Back in July, 2011, I wrote the following:
Erich Maria Remarque (born Erich Paul Remark) served in the German army during World War I. In 1929 he published a book that described the lives of German soldiers in that war. The book, All Quiet on the Western Front, was not very flattering in its depiction of war. In 1931 he and his wife moved to Switzerland. When the Nazi’s took over Germany in 1933 they burned his books, and clamed (falsely) that his real name was Kramer (Remark spelled backward), and that he was the descendant of French Jews (also false). They even claimed that he had not served in World War I. Remarque eventually moved to the United States and became a citizen. While he was beyond the reach of the Nazis, his sister, who continued to live in Germany, was not so lucky. In 1943 she was convicted of “undermining morale” because she said that the war was lost. The court president told her, “Your brother has, unfortunately, escaped us—you, however, will not escape us.” She was beheaded on December 16, 1943.
There’s another interesting story that I didn’t write about at that time. It’s the story about the actor who played Paul Baumer, the disillusioned German soldier, when All Quiet on the Western Front was filmed in 1930.
Lewis Frederick “Lew” Ayers, III was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on December 28, 1908. Ayres and his family moved to San Diego, California when he was a teenager. There he became a musician playing both the guitar and banjo. As luck would have it, Ayres was “discovered” by a talent agent, and began his acting career opposite Greta Garbo in the 1929 film The Kiss. But his big break came the following year when he was chosen to play the lead role in All Quiet on the Western Front. Ayres was so deeply affected by the story of the idealistic but naïve young men who went to gruesome deaths on the battlefields of Europe during World War I that he became a pacifist.
Ayres had studied medicine for a time at the University of Arizona, but did not complete his education. He did, however, play a physician, Dr. James Kildare, in nine popular films starting with Young Dr. Kildare in 1938.
Ten years later he once again played a doctor, this time in the movie Johnny Belinda which also starred Jane Wyman (who won the Academy Award for Best Actress). He was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the compassionate Dr. Robert Richardson, but lost out to Laurence Olivier who won for King Lear. Johnny Belinda, by the way, started out as a Broadway play based on the actual rape of a deaf-mute, and was one of the first films to focus on this taboo subject.
When the United States entered World War II, Lew Ayres was drafted, but claimed to be a conscientious objector. He said that he would be living in a “nightmare of hypocrisy” if he was forced to fight. Of course many considered him to simply be a coward, and it seemed that his acting career was over. However, in 1942 he became a medic, and served under fire on the front lines during a number of battles in the Pacific. He won three battle stars for his actions under fire, and donated his pay to the Red Cross.
After World War II Ayres returned to acting both in the movies and on television, but was never again as popular as he was when he starred in the Kildare movies. When NBC decided to create a television series based on the Dr. Kildare character, Ayres was considered for the title role, but his insistence that no cigarette advertisements be allowed kept him from getting the job. Instead, the lead went to a young actor named Richard Chamberlain.
There’s one other fact about Lew Ayres that might interest you: He and Jane Wyman had an affair during the filming of Johnny Belinda, and Wyman divorced her husband, so it is said, in order to pursue her passion for Ayres. Her husband at the time was Ronald Reagan. Reagan was stunned. “I suppose there had been warning signs,” he said, “if only I hadn’t been too busy, but small-town boys grow up thinking only other people get divorced. The plain truth was that such a thing was so far from ever being imagined by me that I had no resources to call on.” Though the Ayres-Wyman affair ended with the lovers going their separate ways there were two lasting consequences of their liaison: Reagan, who later remarried, became the first divorced man to become President of the United States, and Jane Wyman will always be remembered as the ex-wife who could have been the First Lady.
For his part, Ayres went on to marry a total of three times, and to lead a long, full life. He died in Los Angeles, California on December 30, 1996 a few days after his 88th birthday.