Filled Under: Janet Gaynor
Janet Gaynor was an American actress and painter. She was one of the most popular actresses of the silent film era. In 1928 Gaynor became the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performances in three films: “Seventh Heaven” (1927), “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (1927) and “Street Angel” (1928). At the time, the award was awarded for multiple roles. It was given on the basis of the actor’s total work over the year, and not just for one particular performance. Gaynor was not only the first but also, at 22 years old, the youngest actress to win an Academy Award for Best Actress until 1986 when 20 year old Marlee Maitlin won Best Actress for her performance in “Children of a Lesser God”.
Janet Gaynor was born Laura Augusta Gainor on October 6, 1906 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When she was a young child her family moved to San Francisco where she graduated from high school in 1923. Gaynor decided to pursue an acting career and moved to Los Angeles, where she supported herself working in a shoe store. She managed to land unbilled small parts in several feature films and comedy shorts for two years. In 1926, at the age of 20, she was cast in the lead role in “The Johnstown Flood” (1926) with Charles Farrell. The same year she was selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars along with Joan Crawford, Dolores del Río and others. Her outstanding performance in “The Johnstown Flood” won her the attention of producers, who cast her in a series of films and the 5’0″ tall beauty quickly became one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, starring in “The Shamrock Handicap” (1926), “The Blue Eagle” (1926), “The Midnight Kiss” (1926) and “The Return of Peter Grimm” (1926). Her performances in “Seventh Heaven” with Charles Farrell (1927), and “Sunrise” (1927) with George O’Brien, and “Street Angel” (1928) again with Charles Farrell earned her the first ever Academy Award for Best Actress in 1928. Upon receiving the first ever Best Actress Oscar Gaynor commented, “Naturally, I was thrilled, but being the first year, the Academy Awards had no background or tradition, and it naturally didn’t mean what it does now. Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I’m sure I’d have been overwhelmed. At the time, I think I was more thrilled over meeting Douglas Fairbanks.”
Janet Gaynor was one of only a handful of leading ladies who made a successful transition to sound films. For a number of years, Gaynor was the Fox studios foremost actress and was given the choice of prime roles, starring in such films as “Sunny Side Up” (1929), “Delicious” (1931), “Merely Mary Ann” (1931), “Adorable” (1933), “State Fair” (1933), and “The Farmer Takes a Wife” (1935). Gaynor left Fox studios in 1936 shortly after Darryl F. Zanuck merged his studio 20th Century Pictures with Fox Film Corporation to form Twentieth Century Fox. In 1937, she was again nominated for an Academy Award, this time for her role in the David O. Selznick produced “A Star Is Born” but lost to Luise Rainer’s performance in “The Good Earth” (1937). After appearing in “The Young in Heart” with Paulette Goddard the following year, she left the film industry for nearly twenty years at the age of 32 in order to travel with her second husband, MGM costume designer Adrian. In 1957 Gaynor returned to make one last movie with a guest appearance as Pat Boone’s mother in “Bernadine”.
Janet Gaynor was close friends with actress Mary Martin, with whom she frequently travelled. A Brazilian press report noted that Gaynor and Martin briefly lived with their respective husbands in the state of Goiás in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to acting, Gaynor was an accomplished visual artist and her oil paintings were featured at the Wally Findlay Galleries show in New York, March 25 to April 7, 1977.
Janet Gaynor was married three times. Her first marriage was to Jesse Lydell Peck on September 11, 1929. They were divorced April 7, 1933.
Gaynor then married MGM costume designer Adrian on August 14, 1939. They were married until his death on September 13, 1959. They had one son together, Robin Gaynor Adrian, born in 1940.
Gaynor’s third marriage was to producer Paul Gregory on December 24, 1964. They remained married until her death in September of 1984.
Janet Gaynor died on September 14, 1984, at the age of 77, from complication following several operations due largely to the aftermath of a traffic accident in San Francisco two years earlier. In the accident, a driver named Robert Cato ran a red light at the corner of California Street and Franklin and crashed into her Luxor taxicab. The crash killed Mary Martin’s manager Ben Washer and injured the other passengers, including Gaynor’s husband Paul Gregory, as well as her close, long-time friend, Mary Martin. Gaynor was in serious condition with eleven broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, pelvic fractures, an injured bladder and a damaged kidney. The drunk driver of the van, Robert Cato, was sentenced to a three-year prison term for drunken driving and vehicular manslaughter in the accident.
Gaynor was interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California next to her second husband Adrian, but her stone reads ‘Janet Gaynor Gregory’.
Janet Gaynor has star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6284 Hollywood Blvd.