Evelyn Keyes was born in Texas and raised in Georgia, a bonafide Southern gal who remains best known for her role in Hollywood’s huge-scale Southern epic, Gone With the Wind. Playing Suellen, sister to Vivien Leigh’s iconic Scarlett O’Hara, Keyes found her most notable role. Her career in Hollywood spanned far beyond this one film, though. Signed to Paramount at the age of eighteen, her career in entertainment spanned over five decades, beginning in the late 1930s and ending with a television appearance on Murder, She Wrote in 1993.
In 1977, Keyes published Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister: My Lively Life In and Out of Hollywood, an autobiography discussing all aspects of her career and life.
Keyes holds very little back in sharing her experience as a young woman trying to make a name for herself in Hollywood. Early on, she describes arriving in California and walking what seemed like hundreds of miles to studio lots, looking for opportunities to be discovered — or at least leave her name and number, in case a dancer was needed for a future project. As mentioned above, she ended up signing with Paramount, where she began to land a few roles, but was also asked to change a few things about herself. Cecil B. DeMille, for instance, insisted that she lose her Southern accent immediately and begin taking acting lessons instead of continuing with dance.
This is not just a career autobiography, but a personal one. I’d actually say the book is much more about her life than it is about her career, with fewer on-set tales told as the book progresses. Keyes devotes a fair bit of the book to discussion of her off-screen romances and dating experiences, sparing no details regarding brief fling with Anthony Quinn (which was halted by Cecil B. DeMille, advising Keyes against dating “that half-breed”), her marriages, or her countless experiences with sleazy higher-ups attempting to take advantage of her. The men of the movie industry certainly don’t come across as stand-up guys by even the slightest measure based on Keyes’ experiences, which I can’t say I was surprised by, though I was surprised she included so many of these stories and details in the book. She was very naive when she made the trek to Hollywood and began her career, which she acknowledges while telling these stories, without being hyper-critical of herself.
The structure of the book is somewhat unusual in comparison with other star autobiographies I’ve read. Divided into seven “books,” each section includes chapters, which are often fairly brief and specific to one experience or event. Along with the striking sense of honesty that comes through in Keyes’ remembrances, the writing can also be somewhat fragmented and frantic. It’s clear that Keyes has a lot to say, and at times it seems like she wants to say it all at once, jumping from detailed recollections to more standard autobiographical narratives to occasional script-inspired sections complete with scene descriptions and sluglines.
I enjoyed Keyes’ autobiography quite a lot despite the sometimes-odd writing, and would recommend it. Keyes’ honest, no-secrets approach to sharing her experience as a young actress makes the book both more entertaining and more enlightening that it would have been, had she chosen to censor herself. While she may not be a huge-name star, she has plenty of stories to share, and “lively” certainly is a fitting way to describe her life as an actress.