Margaret Sullavan

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Margaret Sullavan
Studio publicity Margaret Sullavan.jpg
Sullavan in 1940
Margaret Brooke Sullavan

(1909-05-16)May 16, 1909
DiedJanuary 1, 1960(1960-01-01) (aged 50)
Cause of death Barbiturate overdose
Resting placeSaint Mary's Whitechapel Episcopal Churchyard
Education Chatham Episcopal Institute
Years active1929–1960
Henry Fonda
(m. 1931;div. 1933)

William Wyler
(m. 1934;div. 1936)

Leland Hayward
(m. 1936;div. 1948)

Kenneth Wagg
(m. 1950)
Children3, including Brooke Hayward

Margaret Brooke Sullavan (May 16, 1909 – January 1, 1960) [1] was an American actress of stage and film.


Sullavan began her career onstage in 1929. In 1933 she caught the attention of movie director John M. Stahl and had her debut on the screen that same year in Only Yesterday .

Sullavan preferred working on the stage and made only 16 movies, four of which were opposite James Stewart in a popular partnership that included The Mortal Storm and The Shop Around the Corner . She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Three Comrades (1938). She retired from the screen in the early 1940s, but returned in 1950 to make her last movie, No Sad Songs for Me , in which she played a woman who was dying of cancer. For the rest of her career she would appear only on the stage.

Sullavan experienced increasing hearing problems, depression, and mental frailty in the 1950s. She died of an overdose of barbiturates, which was ruled accidental, on January 1, 1960, at the age of 50.

Early life

Sullavan was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker, Cornelius Sullavan, and his wife, Garland Councill Sullavan. She had a younger brother, Cornelius, and a half-sister, Louise Gregory. [2] The first years of her childhood were spent isolated from other children. She suffered from a painful muscular weakness in the legs that prevented her from walking, so that she was unable to socialize with other children until the age of six. After her recovery she emerged as an adventurous and tomboyish child who preferred playing with the children from the poorer neighborhood, much to the disapproval of her class-conscious parents. [3]

She attended boarding school at Chatham Episcopal Institute (now Chatham Hall), where she was president of the student body and delivered the salutatory oration in 1927. She moved to Boston and lived with her half-sister, Weedie, while she studied dance at the Boston Denishawn studio and (against her parents' wishes) drama at the Copley Theatre. When her parents cut her allowance to a minimum, Sullavan defiantly paid her way by working as a clerk in the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore (The Coop), located in Harvard Square, Cambridge. [4]


Early years

Sullavan succeeded in getting a chorus part in the Harvard Dramatic Society 1929 spring production Close Up, a musical written by Harvard senior Bernard Hanighen, who was later a composer for Broadway and Hollywood.

The President of the Harvard Dramatic Society, Charles Leatherbee, along with the President of Princeton's Theatre Intime, Bretaigne Windust, who together had established the University Players on Cape Cod the summer before, persuaded Sullavan to join them for their second summer season. Another member of the University Players was Henry Fonda, who had the comic lead in Close Up.

In the summer of 1929 Sullavan appeared opposite Fonda in The Devil in the Cheese, her debut on the professional stage. She returned for most of the University Players' 1930 season. In 1931, she squeezed in one production with the University Players between the closing of the Broadway production of A Modern Virgin in July and its tour in September. She rejoined the University Players for most of their 18-week 1930–31 winter season in Baltimore. [5]

Sullavan's parents did not approve of her choice of career. She played the lead in Strictly Dishonorable (1930) by Preston Sturges, which her parents attended. Confronted with her evident talent, their objections ceased. "To my deep relief", Sullavan later recalled. "I thought I'd have to put up with their yappings on the subject forever." [6]

A Shubert scout saw her in that play as well and eventually she met Lee Shubert himself. At the time, Sullavan was suffering from a bad case of laryngitis and her voice was huskier than usual. Shubert loved it. In subsequent years Sullavan would joke that she cultivated that "laryngitis" into a permanent hoarseness by standing in every available draft. [6]

Margaret Sullavan in her Oscar-nominated role as Pat Hollmann (Three Comrades, 1938). Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades trailer 2.JPG
Margaret Sullavan in her Oscar-nominated role as Pat Hollmann ( Three Comrades , 1938).

