“A Summer Place:” All That Glitters is Not Gold
The other week, I caught that iconic movie, “A Summer Place,” made over half a century ago, on TCM, and while I had seen bits and pieces of it over the years, I decided this time to watch the whole thing. I was never a fan of blond surfer boys or thought Troy Donohue (real name: Merle Johnson ) in his first starring role, all that attractive, but after seeing him teamed up with Sandra Dee, I understood why they instantly became the reigning teenage heart throbs of the late fifties and early sixties. Donohue was 23 at the time he made “A Summer Place,” Sandra Dee, an ex-teen model, a just barely legal seventeen.
The movie was released at the tail end of 1959, at the dawn of what would prove the wild Sixties, where all the conventional, sometimes trite morality depicted in the film would be blown to bits. In the movie, Troy’s mother and Sandra’s father both have rocky marriages. His wife is a controlling bitch, her hubby a once wealthy, now broke alcoholic. The two had had their own teenage love affair decades before and now reunite when her former lover, now a rich man, returns to vacation at her hubby’s seaside resort. They eventually divorce and marry one another, while their kids fall ever deeper in puppy dog love. In the end, Troy, a decade before Roe vs. Wade, knocks up Sandra. Most girls “in the way” at that time were shipped off for an extended stay with some maiden aunt in Iowa, but with the blessing of their new step-parents, the young lovers go off into the sunset, convinced love will conquer all.
With my smartphone in hand, I’ll often check what happened to actors in a flick I’m watching, and Troy and Sandra’s real lives couldn’t have been more different from their “A Summer Place” screen personas.
The movie made Troy an overnight star, but by the mid-sixties, he wanted out of the “boy-meets-girl” roles and asked Jack Warner, the mogul who ran Warner Brothers, to release him from his contract. When Warner, an absolute tyrant, refused and Donohue walked out, Warner made sure he was blacklisted by every studio in town, essentially and abruptly ending Donohue’s film career. He eventually turned to alcohol and drugs, and died of a heart attack, a shadow of the pretty boy he had once been, at 65. Surprisingly Donohue was str8, unlike his handsome peers like Rock Hudson, Tad Hunter, Montgomery Cliff or Anthony Perkins.
As for Sandra Dee (real name: Alexandra Zuck), a Jersey girl whose parents, like Natalie Wood’s, were Russian, anorexia, hardly recognized at the time as a disease, shadowed her her entire life, and in the end, along with alcoholism, contributed to her death from kidney failure at just 62.
But does it really matter what happened to them in real life? Forever they will immortalized as that innocent golden duo where all that mattered was love.