Commentary by Nick Thomas
Imagine growing up with not one, but two renowned actors as parents.
Peter Ford’s father was Glenn Ford (1919-2006), a popular box office draw in the ‘40s and ‘50s with memorable performances in classics such as “Gilda” and “The Blackboard Jungle.”
Married four times, Ford’s first marriage was to Eleanor Powell (1912–1982). Their union lasted 16 years and produced one child, Peter.
“She was a shy little girl and at seven took dancing lessons,” explained Peter from Los Angeles. “Her mother recognized her talent and she began dancing at twelve in Atlantic City. At fifteen, they moved to New York City and she became friends with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the two often performed together at local private parties.”
After some New York stage roles, Powell moved to Hollywood and was signed by Louis B. Mayer at MGM where she starred in “Broadway Melody of 1940” with Fred Astaire and “Born to Dance” with Jimmy Stewart.
Though she only appeared in a dozen movies, “Ellie” was regarded by many as the best female tap dancer to ever appear on screen. Peter remains in awe of his mother’s talents on the dance floor.
“My mother was the greatest dancer in film!” he stated proudly. “This assessment is not only held by me and many other students of the field of dance, but Fred Astaire as well. Fred told me this in-person.”
Peter’s parents met just before the Second World War.
“Mom and actor Pat O’Brien met on a U.S. Bond tour together,” said Peter. “Pat had worked with my dad and thought they would make a nice couple and had a party after the tour specifically to introduce them.”
In Peter’s 2011 insightful biography of his father, “Glenn Ford: A Life” (see http://www.peterford.com), he describes his father’s first impression upon seeing his future wife in person:
“I had only seen her in black-and-white movies, and in person I was struck by her coloring, her chestnut hair, worn in soft waves to her shoulders, this glowing complexion, and beautiful cornflower blue eyes. And when she smiled, I was captivated.”
That rare glimpse of his parent’s first meeting was possible from Ford’s own writings.
“My father kept a diary every day of his life since 1933 and I have every one of them,” said Peter. “If you picked any day since then, I could tell you what he had for breakfast, where he went, what he did, what he thought, who he talked to, etc.”
Powell stopped working in film shortly before Peter was born in 1945, her final role being a brief cameo in “Duchess of Idaho” five years later.
“She had no regrets when she left dancing,” said Peter. “She had a new role as wife and mother and threw herself into these new duties with the same zeal that she approached her dancing.”
Once Peter reached his teen years, his mother returned to performing mostly out of necessity. She had received the family home after divorcing Ford, along with a modest alimony settlement, but the house was huge and expensive to run.
“She had a major comeback after her divorce from my father in 1959 that took her to Las Vegas and venues throughout the United States and Europe. She really only did it because she needed the money, then retired again after about three years.”
In addition to being a devoted mother, Eleanor Powell was dedicated to humanitarian causes that included supported charities, such as children’s hospitals. She also promoted racial equality, a social issue that concerned her since her youth when working with Bill Robinson.
“She and Bill were required to enter mansions from the back – the service entrance,” writes Peter in his book. “My mother was offered the opportunity to be treated differently from Bill Robinson, but she declined …. where Bill went, so did she.”
“I was blessed with having the best mom a young man could possibly have,” says Peter. “She was kind, honest, sweet, caring of all humanity – the best.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 550 magazines and newspapers.