Green-eyed beauty Jean Elizabeth Peters flashed across the screen as a bright star during her relatively brief tenure in Hollywood. After just seven years under contract to 20th Century-Fox (1947-54), she joined in the reclusive lifestyle of her eccentric billionaire husband, Howard Hughes, and all but vanished from public view.
Jean was born in Canton, Ohio, in October of 1926. Her father died when she was ten years old. Her mother owned a tourist camp on the outskirts of town and there was enough money around to send Jean to college. She received the latter part of her tertiary education at Ohio State University and graduated with a diploma qualifying her as an English teacher. A campus popularity contest she won ended her plans as an English teacher because it came with a trip to Hollywood and a screen test. In short order, “Miss Ohio State University” was offered a seven-year contract at 20th Century-Fox with a starting salary of $150 a week.
After being picked by Darryl F. Zanuck to co-star opposite Tyrone Power in the studio’s splashy big-budget swashbuckler Captain from Castile (1947), Jean came to the attention of Howard Hughes. She discreetly dated him for the remainder of the decade and continued to live an unpretentious lifestyle, rarely seen in public and eschewing the Hollywood nightlife and parties. A self-confessed tomboy, she rarely wore make-up in private and preferred to dress in jeans rather than glamorous gowns. She and her mother lived in a smallish bungalow in Bel-Air, paid for by Hughes. After relative success in her second feature, Deep Waters (1948), she became increasingly dissatisfied with the prissy roles she was assigned in her subsequent efforts. She was no shrinking violet when it came to defending her interests: she refused outright to appear in Yellow Sky (1948) (a part she thought as “too sexy”) and Sand (1949), and her contract was consequently terminated. She returned to farm life in Ohio, but was back in New York in 1951 to be screen-tested by Elia Kazan for the epic biopic of Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! (1952), shot on location in Mexico with Marlon Brando in the lead.
Fox wisely used Jean during the next few years for similarly unglamorous outdoor roles, notably as the titular heroine of Anne of the Indies (1951), a tempestuous girl living in the Georgia swamps in Lure of the Wilderness (1952), a gum-chewing dame innocently involved in espionage in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) and as Burt Lancaster’s Indian squaw in the hard-hitting western Apache (1954). She got good notices in all of these films and was now recognized as a major star. As a result, she was cast in the prestigious film noir Niagara (1953), opposite Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe (both of whom she befriended) and the Spencer Tracy western Broken Lance (1954). Under a new contract with Fox, Jean was now no longer in a position to refuse an assignment and, though basically unhappy with her part in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), the picture proved to be one of her most popular pictures to date. Her next film, A Man Called Peter (1955), was to be her swan song. Following a 33-day marriage to a Texan oilman which ended in a whirlwind divorce, Jean finally married Howard Hughes in a secret ceremony and left public life for the next 13 years. She never gave interviews and retreated to an isolated hilltop mansion above the Santa Monica Mountains. In 1969 she resurfaced, studying for a degree in sociology at UCLA under an assumed name.
When Jean’s marriage to Hughes ended in June 1971, the actress settled for the relatively modest sum of $70,000 a year and happily waived any further claims on the estate. That same year she got married for the third time, to 20th Century-Fox vice-president Stanley Hough. Her screen career was briefly resuscitated when she was cast in the miniseries Arthur Hailey’s the Moneychangers (1976) and she was last seen in an episode of Murder, She Wrote (1984). She devoted her final years to charitable causes and never spoke in public about her years with Howard Hughes.
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