She grew up in the Bronx as Ella Geisman, the child of an alcoholic who took a powder when she was 6. But by her early 20s, June Allyson was big box office—a blond girl-next-door type who would make some 40 films during the ’40s and ’50s, and would also star in an 18-year marriage to actor Dick Powell. But then, in 1963, her husband, nearly two decades her senior, died of cancer at 58. His “Junie face” drifted into depression, into drink and into a disastrous second marriage. She dropped from sight.
But all that is prologue. Now 60ish yet still spunky as ever, the 5’1″ actress with the husky, dusky voice Powell said made her sound “like Jimmy Durante, only froggier” is out with an autobiography, June Allyson (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $14.95). One was needed. MGM had flogged her as a Goody Two-Shoes honor grad (actually, she was a high school dropout), and hoked up romances with Van Johnson and Peter Lawford to add spice to her every-body’s-sweetheart image. Yet gossips tagged her as a scheming nympho, and Joan Blondell, who divorced Powell the year before he married Allyson in 1945, flayed her in a novel featuring an unflattering June-like character. “Every major actress,” says Allyson, laughing, “gets whispered about when she first hits it big.”
By her own account, June was an eager innocent whose life was largely shaped by luck—not all of it good. As a penniless hopeful in New York, she had taught herself dancing by watching Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee 17 times, but was so klutzy she lost several chorus jobs. Yet the first Broadway show in which she had a featured role, 1941’s Best Foot Forward, was a smash. More good fortune came when Powell saw the musical and decided she was “the cutest little thing anybody ever saw.” After landing in L.A. the next year with just $21, she struggled to get started in movies, and was about to give up when her friend Lucille Ball told her firmly, “You’re going to stay.” Sure enough, she scored in her first big film, 1944’s Two Girls and a Sailor. Powell, with whom she worked in another movie, told her, “You’re going to be a star.”
A year later she also became his wife. Though June earned some $2.5 million, she never saw a cent, or cared to. Powell, who Allyson says “had a fear of growing old and not being responsible for himself,” managed their incomes by himself, never consulting June even about the four houses they bought (one now used as Robert Wagner’s mansion in Hart to Hart). “Richard took care of everything,” says June. She never wrote a check: “I thought offices and things like that did it.”
The Powells palled around with Bogie and Bacall, Edgar and Frances Bergen (June rescued Candice when she fell into a pool at the age of 4), and Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman (who once cracked to June, “Don’t ask Ronnie what time it is, because he’ll tell you how a watch is made”). They adopted a daughter in 1948, then had a son two years later. But the marriage cracked in the mid-1950s, when Powell began directing and producing. Partly because Dick was never around, she fell in love with Alan Ladd. “Each of us was suffering in our marriages,” she says. “I because I wasn’t getting enough attention, Alan because he was getting too much”—from his domineering wife, Sue. The Powells separated in 1957. Later she sought a divorce, but happily dropped it in 1961 when Dick said, “I’m not going to let you go.”
After his death Allyson was left with some $6 million. But she felt that “when Richard went, he took about three-quarters of me with him.” Within 10 months she wed Powell’s barber, Glenn Maxwell, several years her junior. They divorced in 1965—she said he struck her, gambled and wrote bad checks—remarried in 1966, and split for good in 1970. When friends tried to help her quit alcohol too, she says, “I pushed them away. I hoped my drinking would kill me.” Then in 1975 she ran into her half brother’s best friend, David Ashrow, a dentist. When he showed up for their first date, Allyson was drunk and tried to send him away. But he talked his way in, and “we sat up half the night talking,” June recalls. They married in 1976—after she had vowed to end her drinking problem.
Today she and the now retired Ashrow, 61, live in affluent Ojai, northwest of L.A., and sometimes team up in dinner theater productions. Allyson isn’t as impractical as she used to be, though Ashrow says she “has no sense about shopping. She’ll buy the biggest of everything.” Still, she does, at last, have a sense of personal strength. “God forbid I’m widowed once more,” she says. “But if it happens, I’m better equipped to bear it. I’m not going to fall apart again!”