When Andrea King was born on February 1, 1919, a mystery began.
To this day, the exact circumstances of her birth remain cloudy and confusing at best, and while this is a simple detail of life that most of us take for granted, Andrea learned to accept her unaccountable past as part of a very unique background. Over the years, many colorful and admittedly fabricated details have been written about her dubious beginnings, most of them artfully spun by studio publicity departments "just doing their job." In order to help us understand the pieces of the puzzle, we must begin with the facts ....
Andrea King, a screen name given to her in 1944 by studio head Jack Warner, was born Georgette André Barry in Paris, France, on the aforementioned date of February 1, 1919. Her mother, Lovina Belle Hart, or Belle, for short, was the youngest daughter of Deborah and George Hart of Cleveland, Ohio. George was the inventor of the grain elevator. And that, dear reader, is where fact ends and speculation begins.
Belle initially went to France in 1917, at the age of 32. She signed up with Anne Tracy Morgan (J.P. Morgans daughter) as a volunteer ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. Although Belle drove an ambulance on the front lines during the Great War, this was not her motivation for leaving the relative safety of the United States during such catastrophic times. A few years prior to her wartime adventures, Belle had been a dancer in New York City -- one of the disciples of the legendary, albeit infamous, Isadora Duncan -- a situation that would have caused her parents back in Cleveland much distress had they been aware of it. Belle made sure they had not. When Isadora was unceremoniously thrown out of the country, Belle made it her undying goal to reunite with her idol and mentor in France. Since asking her father for financial support of such an endeavor was completely out of the question, Belle found the volunteer ambulance corps to be just the ticket ... literally.
While in France, she began seeing an old employer and friend of hers from the United States. His name was Alonzo Colt Yates -- a prominent, middle-aged, distinguished, Washington diplomat, who was overseas negotiating with other fellow diplomats to help end the war. Belle and Mr. Yates began to see a lot of each other, whenever their wartime duties permitted it.
At this point, the story takes separate paths depending on whos telling it.
Belles version -- one that she stuck with until her dying day -- was that during this time she met a French fighter pilot named Georges André Barry. He was a member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille, a fearless and heroic squadron of brave young men. A few months into a whirlwind romance, the two were married, and tragically just one month before the armistice, Georges’ plane was shot down over Germany, and he died for the cause. The following February, Belle gave birth to their only child -- baby Georgette (Andrea). Immediately after the birth, Belle fell ill with Childbirth Fever and nearly died, and it wasnt until her good friend Alonzo Yates called for help from Madame Marie-Louise Vallery-Radot (the renowned physician and daughter of Louis Pasteur) that Belle was given the experimental saline solution that saved her life.
This was the story that Andrea had been told many times as a child.
An alternate set of circumstances didnt surface until many years later, but for now, we must get back to the facts.
Belle and her newborn baby returned to the States quite unexpectedly, two months later, upon the sad and urgent news of George Harts rapidly deteriorating health. And while Belle and her baby were crossing the Atlantic to be with him again, Belle's father George passed away.
A few years later, after settling in New York, Belle consented to marry Douglas McKee, the vice [resident of the Title Guarantee & Trust Co., and the threesome moved into a large house in Forest Hills, Long Island. Several years passed, and Belle gave birth to a second daughter, Anne Douglas McKee, Andreas half-sister. But Belle didnt fare well under the repressed ideals of her banker-husband, and as a result the house was not a happy one. At the age of eleven, Andrea attempted to run away from home, dreaming of a better life as an actress in Hollywood. Fortunately, she didnt get further than the Long Island freight yards and was returned home safely without incident.
Andreas auspicious career in the theatre began quite accidentally when she was spotted in a boarding school recital by Mr. C.P. Greneker, the vice president of publicity for the Shubert brothers, Broadways top producers of the day. A couple of weeks later, at the tender age of fourteen, she made her Broadway debut under the stage name of Georgette McKee in "Growing Pains." And although the play closed after just a two-week run, it did serve as its author Aurania Rouveral's inspiration for her highly successful "Andy Hardy" series of films at MGM.
Andreas next theatrical endeavor under the guidance of C.P. Greneker was a much bigger success, and critics took notice of her performance. In "Fly Away Home," she was cast as the tomboy Buff Masters, with famed actor Thomas Mitchell both directing and starring in the Broadway comedy. A young teenager making his professional acting debut was cast alongside Andrea as her kid brother. His name was Montgomery Clift.
Other productions followed throughout the next several years, including a third Broadway play (George Abbott's "Boy Meets Girl"), and her film debut in The March of Times first full-length feature "The Ramparts We Watch." In 1939, Andrea landed the ingénue role of Mary Skinner in the Chicago company of the smash hit "Life With Father," in a cast headed by screen legend Lillian Gish. And it was during the run of the play where Andrea met her future husband and the love of her life -- Nat Willis.
Nat was a handsome lawyer from the picturesque Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, Illinois. He was a Yale man, and a direct descendant of George Washington, which Andrea thought sounded too good to be true. They were married in October of 1940, and against Nats better judgment, Andrea soon left the production of "Life With Father," in order to give their fledgling marriage a chance to survive.
But the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, their lives changed forever. Nat went down to the recruiting office to enlist and ended up joining the Coast Guard, serving the Judge Advocates department as an attorney handling the Merchant Marine's court-martial cases. While he was away at training and later stationed in New York, Andrea was cast in a touring company of the Broadway hit thriller "Angel Street." She was playing Nancy, the cheeky Cockney maid, a role brought to the big screen a few years later by newcomer Angela Lansbury in the MGM film version, re-titled "Gaslight".
It was during this tour that Andrea first came face to face with her mysterious and highly questionable past.