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Henry Wooten Grace (March 20, 1907 – September 16, 1983) was an American set decorator. He won an Oscar and was nominated for twelve more in the category Best Art Direction. As an actor, he had a role as Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom he strongly resembled, in The Longest Day.
He was born in Bakersfield, California, the son of Henry Barnett Grace, a conductor for the Santa Fe Railroad, and Elsie Bagby. Henry Barnett Grace was born in Clinton, KY, and moved to Southern California in 1906. Young Henry lived in several desert towns, notably Needles and Bagdad. Henry's mother was the cousin of Alben Barkley, Vice President under Harry S. Truman. His father being a chronic alcoholic, Henry's future was largely dependent on the efforts of his strong and determined mother, Elsie, who, despite their limited means, supported Henry's initial desire to become a classical pianist. Moving to Glendale, Elsie would eventually divorce her husband and concentrate on raising Henry and his brother, Saunders.
The suicide of an uncle when he was just a boy left enough on an impression on the young Henry for him to include it seventy years later as one of the important landmarks in the chronology in his life. According to Henry's nephew Michael Grace, this uncle was also gay; what impact that knowledge may have had on the young Henry is unknown.
In 1925, upon graduation from high school, Grace won a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. There he was enrolled in architecture classes, but a course with the prominent interior decorator George Townsend changed his mind. Even before he was finished with his schooling, he secured work with the top Los Angeles interior design firm, Cannell and Chaffin, and with them decorated the homes of film stars Harold Lloyd and Corinne Griffith. In 1931, he set up his own shop in Westwood Village. Ed Willis became a regular customer, eventually offering Henry a job at the studio. "The Depression was at its lowest," Grace remembered. "I took his offer."
All of the most prominent decorators were gay – Arthur Kramsa, Henry Grace, George James Hopkins, Howard Bristol – as was virtually the whole of the MGM research department. The design and execution of the 1939's classic The Wizard of Oz was the work of gay hands. The MGM prop department was presided over by a group of remarkable men, all gay, from the chief, Edwin Willis, through the talended decorators: Richard Pefferle, Jack Moore, Keogh Gleason, Henry Grace, and many others.
Property chief Edwin Willis was viewed as somewhat arrogant and aloof by his staff, even a bit sadistic, canceling vacations cavalierly at the last minute. His homosexuality was known, but there was little fraternization. Among the rest of them, however, there was a very real brotherhood. "Henry Grace, Jack Moore, Dick Pefferle, and Keogh Gleason shared an office, each with their own desk," Frank Lysinger recalled. "There was always a lot of carrying on. Jack and Henry also shared a house down in Manhattan Beach where they'd have some pretty wild weekends."
Henry Grace would credit two MGM films, Dinner at Eight (1933) and When Ladies Meet (1934), as being responsible for increased attention to set decoration. "Movies had great influence on interior design across the country," he said. When ladies Meet generated interest in early Americana; chintz and ruffled organdy curtains "swept the nation," Grace said. "A flood of fan mail demanding blueprints, sketches, photographs, and information regarding the smallest decorative details awakened the studio heads to the fact that interiors well done could be a tremendous attraction."
For The Women (1939), Grace designed the interior of the ranch house in plaid. "Then Norma Shearer turns up in a plaid dress," he remembered. "You may think it would be easier to use another dress, but it's not. We re-did the interior."
Frank Lysinger, Richard Pefferle's partner, was a messenger boy at MGM in the late 1930s. "I got to see everybody and everything," he remembered, and that included the various studio departments. Each had its own traditions and atmosphere, Lysinger remembered: in the prop department, there was always "lots of gaiety," with set decorators Henry Grace, Jack Moore, Richard Peggerle, Keogh Gleason, and research chief Elliot Morgan camping it up and carrying on. "Oh, my, yes, camp humor certainly did bounce off the walls," Morgan concurred.
The bar of "circumspection" was therefore correspondingly relative: in the property department, Elliot Morgan recalled sometimes paging Henry Grace with a campy "Calling Grace Moore", but every Friday night, gay screenwriter George Oppenheimer dutifully attended the prizefights at the American Legion with his heterosexual coworkers.
"My uncle would never have agreed to come out," said Michael Grace, the nephew of Henry Grace. Despite being comparatively undisguised about his gayness during his career, and despite taking a progressive lead in organizing the groundbreaking industry strikes in 1945-46, Grace drew a zone of privacy around his personal life, especially as he got older and homosexuality became a more explicit topic of discussion.
In 1950 the Ronson Film Set Decorator Awards awarded first prize (consisting of $125, and a solid gold clgaret lighter) to Edwin B. Willis and Arthur Kramsa of Metro-Goldyn-Mayer Studios for sets from "Luxury Liner." Honorable mentions comprising $25 each and a Ronson decorator ensemble was given to Edwin B. Willis and Henry Grace of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios for sets from "Adam's Rib" and to Sam Comer and Rosa Dowd for their sets from "Alias Nirk Beal" produced by Paramount Pictures.
Henry Grace, tall, handsome, and perennially suntanned, was remembered by many as always having attractive boyfriends in tow. Ed Willis' hiring and mentoring of gay decorators was a de facto policy continued by Henry Grace when he took aver after Willis' retirement in 1957. One of Grace's first hires was Jerry Wunderlich, a talented decorator well remembered within the gay subculture.
Henry Grace was often photographed escorting Dorothy Manners or department-store heiress Virginia Robinson, and had a running marriage gag with columnist Ruth Waterbury, a good friend. Citing his bachelorhood, one publicity release suggested enigmatically that the war had "ruined" any chance of marriage for Grace, adding that he chose not to elaborate further.
Grace won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction for Gigi (1958) and was nominated for twelve more: Blackboard Jungle (1955) North by Northwest (1959) Cimarron (1960) The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) Period of Adjustment (1962) How the West Was Won (1962) Twilight of Honor (1963) The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) The Americanization of Emily (1964) A Patch of Blue (1965) Mister Buddwing (1966)
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