A-lister Mitzi Gaynor exudes more energy and enthusiasm than most people half her age, especially when talking about her seven magnificent decades in showbiz. “Fun is my life, dear, and what a wonderful life I’ve had,” Mitzi, 88, exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now.
From starring in classic films like South Pacific and There’s No Business Like Show Business to working with Hollywood icons including Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, Mitzi’s seen it all.
Now, the Chicago native born Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber is preparing to tell all about her amazing life and career for a Turner Classic Movies cruise in October. “I love TCM,” she says, adding she’s also got a one-woman stage show and more planned for 2020. Will she ever retire? Says Mitzi, “No, no, no!”
Scroll below to read our exclusive Q&A with Mitzi!
You’re very busy these days. What’s next on your agenda?
Well, I’m going on the Turner Classic Movies cruise. The first time I was on a cruise I worked for the Holland America Group. I didn’t want to go because I was afraid of the water … and every time I would turn on the television, I would see Titanic! [Laughs] I just sang Cole Porter songs with Michael Feinstein onstage in August, I’m working on an auction, my [memoir] is coming out — that’s not quite settled yet. So I have a lot going on!
That’s for sure! You were really close with Ethel Merman, your costar in There’s No Business Like Show Business. What made that friendship so special?
I don’t know, really. She needed me and I needed her. I was going with my husband [the late film producer Jack Bean] at the time, and she called him Yuncle. I’d call her Mom and she called me Mitzela. We loved each other and we’d ditch everyone on set.
Even Marilyn Monroe?
Ethel didn’t get along too well with Marilyn. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, and you do not keep Ethel Merman waiting. Poor Marilyn was so frightened — I think she was so scared of us because we were all old pros. I had been in the theater my whole life, known Donald O’Connor since he was 2, and then here comes Marilyn who was always five minutes late, at least! Ethel would be like, “All right, where’s the blonde?” and that didn’t sit too well with Marilyn.
Tell us about Donald O’Connor …
Donald was the love of my life. You know, he was a better dancer than Gene Kelly!
Were you and Gene close?
Oh yes, very close. He was such a lovely man, and my dear, so sexy! One time he said to me, “See ya later!” and I said, “Arrivederci alligatore!” Which of course he loved. I learned that from my [South Pacific] costar Rossano Brazzi, who was such a funny guy.
Who were your favorite costars?
David Niven was my favorite. I played his daughter in one picture [1956’s The Birds and the Bees], and then three years later in Happy Anniversary I played his wife! I fell in love with Rossano — he and his wife were marvelous. I also liked Kirk Douglas — he was crazy! We did a comedy together [1963’s For Love or Money] and he asked, “What’s my motivation for this?” I said, “It’s money, dear.” He started giggling. I still see him at the eye doctor once a year.
How about Frank Sinatra?
Marvelous! You had to be on your toes with him. You do it once and if you screw up the dialogue, too bad! But what a nice man he was. I had auditioned for South Pacific and [Frank] told me I had to meet Dick … so then I went to see Richard Rodgers! Then he said you’ve got to meet Oscar Hammerstein. These are people I just worshipped, my God!
I know you dated Howard Hughes …
He was a wonderful man, my God, and how! He had some property in Las Vegas and said “I want you to buy some dirt.” I said, “I don’t want to buy dirt, I want an apartment house.” He said, “Well, you can do that later.” So for $25 an acre, I bought five acres on the Las Vegas strip. You know what that’s worth? Well, I sold it for $6 million. So that’s what I love about him! [Laughs]
What was it like to be on the famous Ed Sullivan Show with the Beatles in 1964?
I know you won’t believe this, but I had top billing over them! My husband and Ed had been very good friends and he said, “Jack, you’ve got to get Mitzi on my show.” Then he said, “We have a wonderful group of boys from Liverpool called the Beatles.” I said, “What a funny name!” Then I was like, “Rock ’n’ roll is dead!” But they had the contract already. That was October of 1963. When we came to Florida in February of 1964, the Beatles had happened and people I went to school with called me up and asked for autographs of them! People were just crazy. So then I met them at rehearsal, and my director said, “Get that cute girl off the stage, please.” I told the Beatle — he said, “We’ve been accused of many things, but never being girls!” It was John!
Was there a moment from your childhood that set you on your path?
My father was a conductor and a cellist, and my mother and auntie were dancers, so I guess I really had to do this, didn’t I?
What was moving to Hollywood like?
I was 11, got off the train and went to downtown LA where we went to live with my auntie Myrtle in a boarding house. She and my mom came out to California to dance the Charleston. Mom won 18 prizes but Myrtle didn’t win anything. Life goes on!
You and Jack were married for 52 years until he passed in 2006. How’d you meet?
It was a blind date! I had broken up with Howard Hughes, I was through with him — he was always late! I think I stayed with him for about six months, I’m only guessing now.
Any secret to 52 happy years together with Jack?
Well, we were never apart. He traveled with me. The only time we were apart is if he had to go to the office. And that’s it! That’s the way you keep it going.
And what keeps you going strong?
I think social media has kept me alive. I Twitter — I twit? — because there’s no fan clubs anymore. I’ve had difficulty with my leg, but it’s OK now. I have to go out and start doing it again: singing, dancing and moving!
For more on your favorite stars, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!