I was utterly unprepared for the heartbreaking but ultimately life-affirming story of Karolyn Grimes, aka Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life.
I have loved this “intensely soul-shaking film” (as Grimes biographer Clay Eals so aptly puts it) for a very long time. My eyes start to leak during the cemetery scene—“Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry”—and I’m a wreck for the duration. When I heard what Grimes has survived in her own life, I was flabbergasted.
Zuzu, the little girl who plays such a big role in the film’s conclusion, is only seen on screen twice. But she is the link, the touchstone, the talisman—the petals in Jimmy Stewart’s pocket (and the source of the bleeding lip)—that brings George Bailey back from the brink.
Who the hell would make a Christmas story about suicide? It started as a long holiday card by the novelist and Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern, who subsequently published it as a short story called “The Greatest Gift.” RKO bought the rights; Marc Connelly, Clifford Odets and Dalton Trumbo all worked on scripts before the film’s December 1946 release.
Karolyn Grimes turned six years old on the set. Over the next several years, in quick succession, she lost her film career (to adolescence), her mother (who died at age 45), her father (in a car wreck a year later) and her Los Angeles home and friends when, after being orphaned at 15, she was whisked off to her parents’ hometown of Osceola, Missouri, by an aunt who she says treated her cruelly.
Grimes’ first husband worked little, played around and died in a hunting accident after they divorced (she supported their two daughters by becoming a medical technician). A second marriage brought three stepchildren and produced two more kids but that union, too, was fraught. Still, Grimes nursed her husband through his death from cancer. And in February 1989, a month after his 18th birthday, her son John took his own life.
But Karolyn Grimes is not bitter. And she is not broken. Now 75, she’s full of life (and a wicked sense of humor) and tours the country, attending screenings, greeting fans and listening to their own stories of heartbreak and the huge impact the film has had on their lives. When I spoke with her, she was just back from a pair of screenings in Illinois, where the capacity crowd included some “four or five little girls named Zuzu,” she notes.
By the time she reported for work, at $75 a day, on It’s a Wonderful Life, young Karolyn already had four films under her belt (she would make a total of 16). So I ask her to play a game of Hollywood name-association with me.
Fred MacMurray (Pardon My Past): “Dear man. He made it a point to be friendly with me.”
Loretta Young (The Bishop’s Wife): “She was a bit aloof. I think all of the women I ever worked with were.” Grimes attributes this to sexism: “You didn’t hang around with the women. They worked very hard to learn their lines and to be halfway equal to the men on the marquee, because in those days it wasn’t the case, you know?” But much later, Grimes began a correspondence with Young. “She was a devout Catholic so she started sending me prayers,” says Grimes, laughing heartily. “I needed ’em, it was OK!”
John Ford (Rio Grande): “I stayed away from him, he was scary,” she says of the legendary director. “There was no funny business. You did what he said and that was it. He and Maureen O’Hara would kind of get into it on the set. She really let him have it. He’d blow up.”
Grimes remembers Frank Capra more fondly. He’d get down on his knees, at child’s-eye level, to tell the youngsters “exactly what he wanted us to do, and how to feel, and he really worked with us to get that done,” she says.
When she and Stewart filmed the scene where Zuzu is sick in bed, Grimes made the mistake of watching her screen father slip the petals into his pocket after he pretended to paste them back onto the flower. But she says Capra had the good sense to take the flub and run with it.
“In my opinion—and this is just my own take—I think Capra wanted to show that even though I knew my daddy wasn’t perfect, I loved him very much,” she says. “Because he could have fixed that. But I don’t think he wanted to. That’s one of the things that Capra had in his pocket, the magic that he could make happen. Because he could make people act naturally. And it worked.”
Grimes’s real-life father, LaVan, managed a Safeway supermarket, where he sometimes gave free food to families in need. Her mom, Martha, was an avid stage mother—she wouldn’t let Karolyn shoot baskets for fear of hurting her piano- and violin-playing hands—but she was also “a great businesswoman” and “a homemaker supreme” who designed and sewed all her daughter’s clothes.
“But you know, I was eight years old when she started getting sick,” Grimes says. That’s when her mother began to show signs of dementia; LaVan eventually had to hire a caretaker.
