GRETA PECK – A WONDERFUL LIFE

 

The Pecks

REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN – LOS ANGELES
PHOTOS: TOMI HINKKANEN

Movie fans all over the world remember Gregory Peck (1916-2003) as the handsome leading man of Hollywood’s golden era. His first wife was Finnish-born Greta, née Eine Matilda Kukkonen. Although never a Hollywood star, Greta became a true star in her own right as she spread light on everybody she touched. Greta and Gregory were married for 12 years, had three sons, and remained life-long friends even after their divorce. Tragedy brought them together years later when their first-born son Jonathan committed suicide. She dedicated her life to her children and to charity and is fondly remembered by those touched by her kindness.

Greta Peck and her son Cary - Copyright by Tomi Hinkkanen

Greta Peck and her son Cary

I first met Greta at in 1996 at one of her famous parties at her home in Beverly Hills where old and new friends alike were invited. Later on we befriended and I wrote a few stories about her for Finnish publications. She had a lilting voice and would nod her head when making a particularly important point. Those were her twilight years.

“It’s a wonderful place to live,” She remarked about her Beverly Hills home. “If you can afford it,” I added silently in my mind. When I caught up with her a few years later, her beloved dog Monsieur was no longer alive, and she did not take another animal perhaps fearing that it might end up alone. At this point she no longer made her annual trip to her homeland either. It would be doubtful that any of her friends or relatives would have been alive there anyway.

Copyright by Tomi Hinkkanen

Greta Peck and Ava Anttila

Gret Peck’s home was like a time capsule. God only knows how valuable was the lot her Beverly Hills house stood on. It was once a part of Pickfair: a property that belonged to the silent film star Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks built in the 1920’s. Later on, the vast lot was subdivided into smaller ones and Greta’s was one of them. It was a one story mid-century modern house with a great view of downtown LA. Around her house, the other 1950’s bungalows had been razed to make way for large and gaudy McMansions that filled up their entire lots. A 1980’s Cadillac was parked in front of her house, but she rarely drove it. Instead, she was picked up by friends to go to her charitable functions. Inside her home, there were several beautiful paintings on the walls, some sculptures and stacks and stacks of old photographs on tables everywhere. At my urging she sifted through them, trying to remember the people in several smart get-togethers the pictures depicted.

Copyright by Tomi Hinkkanen

Gregory and Greta Peck

Eine Matilda Kukkonen was born at the old Helsinki railway station on January 25th, 1911. Finland wasn’t even an independent country then, but a Grand Duchy of the Tsar’s Russia.

“My mother was traveling to town by train from our country house, thinking that she would still have one month before I was to be born, but I decided to come into this world right there and then. It’s a good thing I was the youngest of four sisters, otherwise my mother would have had a difficult time,” Greta Peck reminisces. Her watchmaker father took the family to the U.S. when she was four. The family settled in New Jersey. At school the teacher always mispronounced her name Eine, so she changed it to Greta. The family name Kukkonen had already been shortened to “Konen” on Ellis Island. So the young lady was known as Greta Konen. At the time, girls were only expected to get married, bear children and become housewives. Greta tried to follow in that tradition. At 18 she married an American businessman, Charles Rice. They divorced after four years and had no children. After her marriage ended, Greta decided to get an education. She attended beauty school and, upon graduation, was hired as a make-up artist by ‘the first lady of American theater,’ Katharine Cornell, who had a touring theater group.

“We toured around the country, traveling by train, and visiting every state. Some performances were one-night-stands. Of course, we stayed longer in big cities, like Chicago. There were about 25 people in our entourage. Each tour lasted for 9 months,” Greta says. After the tour was over, the troupe returned to New York.

“Kathryn Cornell was such an elegant lady. She produced a new play every year with her husband Guthrie McClintock, who was a theatrical producer. They had a beautiful home in Manhattan with a garden overlooking the East River where they often entertained great writers and other interesting people.”

“Gregory Peck was a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, and had gotten an engagement with the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. He had been there a couple of years. The play in which Peck was in was closing. Guthrie McClintock just so happened to be in the last show. He was so impressed that he asked Gregory to join their theater group. And that’s where Gregory and I first met,” Greta recounts. Cornell’s group embarked on a new tour. Gregory joined them in Boston. The play was called “Doctor’s Dilemma”. Gregory Peck had only one line in the last act. He asked Greta for a date at the Merry-Go-Round bar in Boston. They began falling in love during the tour.

Gregory Peck

“Gregory was an ordinary, quiet, serious man,” Greta describes. As the tour drew to a close and the group returned to New York, their relationship began to deepen. In the earlier days Gregory had been so broke that he had to sleep on a bench in Central Park.

“My brother Paul and I shared a two bedroom apartment on 39th street. Gregory shacked up with us for a few months. Then he got an offer from RKO studio in Hollywood and asked me to marry him.”

It was an intimate wedding ceremony with just a few close friends present. Greta was 31 and Gregory 26. They took the oath in a Methodist Church in Manhattan on the fourth of October 1942 and then flew straight away to Los Angeles.

“I couldn’t have traveled with him, if we had not been married,” Greta points out. After the hustle and bustle of New York, arriving in Los Angeles felt like they had landed in the middle of a desert.

“There were only a few houses here and there and hardly any cars. We rented a house near Sunset Boulevard. Greg’s salary in the beginning was a thousand dollars a week, which was a lot of money back then.”

