On this day, like every day, Joan Harrison was impeccably attired in a designer suit, with her golden blonde hair stylishly coiffed. At five foot four, she had a trim, petite build. Her slightly turned-up nose and powder-blue eyes added a twinkle to her naturally gregarious personality. She was often told that she should think about a career in the movies; she was luminous enough to be a star.
She didn’t mind hearing this. The truth was that Joan was movie struck. She had often frequented the Electra Cinema and the Oxford Theatre (later the Super Cinema) when she attended Oxford, and had even written film reviews for the Surrey Advertiser as a way to acquire free passes to the London movie houses. This trip to Gaumont-British would make for stimulating sightseeing, regardless of the outcome.
She arrived at the Gaumont’s Lime Grove studio complex in Shepherd’s Bush just after noon. It was only then that she realized that the person who had posted the ad was Alfred Hitchcock. The then thirty-five-year-old had made more than a dozen feature films and was the best-known director in Britain. He was not yet the internationally renowned “Master of Suspense,” but he was already making a name for himself.
As Joan made her way down the hallway, she saw a long line of applicants, perhaps as many as forty women—or even one hundred, if certain later (likely inflated) reports are to be believed. Panic set in. Hitchcock would surely hire someone before she even got her foot in the door.
Joan went into action. According to a later New York Times account, “She stalked up to the gentleman in charge, requested his ear, whispered that her sister was having a baby and could she be the next one in to see Mr. Hitchcock, so she could run back to the hospital and be there when the baby came?” She did have sisters, but neither one was anywhere near married, much less expecting a baby. The “commissionaire” took her at her word. He moved her to third in the queue.
It was 12:50 pm when Joan was ushered into Hitchcock’s office. The director was already hungry in anticipation of his usual one o’clock lunch hour. He was also dissatisfied with the parade of potential secretaries he had seen thus far. At first, he simply stared at Joan. Then he asked her to remove her hat. She took this as a good sign.
Hitchcock’s first words were “Do you speak German?” He needed someone to communicate with the actor Peter Lorre and art director Alfred Junge, who would both be working on his next picture, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Joan hesitated. In all her studies of the classics, first at the Sorbonne and then at Oxford, she had attained only a passing acquaintance with German. “No, but I speak French,” she replied, with a slight hint of the coquette. Resigned to defeat, she started toward the door.
But Hitchcock apparently had already been sold. A quick appraisal of Joan’s comely appearance and fair features told him this was his new hire. Hitchcock (like most men, in his view) was vulnerable to sophisticated blondes. “Well, you’re hired anyway,” Hitchcock concluded, “provided you’ll have lunch with me. I’m starving to death!”
The lunch conversation between the new secretary and the seasoned director only confirmed for him that he had made the right decision. She had seen a great number of his films and evinced a keen eye. Moreover, she disclosed that as a child she had had “an absolute passion on the subject of crime—how criminal acts were committed and who did them.” She had voraciously “read every type of book written on the subject.” She had also spent many a day sitting in on actual court cases. Her uncle, Harold Harrison, was the keeper (the person in charge of assigning cases to judges) of the Old Bailey court in London. Knowing of her obsession with crime stories, he kept her abreast of current trials and made it easy for her to sit in.
Hitchcock looked on with delight as Joan recounted “every grisly detail” of several cases while consuming her meal. He had found a kindred spirit; at a young age, he too had savored visits to the Old Bailey (and would later impress people with recollections of the court’s exact floor plans) and had amassed a library of criminal cases and true crime fiction.
In only a few hours, Joan had gone from contemplating an idle life over morning tea to winning the favor of a critically acclaimed director. Her decision to take the job would perplex her parents; the movie industry, as viewed from the upper reaches of Guildford society, was a foreign land. And they did not especially like that it would draw her back to the city. As they saw it, this was yet one more in a string of misadventures. But to Joan, it was as if the puzzle pieces that had been just beyond her grasp were suddenly falling into place. A picture of where she wanted go was finally taking shape.
It was only a few weeks before it became apparent that Joan was ill equipped for the job of secretary. She had meager patience with answering phones, taking dictation, or typing up story conference notes. What she did possess, however, was an uncanny sense of what made for a good story. Hitchcock could always hire another secretary. Joan instead would become the director’s closest professional collaborator and personal confidante after his writer-editor wife, Alma Reville. Joan would be entrusted with their secret creative codes. She would become the most loyal and enduring screenwriter and producer Hitchcock ever employed.
Harrison would contribute to all of Hitchcock’s late British achievements, including Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes, and his early Hollywood successes, notably Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, and Suspicion. Together, these films established Hitchcock as a master of the seriocomic thriller and gothic suspense. Joan was at his side at the most pivotal point in his career, and in his life—as he bid England adieu, embarked on worldwide fame, and set about creating his signature style. Plainly put, Alfred Hitchcock would not have become “Hitchcock” without her.
