The Mystery of William Powell — Part II (1932) 🇺🇸
There is no mystery to William Powell’s success. It came by hard work.
Mr. Powell was born in Pittsburg late in July, 1892. The baby was named after his grandfather. Despite his south-of-Europe appearance, Mr. Powell’s ancestry is almost entirely Irish, with a touch of Holland Dutch.
The Powells moved to Kansas City and Bill attracted attention in high school dramatics. That shaped his career. After graduation, he worked in the clerical department of the Kansas City Telephone Company. But he longed for a stage career and, hoping to get enough money for his tuition at the Sargent School of Dramatic Arts in New York City, he wrote a letter, outlining his hopes, to his healthy great-aunt.
by Evelyn Gray
A week passed.
Young William Powell added figures, wrote statements and interviewed customers in the office of the Kansas City Telephone Company, and awaited an answer to the all-important letter he had written to his great-aunt in Sharon, Pennsylvania.
His mind wasn’t on his work. He couldn’t think about the prosaic and endlessly monotonous business before him. His brain hummed around a million questions.
Would the rich old matriarch of the Powell family send him the money to go to New York and study for the stage or would she not? Must he continue a galley slave to a business he loathed, or would she wave a magic wand and open the gates to a golden future where he could pursue the career of an actor now so dear to his heart? Would he have to wait years and years to marry his pretty high-school sweetheart, Edith, or would his aunt make it possible for him to go to New York and achieve fame and fortune overnight, so that he might dash back and claim his bride?
His fate trembled in the balance of the old lady’s will, for he was only nineteen and he knew that without her help he dared not, his parents would never allow him to venture New York alone.
Then one afternoon the telephone rang.
“Will,” said his mother’s voice, “there’s a letter here for you from Sharon, Pennsylvania.”
“What does it say,” demanded Bill.
“I don’t know,” said his mother, “I didn’t open it.”
“For the love of Pete,” yelled Bill, “open it quick.”
He waited, his heart doing flip-flops.
“It’s signed Quincy Adams Gordon,” said the voice at the other end of the wire. “He’s aunt’s lawyer.”
Bill’s heart sank. A lawyer. That meant that he was to be told in no mean fashion that aunt was through with helping aspiring members of her family who never paid her back.
“He says she will pay your tuition for a year at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and give you fifty dollars a month to live on,” said his mother. “William — William don’t you hear me?”
There was no answer. William Powell was in telling his boss what he could do with his job. He didn’t even wait to finish the day’s work. In an hour he was home, packing.
Tearful farewells to be said. His father and mother trembled, as they saw their beloved only son venturing into a new world, a world of which they had heard so much that was evil. They saw him starting on a path which fact and fiction agreed was fraught with temptations. They had never discouraged him, but he was the first of the family anywhere to enter a theater save through the front door and they were both amazed and fearful. But they believed in him absolutely. Soon he would rival Mansfield.
He had to say good-by to Edith, too. The girl who for four years, all through high school, had been his ideal and his sweetheart. They were now definitely engaged. He was only twenty. She was still in her teens. But they were so sure that family opposition to such a young engagement was withdrawn. It wasn’t puppy love. It was the real thing.
And Edith, with tears in her blue eyes, waved good-by to her man as he started out to conquer the world for her sake.
Nothing happened as they had planned it, but fortunately they didn’t see into the future.
The Academy of Dramatic Arts of New York was then in Carnegie Hall. Bill got a cheap room near there, enrolled in the necessary classes and went to work.
Fifty dollars a month in those days was a lot more money than it is now. Bill didn’t live in gilded luxury. He didn’t cut any wide swath in the night life of New York. But he managed to do himself fairly well. He had a place to sleep, enough to wear, and at least two square meals a day. No week went by without a big box from his mother in Kansas City.
The work at the school was just what he wanted. It was practical training, which would get him to the place where he could go into the theater.
But above all, he loved New York. New York was a big city, and it teemed with life, with drama, with color. Not one soul in the millions who filled the streets did he know. Yet he was never lonely. For he made friends with New York itself. He loved to wander on Broadway after the lights were lit. He loved to mingle with the crowd and watch their faces and try to picture to himself how they lived and where, what problems they faced of love and work and living.
