Norma Shearer became friends with movie stars Helen Hayes and Merle Oberon while Irving Thalberg was living, and after his death she came to rely on them as confidantes, even when Hayes began to reside primarily in Nyack, New York, with her husband, the writer Charles MacArthur. Oberon was Shearer’s closest friend. Her other friends included Charles Boyer and his wife Pat Paterson; David Lewis, an associate producer under Thalberg; Sylvia Fairbanks, her next-door neighbor and widow of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.; and Mignon Winans, a popular Beverly Hills hostess. After Shearer left the studio, she began traveling, and because she enjoyed athletics, she visited Sun Valley, the newly developed Idaho ski resort.
Sun Valley had been developed by the railroad scion W. Averell Harriman as an American counterpart to St. Moritz. This included the innovation of chairlifts and a fine corps of instructors. Jacques Martin Arrougé (born 1914, San Francisco) was working at the lodge as a ski instructor when David Niven brought Shearer there to meet Harriman, who saw star visits as a publicity benefit. Shearer began dating Arrougé, disregarding the difference in their ages and status.
The couple filed for a marriage license in Los Angeles on August 19, 1942, and three days later Arrougé signed a prenuptial agreement. The wedding took place on August 23 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Although Shearer had converted to Judaism in 1927, this ceremony was Roman Catholic.
America was fighting World War II, and Martin Arrougé had pledged to serve in the Armed Forces. On December 10, 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Because he had been flying for eight years, he was deployed as a flight instructor.
In May 1943 Shearer made the papers for contributing $100,000 to a war bond drive. She also contributed to the Studio Club, where aspiring actresses could live safely, and in 1942 she helped fund the construction of the Motion Picture Country House in Woodland Hills, a facility for film-industry retirees.
Though she had left M-G-M without a plan, Shearer did not consider herself retired. Offers were coming to her. Edmund Goulding’s production of Old Acquaintance was to star Bette Davis as a writer in the mold of Lillian Hellman and Shearer as the self-involved friend who writes romance novels. Shearer reportedly turned down the role because she was unwilling to play the mother of a grown daughter. It is more likely that she was unwilling to work with Davis; indeed, Goulding pleaded illness to get off the film. When David Lewis joined the newly incorporated Enterprise Pictures, he bought a Fannie Hurst short story, She Walks in Beauty, expressly for Shearer. But Enterprise failed with its first film, Arch of Triumph.
In 1947 Jack Warner wanted Shearer for The Decision of Christopher Blake, but Shearer felt that the story of a child’s reaction to his parents’ divorce was not a fitting vehicle for her return. A better choice would have been Joseph Mankiewicz’s production of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir at Twentieth Century-Fox. Darryl F. Zanuck wanted Shearer but a deal was not struck, perhaps because of Shearer’s agent Charles K. Feldman. Letters from Shearer to Feldman show that she wanted to work but that he was not responding. He had become more interested in packaging projects like Red River than in merely supplying talent.
In her years with William Daniels and George Hurrell, Shearer had acquired a technician’s eye for lighting effects. She believed that she could no longer be photographed to look like the image that they had created. In addition, she probably knew that fighting with Mayer for a better project would be easier than fighting the changes that were overtaking the entire industry. In the late 1940s she let it be known that she was retired. She later told studio publicist Dore Freeman: “I believe that a great star should leave them laughing—or crying for more.”
Norma Shearer and Marti Arrougé chose not to live in the house on the beach, residing instead in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They were frequent guests at parties given by friends such as Ronald Colman and his wife Benita Hume; Ray and Fran Stark; and Charles Feldman and his wife Jean Howard. They spent the winter months at the Lodge in Sun Valley
Discoverer of Talent
In 1946, after seeing a photograph of a girl in a souvenir album at the Sun Valley Lodge, Shearer recommended her to M-G-M’s casting executives. The studio signed the girl and changed her name from Jeanette Morrison to Janet Leigh. Only then did she meet Shearer, who had been campaigning on her behalf. They became lifelong friends.
In 1956 Robert Evans was on a business trip for his family’s clothing firm, Evan-Picone, when Shearer spotted him at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. She immediately suggested that he audition for the part of Irving Thalberg in the Lon Chaney biopic in pre-production at Universal. Evans acted in films for several years before becoming a prominent studio executive.