by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
He married his first serious girlfriend, Greta Konen. At 31, she was five years older and a hairdresser at a travelling theater company. She reached up to about the midpoint of his chest. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, in a fit of pique, he proposed. Greta had refused to sleep with Gregory Peck until he made it legal.
Their wedding reception occurred at the 1942 World Series in St. Louis. They moved to California shortly thereafter, renting a small pink home in Beverly Hills. He had originally seen her standing on a Philadelphia train platform; the same woman was now his wife. It was her second marriage.
Groomed for stardom because of his bellicose palate of expressions and unique charm, Peck begn to take movement classes with Martha Graham. (Tony Randall and Eli Wallach were also students.) “She was in the prime of her prime,” Peck once said of Graham. The woman was merciless to her charges, even once pressing down on his back so violently he slipped a disc.
As Peck was cast in more prominent roles, a congregation of women nearly always surrounded him. Greta at first tried to take the change in stride, reminding herself, “I should remember a movie star shouldn’t have a wife.” It was traditional in those days to minimize how much information about the star’s private lives reached the public. Since Greg could charm any woman, why not the gossip columnists as well? They rarely wrote of his indiscretions, unless they were so obvious they could not be ignored.
Once he had asked Martha Graham if he had moved properly. She said, “Tears are running down the insides of my cheeks.”
He attempted in vain to behave himself until he met his co-star on the set of Spellbound. This was Ingrid Bergman, herself married to a Swedish dentist. All caution hit the wind. As the film wrapped up, Bergman had enough of Peck and moved on to her next leading man. Peck was a bit hurt, but tried to take it in stride. His wife watched these events with circumspection.
The question of whether or not he had sex with Ava Gardner is an open one. They were close friends and neither admitted to any indiscretion. Dark, large and possessed, he could not have chosen any differently than his tiny wife.
Peck drunkenly cheated on Greta with whoever was available, but his infidelity with the actress Barbara Payton constituted something of a turning point. After the affair, she talked openly to magazines about hard fucking him in their dressing rooms. She told everyone she knew about how big he was. In gratitude, he banned her from the set of her own movie. Years later she became a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard.
In 1948 an organization named Peck Father of the Year.
In 1952 he met a 19 year old Parisian journalist, Veronique Passani, in the company of his wife. He did not really care. On the set of Roman Holiday, newspapers reported his liasion with Audrey Hepburn. It helped the film’s box office for sure, but it was barely true. “Everyone on the set was in love with her,” he later said. Hepburn was herself engaged.
In Italy Greg’s main mistress was actually June Dally-Watkins, 25, an Australian model. He asked her to join him in Paris and pretended he was separated from Greta. June was a virgin, and her mother advised her to return to Australia, which she did after some soul-wringing.
One night Greta and Greg went to the home of her family friends. He suddenly decided to leave, and when she caught up with him, she asked him, did he want her to come with? He told his wife, “It doesn’t make any difference.”
With his Australian dalliance safely in her home country, Greg was free to focus on Veronique. He conveyed her to Rome and romanced her mercilessly. The game was already won, however; she told her mother the first day she interviewed him and and his wife that she would marry him someday.
In Veronique Peck found a like mind despite their age differences. Or perhaps he really wanted to see things this way: “Veronique and I have the same tastes in arts, sports, everything!” he sometimes cried out, either to the media or breaking out of a dream in the middle of the night. Greta returned to America once it became clear this fascination was no simple affair. Peck married Veronique the day after his divorce from Greta was finalized.
Once wed, the new couple socialized mostly with Cary Grant and his wife, and Greg’s benders reduced in their frequency. It was easy to be affected by Greg’s insane charisma and appeal, but Veronique took it a step further. She seemed to see him as he truly was: an introverted, semi-haunted sconce. “He is a man of strengths and weaknesses,” his second wife noted. “If I had to paint Greg, I would need a whole range of colors to do a portrait because there is great variation.”
Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the early days of Ingrid Bergman. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.