Allyson began her career in 1937 as a dancer in short subject films and on Broadway in 1938. She signed with MGM in 1943, and rose to fame the following year in Two Girls and a Sailor. Allyson's "girl next door" image was solidified during the mid-1940s when she was paired with actor Van Johnson in five films. In 1951, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her performance in Too Young to Kiss. From 1959 to 1961, she hosted and occasionally starred in her own anthology series, The DuPont Show with June Allyson, which aired on CBS.
Allyson was married four times (to three husbands) and had two children with her first husband, Dick Powell. She died of respiratory failure and bronchitis in July 2006 at the age of 88.
Allyson was born Eleanor Geisman, nicknamed "Ella", in the Bronx, New York City. She was the daughter of Clara (née Provost) and Robert Geisman. She had a brother, Henry, who was two years older. She said she had been raised as a Roman Catholic, but a discrepancy exists relating to her early life, and her studio biography was often the source of the confusion. Her paternal grandparents, Harry Geisman and Anna Hafner, were immigrants from Germany although Allyson claimed her last name was originally "Van Geisman", and was of Dutch origin. Studio biographies listed her as "Jan Allyson" born to French-English parents. Upon her death, her daughter said Allyson was born "Eleanor Geisman to a French mother and Dutch father."
In April 1918 (when Allyson was six months old), her alcoholic father, who had worked as a janitor, abandoned the family. Allyson was brought up in near poverty, living with her maternal grandparents. To make ends meet, her mother worked as a telephone operator and restaurant cashier. When she had enough funds, she would occasionally reunite with her daughter, but more often Allyson was "farmed" out to her grandparents or other relatives.
In 1925 (when Allyson was eight), a tree branch fell on her while she was riding on her tricycle with her pet terrier in tow. Allyson sustained a fractured skull and broken back, and her dog was killed. Her doctors said she would never walk again and confined her to a heavy steel brace from neck to hips for four years, and she ultimately regained her health, but when Allyson had become famous, she was terrified that people would discover her background from the "tenement side of New York City", and she readily agreed to studio tales of a "rosy life" including a concocted story that she underwent months of swimming exercises in rehabilitation to emerge as a star swimmer. In her later memoirs, Allyson does describe a summer program of swimming that did help her recovery.
After gradually progressing from a wheelchair to crutches to braces, Allyson's true escape from her impoverished life was to go to the cinema, where she was enraptured by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies. As a teen, Allyson memorized the trademark Ginger Rogers dance routines; she claimed later to have watched The Gay Divorcee 17 times. She also tried to emulate the singing styles of movie stars although she never mastered reading music. When her mother remarried and the family was reunited with a more stable financial standing, Allyson was enrolled in the Ned Wayburn Dancing Academy and began to enter dance competitions with the stage name of "Elaine Peters". With the death of her stepfather and a bleak future ahead, she left high school after completing two and half years, to seek jobs as a dancer. Her first $60-a-week job was as a tap dancer at the Lido Club in Montreal. Returning to New York, she found work as an actress in movie short subjects filmed by Educational Pictures at its Astoria, Long Island, studio. Fiercely ambitious, Allyson tried her hand at modeling, but to her consternation became the "sad-looking before part" in a before-and-after bathing suit magazine ad. Her first career break came when Educational cast her as an ingenue opposite singer Lee Sullivan, comic dancers Herman Timberg, Jr., and Pat Rooney, Jr., and future comedy star Danny Kaye. When Educational ceased operations, Allyson moved to Vitaphone in Brooklyn and starred or co-starred (with dancer Hal Le Roy) in musical shorts.
Interspersing jobs in the chorus line at the Copacabana Club with acting roles at Vitaphone, the diminutive 5'1" (1.55 m), weighing less than 100 pounds, red-headed Allyson landed a chorus job in the Broadway show Sing out the News in 1938. The legend is that the choreographer gave her a job and a new name: Allyson, a family name, and June, for the month, although like many aspects of her career resume, the derivation is highly unlikely as she was already dubbing herself "June Allyson" prior to her Broadway engagement and has even attributed the name to a later director. Allyson subsequently appeared in the chorus in the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical Very Warm for May (1939).
When Vitaphone discontinued New York production in 1940, Allyson returned to the New York stage to take on more chorus roles in Rodgers and Hart's Higher and Higher (1940) and Cole Porter's Panama Hattie (1940). Her dancing and musical talent led to a stint as an understudy for the lead, Betty Hutton, and when Hutton contracted measles, Allyson appeared in five performances of Panama Hattie. Broadway director George Abbott caught one of the nights, and offered Allyson one of the lead roles in his production of Best Foot Forward (1941).
