Robert Walker was small and shy and came from a deeply religious family in Salt Lake City, Utah. But he wanted two things and was determined to get them: one was a successful career in movies. The other was a beautiful girl named Jennifer Jones.
Eventually, against all the odds, he would get both — for a while. But the price he paid was heavy — and eventually fatal. Walker, whose family had hoped he would be either a lawyer or doctor, did everything they could to discourage Robert going into show-business, but in vain. In 1939, at 21, he moved to Hollywood and landed a few tiny bit-parts in B-movies, boosting his income to subsistence level by working in bars and waiting at tables. But now he knew what he wanted to do. He had also met the girl of his dreams. Phyllis Isley, a 20-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, had been discovered by MGM boss David Selznick the previous year and now was being groomed for stardom.
Selznick gave her a new name — Jennifer Jones — arranged for her to have intensive drama coaching ... and fell in love with her. David Selznick was handsome, powerful and determined. As heir-apparent at MGM he could make or break stars. Soon he began planning a glittering career for Jennifer Jones, but he had overlooked one thing: Robert Walker had fallen in love with her, too. Walker had met Jennifer in the studio restaurant and had taken his courage in both hands and asked her out. She was attracted to the sandy-haired 21-year-old and they went on several dates. She was impressed by his determination to succeed and he was enchanted by her beauty. Despite the dominating influence of David Selznick, Jennifer Jones fell in love with Robert Walker and in 1941 she married him.
Selznick was furious but managed not to show it. He still continued to mastermind Jennifer's career and in 1942 cast her opposite her real-life husband in Since You Went Away, about a young girl in love with a soldier. As Selznick was writing and producing the movie, Jennifer's role grew with every rewrite of the script ... and Walker's grew smaller! Said a colleague: "He thought the more there was of Jennifer the better the picture would be. And he hadn't forgiven Robert Walker for marrying her...
Selznick did his job well — Jennifer won an Oscar nomination for her part in Since You Went Away, while Walker was hardly mentioned in the critics' reviews. This had a disastrous effect on the marriage. Robert Walker was jealous of his wife's success and at the same time, ashamed that he should feel that way about the woman he loved. He began to drink and on several occasions, Jennifer left him and went home to Tulsa. But she always came back.
In 1944 Walker had his big break, in Vincente Minnelli's Under The Clock, a wartime weepie about a young soldier who falls in love and married a girl he meets under the clock at Grand Central Station. It co-starred Judy Garland and soon Walker was confiding his marriage problems to his beautiful co-star. This was too much for Jennifer Jones. She once again moved out of the house she shared with Walker in Hollywood's Benedict Canyon ... and this time David Selznick was waiting.
To show he didn't care, Walker had an affair with Judy Garland, but it didn't last. Walker told a friend: I basically felt inadequate, unwanted and unloved. I drink because it's the only way I can get any self-confidence... and to fill the ache that losing Jennifer left in my heart. Now everything was going wrong for Walker. His drinking made him violent and unreliable and MGM tore up his contract. He was arrested for drunken driving and needed treatment for nervous depression. After his divorce from Jennifer Jones, Walker married Barbara, daughter of Westerns director John Ford, but the marriage lasted only five weeks. For the rest of his life Robert Walker would live only for the chance of getting back together with Jennifer Jones ... a possibility made pretty remote, when in 1949, she finally married David Selznick.
I'm all washed up both professionally and romantically, Walker was fond of saying in Hollywood bars, but not everyone agreed. In 1951, Walker had the biggest break of his career when Alfred Hitchcock co-starred him with Farley Granger in the legendary Strangers On A Train when he played the sinister Bruno Anthony who murders a stranger's wife and expects a similar favour in return.
Walker got an Oscar nomination but didn't go to the ceremony because Jennifer and her husband were guests of honour. In 1952, Robert Walker made the anti-communist movie My Son John, but now he was a piteous figure relying on drink and sedatives. A week after the movie was finished, in July 1952, Walker was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment, killed by a lethal mixture of alcohol and sedatives. A verdict of accidental death was recorded but a few days earlier Robert Walker had supplied his own epitaph. I always hoped Jennifer would come back," he told a drinking buddy. "Now I know she won't. Without her, I simply don't want to stick around...