Sullavan made her debut on Broadway in A Modern Virgin (a comedy by Elmer Harris), on May 20, 1931.

At one point in 1932 she starred in four Broadway flops in a row (If Love Were All, Happy Landing, Chrysalis (with Humphrey Bogart) and Bad Manners), but the critics praised Sullavan for her performances in all of them. [7] In March 1933, Sullavan replaced another actor in Dinner at Eight in New York. Movie director John M. Stahl happened to be watching the play and was intrigued by Sullavan. He decided she would be perfect for a picture he was planning, Only Yesterday .

At that time Sullavan had already turned down offers for five-year contracts from Paramount and Columbia. [8] Sullavan was offered a three-year, two-pictures-a-year contract at $1,200 a week. She accepted it and had a clause put in her contract that allowed her to return to the stage on occasion. [9] Later on in her career, Sullavan would sign only short-term contracts because she did not want to be "owned" by any studio. [10]


Sullavan arrived in Hollywood on May 16, 1933, her 24th birthday. Her film debut came that same year in Only Yesterday . She chose her scripts carefully. She was dissatisfied with her performance in Only Yesterday. When she saw herself in the early rushes, she was so appalled that she tried to buy out her contract for $2,500, but Universal refused.

In his November 10, 1933, review in The New York Herald Tribune , Richard Watts, Jr. wrote that Sullavan "plays the tragic and lovelorn heroine of this shrewdly sentimental orgy with such forthright sympathy, wise reticence and honest feeling that she establishes herself with some definiteness as one of the cinema people to be watched". [11] She followed that role with one in Little Man, What Now? (1934), about a couple struggling to survive in impoverished post–World War I Germany.

Originally, Universal was reluctant to make a movie about unemployment, starvation and homelessness, but Little Man was an important project to Sullavan. After Only Yesterday she wanted to try "the real thing". She later said that it was one of the few things she did in Hollywood that gave her a great measure of satisfaction. [12] The Good Fairy (1935) was a comedy that Sullavan chose to illustrate her versatility. During the production, she married its director, William Wyler. [13]

King Vidor's So Red the Rose (1935) dealt with people in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. It preceded by one year the publication of Margaret Mitchell's bestselling novel Gone With the Wind , and the novel's film adaptation by four years; the latter became a blockbuster. Sullavan played a childish Southern belle who matures into a responsible woman. The film also dealt with the situation of characters who were freed black slaves.

In Next Time We Love (1936), Sullavan plays opposite the then-unknown James Stewart. She had been campaigning for Stewart to be her leading man and the studio complied for fear that she would stage a threatened strike. [14] The film dealt with a married couple who had grown apart over the years. The plot was unconvincing and simple, but the gentle interplay between Sullavan and Stewart saves the movie from being a soapy and sappy experience. Next Time We Love was the first of four films made by Sullavan and Stewart. [ citation needed ]

From The Shining Hour (1938) Margaret Sullavan in The Shining Hour.JPG
From The Shining Hour (1938)

In the comedy The Moon's Our Home (1936), Sullavan played opposite her ex-husband Henry Fonda. The original script was rather pallid, and Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were brought in to punch up the dialogue, reportedly at Sullavan's insistence. Sullavan and Fonda play a newly married couple, and the movie is a cavalcade of insults and quips. Her seventh film, Three Comrades (1938), is a drama set in post–World War I Germany. Three returning German soldiers meet Sullavan who joins them and eventually marries one of them. She gained an Oscar nomination for her role and was named the year's best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.

Sullavan reunited with Stewart in The Shopworn Angel (1938). Stewart played a sweet, naive Texan soldier on his way to Europe (World War I) who marries Sullavan on the way. Her ninth film was the rather soapy The Shining Hour (1938), playing the suicidal sister-in-law to Joan Crawford. In The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Sullavan and Stewart worked together again, playing colleagues who do not get along at work, but have both responded to a lonely-hearts ad and are (without knowing it) exchanging letters with each other.

