Jack's Senior Portrait
John Adams High School Class of 1938
(Carl Ballenas, Richmond Hill Historical Society)
[Jack has] known his own tribulation. As a young shipwrecked merchant mariner, he almost died. As a young would-be actor, he almost starved. But, in the first instance, he held onto life, and in the second, he held onto hope -- so he survived both experiences a better man than he might have been without them.
Hardship hones the character; heartbreak, the spirit. And Jack has known both, which helps to explain how he endures with such equanimity... ...Jack, though keenly sensitive, has weathered the abuse without visible scars.
Source: Anderson, Nancy. "Jack Lord: My Life is Filled With Miracles" in Photoplay. March 1974.
The Early Years
Jack Lord was born John Joseph Patrick Ryan in Brooklyn, New York, on December 30, 1920, to Ellen Josephine O’Brien Ryan (1892-1994) and William Lawrence Ryan (1887-1966).
Mrs. Ryan was a housewife, who bore five children: William Lawrence Ryan, Jr. (1918-1982), John Joseph Patrick Ryan (1920-1998), Josephine S. Ryan (1923-2001), Thomas H. Ryan (1928-2006), and Robert G. Ryan (1935-2003). Her family owned a fruit orchard in the Hudson River Valley of New York state, where she would return following her husband's death. She took over running the farm and was still running it when she was in her 80s. Jack described his mother as a strong woman, an Irish matriarch, who ran a beautiful home.
According to the 1930 US census, Mr. Ryan was a ship surveyor. It that capacity, he ensured that the company’s ships and their cargo were safe. Sources do not say whether he worked for a shipping company or for a government agency such as the Federal Maritime Commission or the New York Port Authority. Most sources say William Lawrence Ryan was a steamship executive; in fact, Jack said his father owned a fleet of five ship with the word "angel" in their names; e.g., "Arch Angel." Turner Classic Movies' (TCM's) biography of Jack goes a step further and says Jack worked as a freighter crewman on his father's ships during hiatus from school while he was a teenager. But, then, there are the census reports, as mentioned above. TCM stated that Mr. Ryan's business suffered badly during The Great Depression. That ties in with a statement Jack made that his father had made and lost two fortunes in shipping.
Jack spoke warmly about his father, who was at once both strong and gentle. Mr. Ryan instilled a love of reading in all of his children and paid his children a penny for each line of poetry they memorized. Jack said this later helped him to memorize lines of script.
The Ryans were Irish Catholics. According to Jack, his mother’s family, the O'Briens, came from Tipperary, while the Ryans came from County Cork.(Black) Interestingly, his father was born in England.(1930 Census)
Although born in Brooklyn, Jack grew up in Queens. Home for the Ryans was at 95-28 125th Street in the middle -class neighborhood of South Richmond Hill. Jack attended grammar school at St. Benedict Joseph Labre School, a Catholic school, and secondary school at John Adams High School. Former teachers and students at John Adams High School described Jack as a quiet, serious young man, who wore suits, won awards for his courtesy, was chosen to host visitors to the school, and dated, but not steadily.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre School (Richmond Hill Historical Society)
Jack said he was expected to earn his spending money while he was growing up. He did so by delivering the Long Island Daily Press. From the time Jack was fourteen years old, his father sent him out to sea each summer to work on freighters. It was time for the boy to learn the ways of being a man. The sea was a rough-and-tumble world, and Jack grew up quickly. Those long ocean voyages took him all around the world, most notably around Africa, the Mediterranean, and China. In his free time, Jack sketched and painted scenes of places he saw along the way.
The Yankee Clipper
Read this and see if you don’t come away with the feeling that a young Jack was probably at the Saturday matinee and clinging to his seat with excitement in his eyes.
The Winslow family of Boston builds sailing ships. They’ve just built the Yankee Clipper, which they hold to be the fastest sailing ship in the world. Not so, say the British. And, so, a race ensues from Foochow Harbor in China to Boston. The winner not only will garner the Foochow tea trade for all of America, but the loser’s ship, as well.
The action takes place aboard the Yankee Clipper, where English Lady Jocelyn Huntington (Elinor Fair) has gone to see its captain, Hal Winslow (William Boyd). The cannon sounds for departure before she debarks, and so, she sails on the American ship. With her is her pre-arranged fiancé, a ne’er-do-well and villain of the lowest order, Paul de Vigny (John Miljan). He’s dark, swarthy, self-serving, a liar and a cheat. Even before Lady Jocelyn meets him, he’s keeping company and vowing his love to a Chinese woman.
The ships encounter a typhoon in which they lose potable water, as well as four crewmen. When the captain puts de Vigny to work in their place, de Vigny stages a mutiny against the captain to release kegs of water from the life boats. There’s even a pirate to go after Lady Jocelyn. No doubt, she would have lost her maidenhood were it not for the young stowaway, Mickey (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), who outfoxed the pirate and sent him to his death in the waters, below.
It’s neck-and-neck as to which ship will win the race, but of course, in Victorian melodramas, the good guys always win, and this film was made in America.
