Actress Constance Bennett was kind of a big deal in the 1930s. In that 10 year span, she appeared in 26 movies.
In 1931, Constance signed a two picture deal with MGM that earned her $300,000.00. This made her, however briefly, the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.
One of those pictures, “The Easy Way” was a success and the studio turned a profit of $193,000.00. That’s over $3M, in today’s money.
That same year, Warner Bros paid her $30,000 a week to act in (the aptly named) movie “Bought!”
Constance worked for less money per picture in 1934 but took a percentage of the gross. She was paid $60,000 for her performance in “The Affairs of Cellini” but took 5% of the gross. She negotiated a similar deal for “Moulin Rouge” but increased her take to 10% of the gross.
Constance Bennett is, arguably, best remembered these days for her role as the spectral Marion Kirby in “Topper” (1937) and “Topper Takes a Trip” (1938).
Constance was popular with audiences but famously temperamental and perpetually litigious. Constance Bennett was in court countless times in her life as either a defendant or a plaintiff. I’m not sure what her total win-loss record was.
While researching this story, I did have to laugh at an account of 63-year-old Judge Charles S. Burnell’s telling Constance, then the plaintiff in a February 1938 breach of contract lawsuit against Gaumont-British Picture Corp, that she was “no picture star to him, just another garden variety witness” with whom he was losing patience and instructed her to “just sit there and look beautiful.”
Constance apparently “flushed delicately under her veil, looked demurely at the judge” and promised to try.
The court found in favor of the plaintiff and Constance was awarded $35,000.
When a reporter mentioned to Constance that her multiple lawsuits (a record five lawsuits in 1938) had her spending quite a lot of time at the courthouse, she countered with “Yes, I’m even thinking of building me a little penthouse on the roof, so I’ll be handy.”
There’s a oft-repeated story about Constance being sued by a Hollywood
taxi driver after she refused to pay a $4.00 fare. “He took the long way
around,” she said. “It’s a point of honor.”
According to a March 1935 Vanity Fair article, “The most cordially disliked woman in Hollywood is undoubtedly Constance Bennett.”
With this in mind, it’s safe to say there’s a good chance that when Constance hired renowned artist Willy Pogany in 1935 to paint a life-sized portrait of her, he expected she’d give him a hard time but he never imagined she’d refuse to pay for the final product.
Constance Bennett was a busy lady and Willy Pogany understood that. Pogany told her that she’d only have to pose a couple of times if she would provide him with a photograph of herself and the dress she wanted to be seen wearing in the portrait. Constance chose a blue satin dress, gave him a photograph and even showed him the spot on her wall wear the painting would hang. A few days later she went to the studio and posed for 90 minutes.
According to Constance, when she showed up at his studio for the first sitting, the portrait was nearly done; all that was missing was her face. She took exception to the way her body was painted and told him so. Pogany agreed to make alterations to the waist and thighs, both were too thick for her liking. And she didn’t like the way she shown sitting in the chair.
According to Pogany, “At first she had her legs crossed in the picture.
She said it made her thighs look too big. I changed that. Then she had
me lengthen the hands and legs. If she’d stand up, in the picture, she’d
be over six feet tall. But that was all right. Her objections on that
score were perfectly justified.” Connie’s actual height was 5’4.”
The only complaint that fell on deaf ears was Constance Bennett asking that her fingernails be painted a bright ruby red. “One spot of red,” Pogany said, “would unbalance the entire color harmony and make the painting look fantastic on that greenish-white background.”
The next and final sitting wouldn’t happen for another 6 months.
When his subject wasn’t available to pose in person, Pogany used a total of five models, including his favorite model, Elaine Cox Pogany, who was also his second wife. According to the artist, these women had posed for over 200 hours. Constance Bennett spent less than 4 hours posing for her portrait.
When Pogany considered himself done, he sent the painting to Constance but she sent it right back and refused payment.
Constance was adamantly refusing to pay for a painting that she felt looked
nothing like her and she had certainly never agreed to pay more than
|Willy Pogany’s vision of Constance Bennett|
By November 1937, Willy Pogany felt he had no choice but to take his client to court. It wasn’t just the fact that he’d expected to be paid but Constance was highly critical of his work and not especially quiet about it. Miss Bennett’s lawyers were worried Pogany would sue for libel.
Willy Pogany was offended and perhaps worried that negative publicity would impact his professional career since Pogany was also employed by the movie studios as a set designer and art director.
|Boris Karloff and Willy Pogany, 1932|
Depositions were given by both sides in January 1938 for a trial that would take place May/June 1938. Constance Bennett was quoted as saying “I won’t pay a cent. I wouldn’t take it as a gift.”
Constance testified that the woman in the painting was “an Amazon” and while Constance claimed to be “embarrassed to death at making a comment on Mrs. Pogany’s size,” she described Elaine as “a large woman” and readily let the court know that Elaine Pogany weighed 135 while her own weight was no more than 100 pounds. Constance believed Pogany had made her look like “a sack of Portland cement with a rope tied around the middle” and that her expression, as painted, was one that she’d be ashamed of on a dark and cloudy night.
