One of the most popular male vocalists of the 1940s, Dick Haymes is often considered to have the best baritone voice of the twentieth century. Haymes worked with several bands before beginning a solo career that took him to Hollywood stardom. Unfortunately, poor choices and alcoholism stifled his career, and by the 1950s he had fallen out of the spotlight and in trouble with the government.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Haymes was the son of cattle rancher Benjamin Haymes, who was of Scotch-Irish descent, and his young wife, Marguerite, who was Irish but had been raised in the United States. The outgoing Marguerite had been a performer before her marriage and found it hard to adjust to life in Argentina, and in 1922 she contacted an old admirer in New York and asked for his help to leave. The admirer, a well-respected businessman and a retired American general, arranged for her to travel on a freighter, and she surreptitiously left her husband and moved to the United States with Dick in tow. Benjamin refused to grant her a divorce, however, and the two remained married until his death in 1933.
Marguerite remained close to her secretive benefactor after arriving in New York, which resulted in the birth of Dick’s brother, Bob, in 1923. Throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, their mother dragged the boys across the Americas and Europe as she attempted various endeavors such as breaking onto the Broadway stage and operating dress shops in Rio de Janeiro and Paris. She vacillated between a number of wealthy lovers, often leaving her sons in the care of others or sending them to boarding schools in the United States, Switzerland, and Canada.
Dick got the show business bug and began singing in the early 1930s. He hitchhiked to Hollywood in 1935 in an attempt to get summer jobs in the film industry, where he managed to find work as a stuntman in Mutiny on the Bounty. In summer 1936, he made his debut as a professional singer at the Hotel Monmouth in New Jersey with local bandleader Johnny Johnson, who had seen him in an amateur production and had been impressed with his voice. When the job ended, he continued to sing with various local bands and formed his own group, which played at school functions.
In 1937, the family settled in California, where Marguerite hobnobbed with movie stars. Haymes tried again unsuccessfully to get into the picture business. While there, he also formed a musical quintet called The Katzenjammers, which quickly folded. He then took a job, without pay, singing on Los Angeles radio station KHJ. The family returned to New York later that year.
After returning to the East Coast, both brothers set their sights on singing as a career. Dick went to several auditions before finally landing a spot with Bunny Berigan in 1939. Berigan’s band was in serious decline at that point, however, and Haymes, not feeling it was to his advantage, left after a few dates. On his own again, he found only sporadic work singing on the radio and decided to try his hand as a songwriter instead. In March 1940, he pitched his songs to bandleader Harry James. James, who had lost Frank Sinatra to Tommy Dorsey in January and was unhappy with current male vocalist Fran Hines, was impressed with Haymes’ voice and offered him the job.
In his early years, Haymes was noted for his nervousness before a performance. He had trouble relaxing on stage and reaching audiences. Haymes also had poor eyesight. He couldn’t see faces in the crowd but refused to wear glasses while performing. Nevertheless, his deep baritone voice quickly won over both the critics and the public, and he soon found himself among the top male vocalists in the country, ranking high in polls alongside Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
In late 1940, Haymes began dating singer Edythe Harper, whom he met in Chicago. After two weeks, Harper announced she was pregnant, and Haymes married her, only to soon find out she had lied. He filed for divorce, which became final in the summer of 1941. In spring of that year, he met showgirl Joanna Marshall in New York, and the two were married in September.
In mid-1941, Benny Goodman considered Haymes for his orchestra but could not reach a deal. Haymes remained with James until the end of 1941 when, expecting his first child, he left for greener pastures. Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Haymes made a decision that followed him for the rest of his life. Facing the prospect of being drafted, he worried about his career and his new wife, and he registered as a resident alien, waiving his right to citizenship in order to avoid being called to duty. He later regretted his decision and wrote a letter rescinding his exclusion affidavit. He was classified as 1-A in 1944 but failed his physical examination and reclassified as 4-F. He again was listed as 1-A in 1945 but failed the examination.
In January 1942, Haymes signed with CBS for his own three times weekly radio series, and in May he attempted to organize his own band in which he was to play piano as well as sing. The group, however, quickly fell victim to the draft and transportation issues and never got off the ground. According to Down Beat magazine, Haymes wired James and asked to return, requesting a $200 weekly salary, $150 more than his previous salary, to which James wired back: “Dear, Dick, for $200 per week I will join your band.”