He bought himself a second-hand edition of O. Henry and read avidly that great writer’s tales of the Four Million. All around he searched for such adventures — and sometimes found them. Central Park was beautiful. Fifth Avenue was the finest street in the world. The Bowery, the Metropolitan Museum, the Ghetto — everything was new and wonderful.
“That was real education,” Bill told me. “In some ways maybe it was better education than I could have obtained in four years at college. I came to know people, their expressions, their ways of moving and dressing, their reactions. I used to stand around staring and listening until it’s a wonder I didn’t get shot. I never thought about that. To me, it was a panorama being staged especially for my benefit.”
There is still much of that observer in William Powell. There is more of the observer in his attitude toward life than anything else. He loves life, but not much of it gets very close to him. He stands back — and watches.
At the end of his first term at school, he decided he had had enough instruction and that he’d better go to work. More could be learned by actual experience. Besides, he was terribly impatient. He wanted to get about the business of becoming a great star. Fortunately, because during those waiting years he worked hard and learned important and necessary things. It never occurred to young Powell while he went through the hard grind of stock and road companies, while he fretted and raged that he didn’t get his chance, that he was preparing for a day when a new art called “the talkies” should bring him wider fame and greater returns than he had ever dreamed.
As soon as he went to work his aunt’s support was withdrawn. But he paid her back every cent she had advanced him, with interest at six percent.
Perhaps he wasn’t entirely disinterested in that. Sometimes the money came mighty hard, and after all, she had so much. Still, he had an idea in the back of his head. He was her nephew. If he proved to her how honorable and reliable and hard-working he was, he might become her favorite nephew. He had visions in his hall bedroom of the day when the dear old lady should pass to her reward and Quincy Adams Gordon would send for William Powell.
“My boy,” he would say, “you didn’t know your dear aunt well. But she watched your progress with great admiration. She appreciated your high standards and your honesty. She never forgot you paid her back the money she advanced you, and with interest, at that. Of all those she helped in life, you were the only one who repaid her fairly. So now, she has made you her sole heir.”
Such were young Powell’s dreams, as he saved his pennies and sent off money orders to Sharon, Pennsylvania.
They didn’t come true. When she died, aunt left her money to found a home for aged and indigent Protestant clergymen.
His first job on the stage was in Rex Beach’s “The Ne’er-Do-Well.” He played four parts, most of them with beards. It was a second company, playing around New York City. Bill didn’t get much of a chance to show what he could do, but he received a salary and the experience.
Until 1921, William Powell worked a slow and gradual and sometimes discouraging way upward in the American Theater. He played stock in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Portland (Oregon), Boston, Buffalo and Northampton. He toured with first, second and third road companies. He played small parts and character parts in New York. He played leads, old gentlemen, heavies, juveniles, and characters. For ten years he kept at it, working steadily but seemingly getting nowhere.
Two great experiences happened during those slow, invaluable years of training.
In the road company of “Within the Law,” in which he was playing English Eddie, he met a young actress named Aileen Wilson. She was young and talented. She was as deeply interested in the things of the theater as he was. She belonged to the new world into which he had stepped.
With her coming, he realized that he no longer loved Edith.
Little by little, Edith’s image had dimmed. The engagement had dragged on, meaning less and less. He couldn’t picture her in the new life he was living. He knew things were tough for an actor’s wife-on the road, moving from town to town, working nights. Separation, new interests, maturity, had gradually overcome the boy-and-girl love he had felt for Edith.
So, when he was playing in a town near Kansas City, William Powell journeyed to see the girl he had left behind him. Their letters had grown fewer, shorter, less affectionate month by month. But nothing definite had been done. On the way, Bill Powell tried to figure out what was the honorable thing to do. Surely it wasn’t right to marry the girl if he no longer loved her. Surely it wasn’t right to go through with the thing when it meant unhappiness for both of them. Yet how tell her all that? How could an honorable man break with a girl to whom he was bound by his word?
