When the subject of Jack Nicholson comes up, women are never far behind. He’s acquired a reputation as one of modern cinema’s true rogues, pursuing entanglements both onscreen and off. Any controversy was usually defused by his wolfish charm and wicked sense of humor.
However there was one story from the past of Jack Nicholson that transcended his persona and struck at the heart of his personal life. He learned of a secret that had been kept for decades, and only revealed to him at the age of 37.
In 1974 he discovered his mother, Ethel May Nicholson, wasn’t who she said she was. She’d raised him alongside husband John, but his true mother’s identity came out of the blue. Nicholson’s mother was actually June, the woman he believed was his sister.
This made Ethel his grandmother and “sister” Lorraine his aunt. The situation was a rug just waiting to be pulled out from under Nicholson’s feet. Perhaps ironically, he was informed via a reporter for TIME magazine, who had uncovered the details whilst undertaking research for a cover story.
Up to that point his upbringing had been relatively stable and content. John worked in a department store and Ethel owned a beauty parlor in New Jersey, where the fledgling Jack was always surrounded by the fairer sex.
Born in 1937 in Neptune, NJ, the parlor customers “thought he was the greatest,” a remark from Lorraine quoted in a Guardian article from 2003. “And so a lifetime of being surrounded by admiring women began as it meant to go on” the writer can’t resist adding.
As for Nicholson himself, he took the revelation in his stride, or at least appeared to. According to Biography.com, the star commented in typical easy-going fashion “I’d say it was a pretty dramatic event, but it wasn’t what I’d call traumatizing… After all, by the time I found out who my mother was, I was pretty well psychologically formed. As a matter of fact, it made quite a few things clearer to me. If anything, I felt grateful.”
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It could explain partly the eternal bachelor’s eventful relationships with various women. His longest-lasting partnership was with actress Anjelica Huston, but that came to an end after he impregnated Rebecca Broussard, many years his junior.
As the Guardian describes it, the 17 year romance between Nicholson and Huston came to a shuddering halt when “Huston turned up at Nicholson’s Paramount office, where he was battling with his ill-fated film The Two Jakes, and beat him to shreds.”
Nicholson has had both creative and personal crises, with the two often intermingling. This is appropriate as he sees his back catalog as a kind of autobiography. Friends and critics have frequently tied him to his screen performances.
For some he is a dying breed, one of the last of the Hollywood playboys. The club included such notable members as Warren Beatty, a close friend of Nicholson’s.
Filmmaker Mark Cousins, referred to in the Guardian, had an especially harsh judgment on the man and his legacy, saying “I always feel weary about him the way I would about a stag night.
There’s that smugness and sexual aggression, but no vulnerability… It’s very clever what he has done… He’s planted himself in the ecology of Hollywood, where he’s allowed to be sneering and lecherous and against the system, and they love him for it.”
While Cousins’ assessment wouldn’t be shared by many, it does sum up the idea of Nicholson as an anachronism in today’s marketplace. Though it should be pointed out that Cousins acknowledges his talents as an actor and even today, long after his reported semi-retirement, he has armies of admirers.
Aside from perceptions about his character, Nicholson appears to have been raised in a loving home and one that gave him the confidence to go out and achieve an extraordinary career.
Steve Palace is a writer, journalist and comedian from the UK. Sites he contributes to include The Vintage News, Art Knews Magazine and The Hollywood News. His short fiction has been published as part of the Iris Wildthyme range from Obverse Books.