The Mortal Storm (1940) was the last movie Sullavan and Stewart did together. Sullavan played a young German girl engaged in 1933 to a confirmed Nazi (Robert Young). When she realizes the true nature of his political views, she breaks the engagement and turns her attention to anti-Nazi Stewart. Later, trying to flee the Nazi regime, Sullavan and Stewart attempt to ski across the border to safety in Austria. Sullavan is gunned down by the Nazis (under orders from her ex-fiance). Stewart, at her request, picks up the dying Sullavan and takes her by skis into Austria, so she can die in what was still a free country. [ citation needed ]

Back Street (1941) was lauded as one of the best performances of Sullavan's Hollywood career. She wanted Charles Boyer to play opposite her so much that she agreed to surrender top billing to him. Boyer plays a selfish and married banker and Sullavan his long-suffering mistress. Although he loves Sullavan, he is unwilling to leave his wife and family in favour of her. [15] So Ends Our Night (1941) was another wartime drama. Sullavan (on loan for a one-picture deal from Universal) plays a Jewish girl perpetually on the move with falsified passport and identification papers and always fearing that the officials will discover her. On her way across Europe, she meets up with a young Jewish man (Glenn Ford) and the two fall in love.

Sullavan as the night club singer who learns about love in The Shopworn Angel (1938). Margaret Sullavan in The Shopworn Angel trailer.JPG
Sullavan as the night club singer who learns about love in The Shopworn Angel (1938).

A 1940 court decision obligated Sullavan to fulfill her original 1933 agreement with Universal, requiring her to make two more films for them. Back Street (1941) came first. The light comedy, Appointment for Love (1941), was Sullavan's last picture with that company. In the film, Sullavan appeared with Boyer again. Boyer's character marries Sullavan, who tells him that his past affairs mean nothing to her. She insists that each must have an apartment in the same building and that they meet only once a day, at seven o'clock in the morning.

Cry 'Havoc' (1943) is a World War II drama and a rare all-female film. Sullavan played the strong mother figure who keeps a crew of nurses in line in a dugout in Bataan, while they are awaiting the advance of Japanese soldiers who are about to take over. It was the last film Sullavan made with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After its completion, she was free of all film commitments. She had often referred to MGM and Universal as "jails". When her husband, Leland Hayward, tried to read her the good reviews of Cry 'Havoc', she responded with usual bluntness: "You read them, use them for toilet paper. I had enough hell with that damned picture while making it – I don't want to read about it now!" [16]

Films with James Stewart

Sullavan's co-starring roles with James Stewart are among the highlights of their early careers. In 1935, Sullavan had decided on doing Next Time We Love . She had strong reservations about the story, but had to "work off the damned contract". [17] The script contained a role she thought might be ideal for Stewart, who was best friends with Sullavan's first husband, actor Henry Fonda. Years earlier, during a casual conversation with some fellow actors on Broadway, Sullavan predicted Stewart would become a major Hollywood star. [18]

By 1936, Stewart was a contract player at MGM but getting only small parts in B-movies. At that time Sullavan worked for Universal and when she brought up Stewart's name, they were puzzled. The Universal casting people had never heard of him. At Sullavan's suggestion Universal agreed to test him for her leading man and eventually he was borrowed from a willing MGM to star with Sullavan in Next Time We Love.

Sullavan and Stewart in The Shopworn Angel, 1938. The Shopworn Angel trailer.JPG
Sullavan and Stewart in The Shopworn Angel, 1938.

