August 15, 2020

Grover not ‘just another Jones’ | Features

The poor son of a Welsh coal miner with an 8th grade education arrives in southern California with only 50 cents in his pocket, yet works his way to fame and fortune in Hollywood… The plot of a two-reel silent from the early days of movies, something written for Harold Lloyd? Perhaps, but it’s also part of the true story of the improbable life of w.

Grover not 'just another Jones'

Terre Haute News Item: Jones’s youthful picture appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune not long after he went to Hollywood.

By the time Jones died — at just age 46 in 1940 — he was called by the iconic Damon Runyon, “the greatest wit of our generation.” He was twice nominated for Academy Awards (Best Original Writing for “Lady and Gent” in 1932, and Best Screenplay for “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” in 1935), was credited with writing, directing, or producing over 200 motion pictures and shorts, and remarkably, collaborated with some of Hollywood’s top talent, from Mack Sennett to Cecil B. DeMille to Raoul Walsh — on hundreds of others.

Jones may have started his days in Hollywood sleeping under a boarding house stairwell, feeding Universal Studio’s chickens, and earning a few dollars for taking falls from horses, but by the time the Great Depression steamrolled through the country 20 years later, he was commanding $3,500 a week, married to dancer Susan Avery, and constantly expanding his brick-walled estate in Santa Monica along Sunset Boulevard.

Called the “Hoosier Horatio Alger,” Jones also regularly published stories in magazines such as “Collier’s” and “The Saturday Evening Post,” produced his own industry magazine, and his lucrative Grover Jones Press printed ever-popular movie posters and lobby cards distributed across the country.

Grover not 'just another Jones'

Silver Theater: Jones is shown working with Rosalind Russell and James Stewart, probably in 1937, on a script for the radio series, “Silver Theater.”

Born in small but bustling Rosedale, Indiana, in 1893, Jones began his remarkable life breathing the coal dust of that small southern Parke County town, perhaps even toiling a while with his father in one of the dozen or so mines that dotted the surrounding hillsides. It is probable that the Joneses — which included his German-born mother, Elizabeth Lucian — lived in “The Blocks,” a collection of grimy row houses the Parke County Coal Company built near the intersecting tracks of the old Vandalia and Chicago Eastern railroads. It is possible that Jones, named for the sitting president, Grover Cleveland, also watched his first “flicker” or took in a stage show at the town’s new Main Street theater, “The Star.”

Life was not easy for Grover’s parents. His father, William L. Jones, was the third son born into his family to be given the same first name; his mother, a busy mid-wife, was determined to have a boy named William, for although Grover’s father survived infancy, his two older brothers — minus the middle initial — did not.

Eventually an electrician, the elder Jones drove mule teams in the mines, never forgetting that he once saw a fellow miner crushed to death by a pair he had often cruelly abused.

By 1910, the Joneses had left the depleted coal veins of Parke County for those booming in western Vigo County. They lived in a house at the intersection of McIlroy and West Johnson Avenues in West Terre Haute; Grover’s industrious mother took in boarders to supplement their income, and Jones—known as “Beanie” for the staple of baked beans his mother cooked — worked alongside his father in the mines.

However, according to Grover’s own short-lived diary — in which he jokingly referred to himself as “just another Jones” — the labor he performed as a “breaker boy” was not conducive to the kind of life he intended to have. Called “clever,” he wrote poems and songs in the coal dust that settled on the mine cars, became an accomplished piano player, wrote one-act plays and short stories, drew cartoons, and even published a gossipy neighborhood newspaper.

According to Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick and retired Connor Prairie Museum historian and author Tim Crumrin, who have both researched and written extensively about Jones, 1912-1913 was a critical period for the aspiring writer. Apprenticed as a sign painter (sometimes working with friend Earl Sibley, who left Terre Haute to paint backdrops in Hollywood), Jones’s skills were in demand since movie houses, vaudeville shows, and local businesses all depended on fresh art. Jones also befriended painter and magician Jimmy Trimble and spent considerable time around theaters and back stages soaking up the exciting atmosphere.

Perhaps his biggest early break came in 1913 when Jones wrote and directed a film shot by Robert Nicholson, mostly at the old fairgrounds at Wabash and Brown Avenues. Backed with $600 from a local saloonkeeper, who fancied himself a movie producer, Grover churned out “A Boy and a Bandit.” Although he ran out of money and never completed the picture, Jones earned a good review and that limited success encouraged him to contact Carl Laemmle, who had just created Universal Film Manufacturing in sunny Los Angeles. Laemmle may have sent Jones a few dollars to head west, but Grover still had to borrow enough from a local banker to buy a set of clothes and make the trip.

As Jones himself wrote in an autobiographical account he penned for “The Saturday Evening Post” years later, “The biggest thrill I ever had was when I stood on the corner of 1st and Hill Streets in LA and asked a policeman the way to Hollywood.”