In need of a vocalist again, Goodman made Haymes another offer, which he accepted, though he stayed only briefly. In August, Sinatra announced his intended departure from Dorsey, and Dorsey tapped Haymes to replace him at $150 a week. Haymes left Goodman and sat out for a month while he waited for Sinatra’s exit in September. Joining Dorsey’s band, he had the unenviable task of following up the nation’s top band singer. Sinatra’s shoes were big, but Haymes, almost equally as popular, was undoubtedly a shrewd choice on Dorsey’s part to fill them. It was also of benefit to Haymes. His time with Dorsey helped to increase his exposure, with weekly performances on the band’s Raleigh-Kool radio show alongside Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers and an appearance with the band in the film DuBarry Was a Lady. The American Federation of Musician’s recording ban, however, meant that he never entered the studio with the orchestra.
Haymes stayed with Dorsey until May 1943, when he grew tired of the band’s grueling schedule and, according to Haymes, Dorsey’s practical jokes. Haymes related that Dorsey had begun giving him a hotfoot during his numbers. One night, he got fed up and stopped singing, announcing on stage that he was quitting the band. The two parted as friends, however, with Haymes once again trying his hand at going solo, with Dorsey’s blessing, and with Dorsey’s personal manager, Bullets Durgom, as his agent.
On his own now, Haymes sent his wife and child to live with relatives in New York while he unsuccessfully tried to find work on the West Coast. Marshall finally contacted close friend Helen O’Connell, who convinced her own agent, Bill Burton, to take on Haymes as a client. Burton immediately wired money for Haymes to return to New York and found him quick work. Burton then helped Haymes land a spot at the La Martinique night club, where he suddenly became a sensation, held over for three months.
The success of his appearance at La Martinique helped Burton arrange a recording contract with Decca and a regular appearance on the NBC radio program Here’s to Romance. In June, Burton also arranged with Decca for Haymes to record a capella, backed by a vocal chorus, to get around the ongoing American Federation of Musician’s recording ban. The resulting lead track, “You’ll Never Know,” became an instant hit, selling over a million copies and further cementing Haymes’ rapid rise to stardom. In August, he signed a seven-year film contract with Twentieth Century Fox for two pictures a year and headed for the West Coast. Here’s to Romance followed him, switching networks to CBS, with Buddy Clark co-hosting from New York.
Haymes suddenly found himself a star, with comparisons to Sinatra and a fake rivalry between the two singers. He also found himself earning more money than he’d ever imagined, in excess of two hundred thousand dollars in one year. Haymes, however, had no sense of money management and no idea of the consequences of his spending habits, something which would come back to haunt him in the future. He bought a new house for his growing family and began to make the rounds of all the Hollywood parties. In 1945, he bought a champion Palomino, and he also bought several airplanes.
Beginning what would initially be a successful screen career, Haymes appeared in the star-studded musical Four Jills in a Jeep in 1944 and as one of the stars in Irish Eyes Are Smiling. He received star billing in several of the top Fox musicals of the era, including Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, State Fair, Do You Love Me, and the Shocking Miss Pilgrim.
Haymes kept busy on radio as well. In 1944, he became a regular on the NBC radio program Everything for the Boys, which teamed him with singer Helen Forrest, whom he had briefly worked with and became close friends with during his time with Harry James. The pair also recorded together and toured with the U.S.O. When Forrest left the show in 1947, NBC retitled it The Dick Haymes Show.
In several films, Haymes worked with Betty Grable, then the wife of James. Haymes and Grable had an affair, which cooled his formerly good relationship with James for many years. Haymes was a notorious womanizer, often using the willing Forrest as his alibi, telling his wife that they had been working together. Marshall finally had enough in early 1945 and after one particular incident left her husband and announced she was filing for divorce. Press accounts painted the separation as a fight over her intention to have a film career of her own. The two reconciled in March.
In 1947, Fox starred Haymes in the musical Carnival in Costa Rica, the first to list his name at the top of the credits. The film proved a box office disaster, prompting Fox to release Haymes from his contract as part of a cost-cutting move that saw all but the studio’s most profitable stars remain. Universal picked up Haymes for two pictures, but the resulting efforts, Up in Central Park and One Touch Venus, both proved failures as well. With three bombs in a row, Haymes was now considered box office poison, and he found himself without any motion picture prospects. At the same time, poor ratings of his radio program caused its cancellation in 1948. Though his records still sold well, without the extra income from Hollywood and radio he was forced to tour more aggressively than he had in the past.