Stewart had been nervous and unsure of himself during the early stages of production. At that time he had only had two minor MGM parts which had not given him much camera experience. The director, Edward H. Griffith, began bullying Stewart. "Maggie, he's wet behind the ears," Griffith told Sullavan. "He's going to make a mess of things." [19]

She believed in Stewart and spent evenings coaching him and helping him scale down his awkward mannerisms and hesitant speech that were soon to be famous around the world. "It was Margaret Sullavan who made James Stewart a star," director Griffith later said. "And she did, too," Bill Grady from MGM agreed. "That boy came back from Universal so changed I hardly recognized him." [20] Gossip in Hollywood at that time (1935–36) was that William Wyler, Sullavan's then-husband, was suspicious about his wife's and Stewart's private rehearsing together. [21]

When Sullavan divorced Wyler in 1936 and married Leland Hayward that same year, they moved to a colonial house just a block down from Stewart. [22] Stewart's frequent visits to the Sullavan/Hayward home soon restoked the rumors of his romantic feelings for Sullavan. Sullavan and Stewart's second movie together was The Shopworn Angel (1938). "Why, they're red-hot when they get in front of a camera," Louis B. Mayer said about their onscreen chemistry. "I don't know what the hell it is, but it sure jumps off the screen." [23]

Walter Pidgeon, who was part of the triangle in The Shopworn Angel later recalled: "I really felt like the odd-man-out in that one. It was really all Jimmy and Maggie ... It was so obvious he was in love with her. He came absolutely alive in his scenes with her, playing with a conviction and a sincerity I never knew him to summon away from her." [24] Eventually the duo made four movies together between 1936 and 1940 (Next Time We Love, The Shopworn Angel, The Shop Around the Corner , and The Mortal Storm ).

Later years

Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward among the patrons of the Stork Club in New York City (November 1944) Stork-Club-Cub-Room-November-1944.jpg
Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward among the patrons of the Stork Club in New York City (November 1944)

Sullavan took a break from films from 1943-50. Throughout her career, Sullavan seemed to prefer the stage to the movies. She felt that only on the stage could she improve her skills as an actor. "When I really learn to act, I may take what I have learned back to Hollywood and display it on the screen", she said in an interview in October 1936 (when she was doing Stage Door on Broadway between movies). "But as long as the flesh-and-blood theatre will have me, it is to the flesh-and-blood theatre I'll belong. I really am stage-struck. And if that be treason, Hollywood will have to make the most of it". [25]

Another reason for her early retirement from the screen (1943) was that she wanted to spend more time with her children, Brooke, Bridget and Bill (then 6, 4 and 2 years old). She felt that she had been neglecting them and felt guilty about it. [25] Sullavan would still do stage work on occasion. From 1943–44 she played the sexually inexperienced but curious Sally Middleton in The Voice of the Turtle (by John Van Druten) on Broadway and later in London (1947). After her short return to the screen in 1950 with No Sad Songs for Me , she did not return to the stage until 1952.

Her choice then was as the suicidal Hester Collyer, who meets a fellow sufferer, Mr. Miller (played by Herbert Berghof), in Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea . In 1953 she agreed to appear in Sabrina Fair by Samuel Taylor.

She came back to the screen in 1950 to do one last picture, No Sad Songs for Me. She played a suburban housewife and mother who learns that she will die of cancer within a year and who then determines to find a "second" wife for her soon-to-be-widower husband (Wendell Corey). Natalie Wood, then eleven, plays their daughter.

After No Sad Songs for Me and its favorable reviews, Sullavan had a number of offers for other films, but she decided to concentrate on the stage for the rest of her career.

In 1955–56 Sullavan appeared in Janus , a comedy by playwright Carolyn Green. Sullavan played the part of Jessica who writes under the pen name Janus, and Robert Preston played her husband. The play ran for 251 performances from November 1955 to June 1956.

In the late 1950s Sullavan's hearing and depression were getting worse. However, in 1959 she agreed to do Sweet Love Remembered by playwright Ruth Goetz. It was to be Sullavan's first Broadway appearance in four years. Rehearsals began on December 1, 1959. She had mixed emotions about a return to acting and her depression soon became clear to everyone: "I loathe acting", she said on the very day she started rehearsals. "I loathe what it does to my life. It cancels you out. You cannot live while you are working. You are a person surrounded by an unbreachable wall". [26]

On December 18, 1955, Sullavan appeared as the mystery guest on the TV panel show What's My Line? .