After her appearance in the Broadway musical, Allyson was selected for the 1943 film version of Best Foot Forward. When she arrived in Hollywood, the production had not started, so MGM "placed her on the payroll" of Girl Crazy (1943). Despite playing a "bit part", Allyson received good reviews as a sidekick to Best Foot Forward's star, Lucille Ball, but was still relegated to the "drop list". MGM's musical supervisor, Arthur Freed, saw her test sent up by an agent and insisted that Allyson be put on contract immediately. Another musical, Thousands Cheer (1943), was again a showcase for her singing and dancing, albeit still in a minor role. As a new starlet, although Allyson had already been a performer on stage and screen, she was presented as an "overnight sensation," with Hollywood press agents attempting to portray her as an ingenue, selectively slicing years off her true age. Studio bios listed her variously as being born in 1922 and 1923.
Allyson's breakthrough was in Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) where the studio image of the "girl next door" was fostered by her being cast alongside long-time acting chum Van Johnson, the quintessential "boy next door." As the "sweetheart team," Johnson and Allyson were to appear together in four later films.
Allyson's early success as a musical star led to several other postwar musicals, including Two Sisters from Boston (1946) and Good News (1947). Her “Thou Swell” was a high point of the Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music (1948), as performed in the “A Connecticut Yankee” segment with the Blackburn Twins. Allyson also played straight roles, such as Constance in The Three Musketeers (1948), the tomboy Jo March in Little Women (1949), and a nurse in Battle Circus (1953). She was very adept at opening the waterworks on cue, and many of her films incorporated a crying scene. Fellow MGM player Margaret O'Brien recalled that she and Allyson were known as "the town criers."
In 1950 Allyson had been signed to appear opposite her childhood idol Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, but had to leave the production because of pregnancy. (She was replaced initially by Judy Garland, and later by Jane Powell.) In 1956 she starred with a young rising star named Jack Lemmon in the musical comedy, You Can't Run Away From It. Besides Van Johnson, James Stewart was a frequent co-star, teaming up with Allyson in three popular biographies, The Glenn Miller Story, The Stratton Story, and Strategic Air Command.
A versatile performer, Allyson also appeared on radio, and after her film career ended she made a handful of nightclub singing engagements. In later years, Allyson appeared on television, not only in her own series, but in such popular programs as The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. The DuPont Show with June Allyson ran for two seasons on CBS and was an attempt to use a "high budget" formula. Her efforts were dismissed by the entertainment reviewer in the LA Examiner as "reaching down to the level of mag fiction." However, TV Guide and other fan magazines such as TV considered Allyson's foray into television as revitalizing her fame and career for a younger audience, and remarked that her stereotyping by the movie industry as the "girl next door" was the "waste and neglect of talent on its own doorstep."
On her arrival in Hollywood, studio heads attempted to enhance the pairing of Van Johnson and Allyson by sending out the two contracted players on a series of "official dates", which were highly publicized and led to a public perception that a romance had been kindled. Although dating David Rose, Peter Lawford, and John Kennedy, Allyson was actually being courted by Dick Powell, who was 13 years her senior and had been previously married to Mildred Maund and Joan Blondell.
On August 19, 1945, Allyson caused MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer some consternation by marrying Dick Powell. After defying him twice by refusing to stop seeing Powell, in a "tactical master stroke", she asked Mayer to give her away at the wedding. He was so disarmed that he agreed but put Allyson on suspension anyway. The Powells had two children, Pamela Allyson Powell (adopted in 1948 through the Tennessee Children's Home Society in an adoption arranged by Georgia Tann) and Richard Powell, Jr. (born December 24, 1950). In 1961, Allyson underwent a kidney operation and later, throat surgery, temporarily affecting her trademark raspy voice. The couple briefly separated in 1961, but reconciled and remained married until his death on January 2, 1963. She also went through a bitter court battle with her mother over custody of the children she had with Powell. Reports at the time revealed that writer/director Dirk Summers, with whom Allyson was romantically involved from 1963 to 1975, was named legal guardian for Ricky and Pamela as a result of a court petition. Members of the nascent jet-set, Allyson and Summers were frequently seen in Cap d'Antibes, Madrid, Rome, and London. However, Summers refused to marry her and the relationship did not last.