They met. They started to talk. They started to say the same things. For Edith didn’t want to venture on the hazardous career of an actor. There was a very nice young business man in Kansas City, who was doing well, and her father and mother thought — Bill said he thought she was right-and departed. He was free to tell Aileen that he loved her.
On April 15, 1915, at Mount Vernon, New York William Powell and Aileen Wilson were married. The marriage was not destined to last, but it began happily enough. They were very much in love. But it was typically a theatrical marriage. Both went on with their careers. When possible, they got engagements together. When that couldn’t be done, they were separated for long periods. There was very little home life possible. Still, in the beginning they were romantically thrilled with life and with each other.
The other important thing which happened before 1921 — the year which fate had destined to change William Powell’s fortunes was his meeting with Leo Dietrichstein and his engagement to play in “The Great Lover” with him. Dietrichstein was at that time one of the distinguished stars of the New York stage. But he was more than popular. He was an actor who loved his work with an absorbing passion. To him, acting was a major art. He was an Austrian, temperamental, suave, worldly.
From the start, he took a great interest in William Powell.
“The interest,” Bill told me, “manifested itself in bawling the dickens out of me. Never, before or since, has anyone had such beautiful, all-embracing tongue lashings as Dietrichstein gave’ me. He would call me into his dressing room and sit looking at me, as though I were some strange animal out of a zoo. Then he would begin, delicately, with polished sarcasm and a nice choice of invective, to tell me just how rotten I was. He would explain in the most minute detail how bad my performance was, how I missed every good point, destroyed every possibility.
“At first, I expected to get my notice daily. But soon I realized that I was the only member of the company to wiiom he ever paid any attention. When he had finished combing me over, he’d invite me out to supper and over our beer and boloney he’d give me inspired lectures’ on the art of acting.
“‘Acting’ he would say, ‘is both an interpretative and a creative art. It must have depth, sincerity and technique. A great composer may have symphonies in his head greater than those of Beethoven. But he must know how to express them before they can reach the ears of the world. So with acting. First, there is the depth, the understanding of life, people, character. Then, sincerity — to believe in your work. Next technique. The knowledge of how to convey to your audience what is in your mind and heart.’
“He taught me more about acting than I have ever learned in all the rest of my experience put together. If I’ve ever given a good performance, I owe more of it to Leo Dietrichstein than anything else. I know he believed I had possibilities, or he wouldn’t have bothered to correct me. So I began to hope and not get discouraged, realizing all the time I was laying up capital which would some day bring me returns.”
In 1921, William Powell appeared on Broadway in a play called “Spanish Love.”
The play was a hit, Powell was a sensation. As the romantic bad man, who in the end sacrificed himself to the happiness of the girl he loved, Bill literally knocked New York cold.
“It was great luck for me, getting that part,” said Bill.
Probably it was. But when opportunity knocked, he was ready. The critics applauded him with many adjectives. The audiences cheered him. He became a New York success — ten years after he left Kansas City with that as his goal.
His first picture was “Sherlock Holmes,” for which he was selected by Albert Parker, a director who had seen him on the stage. Then, between stage engagements, he did such productions as “When Knighthood was in Flower,” “Romola,” “The Bright Shawl,” “Under the Red Robe” and others.
It was while he was making “Romola” in Italy with Lillian Gish, that he met Ronald Colman and formed the great friendship which has made them inseparable companions ever since. They are opposites in many ways, Ronny, the quiet, self-contained Englishman, ruled always by his head. Bill Powell, fiery, temperamental, emotional in everything he does. Yet they make a great team. They are always together. They’re working out a scheme now, whereby they can work part of the year and spend the rest traveling or living for a few months in Italy or England or France, for the almost essential change from Hollywood.
At first, pictures were a secondary matter to Bill. A mere chance to add a few dollars to his income. He regarded them as an illegitimate child of the stage.
But as he began to get more and more engagements, he thought the matter over carefully and decided to go west and make the movies his main business. He knew well how uncertain the theatrical business is and how small the chance for even the most popular star to build up a solid competence. He never expected to be a picture star, but he was in great demand for heavies and characters and foreign roles and he believed in the end it would give him a better chance. Besides, his two great friends, Ronald Colman and Dick Barthelmess, both lived in Hollywood and he’d have more fun out there.