A troubled home life also began to take its toll. While his film career suffered, his wife, now using the name Joanna Dru, found hers taking off after appearing in Howard Hawk’s Red River with John Wayne and Montgomery Cliff in 1948. The success of that film led her to be cast in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, also with Wayne. She had become a major star in a way that Haymes never had, and he took out his frustrations by starting to drink heavily.
He also continued his infidelity, which including a “torrid” relationship with Nora Eddington, estranged wife of Errol Flynn. When Dru found out, she at first tried to convince Eddington to give him up but eventually filed for divorce at Christmas time in 1948. The ink on the final divorce decrees for both Haymes and Eddington had barely dried in mid-1949 before they married.
Public opinion of Haymes took a sharp drop after his divorce from Dru. Haymes had always been portrayed to the public as a staunch family man, whose wife stood by him and supported him. People held a much less positive view of Eddington, who was seen as a “liberated” woman. When pictures began to circulate of she and Haymes attending lavish Hollywood parties, in contrast to the family photos seen during his marriage with Dru, Haymes was attacked in the press, sometimes virulently.
1949 also saw Haymes split with manager Burton, who had masterminded his rise to stardom, with Burton claiming Haymes was unreliable. Money problems continued for Haymes as well. His lifestyle was beyond his means, and he often failed to pay Dru alimony and child support. In addition, in 1949 he finally settled with Bullets Durgom, his original agent, over money owed, with Haymes paying out more than $17,000. It was all a perfect storm, and had it not been for his remaining popularity as a singer, his career would have been over. Haymes would later comment.
It was just a series of egoistic mistakes on my own part, the breakup of my marriage, breaking up with… Billy Burton. I just went through a dark, satanic period, that’s all, and started drinking too much and started being disinterested.
In 1949, Haymes took over Bob Crosby’s spot on the CBS radio program Club 15. After a year on that show, he appeared on the Carnation Hour for part of the 1950-51 season. He also continued to chart hits and began to make television appearances, first on Milton Berle’s show in 1949 and then with Benny Goodman on Star Time in 1950. In 1951 he appeared on the Dinah Shore Show, the Kate Smith Hour, and Texaco Star Theater.
Haymes also appeared in the B movie St. Benny the Dip, filmed in 1950 and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, where he played the role of a con man. It was perhaps his finest film. Given the chance to be something other than a boy singer, and with Ulmer’s fine direction, he turned in an excellent performance. Unfortunately, the film’s low budget status did little to improve his career standing.
Haymes tried his luck with musical comedy in mid-1951, appearing in the San Francisco production of Bloomer Girl. Critics panned him. He would make two more films for Columbia in 1953, both similar to the earlier musicals he’d done for Fox. Both were commercial failures. Haymes’ acting career was over. His contract with Decca also ended in 1953, and it would be three more years before he entered the recording studio again.
Two Years of Hell
1953 began what would be two years of unending problems for Haymes. While working at Columbia, he had met Rita Hayworth and had fallen in love. Hayworth was Hollywood’s reigning sex queen, and when pictures appeared of her and Haymes together, Eddington left him. That was only the first of his troubles however. In May, he followed Hayworth to a location shoot in Hawaii, then only a territory and not considered part of the United States. Haymes had sought the advice of an immigration official before he’d left to ensure that there would be no problem with the trip because of his status as a resident alien, but upon his return he was unexpectedly interrogated by the immigration service, who brought up the matter of the citizenship waiver he had signed during the war. In 1952, Congress had overriden President Truman’s veto to pass the controversial Immigration and Nationality Act, a product of the Cold War-era Red Scare, which among other things required the deportation, upon entering the country, of all those who had signed such waivers. If that wasn’t enough, the IRS also came after him for back taxes.
Haymes’ public image took a severe beating. He was labelled a draft dodger, and his relationship with Hayworth was put under scrutiny. His legal troubles began to mount. In August, federal agents stopped his car in Los Angeles and arrested him, threatening to deport him to Argentina. While awaiting an appeal on the deportation, he made a singing appearance in Las Vegas, and when he flew home to Los Angeles he was served a summons at the airport by Dru’s attorneys, seeking back alimony. On the day of his immigration hearing, he was served with divorce papers by Eddington’s lawyer and also another summons for a bill he owed a department store.
