Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Adventures of Jane Adams

In 1980, I was doing some research on the horror film actor Rondo Hatton and was going through the motions of figuring out whether any of his co-stars were still alive, so that I could interview them about their recollections of him. Not many of them were around, but I did manage to find Arthur Lubin (director of Rondo’s The Spider Woman Strikes Back, 1946, but better known as the director of a few Abbott and Costello films and some episodes of Mr. Ed), who was very kind but had little to say about Mr. Hatton.

Research projects tend to beget research projects. One of Hatton’s co-stars, a pretty, blue-eyed, auburn-haired actress named Jane Adams, was listed in David Ragan’s Who’s Who in Hollywood as a “lost player,” someone who had completely disappeared after her film career ended. Ragan was possibly among the more qualified people to have made that assessment, as Who’s Who in Hollywood was probably the definitive source, at the time, of information about the then-current activities and residences of actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

To me, however, it was a challenge. I started by making an appointment to read files at the Margaret Herrick Library, the research archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Its biographical files contain photos, clippings, press releases and studio materials for thousands of film people – from bit players to stars to studio heads. Unfortunately, the Jane Adams files were pretty sparse. They contained a couple of stills of Adams from the film The Egg and I (which is a film that is not among Ms. Adams' official credits) and two versions of a Universal Studios official bio.

According to the bio, Jane Adams was born Betty Jane Bierce on this day in 1921 in San Antonio, Texas. She moved to California with her parents, and, it said, following testing at age 4, she was revealed to have the second highest I.Q. in California. She apparently later went on to become an accomplished violinist, a student at the Pasadena Playhouse and ultimately a model in New York City before going under contract with Universal Studios, appearing as "Poni Adams" in a number of routine horse operas. At last her name was changed "Jane Adams" -- with the idea that it might lead to more dignified roles. Instead she was cast memorably as the beautiful hunchbacked nurse in the Universal monster-fest, House of Dracula (1944; with John Carradine and Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the blind piano teacher in The Brute Man (1946, with the aforementioned Rondo Hatton).

After a brief hiatus during the late 1940s, Adams returned to do a few more Westerns, and appeared on some episodes of Kit Carson, The Cisco Kid and The Adventures of Superman on TV. She retired from the business in 1953. The only clue to her later life was a single line from her studio bio that stated that she had “married Lt. Thomas K. Turnage, U.S. Army” in 1945. Before the Internet, of course, a clue such as this was little more than an invitation to hours of tedious phone book hunting. I spent a day at a local library picking through old phone books from across the country, looking for Turnages. It seemed like a dead end, and I put the file away.

The next part of the story is an illustration of the occasional serendipity of historical research, the awesome poltergeistian power of coincidence in the service of solving minor mysteries.

A few months after my phone book binge, I was sitting in the kitchen of my parents’ house in Southern California, with my Hatton files spread out in front of me on the breakfast table. Across from me was a little black and white TV set, and on it was the 11 o’clock news, to which I had tuned in anticipation of Johnny Carson’s monologue at 11:30. I ran across the Jane Adams subfile and opened it. There again I saw the line about Miss Adams’ marriage to Lt. Turnage. Then, as if the clouds in my kitchen had parted and let loose a bolt of white sunlight, the news anchor on the TV led into a taped clip by saying, “President Reagan’s executive assistant on military manpower, General Thomas K. Turnage, explained that …” I looked up to see General Turnage talking to reporters about some pressing issue concerning military conscription and the U.S. Selective Service.

My parents wondered what the commotion in the kitchen was all about. The next morning, I started to do some newspaper research on General Turnage, and by the end of the day, I had found an entry on him in a Who’s Who publication that listed his wife’s name as “Betty Jane Smith,” and an address (200 N. Pickett Street, Alexandria, Virginia). A phone number was only a step away.

I was 17 years old. I was eligible for Selective Service registration the next year. I was dealing with the wife of an advisor to the president. So, naturally, I chickened out. I never made any effort to contact the former Jane Adams.

I did, however, dutifully return to the Margaret Herrick Library with a neatly penned anonymous message on an index card, which read more or less as follows:

Jane Adams is married to General Thomas Turnage, President Reagan’s executive assistant for military manpower. Her address is 200 N. Pickett Street, Alexandria, Virginia.

I placed the card in the Jane Adams file in the Library, and then forgot about the whole thing.

Years later, while in a book shop in Southern California, I found a quickie reference work on B horror movies or westerns in which the author had tracked down Jane Adams, now retired with General Turnage in Rancho Mirage, California, and interviewed her. I like to assume that my anonymous message helped. In her interview, Ms. Adams recalls:

On July 14, 1945, I married Tom Turnage. We recently celebrated our golden wedding anniversary. [A brief marriage to an Annapolis cadet ended tragically as he was killed in action on his first mission during WWII.] I wanted to be with Tom, whose career kept us traveling constantly. It was only when he was sent to Korea that I came back and did those TV shows. I wanted to be a housewife, mother and travel. That’s something I couldn’t do as an actress … I’m very happy in Palm Springs … I loved working in serials and westerns – it was very exciting. My life has been a great adventure.
I felt a pang of regret that I never contacted her.

General Turnage passed away in 2000, and was given a burial with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Under President Reagan, he was not only an executive on the President’s military manpower task force, but he served as the director of the Selective Service, and finally as the last administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration, from 1986 to 1989 – prior to the job’s elevation to a cabinet-level post as the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is amazing what we can find when we are not looking for anything.

Mark N.

1:18 PM  

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