“I’ve had a wonderful life,” Kathryn Grayson said. She’s 83 now, with a poise and wit most 33-year-olds would envy.
She was reminiscing about her career and one particular aspect of it: José Iturbi, pianist, conductor and—all-too-briefly—movie star. Grayson starred in three movies with Iturbi. And among all the other things she was thankful for, she was thankful for José Iturbi. “I adored him,” she said, fondness evident in her voice. “He was just a sweet and darling man, a very special human being. He was kind and generous to everybody, and had a great sense of fun. He made everything fun—even work.
“And you don’t know how hard we had to work. I think twelve hours at the studio was the minimum length of time we ever worked in a single day. Sixteen-hour days were common, sometimes even eighteen. Some people would get crabby, but José and I could always stay happy. I guess it was the music in us. I think music makes life a happier place to be.”
Grayson well remembered her first meeting with Iturbi. “We met when we were making our first movie together, Thousands Cheer. We both loved classical music, and had both entertained at the Hollywood Bowl. He had just done a concert there, and I had sung there several times. We started discussing that, and it didn’t take long before we were friends. I just loved him—and his sister Amparo. They were so sweet and kind to everyone, I could have loved them for that alone, but their personalities were particularly wonderful.”
Kathryn Grayson has lived in the same house for 60 years. “It’s a beautiful house God gave me, overlooking the Riviera Country Club. We all entertained in those days, and I had many musicales here. I have a huge music room. But I only have one piano! I remember the first time José and Amparo came to my house, everyone was dismayed because there was only one piano and everyone wanted a duet. So the next time José and Amparo came together, she brought a little lap piano. I’ll tell you, we all entertained a lot, but whenever anyone found out José would be at a party; they always wanted to go to that party. Anywhere José was you were guaranteed to have fun. He had the most marvelous sense of humor, he could make anything funny, and he was always joking.” And of course, she recalled, he was first and last a great pianist. “He had great power in those hands. His fingers were like little hammers. Amparo used her fingers like that too. Wonderful music they made!”
Iturbi had a reputation for occasionally being difficult—but Grayson disputed that. “I never knew him to be difficult, and I don’t know a single human being who did,” she asserted. “I imagine he lost his temper sometimes—everyone does—but I certainly never saw it. And everyone I knew loved him almost as much as I did. Lew Reinerman—he was the first violinist and concertmeister of the MGM symphony, and when he called him ‘Maestro’ he meant it. They all respected José. He was a great musician. And he would work hard to get things just right.
“When you saw him conducting a piece of music in a movie, he really conducted it. Sometimes, if a passage was difficult, or the orchestra wasn’t ‘getting it,’ it might require several takes to make it just right. But we had fine musicians, and great arrangements, and it all seemed to go very smoothly from my perspective.”
Grayson spent a good portion of her reminiscences in debunking other Iturbi “myths.” “He may have been a bundle of nerves before a concert, but not in movies,” she said. “We were always kidding around, playing jokes on each other. In those days making films was great fun. We didn’t make the money they make now, but we enjoyed our work more. And we made better pictures then than they do now, too!”
She hotly contested record producer Charles O’Connell’s claim that Iturbi was one of Hollywood’s “Top Ten Wolves.” “He was a perfect gentleman. Always, I think O’Connell just wanted to spice up his book by spicing up my José.” Asked if she would like to write a book herself and set the record straight, she laughed. “People always ask me that. But it would be a boring book. I don’t have any bad things to say!”
Grayson’s three movies with Iturbi—Thousands Cheer (1943), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and That Midnight Kiss (1949)—spanned Iturbi’s acting career. “He never changed, from the first movie to the last,” Grayson said. “We may have had our personal ups and downs, but we just liked each other and enjoyed working together and having free time together.”
Walter Winchell, New York Times gossip columnist, once announced that Grayson and Iturbi were dating. Grayson laughed incredulously at learning this. “We went to dinner sometimes, and we went to a lot of concerts together,” she said. “If that’s ‘dating,’ then so be it. We were just friends who went places together.”
Aside from music, the two shared another interest: motorcycles. Iturbi’s love of motorcycles was well-known. “We’d hear him coming before he ever got here,” Grayson chuckled. “We always recognized the motorcycle. ‘Woops, there’s José, better go let him in.’ But what people didn’t know was that I liked motorcycles too. I had one for a while, a Harley. I was a dreadful tomboy in those days. But Mr. Mayer found out and he took it away from me. When you signed a contract with a studio in those days, they owned you, body and soul. Mr. Mayer was afraid I’d kill myself on the thing, so he wouldn’t let me keep it.” She sighed.
Like many actors, Iturbi occasionally was announced for a movie that later went to someone else. After That Midnight Kiss, he was announced for a part in The Toast of New Orleans, which would have reunited him with Grayson and Mario Lanza. However, Iturbi did not appear in the movie. “I don’t know why he didn’t make it,” Grayson said. “The studio was changing hands; they were easing Mr. Mayer out—and Mr. Mayer was the studio. That might have had something to do with it.”
Asked if Iturbi might have given up acting because he believed the pretentious people who said he had “prostituted his art,” Grayson displayed a magnificent temper. “If what he did was ‘prostituting his art’ then I’m grateful he did it—and grateful I did it too. We gave the world some wonderful films! And he was a great musician, none better.”
After their movie careers ended, the two friends seldom saw each other. “We were always touring in different places,” Grayson recalled. “But I saw him at one of his last concerts, in Pasadena. He had always been energetic, when I first knew him, and that last time I saw him, I remember he walked up to me, and his hands were shaking. But when he sat down at the piano, his hands just completely stopped shaking and he played beautifully.”
Grayson remembered being concerned about him then. “I called him later, but he wasn’t there…and then he called me, and I wasn’t there,” she reflected. “It’s easy to miss each other when you’re both doing concerts. You’re in different places all the time and time just flies. Why, the other day I was talking to my assistant and I said, ‘how in the world did I get to be 63 years old?’ And she reminded me that I was 83! I had forgotten my own age!”
Life can sometimes be hard, she said. “Some people blame God for the bad things that happen, but it’s not God’s fault. You learn to accept the bad things and be grateful for the good things. José was like that. I’ve learned to be that way.
“I look back on it and think: I’ve been in movies. I’ve done opera. I’ve been on the stage. I’ve traveled all over the world. I thank God for every day of it. And I thank God for José; he was a dear and true friend.”