Gregory’s ample salary enabled Greta to remain at home. World War Two was raging on and many of Hollywood top male talents had been enlisted. So, there was a shortage of actors. Gregory Peck was discharged because of a bad back. The young and handsome actor found himself in high demand. He began to shoot movies back-to-back. Director Alfred Hitchcock cast him in his thriller Spellbound opposite to Ingrid Bergman.

Gregory and Great Peck

“We liked Hitchcock a lot. He was a very interesting man. He often invited us to dinner and we in turn invited him and his wife Alma to our house. Also, Ingrid Bergman was good company.”

At that time, the stars spent their lives isolated from the outside world. The already established movie star Gary Cooper and his wife, Sandra Shaw introduced the Pecks into the Hollywood high society.

“They held grand parties at their home for a couple of hundred guests – all top actors and actresses, producers and directors. After a grand five course dinner , there was entertainment and dancing to a live orchestra.”

“Due to Greg’s work we were always invited to many events. It made life interesting. We traveled often for months in New York and elsewhere. And we got our first son Jonathan very early on. So we were constantly living a full life.”

Soon they had two other boys, Stephen and Carey. The family moved to a mansion in Pacific Palisades with a swimming pool, tennis court, and guest house on three and a half acres. The staff included a butler, a maid and a nanny. Gregory’s working pace was intense – he filmed a couple of dozen movies during their marriage. Greta begun volunteering and supporting charitable organizations The war veterans’ cause was especially close to her heart. Their daily routines were interrupted by long trips to Europe, where Hollywood movies began to shoot after the war.

The Pecks

“We lived six months in England, France and Italy. I liked them all, because each country is special in their own way, and I love variety.”

The Peck’s never visited Finland together. Greta went to the Helsinki Olympics in the Summer of 1952 and Gregory visited the country a year later. Media at the time was much more gentle than today. Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was constantly trying to fish Greta for news about Gregory, but she never told her anything. She remembers having given a few interviews to Finnish reporters. The paparazzi were an unknown concept. The movie studios had their own publicity machines that fed the press whatever they wanted. There was gossip going around about Gregory Peck’s involvement with his co-stars Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn. Greta did not admit to knowing anything about these alleged relationships.

“It never occurred to me. The way I looked at it was that it was just doing his work.”

Gradually, Greta and Gregory began to drift in their own separate ways.

“We just grew apart, there was no drama attached to it,” Greta points out. She neither blames Gregory’s busy schedule, nor any woman for the break-up of their marriage.

Copyright by Tomi Hinkkanen

Greta Peck and her beloved dog Monsieur

After one trip to France, Greta and the boys returned home to California while Gregory remained in Europe. There he had met the French journalist Veronique Passani, who was 16 years younger than him. She had interviewed him for the newspaper France-Soir. After the interview, Gregory phoned her, asking her out. Veronique was so impressed that she cancelled her interview with the Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer.

“I heard about Veronique upon Greg’s return. It did not startle me in any way, since we had already decided to separate. There was no dispute about it.”

The couple divorced before Christmas of 1955. That same New Year’s Eve Gregory Peck married Veronique Passani. Greta was also to be remarried.

Copyright by Tomi Hinkkanen

Greta Peck with Tomi Hinkkanen and Linda Brava

“I planned to marry a successful businessman and real estate agent named Howard Hodge. He was a very nice man from the east coast. We had known each other for about four years. But then he suddenly died of a heart attack,” Greta says quietly. Hodge, however, left her money in his will. Gregory helped Greta to buy a house and enlarge it. At first, she spent a lot of time with her ex-husband, their sons, as well as Gregory and Veronique’s children.

“Then Veronique wanted to put an end to it. She did not want me spending time with Gregory. After that, we only met on family occasions.”

A tragedy brought them together in 1975. The family’s first-born son Jonathan who had made a career for himself as a TV journalist committed suicide at the age of 30.

Greta’s sons, Stephen and Carey, helped her a great deal to cope with the tragedy. Stephen shared his mother’s interest in the cause of the war veterans and worked for the Veteran’s Administration. Carey, in turn, carved out a career as an executive in the Los Angeles school district. Greta and Gregory met for the very last time about four months before his death at their grandson Ethan’s football game.

Copyright by Tomi Hinkkanen

Greta Peck loved to paint

“We enjoyed the game and exchanged greetings, nothing special,” Greta says. She never remarried. Gregory and Veronique stayed together until his death in 2003. Greta’s life after Gregory was filled with charity events, friends, travels, her sons and six grandchildren. Every summer Greta would travel to Finland to see her dear cousin Maire Lilja. At some point, she also owned a beauty salon and a real estate agency. In 1967, the president of Finland Urho Kekkonen granted her the Order of the White Rose of Finland medal for her work for the Finnish WW2 veterans. She was also a member of the Finnish-American Chamber of Commerce and received an honorary doctorate from Finlandia University in 1994.

Greta Peck at home in Beverly Hils

“I enjoy being single – I need my freedom. Gregory was a great partner and we had a good relationship through our sons ’til the end,” she summed up her life to me in 2003. She died five years later, January 19th, 2008 at the age of 96.

She is remembered in the LA Finnish community as an intelligent and charming friend, a devoted mother, and as a bright star who dedicated her life to helping others.

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