Born: October 6, 1906 in Philadelphia, PA, USA
Died: September 14, 1984 in Palm Springs, CA, USA
Janet Gaynor came into the world at 3:50 AM on October 6, 1906 on Wister Street in the
Germantown section of Philadelphia. She was given the name "Laura" but was soon nicknamed
"Lolly" by her parents. Her father, Frank DeWitt Gainer, was a paperhanger, painter and interior
decorator by trade but had a passion for theatrics that he passed on to his daughter. He acted at
the old Lubin Studio and sang lyric tenor in a quartet. As Lolly grew he taught her to do tricks on
the horizontal bar, as well as singing and dancing; skills which she would put into use years later in
Her mother, Laura Buhl Gainer, was a homemaker of PA Dutch/German heritage who was often
described as "strict but loving". Lolly's sister Hilary (often referred to as Helen in many
biographies) rounded out the family. She was four years older than her little sister and also
inherited Frank's love of acting. When the girls moved to Hollywood years later, it was Hilary who
first longed for a career in films; a desire that sadly never came about.
When Lolly, who was described as "very quiet with a remarkable memory", was eight years old
Frank and Laura separated and eventually divorced. She and the girls moved to Chicago while
Frank moved in with his nephew Ralph on Gillingham Street in Philadelphia's Frankford section. It
was in the Windy City that Laura met and soon married Harry C. Jones. Jonesey, as he was
affectionately called, was a private investigator with a colourful personality and was greatly
attached to his little stepdaughter. The Chicago winters took their toll on Lolly, however, and after
a severe bout of the flu, it was decided that she would spend the winters in Sunny Florida with her
aunt Tilley Buhl. It was during this time that young Lolly displayed the intellect her Sunday school
teacher had seen all those years before -- she completed both the 6th and 7th grades in a single
When Lolly was a teenager Jonesey moved the family to San Francisco, where his stepdaughter
graduated from Polytechnic High School there in 1923. Not long after that, the family moved again,
this time to Hollywood. Although Hilary dreamed of being in the movies and regularly went to the
studios for extra work and the occasional audition, her sister's goal was to be a stenographer. She'd
only smile when Jonesey would announce that one day she would be a Star.
One day Lolly went with her sister to the studio simply to keep her company. Although both girls
got extra bit parts that day in a few film shorts, young Janet's interest in acting was still not
serious-sounding name of Janet, changing the spelling of her last name as well.
Janet began auditioning more and getting more bit parts in two-reel comedies. In 1926, she got her
first big break in the Fox production of The Johnstown Flood, playing the second female lead to
George O'Brien and Florence Gilbert. Her character rushes into town to warn the people of the
approaching flood but winds up drowning in the deluge. Her work in this film impressed not only
director Irving Cummings but also Fox's Vice President in charge of production Winfield Sheehan
and he signed her to a $100 a week contract.
Over the next year, Janet made four more important films and still did unbilled work in a few
others. Sheehan renegotiated her contract to $300 a week and she won the lead in Fox's
production of Sunrise. It was to be directed by German director Frederich Wilhelm Murnau, who
had only recently come to Hollywood, and was based on a story by Hermann Sundermann called "A
Trip to Tilsit". Janet played a country wife whose husband (George O'Brien) falls under the spell of
a visiting woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). She convinces him to kill his wife and run
away with her. He nearly carries out the dreaded deed but thinks better of the situation and the
couple renews their wedding vows and spends a joyful day in the city. On the way home, a storm
rises and she nearly drowns but survives and opens her eyes just as the sun rises the next morning.
The next film Janet made that year was Seventh Heaven. Fox had gotten the rights to film the John
Golden/Austin Strong stage success and every actress in Hollywood had screen tested for the lead
role of the young heroine Diane. Director Frank Borzage had observed Janet playing the wedding
scene in a film the previous year called The Return of Peter Grimm and is reported to have decided
to cast her as Diane on the spot. Handsome Charles Farrell would play the strapping young hero
Chico, the play's "very remarkable fellow".
