The Hollywood Life of Jack Larson, America’s First Teen Heart-Throb

The Daily Beast

September 26, 2015

Jack Larson still kept some of the ephemera from when—as America’s first teen heart-throb—he played cub reporter Jimmy Olsen in The Adventures of Superman, from 1952 to 1958, opposite George Reeves in the title role.

He had magazines and photographs in boxes, and when I met Larson on December 12, 2012, at his home in Brentwood, Los Angeles, we talked from late afternoon into inky night.

He showed me the pictures of himself from back then: yes, he was handsome, boyishly, peppily sexy. I told him, truthfully, that—at 84—he still was. He was charismatic, erudite, witty, and a generous host. It was jolting to read that he had died on Sunday, aged 87.

I could have talked for longer than the three hours I was with Jack. I could have talked for days with him, honestly. He was that rare thing, a truly bewitching interviewee, and our encounter delightful from its greeting to its farewell.

I was there to speak to him about his friendship with Gore Vidal for my book In Bed With Gore Vidal, which focuses on Vidal’s sexuality and private life, but my attention—maybe like other visitors—was immediately taken by Larson’s home, the George Sturges House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939.

This is where Larson lived with James Bridges, his partner of 35 years, until Bridges died in 1993.

The house really is incredible, made of both brick and wood. Inside was a riot of papers, books, paintings, pictures, and artistic objects—Larson told me that they had to check with the Lloyd Wright estate before making any kind of changes. The balcony that wrapped around the property felt bigger somehow than the inside.

Before Bridges, Larson had been in a relationship with Montgomery Clift. He told the New York Times it had been Clift that had advised him to quit acting, after the producer Mervyn LeRoy told Larson in 1961 that he couldn’t have Larson appear in his picture—he was too known as Jimmy Olsen.

Larson’s fears of typecasting were proven true—ironic, as he was pretty freaked out by the fame that was suddenly his when he played Jimmy. Later in life, he became a playwright and librettist, and talked to me excitedly about the opening night in 1972 of Virgil Thomson’s opera Lord Byron, which Larson wrote the libretto for.

However, the Superman franchise wasn’t done for him: his early fame led to appearances in nineties TV shows like Superboy, Lois and Clark (as an aged Jimmy Olsen), and a cameo in Bryan Singer’s 2006 movie, Superman Returns.

A new generation of Superman fans hailed Larson, and he was also called to comment on Reeves’ mysterious death in 1959.

Larson recalled going to Reeves’ house, with Reeves’ ex-girlfriend Toni Mannix, after he was found shot dead. It was a suspected suicide, but the mystery of Reeves’ death remains an eternal Hollywood mystery.

Larson recalled seeing Reeves’ bloody bed-sheets massed in the bath. Mannix knew the location of two bullet marks: why was there more than one bullet mark if it was a suicide? How did Mannix know about the bullet marks?

As they left Reeves’ house, Mannix said dramatically: “I never would have believed that my love affair would have turned into tragedy.”

Larson told me had met Vidal in 1954, as the popularity of The Adventures of Superman was in the ascendant.

“We were at a party, and he had a sailor friend with him,” Larson told me. “Luckily he was a slim sailor, as I had an MG. I said to Gore, ‘I’m happy to drive you home, but this is a two-seat, so I don’t know how we’ll all fit.’ ‘Well, he’ll sit on my lap,’ Gore said.”

Larson drove Vidal and his companion back from the party in Santa Monica to the Bel Air Hotel, and during the trip Vidal spoke about his mother Nina, who he had a vituperative, complicated relationship with.

“He said a lot of bad things about his mother. He obviously detested her. I was very surprised to hear this.”

The two men became friends, and Vidal was even there the first night of Lord Byron at Lincoln Center.

“He was the first person to run out of the john at the intermission between the first and second act,” Larson recalled. “’So far, so good,’ he said.”

The failed Senate race campaign Vidal ran against Jerry Brown for the Californian Democratic nomination in 1982 Larson recalled as “ruthless.”

Larson, like Vidal, knew literary luminaries like Christopher Isherwood and Paul Bowles, and Larson recalled one dinner for Bowles at Isherwood’s house in Santa Monica Canyon, in the middle of a presidential campaign—Vidal was on TV prominently.

Vidal was irritated that he had been speaking at university campuses, where the students were more into Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (who Vidal had had sex with), and the Beatniks rather than him.

