Guideposts Classics: Jane Wyman on Looking Outward

Guideposts Classics: Jane Wyman on Looking Outward

In this story from June 1964, Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman recalls the priest who helped her overcome shyness and focus on God and other people.

Actress Jane Wyman

How annoyed I get today when I hear someone teased for being shy! “Come on!” they shout, dragging him into a crowded room. “Don’t be shy!” As though not being shy were a matter of will power. Or, “You’re just shy!” as though that were the most minor of problems.

Shyness is not a small problem: it can cripple the whole personality. It crippled mine, for many years.

As a child my only solution to the problem of shyness was to hide, to make myself as small and insignificant as possible. All through grade school I was a well-mannered little shadow who never spoke above a whisper. In ballet class I haunted the corners of the room, hoping the dancing master would not see me.

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The very thought of performing in front of someone made me wilt with fear, quite literally.

The saddest part of it was that I idolized Dad Prinz, the dancing master. He was the most understanding man I had ever met and I longed to tell him so. I never did.

Then my parents left St. Joseph, Missouri, and moved to Los Angeles. And now a new and more threatening dimension had been added to life outside the big city high school walls. Dating. It seemed to me that on some prearranged signal, every boy and girl in school paired off.

Every girl, that is, except me. I don’t know whether I could have had dates or not; it simply never occurred to me to try. Hadn’t I been told many times that I was not pretty? I lugged home piles of books every night and disappeared into them.

And then the Depression came. In California it seemed to hit older people like my father especially hard. Overnight I was thrust from my safe little book-world into the world of job hunting.

In all that vast, bewildering city, I knew only one person who might give me a job: LeRoy Prinz, the famous Hollywood dance coach, Dad Prinz’ son. He gave me a tryout and discovered I had a sense of rhythm. “As long as you’ve got that,” he said, “I can teach you the rest.”

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Under LeRoy Prinz’ coaching I began to get chorus parts in the movies, those lavish, glittery, extravagant movies we loved in the hungry ‘30s.

It was work when the family badly needed the money, but for a girl who had grown up in terror of being looked at, it was also agony.

Then I made a discovery: a good shield for shyness is a bold exterior. Did my heart turn over when the man with the megaphone bellowed out my name? Were all the other dancers prettier?

Never mind. I covered up by becoming the cockiest of all, by talking the loudest, laughing the longest, and wearing the curliest, most blatantly false eyelashes in Hollywood.

And then one day a fellow chorus girl gave me a piece of advice:

“Jane, you’d improve your looks about a thousand percent if you’d peel off those trimmings and wash your face.”

I was crushed. I wept. I hated her. But the next day, feeling completely bald, I showed up on the set without my disguise. We hadn’t been rehearsing half an hour before a comparative stranger stopped and stared at me.

“Gee, Jane,” he said. “You look great.”

For me it was the heavens parting. Could he have meant that I looked great? It was the first hint I had that I could be myself without the sky falling in.

But the insight went only skin deep. I shed the eyelashes, but I wasn’t about ready to shed the tough, smart little shell.

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