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Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew Paperback – August 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews Review

The luminous star of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Shane, and other classic films was, as the subtitle aptly puts it, "the actress nobody knew." Jean Arthur (1900-91) kept her personal life private, disdained the Hollywood publicity machine, and was called "difficult" because of her perfectionism and remoteness from costars on the movie set. John Oller, a lawyer, tracked down kinsfolk and friends never before interviewed to capture the elusive personality of a free spirit best embodied in her favorite role, Peter Pan. Arthur herself might have appreciated his warm, respectful portrait. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Limelight Editions (August 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0879102780
  • ISBN-13: 978-0879102784
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #639,549 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Oller, a lawyer, is the author of four books, including, most recently, American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague--Civil War "Belle of the North" and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal (Da Capo Press, 2014). It has been praised by Pulitzer prize-winning author Debby Applegate as "a terrific work of historical research and reconstruction" which tells "the story of the Civil War and its scandalous aftermath--its assassinations, impeachments and sexual hijinks--from an entirely fresh perspective." His first book, Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew (Limelight Editions, 1997), was lauded by film critic Leonard Maltin, who called it "an exceptional piece of work" and "an outstanding biography . . . among the best I've read in years."

Born in Huron, Ohio, John is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a B.A. in journalism (summa cum laude), having written and edited for the daily student newspaper, the Lantern, and interned as a reporter for such newspapers as the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Rochester Times-Union. His undercover exposé on the infiltration of the Ohio State campus by the "Moonies" religious cult led to his selection as a congressional journalism intern in Washington, D.C., where he wrote press releases for a Michigan congressman.

After college he obtained his law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (magna cum laude), and joined the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York as an associate in the litigation department. For many years he represented Major League Baseball in many high-profile cases, including the celebrated George Brett "Pine Tar" case and the Pete Rose gambling case. As a partner in the firm, he went on to specialize in complex commercial and securities litigation, and was a principal author of the Audit Committee Report for Cendant Corporation (at the time, the most massive fraud in American corporate history); the New York Times called the report a definitive case study in the area of accounting irregularities and fraud. He taught legal writing as part of his firm's continuing legal education program for many years, and is the author of One Firm - A Short History of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, 1888 - (2004). He holds the record as a four-time winner of the firm's annual golf tournament in Florida.

At the end of 2011, John retired from active legal practice to concentrate on his writing career. Since then, in addition to American Queen, he has published an e-book, An All-American Murder, a true crime story of a murder in Columbus, Ohio in 1975. It has been called "a tragic, fascinating story well-told," and "an exceptionally well written, insightful look into the angst that people can carry for decades when the criminal justice system is unable/unwilling to provide closure."

John is a member of Biographers International Organization and the Dramatists Guild.

When not writing, John pursues his hobbies of golf, theater, film, and travel. He divides his time between New York City and a home in California wine country.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