Personal life

Sullavan had a reputation for being both temperamental and straightforward. On one occasion Henry Fonda had decided to take up a collection for a 4th of July fireworks display. After Sullavan refused to make a contribution, Fonda complained loudly to a fellow actor. Then Sullavan rose from her seat and doused Fonda from head to foot with a pitcher of ice water. Fonda made a stately exit, and Sullavan, composed and unconcerned, returned to her table and ate heartily. [27] Another of her blowups almost killed Sam Wood, one of the founders of the Motion Picture Alliance. Wood was a keen anti-Communist. He dropped dead from a heart attack shortly after a raging argument with Sullavan, who had refused to fire a writer on a proposed film on account of his left-wing views. [28] Louis B. Mayer always seemed wary and nervous in her presence. "She was the only player who outbullied Mayer", Eddie Mannix of MGM later said of Sullavan. "She gave him the willies". [16]

Marriages and family

Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward (1942) Sullavan-Hayward-1942.jpg
Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward (1942)

Sullavan was married four times. She married actor Henry Fonda on December 25, 1931, while both were performing with the University Players in its 18-week winter season in Baltimore at the Congress Hotel Ballroom on West Franklin Street near North Howard St. [29] Sullavan and Fonda separated after two months and divorced in 1933.

After separating from Fonda, Sullavan began a relationship with Broadway producer Jed Harris. She later began a relationship with William Wyler, the director of her next movie, The Good Fairy (1935). They were married in November 1934, and divorced in March 1936.

Sullavan's third marriage was to agent and producer Leland Hayward. Hayward had been Sullavan's agent since 1931. They married on November 15, 1936. At the time of the marriage, Sullavan was pregnant with the couple's first child. Their daughter, Brooke, was born in 1937 and later became an actress. The couple had two more children, Bridget (1939 – October 17, 1960) [30] and William III "Bill" (1941–2008), who became a film producer and attorney. [31] In 1947, Sullavan filed for divorce after discovering that Hayward was having an affair with socialite Slim Keith. [32] Their divorce became final on April 20, 1948.

In 1950, Sullavan married for a fourth and final time to English investment banker Kenneth Wagg. They remained married until her death in 1960. [32]

Sullavan’s children, in particular Bridget and Bill, often proved rebellious and contrary. As a result of the divorce from Hayward, the family fell apart. Sullavan felt that Hayward was trying to alienate their children from her. When the children went to California to visit their father they were so spoiled with expensive gifts that, when they returned to their mother in Connecticut, they were deeply discontented with what they saw as a staid lifestyle. [33]

Mental breakdown

By 1955, when Sullavan's two younger children told their mother that they preferred to stay with their father permanently, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Sullavan's eldest daughter, Brooke, later wrote about the breakdown in her 1977 autobiography Haywire : Sullavan had humiliated herself by begging her son to stay with her. He remained adamant and his mother had started to cry. "This time she couldn't stop. Even from my room the sound was so painful I went into my bathroom and put my hands on my ears". [34] In another scene from the book, a friend of the family (Millicent Osborne) had been alarmed by the sound of whimpering from the bedroom: "She walked in and found mother under the bed, huddled in a foetal position. Kenneth was trying to get her out. The more authoritative his tone of voice, the farther under she crawled. Millicent Osborne took him aside and urged him to speak gently, to let her stay there until she came out of her own accord". [35] Eventually Sullavan agreed to spend some time (two and a half months) in a private mental institution. Her two younger children, Bridget and Bill, also spent time in various institutions. Bridget died of a drug overdose in October 1960, [36] while Bill died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in March 2008. [31]

Hearing loss

Sullavan suffered from the congenital hearing defect otosclerosis that worsened as she aged, making her more and more hearing impaired. Her voice had developed a throatiness because she could hear low tones better than high ones. From early 1957, Sullavan's hearing declined so much that she was becoming depressed and sleepless and often wandered about all night. She would often go to bed and stay there for days, her only words: "Just let me be, please". [37] Sullavan had kept her hearing problem largely hidden. On January 8, 1960 (one week after Sullavan's death), The New York Post reporter Nancy Seely wrote: "The thunderous applause of a delighted audience—was it only a dim murmur over the years to Margaret Sullavan? Did the poised and confident mien of the beautiful actress mask a sick fear, night after night, that she'd miss an important cue?"


