Joyce Mathews: More Than the Sum of Her Marriages

Joyce Mathews (Jane Isabelle Mathews, 1919-1999) is normally presented as a footnote in the lives of others. Today we give her her own spotlight.

According to studio publicity, Mathews was the daughter of a Wall Street businessman, born in New York and raised in Miami, where she started out as a showgirl in nightclubs when she was all of 15 years old. There she was spotted by movie scouts. In Hollywood she was a bit player, appearing in around 3 dozen movies through 1940, usually playing chorus girls, hat check girls, and the like. You can see her in such films as The Big Broadcast of 1938, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), The Arkansas Traveler (1938), Artists and Models (1939, with Jack Benny), and St. Louis Blues (1939). Towards the end of this period, she was beginning to get named parts, as in Million Dollar Legs (1939) with Betty Grable, and $1000 a Touchdown with Joe E. Brown and Martha Raye.

In 1940 she made a move to Broadway, appearing in the show Hold Onto Your Hats, starring Al Jolson. During the run of her next show High Kickers (1941-42), she married her second husband, who was none other than Milton Berle. (Her first marriage in 1936, to Colonel Gonzalo Gómez, son of Venezuelan Dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, had been annulled after twelve weeks.) Berle was years away from being “Mr. Television” at this point, although he was a well known stage and radio star. Mathews kept working on Broadway until the end of the 1940s, most notably in Burlesque (1946-48) with Bert Lahr, who would co-star with Berle in the 1949 film Always Leave Them Laughing. Berle and Mathews divorced in 1947, just as his career was beginning to break for real. How she lasted that long with Berle’s mother Sadie competing for his affection is a real question. But though Mathews was down, she was not out. She then remarried Berle briefly when he was a major TV star, 1949-50. The fact that they had adopted a daughter was probably a factor in their trying again. During this period, she appeared in the films A Double Life (1947) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and did a little TV work, including her own regular variety show on CBS, The Joyce Mathews Show (1950-51). Mr. Universe (1951) with Jack Carson was her last film. 

In July of 1951 made headlines of a most unfortunate sort when she tried to take her own life in the theatre apartment of Broadway impresario Billy Rose. She slashed both her wrists with a razor blade and then climbed out onto a ledge on the seventh floor. Ultimately she changed her mind about jumping and passed out in the bathroom where police were able to get to her in time to save her. She claimed that she was distraught about negative publicity about her private life (she had attempted suicide twice with sleeping pills prior to this). She also claimed she was in the married Rose’s apartment to talk over a business deal. (At the time he was married to his second wife, Olympic swimmer and former star of his Aquacade Eleanor Holm). Although the fact that Rose divorced Holm in 1954 and married Mathews in 1956 tends to make one skeptical about those circumstances. As with Berle, Mathews married and divorced Rose twice; the marriages ran 1956-59 and 1961-64.

Her third husband (sixth marriage) was to a gent named Ivor Studebaker Schmidt (1966-69). Whether he was connected to the car people, I dunno. In 1974, she married prolific character actor Don Beddoe, who was then just winding down his career at age 71. The pair remained married until his death in 1991.

For more on show business history. please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.