Following her separation from Summers, Allyson was twice married to and divorced from businessman Alfred Glenn Maxwell, who owned a number of barbershops and had been Powell's barber. During this time, Allyson struggled with alcoholism, which she overcame in the mid-1970s. In 1976, Allyson married David Ashrow, a dentist turned actor. The couple occasionally performed together in regional theater, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, toured the United States with the stage play My Daughter, Your Son. They also appeared on celebrity cruise ship tours on the Royal Viking Sky, in a program that highlighted Allyson's movie career.
After Dick Powell's death, Allyson committed herself to charitable work on his behalf, championing the importance of research in urological and gynecological diseases in seniors, and represented the Kimberly-Clark Corporation in commercials for adult incontinence products. Following a lifelong interest in health and medical research (Allyson had initially wanted to use her acting career to fund her own training as a doctor), she was instrumental in establishing the June Allyson Foundation for Public Awareness and Medical Research. Allyson also financed her brother, Dr. Arthur Peters, through his medical training, and he went on to specialize in otolaryngology.
Allyson was a staunch Republican and was a strong supporter of Richard Nixon.
Powell's wealth made it possible for Allyson effectively to retire from show business after his death, making only occasional appearances on talk and variety shows. Allyson returned to the Broadway stage in 1970 in the play Forty Carats and later toured in a production of No, No, Nanette.
Her autobiography, June Allyson by June Allyson (1982), received generally complimentary reviews due to its insider look at Hollywood in one of its golden ages. A more critical appraisal came from Janet Maslin at the New York Times in her review, "Hollywood Leaves Its Imprint on Its Chroniclers", who noted: "Miss Allyson presents herself as the same sunny, tomboyish figure she played on screen in Hollywood... like someone who has come to inhabit the very myths she helped to create on the screen." Privately, Allyson admitted that her earlier screen portrayals had left her uneasy about the typecast "good wife" roles she had played.
As a personal friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, she was invited to many White House dinners, and in 1988, Reagan appointed her to the Federal Council on Aging. Allyson and her later husband, David Ashrow, actively supported fund-raising efforts for both the James Stewart and Judy Garland museums; both Stewart and Garland had been close friends.
In 1993, her name also made headlines when actor-turned-agent Marty Ingels publicly charged Allyson with not paying his large commission on the earlier deal on incontinence product advertising. Allyson denied owing any money, and Ashrow and she filed a lawsuit for slander and emotional distress, charging that Ingels was harassing and threatening them, stating Ingels made 138 phone calls during a single eight-hour period. Earlier that year, Ingels had pleaded no contest to making annoying phone calls.
In December 1993, Allyson christened the Holland America Maasdam, one of the flagships of the Holland America line. Although her heritage, like much of her personal story, was subject to different interpretations, Allyson always claimed to be proud of a Dutch ancestry.
Allyson made a special appearance in 1994 in That's Entertainment III, as one of the film's narrators. She spoke about MGM's golden era and introduced vintage film clips. In 1996, Allyson became the first recipient of the Harvey Award, presented by the James M. Stewart Museum Foundation, in recognition of her positive contributions to the world of entertainment. Until 2003, Allyson remained busy touring the country making personal appearances, headlining celebrity cruises, and speaking on behalf of Kimberly-Clark, a long-time commercial interest. The American Urogynecologic Society established the June Allyson Foundation in 1998 made possible by a grant from Kimberly-Clark. As the first celebrity to undertake the role of public spokesperson for promoting the use of the Depend undergarment, Allyson did "more than any other public figure to encourage and persuade people with incontinence to lead fuller and more active lives".
Following hip-replacement surgery in 2003, Allyson's health began to deteriorate. With her husband at her side, she died July 8, 2006, aged 88 at her home in Ojai, California. Her death was a result of pulmonary respiratory failure and acute bronchitis. On her death, Kimberly-Clark Corporation (NYSE: KMB) contributed $25,000 to the June Allyson Foundation to support research advances in the care and treatment of women with urinary incontinence.1951: won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress-Musical/Comedy, for Too Young to Kiss.
1954: awarded the Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at the Venice Festival, for Executive Suite, in the same year that she was voted Most Popular Female Star by Photoplay magazine.
1955: named the ninth most popular movie star in the annual Quigley Exhibitors Poll and the second most popular female star, after Grace Kelly.
1960: received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1537 Vine Street for her contributions to the motion picture industry.
1985: received the Cannes Festival Distinguished Service Award.
2007: received a special tribute during the Academy Awards as part of the annual memorial tribute.
For a number of years exhibitors voted Allyson among the most popular stars in the country:1950 - 14th (US)
1954 - 11th (US)
1955 - 9th (US)
1956 - 15th (US)
1957 - 23rd (US)