Andrea King (c. 1980).
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 had invented a modernized grain elevator that was state-of-the-art throughout the Midwest. 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. Morgan’s 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, Belle had been a dancer in New York City — one of the disciples of the legendary, albeit infamous, Isadora Duncan — a revelation that would have caused her parents back in Cleveland unimaginable distress had they been aware of it. Belle made sure they hadn’t. When Isadora was unceremoniously thrown out of the country, Belle made it her singular goal to reunite with her idol and mentor in France. Since asking her father for financial support of this endeavor was out of the question, Belle found the volunteer ambulance corps to be just the ticket … quite literally.
While in France, she began seeing an old employer and friend from the United States. His name was Alonzo Colt Yates — a prominent, middle-aged, distinguished, Washington diplomat — the newly appointed vice-consul of Paris, who was overseas negotiating with other fellow diplomats to help end the war. Belle and Mr. Yates began seeing a lot of each other whenever their wartime duties permitted it.
At this point, our story takes separate paths depending on who’s telling it.
Belle’s version — the one she stuck with until her dying day — was that during this time she met a French fighter pilot named Georges André Barry, a member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille. They were a fearless, heroic squadron of brave young flyers. A few months into this whirlwind romance, the two were married, and tragically, 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 — wee baby Georgette (Andrea). Immediately after the birth, Belle fell ill with Childbirth Fever and nearly died, and it wasn’t until her good friend Alonzo Yates called for help from Madame Marie-Louise Vallery-Radot (the renowned physician who was the daughter of Louis Pasteur) that Belle was given an experimental saline solution that saved her life.
That was the story Andrea was told many times as a child.
An alternate set of circumstances didn’t surface until decades later, but for now, we must get back to the immediate facts.
Belle and her newborn babe returned to the States unexpectedly, two months later, upon the urgent news of George Hart’s rapidly deteriorating health. And while Belle and her baby were crossing the Atlantic to reunite with him, Belle’s father George passed away.
A few years later, after settling in New York, Belle consented to marry Douglas McKee, vice president of the Title Guarantee & Trust Co., and the threesome moved into a large house in Forest Hills, Long Island. Years passed, and Belle gave birth to a second daughter, Anne Douglas McKee — Andrea’s half-sister. But Belle didn’t 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 didn’t get further than the Long Island freight yards and was returned home safely without incident.
Andrea’s auspicious career in the theatre began quite accidentally when she was spotted in a boarding school recital by Mr. C.P. Greneker, vice president of publicity for the Shubert brothers, Broadway’s top producers of the day. Just a couple of weeks later, at the tender age of 14, she made her Broadway debut under the stage name of Georgette McKee in “Growing Pains.” And although the play closed after a two-week run, it did serve as an inspiration for author Aurania Rouveral’s highly successful “Andy Hardy” series of films at MGM.
Andrea’s 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 Time’s 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 this play that Andrea met her future husband and love of her life — Nat Willis.
Nat was a handsome lawyer from the picturesque Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, Illinois — 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 Nat’s better judgment, Andrea soon left the production of “Life With Father,” in order to give their fledgling marriage a chance to survive.
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 Advocate’s division as an attorney handling the Merchant Marine’s court-martial cases. While he was away training and later stationed in New York, Andrea was cast in the national 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.