According to the Clay Eals book Every Time a Bell Rings, the population of Osceola, the midwestern town where Grimes lived after her parents’ deaths, was smaller than that of her 10th grade class back at Los Angeles High School. But Grimes credits the people there with helping her to thrive in spite of her miserable home life. “They were so gracious,” she says. “There was never any mention of movies or anything I’d done in the past. It was all about being my friend then, when I needed it. I just flourished and knew that there was something else out there besides what I’d been exposed to growing up. The people in Hollywood, you know, they were a little self-indulgent. [This] was a different world.”
But the biggest blow was yet to come. I ask her how she recovered from her son’s suicide.
“For some time I didn’t even leave the house,” she says. A neighbor brought groceries, while Grimes “just went into a cocoon to heal.”
“I wrote letters to him,” Grimes adds. “His presence I felt was still there, and I just, I talked to him during the day.”
She told him she loved him. And she asked for his forgiveness.
“Because apparently I missed it,” explains. “I mean it’s obvious I did. I didn’t see it. I had no idea that he was that emotionally upset. I had no clue. So I needed forgiveness. And I needed to forgive myself
“You just need to get it out on paper, ’cause it’s a way of expressing what’s inside you, and I felt that really helped me. I wrote reams of letters. And then I destroyed them.”
A Catholic priest at her son’s high school, where Grimes had been a volunteer, kept urging her to return. “And I said, ‘Oh, I can’t. No, no no.’ Because I didn’t think I’d do very well around all the boys at the school. And he insisted,” she says with a laugh. “He just wouldn’t quit calling me. So I finally thought, Well, I’ll give it a try.”
The priest was right. The company of her son’s friends was like a balm. “They were great, and I just felt like I was doing something to help them.” The more I gave, the more I felt like I was getting whole again,” she says.
Like George Bailey, we don’t always realize the impact we have on others, Grimes says. “Especially when we lose a loved one, our world just kind of closes in on us and gets very small. And I think we have a responsibility to ourselves to reach out and make that world larger.”
If she had stayed in L.A., Grimes muses, she might have been caught up in the drugs-and-drink culture that swallowed some of her peers. “And I think I was lifted out of there so that I could, I don’t know, learn compassion,” she says. “Maybe just so I would experience a lot of different things, so that I could share how I got through them and maybe help somebody else down the road. I’ve certainly seen many, many, many people who have had issues and situations that they’ve had to face, as well.” And those people take deep comfort in the compassion they receive from the woman who once said, “Look Daddy, teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” In fact, Karolyn Grimes believes in angels—guardian angels. “Nothing that you can actually put your fingers on, or hold in your hand,” she says. “But it’s a spiritual feeling, that you feel protected.” Someone she can ask for help when things get scary. It’s not a specific person. "just a general angel,” she says with a laugh. “Whoever’s on call that day.”
I ask her what happened to the bell ornament from the end of the movie.
“No one knows,” she replies. “It probably got destroyed, along with everything else. In those days, people didn’t collect.”
When she’s not on the road promoting the film and her cottage industry of Zuzu and Wonderful Life books and memorabilia, Grimes makes her home in the Pacific Northwest. When asked how she’ll be spending her holiday this year, she laughs.
“Hopefully, I always get home,” she says. “I haven’t been stranded anywhere because of the weather yet. I celebrate it in my home and all my kids come except my one daughter who lives in Kansas. But all my other kids come, and they bring their families.
“We sleep on couches and cots all over the place, and we have Christmas.”
Visit Karolyn Grimes’s website at zuzu.net, where you can read her essays, learn about her appearances and visit her store, which offers autographed photos, memorabilia and books, including Grimes's latest, Zuzu's Petals: A Dream of "It's a Wonderful Life" (an illustrated children's book that tells the film's story through the eyes of little Zuzu, coauthored by Karen Deming); Zuzu’s Wonderful Life in the Movies, by Christopher Brunell; and Celebrating It’s a Wonderful Life: How the Movie’s Message of Hope Lives On, by Karolyn Grimes—who is also the author of two cookbooks: Zuzu Bailey’s It’s a Wonderful Life Cookbook: Recipes and Anecdotes Inspired by America's Favorite Movie (with Franklin Dohanyos) and Zuzu’s Recipe for It’s a Wonderful Life Cookbook, which features dishes from her mother’s recipe box. To read more about Grimes's life story, check out Every Time a Bell Rings: The Wonderful Life of Karolyn Grimes, by Clay Eals.
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Photo credits: (top) World History Archive; (above right) Courtesy of Karolyn Grimes