Poverty and early failure to find meaningful work in films hardly discouraged Jones. “I came to California and starved,” he said. The first job he took there that involved paint was filling the spraying machines.

“I don’t think you can underestimate his brief time in the West Terre Haute coal mines as motivation,” Crumrin says. “Jones certainly did not want to live the hardscrabble life of miners that he grew up around. Combine that with a love of words and his very lively mind, and you have a motivated man who pursued his dreams with determination.”

Stormie Hale never met her illustrious grandfather; her mother, American polo pioneer, Sue Sally Hale, was just three when Grover died not long after completing work on the screenplay adapted from Harold Bell Wright’s “The Shepherd of the Hills.” The author of a book about her mother, Hale is nonetheless proud of her grandfather’s career and felt he owed much of his success to his days in small-town Indiana with its outhouses, single-room coal stoves, and hard labor.

Grover not 'just another Jones'

Public DomainAbe Lincoln in Illinois: One of Jones’s most revered writing credits came in 1940 with his adaption of Robert Sherwood’s play, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” The film starred Raymond Massey as Lincoln. 

“The thing about him that fascinated me was the walking he did in the beginning of his time in Hollywood. He had to walk everywhere, including over the pass to Santa Monica,” Hale says.

Although he couldn’t have known it in his earliest years in Hollywood, Jones suffered from “Pachyonychia Congentia,” a rare genetic disorder that caused him considerable misery; the condition had only been discovered a decade before he left Indiana. “My grandmother left drawings of the calluses on his feet. He was born with them, and he had to live with the pain of them every day,” Hale added. “My mom [who also inherited PC] had the same drive he had though. She worked literally dawn to well after dusk every day of her life. It was always the next thing; that might have been an inherited trait too.”

The energy Jones had would serve him well. By the end of 1914, Grover’s parents, brother, Bill, and family friend, Jersey Irwin, came to live with him in California; his father soon found work at the studio too. By then, Jones was publishing an industry newsletter, attended art school, was learning set construction, gone to work for Mack Sennett and Keystone Comedies, and was almost daily watching some of Hollywood’s best talents perform. By the mid-20s, he was directing shorts, rubbing elbows with the like of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Ben Turpin; he became a good friend of Lon Chaney Sr., “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Jones also met the man who would become his best friend and partner, Richard Talmadge (who came to town as one of the “Metzetti Troupe”), and soon their collaborations, mostly as writers, outlived the silent era.

Talented, yes, but Jones’s success was birthed by his work ethic. He first learned how screenplays were written by re-typing the scripts of others on a borrowed typewriter, just so he’d know how they worked and flowed. He struggled with spelling, was fired and re-hired a dozen times, and he served as just about everybody’s assistant.

Then, the hits followed: “Trouble in Paradise,” “If I had a Million,” “Souls at Sea,” “Dark Command,” “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”…

“I am simply amazed that he was able to do all he did in such a short period of time,” McCormick says. “He was writing for magazines, he was producing screenplays — he was doing all of these things, and he did it through his own will.”

The immense estate Grover and Susan built was constantly inhabited by friends and family, and a menagerie of animals. The latter became a point of contention with his neighbors, particularly since a monkey, a goat, two deer, and 14 dogs were in residence. The place eventually grew to 32 rooms, had 18 telephones and six servants; guests could enjoy its tennis courts and swimming pool, its projection room, its stable. Working to pay for it all took its toll; returning to work too soon after kidney surgery led to a second operation; he died soon after asking Talmadge to “take care of Susan and Sue Sally.”

Despite a considerably large trove of information about her grandfather stored at the Margaret Herrick Library (the “main repository of print, graphic and research materials of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences”) in Beverly Hills, one of Hale’s most treasured mementos comes in the form of her mother’s baby book, in which her grandmother — who would marry Talmadge 20 years after Grover’s death — wrote about Jones’s days in Indiana and his earliest memories of Hollywood. Some of the information came from Lucian Jones, who outlived her son by over 15 years.

Composer Kurt Weill once said of Grover Jones, that he “understood the rules of film-making…as Picasso understood painting.” In reference to the same man, her husband, Susan wrote in that baby book, “He was the biggest of humans, at heart.”

Contact Mike Lunsford at; his website is at For more information about Sally Hale, go to For more about the history of Terre Haute and Vigo County, read Mike McCormick’s Terre Haute: Queen City of the Wabash (Acadia 2005). Crumrin’s latest book, Hidden History of Terre Haute (History Press), is scheduled to be released this year.

Grover not 'just another Jones'

Courtesy of SSHALE.comThe Jones Estate: An aerial view of the Jones home in Pacific Palisades in 1937. 

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