I was unable to find an actual photo of Elaine Pogany but here’s what she looked like to her husband –
|1950 book by Willy Pogany|
Pogany spent 2 hours on the witness stand defending his work and explaining the process. “Anyone who says the picture does not look like Miss Bennett is reflecting on my ability as an artist. It is a good picture, a very good one.”
Pogany conceded that the portrait, “may not be a pretty picture, in the Hollywood sense, but it is a good picture and one that does look like Miss Bennett.
“The portrait of Miss Bennett is a serious study. So many persons aren’t used to serious works and don’t know how to appreciate them. They want enlarged photographs. My picture isn’t a photograph. It is an artist’s conception of the subject – a stylized portrait.”
Constance maintained her position by testifying, “My idea was to have
a portrait of myself; not what Mr. Pogany thought I looked like. It
doesn’t look a bit like me.”
A number of life-sized photographs of Connie’s thighs were placed around the courtroom for the jury to study. Reporters and spectators alike were disappointed that Connie’s actual thighs were not much on display throughout the proceedings.
Constance took the stand and said Pogany’s portrait “looks like a cheap chromo they used to hang in barrooms.”
“Is that so?” exclaimed Pogany. “How would she know?”
Pogany’s attorney asked Constance whether she had ever studied art.
“No,” she replied, “but when I was 15, I studied dress designing, but I really don’t know the difference between decorative and realistic art.”
|L.A. Conservancy photo|
Next up were two art experts, Earl Stendahl and Ralph Holmes, both of whom asserted that Pogany’s portrait was worth as much as $5,000.
Well, whatever Constance was expecting when she commissioned the work, Pogany’s portrait was not what she had in mind.
“I told him that my thigh was too thick, that the arm was out of proportion, the shoulders too round, I didn’t like the hairline and also that the face was too thin,” she testified. Constance disliked the little curlicues around her mouth and furthermore, she thought Pogany had made her look “pop-eyed.” Plus, her hair was the wrong shade; it was too red. Miss Bennett’s lawyer, Barry Brennan, had her remove her hat so the jury could see her blonde hair.
“Is your hair the same color now that it was then?” Brennan asked.
“Oh, yes indeed,” she replied.
|Constance beside the Tino Costa portrait|
Just to show she wasn’t unwilling to pay for good art, Constance referenced a previous portrait purchase.
[She didn’t say how much she’d paid but the cost was $2,000.]
Constance reportedly beamed as Tino Costa’s painting of herself and her adopted son Peter was carried into the courtroom so that the jurors and experts could see for themselves what she was expecting Pogany to deliver.
“That goes to show you that when you go to the right artist, you get your money’s worth.”
[Costa himself thought Constance Bennett was his “most temperamental” subject to paint. In contrast, he labeled Constance’s sister Joan Bennett as “the best” and said Shirley Temple “the worst – because she wiggled so much.”]
Earl Standahl was asked to compare the two portraits of Miss Bennett and give his opinion.
“To my mind,” Standahl said, “Costa’s work might be considered as more realistic or photographic, but an art critic would consider it as a mere copy. It is not idealistic and doesn’t show the imagination Pogany’s picture does. The white background of Pogany’s is very intricate and complicated.
“It is more intriguing. It has a vibrating quality. It is alive. It has fervent fire.
“There are two ways to paint a picture. One way is to make it look like a photograph; the other is to give it some artistic life. I should call the Costa picture one with photographic quality.”
Standahl valued the Costa painting for only $3,000 to $4,000, much less than the $5,000 price tag he had placed on Pogany’s portrait.
Connie didn’t really care what the experts thought of the portrait; her mind was made up. She didn’t like it.
In fact, as court was recessed for the weekend and attorneys suggested Exhibit 1, the Pogany portrait, be placed in a secure location, Bennett quipped, “I don’t think anyone will steal it.”
Before the case was to be turned over to the jury of nine women and three men, a letter written by Pogany to Rex Cole, Miss Bennett’s business manager, was read out in court. This letter showed how the price had increased by Pogany from the originally agreed upon cost of $500 to $3,500.
“In a spirit of friendliness I made a few changes in the picture,” Pogany wrote. “You ask me how I arrive at a charge of “$3,500 and I will tell you this – that Miss Bennett gave me a commission to paint such a portrait of her.
“I have been engaged in the work for nearly two years and have employed models which have cost me hundreds of dollars since she would not pose for me and as a matter of fact the price should be $5,000, instead of $3,500, considering all the work I have done.”
Pogany claimed that Miss Bennett had originally asked for one of his
quicker portraits, the going rate for such a likeness was $500. When
Constance didn’t care for it, he agreed to create a more detailed, artistic and
complex portrait but let her know that the price could not remain at the agreed upon $500.00. Unfortunately for Pogany, there was no documentation to back this up.
On Friday, June 3, 1938, once the jury was excused for the weekend, the defense filed a motion asking for Judge Jess E. Stephens to render a directed verdict as the prosecution had failed to prove their case.
The judge agreed and ruled in favor of the defense…much to the disappointment of the jury.
Judge Stephens determined that Pogany could not prove Miss Bennett had agreed to pay more than $500 for the portrait nor did Pogany deliver a portrait that met the expectations of his client, as he had promised he would. Superior Court Judge Stephens suggested the case would have been better suited for Municipal Court.
