He was a small-town man who lived a Hollywood dream: working for a storied movie studio and married to one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. But the dream turned into a nightmare in 1947 when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, putting him a political spotlight he would have preferred to avoid. In her book, Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism, Linda J. Alexander takes the reader from his early life in Nebraska, to Hollywood where he became a star, to Washington where he became a reluctant witness in a political hot button, and finally to the quiet life on his ranch with his family that he treasured the most. Born Spangler Arlington Brugh on August 5, 1911 in Filley, Nebraska, he grew into a thoughtful, quiet young man with a talent for music and an interest in the theatre. His father, Spangler Andrew Brugh, became a podiatrist doctor in order to take care of his wife, Ruth Stanhope, who had a weak heart. For a while, Arlington thought about becoming a doctor, but music and theatre pulled him in a different direction – Hollywood. Transferring to a college in California, Arlington went to MGM. Although he was not signed to a contract, the studio thought he showed enough promise to give him some free advice. He listened to their advice while continuing his college studies. Shortly after his graduation in June 1933, his father passed away. Bringing his mother and grandmother back to California with him, he got serious about acting and did a screen test for Louis B. Mayer. The new discovery had potential, Mayer realized, and in early 1934, he signed Arlington, now known by the name Robert Taylor, to a contract.
His rise was meteoric. He became known as “The Man with the Perfect Profile”. Mobs of fans waited for him wherever he went. He starred in the first movie filmed overseas by a major film studio, A Yank at Oxford. Because he was so high-profile, Taylor was invited to places that Spangler Arlington Brugh could never have imagined: Hollywood hot spots, movie premieres and Presidential Birthday balls in Washington. During his first trip to Washington, Taylor became aware that his social views did not mesh with the current political party in control on Capital Hill. The direction the country was going was not the direction Taylor thought they should be headed. When the United States got into World War II, Taylor wanted to serve his country. Mayer wanted him to appear in a movie called Song of Russia with Susan Peters. Taylor felt the movie promoted communism, a stance he was firmly against. Having already enlisted in the Naval Reserve, he was eager to begin training. But Mayer pulled some strings and forced Taylor to make the movie. It was a move that would come back to haunt both of them. Despite being labeled a “friendly witness”, Alexander’s research shows that Taylor was a very reluctant witness. His testimony before the HUAC was a high profile affair, turning Washington into a three-ring circus. He answered the committee’s questions about the Song of Russia movie, again expressing his view that the movie promoted communism. Testimony that he believed was confidential was published in newspapers coast-to-coast, even though official records indicated that the “hearings were to have been ‘conducted in secret'”. Taylor had a good relationship with Mayer, and the publication of his testimony put his career with MGM in serious trouble. After those tumultuous months, his career continued to flourish, but his marriage to actress Barbara Stanwyck ended, although the two would remain friends until his death. He branched out into a new medium, television, eventually landing his own T.V. show in 1959. He married a second time, to actress Ursula Thiess, becoming a father to her two children, as well as two children he had with Ursula. He continued to work, but was just as content to spend time on his ranch with his family, until he passed away from cancer on June 8, 1969. Alexander gives us a well-researched look at the life of a man who was adored by millions. Taylor was a quiet man, firm in his beliefs, who stood up to a committee by speaking the truth. While he is widely respected for his Hollywood career, Alexander’s book gives us a new reason to admire Robert Taylor.