118 of 121 people found the following review helpful By RALPH PETERS on May 7, 2003
Format: Paperback
It would appear that writing a compelling, readable, and entertaining biography is a daunting task. So many are dry, filled with facts and dates of little interest, or just plain dull. The difference here is that John Oller can actually WRITE. Ms. Arthur is, without doubt, one of the sorely neglected stars of any era. Her comic genius in "The More The Merrier" alone would merit a critical gushing today if anyone in the 21st century had even a modicum of the lady's superb timing and class. That she has appeared in several other classics (perhaps most notably "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") certainly warrants a full scale biography and Mr. Oller succeeds brilliantly.
The notoriously private Ms. Arthur is not painted as arch nor perverse; simply a woman with a different take on life and Hollywood. She saw there was more to life than glamour and makeup (even attending college during career lulls)and her 'eccentric' personality becomes all the more endearing under Mr. Oller's critical, yet always fair, judgments. The book isn't overstuffed with facts and dates; just what is needed. I wish all biographers would realize that sometimes less is, indeed, more. Highly recommended.
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119 of 132 people found the following review helpful By s.ferber on August 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I had waited impatiently for almost 30 years for someone to tackle a biography of Jean Arthur, one of my favorite actresses and one of the brightest comediennes of the '30s and '40s. In my youthful naivete, seeing that nobody seemed interested in the project, I thought about taking on the job myself. Thank goodness I waited for John Oller to write his book instead! There's no way that anyone could have done a better job with this most reclusive and challenging of subjects. Even during her heyday, Ms. Arthur was an extremely private person--"America's Garbo," as she was called--and in the final decades of her life, snubbed all efforts from outsiders seeking autographs or interviews about her glorious past. It may seem faint praise to call Mr. Oller's book a definitive biography when it is the ONLY one to have ever been written, but I just don't see how anyone will ever gain more access to Jean Arthur information than he has presented here. Oller has taken the time to interview dozens of Arthur's friends and family members, as well as associates from her film and stage careers and from her various teaching posts. The book is remarkably evenhanded. Arthur was apparently a very complex person, with lots of insecurities and neuroses that made her somewhat of a problem to work with. (I'm trying to be kind here.) Oller clearly thinks the world of the actress, but at the same time doesn't shrink from telling us when a producer or neighbor had something rotten to say of her. And when Oller runs into an area where the evidence leads to no clear result (such as the case of Arthur's possible bisexuality), he gives us the facts as well as can be known and leaves it at that. The book is anything but sensationalistic.
This biography traces Arthur's roots all the way back to the 13th century (!
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55 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Gary Mark Morris on February 14, 2008
Format: Paperback
Jean Arthur would seem to be an impossible subject for a biography. The actress, who died in 1991 at the age of 90, was so reclusive she made Garbo look like a party doll. Interviews exist, but not many; fan magazine profiles inevitably puzzled over her, disgusted by an actress who refused to promote her own career. Her autograph is probably rarer than Garbo's, and she left little in the way of writings, no diaries and not much correspondence. Her stage career was based more on quality than quantity, consisting of a mere 17 appearances, some of which were in plays that closed after a single performance.

Fortunately for author John Oller, Arthur made a substantial number of films (89) and, more importantly in trying to unravel this tricky subject, she made a strong impression -- negative, positive, sometimes both -- on practically everybody she encountered, from fellow actors to her stage and film directors to students in her teaching classes to secretaries and stage hands. They've provided Oller with a wealth of history and anecdotal detail. What emerges is a surprisingly detailed, highly readable account of a complex woman whose integrity and perfectionism -- and sometimes pettiness and even arrogance -- both fueled her work and undermined it at almost every turn.

Arthur's high reputation persists on the basis of stage triumphs in Peter Pan and other plays, and supremely of unforgettable performances in screwball comedies like George Stevens's The More the Merrier, Capra films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can't Take It with You, and Borzage's dreamy History Is Made at Night. Behind her luminous face and trademark husky voice, according to Oller, was a woman tormented by self-doubt and neurosis who could be charming one minute and a harridan the next.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Paul Tognetti TOP 500 REVIEWER on March 29, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"You deserve to discover Jean Arthur". That was the way film critic Leonard Maltin eulogized the star of some of the most entertaining and memorable comedies of the 1930's and 1940's when she passed away in 1991 at the age of 90. If you asked me who Jean Arthur was a few years ago I would have been at a loss to tell you. But no more. Over the past few years I have become a huge fan. And the more I see her the more I am captivated by her. She played opposite many of Hollywood's most important leading men of that era including Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. On screen she was a natural but her private life was marred by bouts of depression and stage fright. Furthermore she hated the Hollywood scene and just about everything associated with it. The more I learned about Jean Arthur the more I wanted to know. Because she was such a private person bordering on the reclusive, precious little has been written about her over the years. John Oller was fascinated by her as well and spent a considerable amount of time tracking down family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances in an attempt to discover just who Jean Arthur really was. The result is his marvelous biography "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew". John Oller grabbed my attention in the opening paragraphs of the book and managed to keep me thoroughly engaged throughout. The truth is that I could not put it down.

When Jean Arthur (her real name was Gladys Greene) arrived in Hollywood in the early 1920's she immediately found work in silent movies. In fact her first film "Cameo Kirby" was directed by the legendary John Ford. Arthur kept busy in the 1920's appearing in about a dozen films and with the dawn of the "talkies" many thought that her unusually throaty voice would prove to be a liability.
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