A year ago I wrote Ronnie Burns: My First Adoptee, about the first adoptee, with whom in the days of deep adoption secrecy, I ever “connected,” even though I never met him. My second adoptee was actor James MacArthur. Since MacArthur died on October 28, it seems an appropriate time to recall him.
James Gordon MacArthur was born on December 8, 1937 in Los Angeles. He was adopted at birth (another report says seven months) by “first lady of the the American theatre” Helen Hayes and her husband playwright, screenwriter (Twentieth Centry, Front Page, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din) and Algonquin Roundtabler, Charlie MacArthur. His godmother was Lillian Gish. His extended family circle included Ben Hecht, Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, John Steinbeck, and John Barrymore. He had one sister, Mary MacArthur, the biological daughter of the MacArthurs. In 1949 at the age of 19, Mary, an aspiring actress, died from the sudden onset of bulbar polio, a tragedy from which the family never recovered. Jim’s adoptive uncle, insurance entrepreneur and philanthropist John D. MacArthur, established the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the benefactor of the “genius awards.
James MarArthur like other celebritized adoptees was tagged “adopted son of.” While private adoptees like us, outside of the scrutiny of the press and public, were locked in the closet, stigmatized, silenced and shamed by our birth/adoptive status, public adoptees like James MacArthur were stigmatized and othered, the most private part of their self exposed to conjecture and gossip by the public at large. While private adoptees might have been banging on the closet door to get out, public adoptees might have been knocking to get in. No matter private or public, we cannot escape our “adopted son/daughter of” identity whether in the home or the public square. No matter age or accomplishment we are eternally othered and identified by our adoptive status. When James MacArthur died he was identified as “adopted son of.”
I continue to stand by this, but am also uncomfortable. I believe deeply that our adoption stories are our own to do with what we please. They are not to be exposed to the snoopy public (including other adoptees) without our consent. (For that reason I have not repeated conjecture from Robin Chapman’s blog discussion on MacArthur’s parentage.) At the same time, though, I am aware of the involuntary sacrifices that were coerced from public adoptees, which in fact, helped private adoptees cope with our own invisibility. People like Ronnie Burns, James MacArthur and the bevy of the Hollywood Adopted fetishized by the press stood for us in an odd way. Though rendered passive themselves, they made us feel visible and human. They let us connect to ourselves.
James MacArthur was a jack of all theatre trades. Despite his family credentials he made his bones in summer stock. working as a set painter and lighting director. He teched for Barbara Bel Geddes in The Little Hut and for Gloria Vanderbilt in The Swan. He also did special effects, and even ran a theatre parking lot. After The Young Stranger he headed for Broadway where he appeared opposite Jane Fonda in Invitation to a March and received a Theater World Award for his role. Most of his theatre work, however, was regional.
James MacArthur was a journeyman actor and seems to have loved craft over ego, taking jobs that other actors of his stature might have looked down on. He somestimes took small but pivitol roles in films such as in The Bedford Incident and Clint Eastwood’s Hang “Em High.