Jurors made a point of letting Pogany know that had they been given the opportunity, they would have ruled in his favor and awarded an even bigger amount. Juror W. B. George, Jr. said it was “a beautiful painting. We would have returned a judgement for $5,000, if he had sued for that much.”
Pogany issued a statement saying “Miss Bennett cast cheap sneers at my work” and “when her mud-throwing mis-fired, she fell back on the defense that she was not supposed to know the value of my work, since she knew nothing about art.
“As to her ignorance about art, I must admit she presented the most convincing proof.”
Constance smiled in triumph as the judge’s verdict was read and, according to Joan Bennett’s 1970 autobiography “The Bennettt Playbill, “for the benefit of reporters,
Constance showed her views of the matter by kicking a hole in the
This can not possibly be true but it makes for a good story.
Besides, Constance Bennett was too busy to gloat. She had to get ready for her upcoming $250,000 “defamation of character” and “libel lawsuit” against radio host Jimmie Fidler and his sponsors.
Following Judge Stephens’s ruling, Pogany indicated he was considering an appeal of the verdict. As such, the portrait remained in the custody of the court.
On June 21, 1938, the court ordered the portrait to be sold for $108.00 to cover the court costs of the trial.
In 1939, when Willy Pogany was doing interviews to promote his latest endeavor, a full color cartoon for Walter Lantz Productions, written by his wife Elaine and animated by him, called “Scrambled Eggs,” Pogany revealed that the much-debated portrait of Constance Bennett was now in his possession and on display in his living room.
“I have had several offers for it, but I have refused them all. I think it is a beautiful picture; I just try to forget that it is a portrait of that woman.”
About that lawsuit Constance filed against Jimmie Fidler – on December 28, 1937, Jimmie Fidler talked on air about a severe
on-set snubbing actress Patsy Kelly had received by “Merrily We Live”
co-star Constance Bennett. Bennett denied the incident, accused Fidler
of making these false remarks with malicious intent and on January 3,
1938 she filed a lawsuit seeking $250,000 in damages.
That amount would increase by an additional $100,000 after Constance learned Fidler had made similar disparaging remarks against her during previous broadcasts.
On October 17, 1938, Judge Robert W.
Kenny ruled against Bennett and in favor of Fiddler. The judge didn’t
feel there was any intended malice in the remarks, whether false or not,
and pointed out that Miss Bennett and all motion picture actors are
It’s worth mentioning that in 1942, Constance announced that, Peter Bennett, whom she until now steadily maintained was her adopted son, was actually her biological son.
Constance claimed she had long ago made the decision to lie about Peter’s birth so that her wealthy second husband Philip Morgan Plant wouldn’t file for custody when they divorced in 1929, after nearly 4 years of marriage.
When, the supposedly childless, 39-year-old Philip Morgan Plant died in 1941, and news that a $633,000 trust fund was to be established for Plant’s descendants, Connie submitted her son’s name and revealed his heritage.
An out of court settlement was reached on November 18, 1943 after Connie supposedly promised Plant’s mother and widow that she would take the stand and give a full accounting of their married life. A judge awarded 14-year-old Peter $138,328.00. That’s over $1.8M, in today’s money. The money was to turned over to Peter when he turned 21.
On November 30, 1943, the Connecticut Superior Court affirmed a Probate
Court decision declaring that Phillip Morgan Plant died without issue.
That was supposed to settle, once and for all, the question of him having children.
On June 8, 1944, Constance obtained guardianship of the trust fund.
In 1950, when Peter came of age, Constance turned over what was left of the trust fund money. The amount remaining was $97,641.00. When asked by New York Surrogate Judge George Frankenthaler to explain where the rest of the money went, Constance claimed $40,687.00 had been spent on Peter’s education and care. She waived her right to the customary guardianship fee.
After Mae C. Rovensky, Philip Morgan Plant’s mother, died on July 21, 1956, Peter Bennett Plant, then 27-years-old, petitioned the Surrogate Court to be considered one of her descendants and thus entitled to a share of her multi-million dollar estate, despite not being acknowledged in her will.
Peter claimed that Mae Rovensky had “been coerced” by unnamed sources into believing that he was not her grandson. Furthermore, he claimed that Mae was “not of sound mind by reason of old age and illness” and was “mentally incapacitated” when she’d signed the will.
Despite his intentions to stake a claim, Peter failed to file the required amended petition with Manhattan’s Superior Court by the appointed October 2, 1956 deadline. He was granted an extension and a hearing was scheduled for November 27, 1956.
The legal battle dragged on until July 1, 1958, due to several family members challenging the terms of the will, including Peter and Mae’s two granddaughters. Ultimately, Mae Rovensky’s money was divided between her husband, several churches, hospitals and numerous charities. I see no indication that Peter was awarded anything.
What became of the portrait after Willy Pogany’s July 30, 1955 death? I do not know and I was sorry not to have found a color photo of it.
Elaine Cox Pogany, 23 years younger than Willy, died in March 1993.
Constance Bennett died on July 24, 1965.