The Yankee Clipper, DeMille Pictures, 1927; Re-released by Televista, 2008
Watch it on Amazon.
During his high school years, Jack was very active in school activities. He was an athlete: a senior life saver, played on the varsity football team, and participated in intramural sports. He won a number of awards, including the bronze and silver ‘A’s and the honor, meritorious, and distinguished service certificates. He was also secretary of the Newman Club, which was a group for Catholic youth. Jack studied art, and his paintings often hung in the main hallway of the school. He wrote an art column for the school newspaper, worked on the school yearbook, and spent much of his time in the art room. Most notably, he won the St. Gauden's Medal for Fine Art.
John Adams High School (Richmond Hill Historical Society)
Upon graduating from high school in June 1938, Jack spent another summer at sea. Then, he began studying fine arts education at New York University on the Chancellor Chase football scholarship. He played as a sub-tackle. He was business manager of the school publication Trek and was associate editor of Education Violet, the School of Education’s yearbook. One summer while in college, he worked as a lifeguard at Manhattan Beach.
Even as he studied, Jack went in with his older brother, Bill, to open the Village Academy of Art in Greenwich Village. His plan was to join Bill, who was making a name for himself as an artist. It was during this time that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired two of his works, Vermont and Fishing Shacks.
In 1942, Jack married Ann Cicely Willard. Jack described it as a youthful romance and said they married following a whirlwind courtship. The marriage was not a good one, for the couple were young, and Jack was working away from home. They had a child, John Ryan, Jr., who died at the age of 13 following a brief illness.
During World War II, Jack served with the U. S. Maritime Service aboard Liberty ships. It was not an easy assignment, for the German U-boats were always on patrol. The ship on which Jack was serving was torpedoed. The fantail, rudder, and after-stern were destroyed, and the ship began to sink. There being no time to send an SOS, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. The ship sank in seven minutes, and Jack drifted in a life boat for sixteen hours before being rescued.
We know that, at some point, Jack was sent to Persia as a steel worker to help build roads and bridges for the Corps of Engineers, then a part of the War Department. We also know that Jack received his commission as an ensign in the U. S. Maritime Service Officers School on June 12, 1945. And we know that he was sent for two years to Washington, DC, where he served as an artist for a service magazine and made training films for the US Maritime Service. It was there that he discovered a love for acting.
When Jack returned to New York in 1948, having fully completed his obligations to the U. S. Maritime Service, Jack was nearly 28 years old. He had yet to establish a career for himself. Like many young men, Jack did not know what he was meant to do in life. He had followed his father to sea only to learn that the lifestyle could cost him his marriage and even his life! He had attempted to follow his older brother into art only to learn that one could starve working piecemeal. Thus, it had been a blessing when he was sent to Washington to make training films. He had enjoyed those two years, acting, and knew he wanted to experience more of it. Now, he had a new goal.
Jack Meets Marie
In 1946, while in service to the War Department, Jack had met the woman who would become the love of his life. It all came about when Jack was visiting his brother, Bill, near Woodstock, New York. He came across a stone house that caught his interest. Wanting to learn more about it, he sought to locate its owner. He learned that the house belonged to Marie L. De Narde, a fashion designer in New York's garment district.
Jack obtained Marie's telephone number and began calling her. For nearly three weeks, she did not return his calls; however, at last, she took the call in an effort to dissuade the tireless Jack from bothering her. She firmly insisted that she was not interested in selling her house and asked him not to call again. Jack insisted that he was not interested in buying the house; he only wanted to learn more about it. Then, he wasn't the real-estate agent, John Ryan, who had been pressuring her to sell? No. He was John Ryan, who was recently out of the Merchant Marines. Oh! Well, that was another matter. She invited him to come to her home that same evening. She had a dinner date, but if he would come early, she would see him before she left to meet her date.
According to some sources, Marie said Jack looked like an ad for Wonder Bread as he stood in her doorway. According to others, he looked like the Greek god, Thor, as he loomed over her petite figure. Even so, she invited him in and told him about the house, which she had designed. After all, as a fashion designer, she knew something about art. He knew about art, too, and had a degree in fine art. The story says they spoke long into the night, falling head over heels with each other with each sentence. She never quite made it to her dinner date.
Jack and Marie were married on January 17, 1949 (One source says January 13, 1948). He was studying acting and trying to break into the profession. Earning little from his efforts, he supported Marie by selling cars, Fords, first, and later, Cadillacs. (Read more about it in Jack and Marie at Home / When Jack Sold Cars)
The Middle Years
First, a word about his name. How did John Joseph Patrick Ryan become "Jack Lord"? Jack offered several explanations, and the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of them. In the first place, a "Jack Ryan" was already registered with the actor's union. In the second place, Jack said the name "Ryan" made him sound like a police commissioner (I wonder if he would have kept the name if he had known he would become best known while portraying a chief investigator?). That's understandable; after all, Irish immigrants quite often did become policemen. Jack said he drew from his family tree for the name "Lord." He did not, however, change his name legally; "Jack Lord" existed only as his professional name.