Haymes and Hayworth married in September. Later that month, Haymes, who was $180,000 in debt, $55,000 of which was owed to the IRS, went to court to restructure his debts. The IRS, however, rejected his requested payment plan and attached his wages, forcing him to cancel future singing engagements as he wasn’t left with enough money to pay his accompaniment. This resulted in several broken contracts, including one with conductor Nelson Riddle, and resulted in Haymes being placed on the “unfair” list by the American Guild and Variety Artists union. Hayworth tried to help his case by pleading that she was broke and depended on Haymes for support, but she was ridiculed in the press.
The onslaught continued in 1954. Haymes and Hayworth were evicted from their New York home in February for non-payment of rent. A sheriff’s deputy then tried to arrest Haymes at their hotel for non-payment of alimony to Dru, though a deal was worked out with her laywers. At an immigration hearing in March, Haymes was ordered to be deported, starting a frenzy of activity as he and Hayworth tried to get it reversed. Hayworth went so far as to renew her passports and those of her two children, announcing that she would leave the country with Haymes. Further problems arose when child protective services took Hayworth’s children into custody after a report on unhealthy conditions at their babysitter’s home. The couple had to rush to New York for a court appearance to reclaim them.
Good news finally seemed to break the string of bad in April when Haymes’ attorney successfully had the deportation order suspended on grounds that the official whom Haymes had consulted on the Hawaii trip had knowingly lied to him. A new hearing was set for June. Haymes and Hayworth moved to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to get away from the media circus and California process servers while they awaited the date. When the day of the hearing began, Haymes and his attorneys had to sneak into the building by the back stairs in order to avoid all the process servers waiting to catch him, though one managed to get into the room. A second process server wrestled with guards at the door before being allowed in because he was a federal official. He served Haymes with a subpoena to appear in July for income tax accounting.
At the hearing, immigration officials refused to drop charges against Haymes and a new hearing was scheduled for July. Haymes missed a court appearance in Los Angeles that month for alimony payments to Dru, making him at risk to be arrested if he entered California again. At the next immigration hearing, the charges of entrapment were rejected by the court, leaving Haymes in jeopardy of being deported again.
All throughout this ordeal, Haymes, Hayworth, and their attorneys had publicly accused Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn of instigating the immigration charges against Haymes, as Cohn disliked Haymes and his involvement with the studio’s biggest star. Cohn denied the charge. Hayworth was in contract negotiations that summer, and she and Haymes managed to arrange it to their advantage, helping Haymes pay off some of his debts. The studio even hired him as a screenwriter and allowed him access to the lot. That access was soon revoked, however, as Haymes was too closely monitoring Hayworth and her career, causing problems. Haymes and Hayworth were also both drinking heavily, which began to interfere with her studio work. The couple had begun fighting as well.
In November 1954, immigration officials rejected an appeal of the deportation order. His lawyer then appealed to the U.S. District Court, though before the date of the hearing his lawyer resigned from the case due to the fact that Haymes owed him a great deal of money. Despite that, at the end of May 1955, the district judge ruled that Haymes was not to be deported as Hawaii was an integral part of the United States and not a foreign country. An elated Haymes resumed his singing career in August with an engagement at the Coconut Grove. During what should have been his triumphant return, however, he and Hayworth separated after a fight in which he struck her, and she filed for divorce in November, sending Haymes into another dark spiral.
The Late 1950s and 1960s
Over the next few years, Haymes struggled to hang on to what was left of his career. In late 1955 and 1956, he recorded two albums for Capitol. Both were critically acclaimed, but by this time popular tastes had changed, and they were largely ignored by the public. He also recorded for Sunbeam in 1957. He made several television appearances and worked the nightclub circuit, where audiences were often rough on him.
In November 1958, Haymes married his fifth wife, singer Fran Jeffries, and the couple had a daughter the following year. Haymes had met Jeffries while working in a San Francisco club, and the two worked out an act together that proved wildly popular. They toured the country, often playing the finest clubs, and appeared on television, giving Haymes a much needed boost. Their success continued into 1961, when they broke attendance records at the Empire Room of the Waldorf Hotel in New York. In 1960, Haymes recorded a well-received solo album for the Warwick label.
