By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
You enlisted in the Navy in 1942. How was your experience during the war?
Awful. I joined because I felt it was the right thing to do, but you can’t believe what it was like for a guy like me. Because everybody knew me. I joined a few months after December 1941. I was playing a theater in Providence, Rhode Island, and when I went offstage for a smoke, I heard a hysterical voice on the radio saying, ”The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor! World War II has begun!“ I went back onstage feeling as if a huge, gigantic force was coming at me. The manager asked me to announce that all military personnel were to report to their bases immediately, and because we were near Newport, that announcement practically emptied the theater. It dawned on me that what I was doing was totally senseless, so I told the first alto man, ”Two weeks‘ notice -- pass it on.“ I didn’t want to rethink it.
Those years in the service were the lowest point in my life. In a way, though, the war saved my life, because it ended that period of success. By the time I was discharged in 1944, I was a wreck and was suffering what we now refer to as post-traumatic stress. I was married to Betty Kern then, so I returned to her father‘s house in Beverly Hills, where we were living while we fixed up our big house in Beverly Hills. It was all too much, and I didn’t have a clue who I was, so I left the marriage and got into analysis. The Navy had shaken me up pretty good, not to mention the fact that I was confused enough when I enlisted. The only thing worse than failure is unmitigated success, and success on the scale I had it is one of the most confusing things that can happen to a person. I just finished reading a book a friend of mine wrote about Harry James, who led a life of megasuccess, excess and utter misery. As I read it I was thinking, ”Good God, why couldn‘t he pull himself out of that?“ But it could easily have happened to me.
What’s the most significant historical event you‘ve witnessed?
World War II. After that I’d say Roosevelt‘s death, which had a huge impact. I was playing the Orpheum Theater in L.A., and it closed the theater. Roosevelt was the last important father figure to the American people. I met him once when I went to Washington with Franny Farmer and John Garfield to talk to Congress about the continuation of WPA Theater. We were shunted from place to place and ended up talking with Roosevelt, who was a truly magnetic man. He looked you in the eye, heard what you said and focused completely. He told us he was in total sympathy and what we said made sense, but we didn’t have a constituency and couldn‘t win that one. I haven’t voted in the last five elections, because I can‘t find anybody to vote for -- even Kennedy was just a stinky rich kid. Roosevelt was the last president the public respected. Yes, he was to the manor born and was raised in a world I never knew, but he assumed responsibility for the stewardship of this country.
Why did you marry so many times?
Because I was famous. That attracts women like flies, and you couldn’t just shack up in those days. I was 19 the first time I married, to a girl named Jane Carns. Her mother came and got her, and the marriage was never consummated. Then, when I was 23, I met a nurse named Margaret Allen at a party, and she moved in with me two days later. We were together for three years, and the last year was hopeless. She was Catholic and we didn‘t want children, but she had a problem with the idea of contraception. She had tremendous guilt. You know that Catholic shit people go through? She knew better, but she couldn’t deal with the emotion. Nonetheless, even the worst marriage is a horrible thing to break up. Suddenly there‘s nobody to be embroiled with, addicted to, no more teeny-weeny talk. It’s a series of habits that are difficult to break. I don‘t have any of that anymore, I’m relieved to say. That part of my life is over. Somebody once said that being freed of the need for sex is like finally being allowed to dismount from a wild horse.
Sex can create tremendous chaos, but it can also be the source of great joy. My relationship with Ava Gardner was absolutely glorious that way. Ava came to see me one time after she‘d been married to Sinatra for a while. She was having trouble with him, and she said to me, ”When we were, you know, doing it“ -- that was her way of saying it -- ”was it good?“ I said, ”If everything else had been anywhere near as good, we’d have been together forever and I‘d never have let you out of my sight.“ She gave a sigh of relief. I asked why. She said, ”With him it’s impossible.“ I said I thought he was a big stud. She said, ”No, it‘s like being in bed with a woman.“