To Hollywood he finally went, in 1925.
There was another reason for his change of base.
He and his wife had come to a final parting of the ways.
Nothing especially disastrous or dramatic had happened. Their unhappiness was more difficult because there was nothing to explain it nor to fight against. Simply, he and Aileen Wilson didn’t agree about anything under the sun, moon and stars. They got on each other’s nerves. They quarreled, and bitterness grew. They were separated for long periods. Then came together again, to find that they didn’t belong together.
In February, 1925, when they had been married for ten years, their first and only child was born, a second William Powell.
Oddly enough, instead of bringing them together, this event separated them for good and all. They made a thoughtful and perhaps a wise decision. In their hearts, they knew that their marriage was doomed. It seemed foolish to go on with a relationship that brought neither of them happiness. They agreed that it was better to part before the child was old enough to realize the change, or before he was old enough to sense the lack of harmony in the home.
So they parted. Mrs. Powell obtained a divorce in California about a year ago. She lives quietly in Hollywood with her son, who is one of the brightest and most attractive kids you ever saw. She and her ex-husband are friendly. And big Bill is devoted heart and soul to little Bill. They spend week-ends and Sundays together. They go on trips. Little Bill comes to the big gay apartment where his daddy and his grandfather and grandmother live and passes many happy hours.
Bill isn’t a recluse nor an alleged woman-hater like Ronald Colman. He adores women, loves gay companionship, likes to laugh and dance and have a grand time. But, at present at least, there isn’t any serious entanglement. William Powell’s name isn’t connected with that of any woman.
After he came to Hollywood, Powell found himself in real demand. He scored a success with Richard Dix in “Too Many Kisses.” Soon Paramount put him under contract. In “Beau Geste” he did a great piece of character work. Repeated in “Senorita with Bebe Daniels, “Beau Sabreur” and “The Last Command.”
Slowly, he built up a following and gained a reputation as one of the best actors on the screen. A good many times he stole the show from the star. But he wasn’t the type of which silent day stars were made, and it looked as though he had reached his limits, and would continue as a featured member of casts, playing unusual characters.
Then came that great era of talking pictures.
Foundations shook and the heavens of Hollywood reeled. Some went up, some went down.
William Powell, the disciple of Leo Dietrichstein, the graduate of ten years of stock, road and Broadway stage experience, shot upward in a manner unexpected to everybody. His delightful speaking voice took to the microphone as a woman takes to flattery. The new technique of the talkies approximated the stage technique which he had learned so carefully. More, with the advent of sound, the types of stories and of personalities changed.
I still think “Street of Chance,” in which he played a role written around Rothstein, the New York gambler, ranks as one of the best talkies yet produced.
As he earned solid success on the stage, by work and ability, so William Powell has, more than any other actor perhaps, earned movie stardom by consistent build-up, and for that reason he’ll probably stay a long time in his present position. At that, he would make a great director.
Meantime, he lives very quietly with his father and mother. Is a very wordly, charming, slightly cynical person, with a touch of the whimsical that is always unexpected. His love for books has grown with the years. He plays tennis, likes the ocean and loves to travel better than anything else.
Altogether, a real American in spite of his foreign appearance, a grand actor and without exception the most delightful companion I can think of.
William Powell says that he owes a great deal to the late Leo Dietrichstein, distinguished stage actor in whose company he played for some seasons.
Photo by: George Maillard Kesslere (1894-1979)
William Powell, at the age of fourteen, and a school pal named Fletcher Street. Bill is wearing a snappy pair of shorts, as you will note.
William Powell in his first dress suit. He wore this when he took part in his first play, “An American Citizen,” given by the senior class of the Central High School of Kansas City. Bill played the leading role in this play.
In the oval above, William Powell is shown at the very moment of graduation from the Central High School of Kansas City.
Below, Bill Powell, when he was a member of the Northampton Players, the municipal stock company of Ex-President Calvin Coolidge’s home town. Bill was 23.
COMING! The Fascinating Life Story of Hollywood’s Most Picturesque Young Star.
Source: New Movie Magazine, February 1932
Source: Stars and Films of 1937