Within five years of joining Hitchcock, Harrison was functioning as a creative producer, mastering every aspect of technical continuity and carving out her own bold artistic sensibility. After collaborating on nine feature films with Hitchcock, she struck out on her own, producing female-centric investigative thrillers, including the noir gem Phantom Lady.
Deemed a “superb masterpiece” by Film Daily upon its release in 1944, the film follows a young, attractive secretary turned amateur sleuth as she gambles everything to save her boss, wrongly accused of murder, from the electric chair. Now considered by many to be the high point of film noir, this landmark picture launched the American career of director Robert Siodmak and made Joan the most powerful female producer in Hollywood—and the first woman to become a full-fledged producer at a major studio.
If her story is singular, it is also representative of a wave of female power that was overtaking the industry, one that has been obscured by history. The classical studio era was a golden age for women, who enjoyed key positions as board members, agents, publicists, editors, designers, researchers, story editors, and, of course, screenwriters, as J. E. Smyth illuminates in Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood. Screen stars who have become household names, such as Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, were exerting influence and making change by leading participation in guilds, unions, protests, political organizations, war bond work, and more. Meanwhile, Harriet Parsons and Virginia Van Upp soon joined Harrison in the producer ranks. The only three female producers in 1940s Hollywood, they would find it a constant struggle to maintain their foothold. But they prevailed.
Though never acknowledged as such, Harrison was unquestionably a producer-auteur. Taken individually, her films are often seen as having been authored primarily by her male collaborators. When her oeuvre is considered as a whole, however, the pieces fit together to form a singular, distinctive vision: gritty, risky, wry portraits of love, marriage, and family awash in psychological and often-physical violence. She traded in moral ambiguity and shadowy struggles for self-empowerment with indelible imagery: the footsteps of a woman alone on a dark, rain-slicked city street (Phantom Lady) or a fiery surprise when a thieving secretary wearing a dime-store wedding ring meets her death in a burning car (They Won’t Believe Me). The London Times eulogized upon her death that “she placed a recognizable mark on all her work, involving primarily an impish, dark and off-beat sense of humor and a clear understanding of the close relationship between the giggle and the scream.”
As a powerful female role model, Joan paved the way for generations of women that followed. Part of her standing in the classical Hollywood studio system was founded on the star image she fashioned for herself. Taking a cue from her mentor, Joan placed herself center stage as a ravishing and successful career woman.
Harrison sported casual-chic suits by Adrian and Coco Chanel, accented with carefully chosen jewels, handbags, and shoes. In the vanguard of design trends, she set the pace in refined women’s workday styles. “From my New York point of view, Joan was so far above the other ladies I knew,” remarked Eleanor Kilgallen, former talent agent at MCA/Universal. “She was impeccably groomed, very chic. Other women were so eager to become her, at least the ones I knew.” Joan’s glamour portraits graced the pages of Life, Vogue, Collier’s, and a host of Hollywood fan magazines, often accompanied by advice for working women: “Be ambitious,” and “Work seven Mondays a week.”
“But for Joan, I don’t think we would have had Gale Anne Hurd, Kathleen Kennedy, or Amy Pascal,” observed actress Carol Lynley, who knew her in the 1950s. “Looking back, I realize what a precedent she set for me and particularly other girls, who only saw women as homemakers, or teachers, or nurses, or wallflowers.”
At the height of her film career, Harrison lived at the center of Hollywood society, enjoying acceptance in the most elite circles. She counted among her friends Charlie Chaplin, Claude Rains, David Niven, Sam Spiegel, Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Evelyn Keyes, Paul Henreid and his wife, Lisl, and Lewis Milestone and his wife, Kendall. Her paramours included Irwin Shaw, Kirk Douglas, and Gilbert Roland. One of her most public liaisons was her on-again, off-again affaire de coeur with Clark Gable, following Carole Lombard’s tragic death in 1942. Many even predicted she would be the next Mrs. Gable. But it was the romances she kept out of the spotlight that ran the deepest, including an infatuation with a woman that she kept most secret. When Joan finally did marry, in 1958, she chose not a celebrity but a literary star: the inventor of the modern-day spy thriller, Eric Ambler.
Her unconventional streak extended to her relations with her Hollywood bosses. More than twice, she stunned studio chiefs by resigning from a project rather than compromise her creative principles. When Universal Pictures vetoed her preferred ending for the film The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, she broke her contract and walked off the lot for good. And when Howard Hughes issued a blanket directive declaring that from then on all RKO pictures would be about one of two things—“fighting and fornication”—she knew he’d written it for her and made her exit from that studio as well.