Besides starring in several noir classics, The Woman in the Window ( 1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Hollow Triumph (1948) and our favorite, The Reckless Moment (1949), Joan Bennett delivered the most famous adulterer’s line of dialogue in Hollywood history.
In 1951, Bennet’s marriage to producer Walter Wanger was on the rocks. Wanger’s distinguished career was in decline and he was drowning in debt. Bennett and Wanger were in danger of losing their lovely Holmby Hills home. The financial burden of their family fell entirely on Joan’s slim shoulders. Unhappy, worried about her career as TV colonized movie audiences, Joan was approaching that certain age where female stars are forced into character roles. Under these trying circumstances Joan drifted into an affair with her agent Jennings Lang. Wanger followed his wife and her agent to a parking lot where, in a fit of jealousy, Wanger shot Lang in the crotch—twice.
Joan said: “Oh for Chrissake’s Walter, he’s ONLY an agent!”
Lang survived. Wanger served time. But Joan’s marriage fell apart and her career never quite recovered from the scandal.
But just a few years earlier, Joan Bennett was a Hollywood mega-star, best known for her femme fatale image that fell into place when Joan, against all Hollywood logic, went from being a natural blond to a Hedy Lamarr-like brunette.
In 1942, in a world consumed by the horrors of war, Joan Bennett authored “How to be Attractive” a self-help book for women.
Bennett, certainly one of the smartest of the Hollywood elite was aware that a book about beauty might strike a discordant note. Thus, Bennett, defuses the problem in her introduction:
Where are those who say it is frivolous and time-wasting for women to concern themselves these days with anything more than neatness in the way of personal appearance. With a whole world to be won or lost for decency, democracy, and human dignity, the argument goes, the woman who is diligent in the pursuit of physical attractiveness is fiddling while Rome burns.
This I do not believe, any more than I believe that physical beauty is the end and all of being. But I do believe that a woman who has about her an aura of having made the most of her looks and of consistently maintaining her attractveness—as much for her own self-respect as to win admiration from others—is a woman who is apt to tackle all the bigger problems of life with the same clear-headed thoughtfulness she has shown about herself.
Remember this: The woman who achieves day after day—whatever the other demands on her time and thought—an appearance that is pleasing to the eye need apologize to no one. having learned how to make the most of herself in the realm of personal appearance, she will have learned the elements of bringing order and beauty into her entire life, and into the lives she touches.
A few excerpts:
Some of our ancestors made a virtue of ugliness. I have a sneaking suspicion that it was a few hags who were neglected on the Mayflower boat trip. Today ministers to the spirit, body, and mind all agree that the woman who has stopped trying to be attractive is a sick woman.
In pre-implant days, Joan advises women how to increase their bust measurements.
Place palms of hands together, holding elbows out. Spread the fingers apart, and push fingertips firmly together. Repeat at least twenty times.
Besides beauty, diet, and wardrobe tips, Joan, like Edith Head, gets down to the serious business of finding a husband. In her chapter on “How to Attract a Man” Joan offers practical advice:
It is probably true that all men like to look at a pretty face, but, far from falling for it, a large percentage of the male population shies away from the glamour girl. I remember a party given in honor of ten beautiful models. They were the loneliest girls at the party.
You attract a man by being a woman as good-looking as her native equipment plus reasonable care and upkeep will allow, as gentle and kind as women are meant to be, as concerned as he is with the world you live in.
Joan sums up her philosophy in the book’s final chapter, “How is Your Heart?”
I don’t remember how I got hold of the yardstick of kindness. Certainly it drops from my hands too frequently. My critics and friends will testify that I’m impatient, quick-tempered, and caustic. I have even been guilty of ugly generalizations. But cruel and unfair as I have been and probably will be, I have lost the knack of effective, damaging cruelty. It didn’t disappear by any reasoning process or abstract philosophy. I won’t even tell you the actual turning-point. But it was typically woman-fashion. You see, it is easy to love babies…
It is selfishness in the highest degree. I have children of my own. I want their world to be clean and free. If I help rob other children of that world, what possible assurance have I that my own won’t live in the hopeless one of discrimination, poverty, sorrow?
I grow a little embarrassed, knowing I am not qualified to discuss these things glibly or as a personification of them. But it had to be mentioned—even in a none too serious book on beauty, by a far from great, gentle or wise woman.