Physically, Janet and Charles were ideal for their roles. She was tiny, standing all of five feet and
barely weighing 96 pounds. He, on the other hand, was 6'2" with broad shoulders and large hands;
she would describe him years later as "a big, brawny, outdoors type". In the film Diane is a timid,
trembling child/woman, an innocent girl being exploited and forced into a life she wants no part of
by her older sister Nana, played by the brilliant Gladys Brockwell. Nana is addicted to absinthe,
which makes her normally violent nature even worse and she brutally abuses her sister at every
turn. When the sisters' fanatical uncle turns them away, thanks to Diane's truthful statement that
they've not been good, Nana turns on her, chasing her into the street and nearly choking the life out
Fortunately, Chico is working in the sewer below and rises up just in time to save the frail girl from
an untimely demise! In spite of his initial disdain of Diane, Chico saves her twice more; the first
time when she tries to kill herself with his knife (she felt she could no longer live without hope) and
the second when she's nearly arrested by the police along with her sister. He valiantly claims she is
his wife and later takes her to his seventh floor flat so they could fool the inspector when he arrives
to investigate their marriage claim.
As the film progresses, the two fall deeply in love but, just as they marry, Chico is called to serve in
World War I. They promise to think of each other every day at their moment of parting; 11 AM.
Despite all appearances to the contrary, the film has a happy ending.
Seventh Heaven was released before Sunrise in 1927 and Janet and Charles were catapulted to the
top of the box office firmament. Over the next seven years they made eleven more films together,
including both Street Angel and Lucky Star with Borzage and the buoyant musical Sunny Side Up,
directed by David Butler, and were number one in spite of some bad scripts. Their fans forgave
In the summer of 1927, after Seventh Heaven premiered, Jonesey passed away. He lived long
enough to see Janet achieve the great success he always dreamed she would. She was in the midst
of filming a comedy called Two Girls Wanted when it happened and, as soon as Charlie heard the
news, he rushed from the studio still in his costume to be with her.
In May 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood celebrated the first ever Academy
Award Ceremony. It was a small, quiet party with just the actors, directors and other film makers in
attendance. The winners were informed in advance that they'd won. They included Emile Jannings
for The Way of All Flesh and the war drama The Last Command. Frank Borzage won for Best
Director for Seventh Heaven and Janet won the award for Best Actress for her work in Seventh
Heaven, Sunrise and Street Angel. It was the first and only time an actress won for a body of work,
instead of for a particular film.
In September 1929, Janet married a San Francisco lawyer named Lydell Peck. He soon became an
associate producer at Paramount Studios but, because of his controlling nature, Janet filed for
divorce in 1931. Charles eventually married actress Virginia Valli, much to the disappointment of
their legion of fans. He left the studio in 1934.
In 1938, while on loan to MGM, Janet met the distinguished costume designer Gilbert Adrian. The
two fell in love and she made the decision the following year to retire from films. By the time she
finished her last film, a comedy for David Selznick called "The Young in Heart," she was the highest
paid actress in Hollywood, making well over $100,000 per picture. She had also saved over
$1,000,000. Janet's decision to leave stemmed from her desire to see a different aspect of life.
She'd been with Fox since her late teens and wanted to experience marriage and whatever went
with it. They married in 1939 and on July 7, 1940, their son Robin Gaynor Adrian was born.
Not long after, Adrian left the studio and the little family began to spend less time in Hollywood.
Husband and wife both took up painting and they traveled the world extensively. On March 26,
1951, to celebrate the 17th season of the Lux Radio Theatre, Janet and Charlie reunited for the first
time on radio to recreate their famous film roles from Seventh Heaven. LOOK magazine even had
an article on it in the following week's issue, including several photos from the rehearsal.
During the 1950s, the family continued to travel and Janet would occasionally appear on TV. In
1954, the Adrians bought a 200-acre plantation in the middle of the Brazilian jungle. Their friends
Mary Martin and her husband Richard Halliday fell so in love with the place that they, too, bought a
home next to Janet and her family. It was there that the two couples spent their time expressing
their joy at painting.
