Photography by: Warner Bros."Strangers on a Train" handout/ Time & Life pictures via Getty
When GONE WITH THE WIND producer DAVID O. SELZNICK stole his wife JENNIFER JONES Hitchcock’s “Strangers On A Train” nutjob ROBERT WALKER went on a boozy bender culminating in death.
Before Walker attained enduring worldwide fame as the prototype for the Alfred Hitchcock’s momma's boy psycho in “Strangers on a Train” as criss-cross homicidal maniac Bruno Anthony, Robert Walker was just another fledgling thesp.
His maternal aunt Hortense Odlum who was then president of fashionable Bonwit Teller in New York paid for his enrollment at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1937.
While attending the acting school, the highly neurotic Walker met brunette beauty Phylis Isley who later took the stage name of JENNIFER JONES.
After a steamy courtship, Walker and Isley were wed in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1939 and moved to Hollywood to make their names. But prospects proved slight as Jennifer appeared in such fare and romantic lead with the East Side Kids AND Bela Lugosi in Monogram programmers like “Spooks Run Wild”.
While Walker toiled thesping over the fledgling airwaves of radio in a variety of character parts, Phylis stayed home and gave birth to a pair of sons.
Phylis then returned to auditioning where her luck changed overnight when she was discovered in 1941 by GWTW producer/lothario David O. Selznick. Selznick promptly changed her name to Jennifer Jones and groomed her for movie super-stardom.
Selznick, a well-known devotee of the casting couch, soon began an affair with his nascent star.
Walker and Isley (nee Jones) now returned to Hollywood where her lover’s connections helped Walker secure a contract with MGM who promptly put him to work on the WW2 drama “Bataan” (1943).
Walker's charming good looks were a hit with war weary auds as he worked steadily as “boy next door” types.
By the time he was toplined with Jennifer Jones in “Since You Went away” her affair with Hollywood’s boy wonder producer Selznick was more than gossip magazine innuendo. In the middle of production Jones and Walker separated in November 1943.
Evidently Selznick was something of a sadist as he insisted their love scenes as a couple required take after arduous take. After the film wrapped, Jones filed for divorce from Walker in April 1945.
Although Walker was working steadily he was tormented by the loss of his wife and the humiliating torture that Selznick had forced him to endure. He had a meltdown after their very public divorce and began drinking heavily -- prone to highly emotional outburst outbursts and finally a full blown nervous breakdown that landed him in the Menniger Clinic in 1949 where he was treated for a psychiatric disorder.
Following his release from what would now be called “rehab” Walker landed the plum role of a lifetime – that of the psychotic mastermind Bruno Anthony in Alfred Hitchock’s masterpiece “Strangers on a Train” garnering him critical plaudits.
BUT Walker was still tormented by his wife’s betrayal.
On the night of August 28, 1951, his housekeeper discovered Walker in a highly emotional state, bordering on hysteria. She called his shrink who rushed to the actor’s Hollywood manse. He promptly prepared an injection of ambobaribatol, a narcotic sedative. According to reports of the time, Walker had been drinking heavily when the sedative was administered.
Walker struggled to breathe—each heaving of his chest more laborious than the last. He then passed out, collapsing. All efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful and the lethal combination of “joy juice”, booze and heartbreak proved to be too much for the star on the rise. He was only 32 years old.
His last film, the anti-communist tract “My Son John”, had to completed with doubles and stock footage of his death scene from “Strangers On a Train”.
His estranged ex-wife Jennifer Jones, who starred in over 20 films in a thirty year career and went into semi-retirement following the death of her husband, Selznick in 1965.
Her last big screen appearance was in Irwin Allen’s “The Towering Inferno” 1974 – she didn’t make it.
Offscreen, she founded the Jennifer Jones Simon Foundation For Mental Health And Education after her daughter's shocking suicide. In later years, Jones withdrew from public life and died in 2009.