‘The way Howard Hawks looked at women, or fantasised them into movie life, is at the heart of his work’
Rio Bravo, Warner Bros., 1959
The Slim years were very rich. You may decide they were the best in the career of Howard Hawks. In which case doesn’t his wife Slim Hawks deserve some credit? We are talking about 1939 to 1946, which means: Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, Ball of Fire, The Outlaw (he started it before Howard Hughes dropped him), Air Force, Corvette K-225 (which he produced), To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Red River, which was shot in the autumn of 1946, though not released until 1948. Not a bad war.
Nancy Gross met Howard Hawks on 30 August 1938. She was 20; he was 42. She was born in Salinas, California – East of Eden country – and her father owned several fish canneries in Monterey. She was extraordinarily beautiful and a convent girl, but when the time came, adventure took her to the Furnace Creek Inn, a classy resort in Death Valley, not far from the Nevada border. There she met movie stars: William Powell (he called her the “Slim Princess”), Warner Baxter, David Niven, Cary Grant. Next thing, she was invited to San Simeon and became friendly with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. Very soon she was in Los Angeles. On that August day, she had been to the fights with two men – actor Bruce Cabot (“seriously dumb”, she said) and Cubby Broccoli (“truly intelligent”). After the boxing they went to the Clover Club, the most fashionable gambling nightclub in town.
She was dancing with Broccoli when a tall, grey-haired, immaculately dressed man passed by – it was Howard Hawks, just a few months off Bringing up Baby (a flop in its day). He was known as the ‘Silver Fox’, and he was watching her. Watching would prove to be Howard’s most loving form of attention. He asked her to dance and then he gave her the usual line: so, she wanted to be in movies? “No,” she said, and she meant it – though in the end she would affect Hawks’s work more than any other woman. Hawks kept a little black book with the names and numbers of pretty women who did want to be in pictures, and he called on them sometimes. He asked Nancy to come up to his house for a swim next day, and she accepted. They were soon in love.