On January 1, 1960, at about 5:30 p.m., Sullavan was found in bed, barely alive and unconscious, in a hotel room in New Haven, Connecticut. Her copy of the script to Sweet Love Remembered, in which she was then starring during its tryout in New Haven, was found open beside her. Sullavan was rushed to Grace New Haven Hospital, but shortly after 6:00 p.m. she was pronounced dead on arrival. [38] She was 50 years old. No note was found to indicate suicide, and no conclusion was reached as to whether her death was the result of a deliberate or an accidental overdose of barbiturates. [39] The county coroner officially ruled Sullavan's death an accidental overdose. [40] After a private memorial service was held in Greenwich, Connecticut, Sullavan was interred at Saint Mary's Whitechapel Episcopal Churchyard in Lancaster, Virginia. [41]

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Margaret Sullavan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1751 Vine Street. [42] She was inducted, posthumously, into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981. [43]

Sullavan's eldest daughter, actress Brooke Hayward, wrote Haywire, a best-selling memoir about her family, [44] that was adapted into the miniseries Haywire that aired on CBS starring Lee Remick as Margaret Sullavan and Jason Robards as Leland Hayward. [45]

Partial filmography

Sullavan's last performance on the screen in No Sad Songs for Me, 1950. Margaret Sullavan in No Sad Songs for Me trailer 2.JPG
Sullavan's last performance on the screen in No Sad Songs for Me , 1950.
1933 Only Yesterday Mary Lane
1934 Little Man, What Now? Emma "Lämmchen" Pinneberg
1935 The Good Fairy Luisa "Lu" Ginglebusher
1935 So Red the Rose Valette Bedford
1936 Next Time We Love Cicely Tyler
1936 The Moon's Our Home Cherry Chester/Sarah Brown
1938 Three Comrades Patricia "Pat" Hollmann
1938 The Shopworn Angel Daisy Heath
1938 The Shining Hour Judy Linden
1940 The Shop Around the Corner Klara Novak
1940 The Mortal Storm Freya Roth
1941 Back Street Ray Smith
1941 So Ends Our Night Ruth Holland
1941 Appointment for Love Dr. Jane Alexander
1943 Cry 'Havoc' Lt. Mary Smith
1950 No Sad Songs for Me Mary Scott

Radio appearances

1940 Screen Guild Players The Shop Around the Corner [46]

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  1. Studio publicity incorrectly reported her year of birth as 1911 as per Lawrence J. Quirk's Child of Fate – Margaret Sullavan, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1986; ISBN   0-312-51442-5, p. 5
  2. 1920 United States FederalCensus
  3. Quirk, pp. 5–7
  4. Quirk, p. 14.
  5. Houghton, Norris. But Not Forgotten: The Adventure of the University Players. New York, William Sloan Associates, 1951.
  6. 1 2 Quirk, p. 18.
  7. Quirk, p. 24
  8. Hayward, Brooke. Haywire. Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, 1977; ISBN   0-224-01426-9, p. 190.
  9. Quirk, p. 26
  10. Quirk, p. 83.
  11. Quirk, pp. 27–29.
  12. Quirk, pp. 31–35.
  13. Quirk, pp. 35, 44.
  14. Dewey, Donald. James Stewart. Sphere, London; ISBN   978-0-7515-2160-3, pg. 145.
  15. Quirk, p. 117.
  16. 1 2 Quirk, p. 128.
  17. Quirk, p. 59.
  18. Donald Dewey, p. 115.
  19. Quirk, p. 60.
  20. Quirk, pp. 60–61.
  21. Quirk, p. 62-63.
  22. Hayward, Haywire. Jonathan Cape Ltd., p. 72.
  23. Quirk, p. 93.
  24. Quirk, p. 92.
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