In 1957 Janet made her last film appearance in a small role in the 20th Century-Fox production of
Bernardine. It was mostly a vehicle for teen heartthrob Pat Boone, but Janet played the mother of
co-star Richard Sargent, who would later play Darren to Elizabeth Montgomery's Samantha in
Two years later Adridan was asked to design the costumes for the new Lerner and Loewe musical
Camelot, which would star Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Roddy McDowall.
Janet was in New York rehearsing for her stage debut in a play called The Midnight Sun when
Adrian suddenly died of a heart attack. Even though she remained with the show, it closed before
ever reaching Broadway.
On Christmas Eve, 1964, Janet married producer Paul Gregory in a civil ceremony in Las Vegas. He
had been friends with the Adrians and helped both Janet and Robin recover from their grief over
Adrian's sudden death. They divided their time between their working ranch in Palm Springs
and the farm in Brazil.
The night of March 29, 1978, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated its 50th
anniversary at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Bob Hope was the host and Janet,
introduced by actor Walter Matthau, presented Diane Keaton with her Oscar for Best Actress in
Annie Hall. Late the following year it was announced that Janet would try her hand at live theatre
again. The play was Colin Higgins' dark comedy Harold and Maude. It centered on Harold Chasen
(played by the gorgeous Keith McDermott), a 19-year-old man obsessed with death. He stages all
sorts of elaborate "suicides" to get attention from his socialite mother (Ruth Ford). One day, while
passing his time at a funeral, Harold meets Maude (Janet Gaynor), a 79-year-old faerie
god-mother. Through the course of the play, Maude teaches Harold how to live and love. It
opened on Broadway in previews on January 19, 1980 -- the critics hated it and, although they were
mostly kind to Janet, it closed on February 7, for a total of 25 performances.
Although she didn't have much success with Harold and Maude, a resurgence began in Janet's
acting career. Between January 1981 and September 5, 1982, she appeared in an episode of "The
Love Boat" with Lew Ayres, opened in On Golden Pond as Ethel Thayer and gave delightful
interviews with Merv Griffin and on the PBS series Over Easy, the first with then co-host Frank Blair
and the second with long-time friend Mary Martin.
After the taping of this second appearance Janet, Mary, Janet's husband Paul and Mary's
manager/companion Ben Washer decided to have dinner that night in San Francisco's fabled
Chinatown. Since parking was an issue, they took a taxi. Not two minutes into the ride, at the
intersection of California and Franklin Streets, the cab was hit broadside by a speeding van. The
driver, Robert Cato, was an habitual drunk. In the aftermath, Ben was dead and both Paul and
Mary were suffering from numerous injuries. Janet, however, had caught the impact of Ben and
Mary's bodies and the result was devastating. She suffered eleven broken ribs, a broken collarbone,
a burst spleen, a ruptured bladder, a bleeding kidney, multiple pelvic fractures and her feet were
mangled. They were rushed to the trauma centre at San Francisco General Hospital and Janet was
listed in critical condition. She was taken into surgery to repair some of the damage -- it lasted five
hours and she was given ten pints of blood.
Janet remained in the hospital for four months and had six more surgeries. She went home to the
ranch she shared with Paul to complete her recovery. Over the next 18 months, Janet was on a
roller coaster ride -- for every step forward she took to complete recovery, she took two steps back.
Finally, on September 14, 1984, two years and nine days after the crash, Oscar's first Best Actress
winner lost her valiant battle and passed away at the Desert Hospital in Palm Springs, CA, at 1:45
AM Pacific Time. She was three weeks from her 78th birthday. Both her husband Paul and son
Robin were by her side. Several days later, she was buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery next
to her second husband Adrian. Although the world lost a talented actress, Janet's fans will never
forget her and her grave is never without flowers.
Written by: Gina LoBiondo