Problems still plagued Haymes however. In 1960, he filed bankruptcy, citing $522,242 in liabilities with only $5,493 in assets. He still owed $40,000 to the IRS. After spending a year sober, he started drinking again. Jealousy reared its ugly head when Jeffries’ career began to take off on its own, with invitations for her to appear on television solo and offers of movie roles. Haymes felt left out, which increased his drinking and his belligerence. At one point, during the filming of The Pink Panther in 1962, he burst onto the set and accused Jeffries of having an affair with star Peter Sellers. After becoming scared during another of his outbursts that year, she left him.
The loss of Jeffries put Haymes onto another deep, dark spiral. In November 1962, he was arrested for drunk driving in Los Angeles. He skipped his court date but told his attorney to enter a plea of guilty. Finally in October 1963 he left the country, heading to England. Haymes later said, “my love affair with America had dwindled down to a one-sided nightmare with no hope of any reconciliation.”
Hoping to make a new start in England, Haymes got off on the wrong foot. Obviously drunk during an appearance on a BBC television program in late October, he was banned by the network. During a magazine interview Haymes criticized Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, and others, which endeared him to no one. He toured the country, playing small clubs, typically performing while drunk, and made radio appearances. In 1964, Roger Moore cast him in an episode of the popular television program The Saint.
Also in 1964, Haymes met British model Wendy Smith, who would become his devoted companion. In January 1965, the court granted Fran Jeffries divorce from Haymes, and he and Smith flew to Mexico to be married. Later that year, the couple moved to Dublin, where Haymes took Irish citizenship, owing to his mother’s heritage. Haymes then learned that his divorce from Jeffries wouldn’t be final until March 1966, so he and Smith, now pregnant, had to be married a second time to make it legal. Haymes continued to struggle with alcohol as he tried to maintain his career, performing in various clubs in England and South Africa. Despite his best efforts, however, his income for 1968 amounted to only 125 pounds. Smith had another child that year, and the family moved back to England.
In 1968, Haymes had the chance to record a new album. Despite being hospitalized with tuberculosis during the recording period, Then and Now won critical appraise. In the early 1970s, Dick’s brother, Bob, and others would distribute the album in the United States, sparking new interest in Haymes among those who had forgotten him. Haymes was going through a sober period at the time. His finances were still a mess, however, and his career was still in the dumps. He moved to Spain in early 1971 to try and write a screenplay, but an offer from NBC to appear on a Tennessee Ernie Ford nostalgia special brought him back to the United States in July, where he suddenly found himself well-remembered and appreciated.
Haymes made the talk show rounds in early 1972 and, along with Betty Grable, served as a presenter for that year’s Academy Awards. Several high profile, critically-acclaimed live performances and the support of current Hollywood celebrities helped raise his career from the dead, and he was once again considered a headliner. He made several television appearances over the next two years.
The gloss soon wore off his comeback, however, and Haymes fell into his old ways. He started drinking again in 1974, and he desperately tried to focus on acting rather than singing, as he felt the financial rewards were greater. He wrote and attempted to sell several screenplays. Unable to get a recording contract, he self-produced six songs in 1975, two of which were released on the Crescendo label. That year he also recorded with the U.S. Air Force band as part of a recruitment effort. He continued to tour, often with nostalgia programs, and always found appreciative audiences. In 1978, the Dick Haymes Society, his fan club, put together enough money to fund a new album, which received excellent reviews.
Haymes’ relationship with Smith began to fall apart, and in 1979 she left him and filed for divorce. Not long after, Haymes, who regularly had experienced flu and cold-like symptoms over the past several years, learned he had lung cancer. Though he tried treatment, it produced little positive result, and he eventually discontinued it, preferring to savor what time he had left. Dick Haymes passed away on March 28, 1980.
Goodman hadn’t used a male vocalist since 1936. He eventually chose Tommy Taylor instead of Haymes. ↩︎
A hotfoot is a practical joke that involves sticking matches in someone’s shoe and lighting them. If the story is true, how Dorsey managed to give Haymes a hotfoot while on stage without Haymes seeing is unknown, though perhaps Haymes’ notoriously poor vision played a part in it. ↩︎
He still owed the IRS a considerable sum. ↩︎