“He was on his high horse about it, attacking these people—Ginsberg, Kerouac—as being near-illiterate, but young people were stupid they worshipped these people.

“He was very embittered and, as Gore was wont to do, got very, very drunk. After dinner he sat in the living room, and carried on being bitter and sardonic.”

Bowles, Larson said, had had enough with Vidal’s performative pity party.

“Gore, when there’s an election you’re all over national television,” Bowles told him. “On TV, you’re the Pontiff about elections. When you write a novel it becomes a bestseller, or a movie it becomes a great success, or a play and it becomes a Broadway hit. You’re as famous as can be. What can you possibly want that’s making you so unhappy?”

Vidal, Larson said, was definitely very drunk, and for quite a while—about two minutes—the group sat in silence, until Vidal replied to Bowles’ question.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Vidal said. “I want crowds to follow me wherever I go. For instance, at this very moment there would be a crowd on top of the Palisades, a throng, waiting for me to make my exit from this house tonight and they would applaud my exit as I went.”

That night, Larson drove Bowles back to his hotel, and Bowles explained Vidal’s behavior thus: “He wants to be President of the United States like John F. Kennedy, and when John Kennedy was here there were famous pictures of the crowds watching JFK on the Palisades.”

Vidal had been a Kennedy intimate himself, but Bobby Kennedy had had him excommunicated from the White House. Vidal was bitterly upset about this, and his blunted political ambition. He never achieved office of any kind.

Vidal was also offended by the sometimes derogatory mentions he and partner Howard Austen received in Isherwood’s diaries—Vidal and Isherwood had a long, ranging, and mainly affectionate, association.

“When Isherwood was dying,” Larson told me, “he died in his own house. He had cancer of the prostate, which spread to his spine. He didn’t want to be in the hospital. It was a long death, and very painful, but that’s the way Christopher wanted it, without morphine.”

Larson recalled, “Sometimes Chris was awake, sometimes he was in a coma. Howard and Gore came to visit, and found him in this state. It was not a good sight. On seeing Chris like this, Gore said to him: ‘Everything good and fine is disappearing from the earth, and leaving the planet to the lizards.’

“And it turned out Chris could hear, and he woke and opened his eyes and said: ‘What’s the matter with the lizards?’”

Vidal admired Isherwood very much, Larson added, and I discovered that there was a lovely moment later in life, when, seeing a crowd waiting for Isherwood to sign copies of Christopher and His Kind at a gay bookstore, Vidal was moved by the devotion Isherwood commanded by being so open about his sexuality—in a way Vidal himself never was.

Larson and I talked about how unique and puzzling Vidal’s relationship was with Howard Austen, his partner of over 50 years.

“He was always so offhand about Howard,” Larson told me. But Vidal was considerate too, he said, and the relationship “comradely”—Larson took Vidal at his word that he and Austen’s relationship had endured because they’d ceased having sex early on in the relationship.

Vidal said his true love had been his schoolmate Jimmie Trimble: some of his friends believe this; some felt Vidal had enshrined Trimble as a romantic ideal.

Both Vidal and Austen certainly enjoyed the services of hustlers—although in my research I found that the couple had a very close, intimate relationship. Vidal’s decline accelerated appallingly after Austen’s death in 2003.

“I said to Paul,” Larson recalled of talking to Bowles, “’I’m very mystified by Gore and he said to me that Gore has only ever been only interested in ‘prep school sex’—mutual masturbation.”

Vidal, of course, said he was bisexual. There is not much evidence of sustained relationships with women, but Larson believed one rumor that Vidal had slept with actress Elaine Dundy, who went on to marry the critic Kenneth Tynan. “She obviously liked sardonic men,” laughed Larson.

Near the end of his own life (he died in July 2012), Vidal invited Larson to little musical nights he had at this home in the Hollywood Hills.

The last memory Larson had of Vidal was the great author fast asleep in his chair in the living room, then set up as a mini-hospital room.

So many stories told so engagingly: by now evening was cloaking Larson’s house, and the living room was lit by only one or two lamps. A game of shadows was playing over the walls, and all these famous people we had been discussing felt very present.

Larson was tired, and I knew it was time to go, even though no fiber of mine wanted to leave. I thanked Jack Larson, gave him a long, emotional hug, and left. However he died, I hope this wonderful man wasn’t alone.