Constance Bennett, who made it work

6 January 2011

The thing about Hollywood stars is the real-life unhappiness that contrasts with the on-screen glamor.  You read a few biographies and you see the pattern of multiple marriages, suicides, institutionalization, loss of riches, miserable children.  Constance Bennett seems to have been a striking exception.  Somewhat forgotten now, she was a terrific comic actress best known for Topper (1937) but she appeared in many more delightful 1930s romantic comedies.  Sure, she married five times — but I want to celebrate her for being a smart businesswoman, canny poker player, and — apparently — a happy woman, a woman who was interested in what she did.Bennett earned a lot of money, but unlike the rest she knew how to manage it.  “She’s the shrewdest woman in the picture industry,” her investment adviser had said of her, according to her 1965 New York Times obituary.  “She knows the earning power and dividend record behind every bond and every share of stock she owns.”  Between her high salary (by the late 20s she was making $30,000 a week, possibly more than any other star) and her business sense, she cultivated a persona of the amused outsider — a persona you can see in so many of her films and photographs, in which she seems to cast a knowing, rolling-her-eyes look at us.  Are we in on the joke?  Probably not, as she was a far better poker player than we are, and who knows what she was really doing with that look?  By the end of her life, married to an Air Force colonel and installed in Colorado Springs, she “joined in card table sessions that lasted through the night and past sunrise.”  The notion of this late-fifties star at a card table at an Air Force base, wearing her trademark gold barrette in her hair and waving the matching cigarette holder, delights me to no end.

Bennett (right) with Loretta Young

“If there’s a secret to it, it’s working like a beaver to be happy,” Bennett said before her death, during a time when she’d begun to reappear in a few films, drawing notices for her hard work and surprisingly youthful appearance.  “What I mean is I’ve always been interested in everything I did, or else I wouldn’t do it.  When you’re that interested in anything you’re happy.”

Words to the wise, Connie.  Time to balance the checkbook — and then remind myself that I share her voracious interest in what I do.

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