Although Jack's first film was released in 1949, his name did not really begin attracting attention until about 1953. By then, he was appearing as a guest star on television theater programs, such as Alcoa Presents. In a letter to family friend and entertainment writer Paul Denis, Marie wrote in 1957, "Jack will be on 'Climax' this Thursday, June 6... plays a prize fighter with a Brooklyn accent." Also in 1953, Jack appeared in the off-Broadway production, Little Hut. In 1954, he appeared in the Broadway production, The Traveling Lady for which he won the Theatre World Award. It was soon followed by his performance in the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. And, then, the film offers began coming in. In 1955, he appeared with Gary Cooper in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. It was followed in 1958 by his starring role in Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot, which he made for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Jack felt his name was catching on and that it was time to move to Hollywood, where he would have a better chance to appear on television and in movies. It was a decision that proved to be not altogether wise, for in Hollywood, he had to start all over again. Hollywood didn't care about his Broadway work, after all. Even so, his work in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot gave him a start. Soon, he was appearing again with Gary Cooper in Man of the West. Other movies followed, including God's Little Acre, the film adaptation of Erskine Caldwell's novel. In 1962, Jack portrayed Felix Leiter in the first James Bond thriller, Dr. No. It was followed quickly by an offer to have his own television series. Leslie Stevens was creating his first television series and thought Jack would make a good Stoney Burke. He did. Unfortunately, the series lasted only a single season.
Jack hit a slump after the cancellation of Stoney Burke. After all, he had been riding high, seemingly unable to miss. For the first time since 1950, when theatrical agents had failed to be impressed with the striking, yet untrained, actor-to-be, Jack had to face rejection -- at least, what felt like rejection to him. By his own admission, Jack handled it badly. He might have thrown in the towel, except that Marie reminded him that “It’s not what happens in life – but how one responds to what happens that counts.”
Jack began to pull himself together. Once again, he was in his studio, painting. He took voice lessons, put together a musical group called The Wanderers, and toured the rodeo circuit for his Stoney Burke fans. And he wrote. In all, he wrote five scripts, which he sold to Universal. And, then, he returned to television. Between 1965 and 1968, he guest starred in popular series, such as 12 O'Clock High and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and starred in made-for-television movies, such as The Counterfeit Killer and The Doomsday Flight. In each, he played roles that, looking back, were nothing short of training sessions for the television show that would put him over the top, Hawaii Five-0.
For Jack, Hawaii Five-0 was a love-hate experience. He loved McGarrett, who shared his values. The role allowed him to put much of himself into his work, so much so that those who knew Jack described McGarrett as an “amped-up” version of Jack. His fans pick up on that and, in their fan fiction, tend to give McGarrett the qualities that Jack possessed.
The pressures of co-producing a television series were both rewarding and challenging for Jack. On the one hand, he enjoyed being an unofficial ambassador of the State of Hawai‘i, meeting with government and tourism leaders, appearing at public functions, and helping to entertain foreign dignitaries. He also enjoyed adding his create talents to the scripts, which often arrived in less than polished form. He did not enjoy being seen as an egoistical tyrant. Perhaps, that would have been less of a problem if those around him had known that he was a co-owner and co-producer and not just a fellow cast member.
The pressures increased dramatically after series creator and executive producer Leonard Freeman died halfway through the series. More of the executive duties fell on his shoulders. More than ever, it was up to him to see that a 52-minute episode was completed every eight days. In addition, Jack directed one episode in six of the twelve seasons. He also liaised between Hawai‘i and Hollywood. In fact, he had a direct telephone line to the West Coast. In addition, he helped to publicize not only Hawaii Five-0 but also other CBS shows that filmed in the Islands.
Jack loved the Hawaiian people and the experience of living in Hawai'i. So much so that, after the success of the first season, when he felt that the series would last, he and his wife purchased a large condominium in the upscale neighborhood of Kahala and claimed it would be the last place they ever lived (It was!). Hawai'i felt the same about him; both the Republican and Democratic parties asked him to run for governor.
When the series ended, Jack retired from acting and returned to private life. Contrary to what some people believe – since he was rarely seen in public – he did not become a recluse. Rather, he turned his interests to his art and to civic and charity work. He gave of his time to visitation of hospitalized children and veterans, the handicapped, and the disadvantaged. At the end of his life, he left his entire estate to a trust fund to benefit the people of Hawai‘i.
Jack and Marie traveled extensively across nearly every continent, but perhaps especially in Asia. From his years in the Merchant Marine, Jack had loved that part of the world. One year, Jack presented a Golden Bell Award for best actress; it was Taiwan’s equivalent to the Oscar.
Each fall, in October, Jack and Marie flew home to New York to visit old friends, see Broadway plays, and do some shopping. They never lost track of their friends from his early days as an actor and were invited to attend awards ceremonies even when they were unable to attend.
As the sun set on his life, Jack continued to take walks along Kahala Beach. With one of his lauhala hats perched atop his head and a newly acquired walking stick in hand, he made his way along beside the crystal clear aqua waters that had been his home for thirty years. And, when he died, he had his ashes scattered in those waters.
You will learn more about Jack’s life as an actor, artist, and public figure on the pages that follow.