wasn’t trying to ease myself into their good graces in order to get better marks in school. In fact, I flunked several courses in high school even though the profs were my pals. I just liked to hear them talk.”
When the Powell family left Pittsburgh for Kansas City, Bill was ready to enter high school. Professor Smith, of the 6th Ward School, Pittsburgh, wrote a letter to the teachers who would take him in charge in the new school. His mother still treasures that letter. In it, Professor Smith recommended Bill to the special attention of his high school teachers as a boy of unusually brilliant mind and active brain. It wasn’t his conduct which was acclaimed, but his eager mental ability.
There is an unsolved mystery connected with another memento which reposes in that cedar chest. It is a shaving mirror — Bill’s first gift to his father. On it is written — From Will. Xmas, 1901. The mirror was on the Christmas tree. No one knew where Bill earned the money to buy it. No one knows to this day. When I questioned him, Bill began to talk about the Einstein theory.
Maybe that’s a skeleton in Bill’s youthful closet.
All his vacations were spent on his grandmother’s farm, in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. Upon his arrival, the farm was turned over to this favorite grandson, by a grandmother devoted to her husband’s namesake. Through the farm ran a little stream, with many deep pools. The boy swam, dived, ran wild for the entire summer. It built up his health, which was not too robust. And he spent long afternoon hours swinging in the hammock, singing to himself, and reading. Ideal days. Every kid should have some experience in the country.
William Powell graduated from grammar school when he was thirteen.
At fourteen, he entered the Kansas City High School.
For four years, he was a “leading citizen” of that institution. He wrote for and edited the school paper and annuals. He was yell leader at one time and sang in the glee club. He took part in all the school activities and held various offices.
Ralph Barton, now famous all over the world for his drawings, was in High School at that same time. He was the paper’s cartoonist for three years.
When he left, it was a bitter blow to the artistic triumphs of the sheet. In desperation, Bill decided he could draw cartoons. And did. They weren’t as good as Barton’s, but they got by all right.
Because he was going to be a lawyer — that having been decided in his cradle and planned for every hour since — Bill took some high school course in public speaking. It was a subject he loved and in which he did remarkably well. His speaking voice was unusual, he had a dramatic flair for intriguing and holding his audiences.
The professor suggested immediately that he ought to try out for the school play, which was the big event of the year, held just before the Christmas vacation.
In his junior and senior years, William Powell played the lead in those plays. Played them, so everyone tells me, remarkably well. A natural-born actor.
Right there, everything was settled.
That was what he wanted to do. Acting was his real ambition. There was something he would like to do.
Also, acting was a quick road to fame and fortune. He saw himself taking New York by storm, rising to heights of greatness, thrilling vast audiences who applauded his genius and showered him with rich rewards.
Though he had never been backstage of a theater, knew no actors, had no connections of any kind with the stage life, he felt that he must and could succeed.
To be a lawyer meant four long years at Kansas University, where he was about to be enrolled. Two or three more for a law degree. He’d be an old man before he was allowed to practice!
Whereas it was strictly necessary for him to be able to support a wife in the shortest possible time. Why, he and Edith had been waiting now, ever since their sophomore year! They had been in love for what seemed centuries.
Edith was a pretty, blond girl, and she was Bill’s first love. It was serious, right from the start. No playing around. They “went together” for four entire years of high school, and when William graduated considered themselves officially engaged. He was eighteen. She was sixteen.
These things young Powell pondered deeply during the summer vacation after his graduation, with honors, from High School.
Working in the clerical department of the Kansas City Telephone Company, Bill thought deeply.
With a bitter loathing, he hated his work at a desk. Everything in him rebelled, not placidly, but actively and violently, against regular hours, routine work, the same faces, same surroundings day after day. If he went to college, he’d have to work there summers. He’d have to spend the best years of his life slaving to learn law. And he didn’t want to learn law. He wanted to act.
One year in New York, he’d be a success, and he and Edith could marry.
So he decided to write to his Aunt.
She was really his great aunt. A very, very rich great aunt. The matriarch of the Powell family.
But Bill knew that already the family had made many drains upon her. Already she had financed many a Powell project.
He was different. And he sat down and composed a twenty-three page letter to prove to her that he was the flower of the Powell family, clean, honest, hard working. He tried to impress upon her the fact that she would be denying the American theater a great genius if she didn’t send Bill money enough to go to New York. The letter was a masterpiece.
It asked for money to pay a year’s tuition at the Sargent School of Dramatic Art, and fifty dollars a month for that year. Within five years, William Powell would return to her that money with interest. And she would forever be glad and proud that she had helped him to attain great heights in dramatic art and bring glory and renown to the name of Powell.
He read the letter to his mother. He read it to Edith.
Then, with prayer and trembling, he put a stamp on it, dropped it in the mail box, and sat down at his desk in the telephone company to await the answer which, to his youthful vision, meant life or death, happiness or despair.
William Powell, at the age of seven. The year was 1899, just after the Spanish-American War. Bill’s proud parents were painting a legal career for their offspring. Below, Bill’s father and mother, Horatio and Nettie Powell, who now live in Hollywood with their son.
Many fans believe that William Powell is of foreign birth. He was born in 1892 in Pittsburgh. Irish ancestry predominates all others with Bill Powell, although in him there is a strain of Holland Dutch and a bit of French and English as well.
Another early portrait of William Powell, this time at the age of four. At this time Bill’s hobby was street-car conductors and blacksmiths. Bill usually visited the neighborhood smithy, borrowed a nickel and spent the day touring Pittsburgh by trolley.
This looks a little more like the William Powell of Hollywood triumphs. Bill is eleven and an earnest student, even a “teacher’s pet.” Young Master Powell was then looking forward to a great career as a lawyer.
Here’s an attractive item for the beach next Summer. Bebe Daniels offers her idea of a bathing suit that can be transformed into beach pajamas. At the left, Miss Daniels shows her simple, one-piece, backless suit of white jersey. This is ideal for real swimming. Second, she fastens part of the pajamas around her waist like a train. The material is heavy flat crepe, dyed several shades of gray in a batik design, and painted with rose fish and sea urchins. In the third picture, the pajamas begin to assume form. The front overlaps with the back and ties with a large bow, while the sides remain open to permit of easy movement. Fourth, the pajamas are complete.
The blackboard with its K tells the story. The two Kays — Kay Francis and Kay Johnson — are both featured in William DeMille’s new Metro-Goldwyn film, “The Passion Flower.”
William Powell has played in so many mystery dramas — as a super-crook or the master detective who solves the crime after the police fall down — that we are presenting the picturesque story of his life just as one of his own scenarists would tell it. There really is no mystery to William Powell’s success. It’s just the result of hard work. Next month New Movie will tell you more about the suave and interesting Mr. Powell.
Source: New Movie Magazine, January 1932