Every star has that certain something that stands out and compels us to notice them. -As for me I have always believed my most compelling quality to be my inner strength, something I am easily able to share with an audience. I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I never thought my looks would have anything to do with becoming a star. Yet it seems that in some ways they did – Maureen O’Hara
On Saturday, October 24, 2015, Irish-American beauty Maureen O’ Hara died in her sleep at the age of 95 from natural causes. The four films she starred in which I believe were among her best are The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Quiet Man, How Green Was My Valley and Miracle on 34th Street. Maureen was known for playing proud, strong-willed and temperamental Irish lasses. It was a treat to see her and longtime friend John Wayne work together. She was tall and held her own against the Duke in their on-screen scenes.
Maureen FitzSimmons was the second oldest of six children of Charles Stewart Parnell and Marguerite (nee Lilburn) FitzSimons. Her father was in the clothing business and her mother, a former operatic contralto, was a successful women’s clothier. Maureen’s sister Peggy dedicated her life to a religious order by becoming a Sister of Charity. The younger children trained at the Abbey Theatre and the Ena May Burke School of Drama and Elocution in Dublin.
From an early age, Maureen knew that she wanted to be an actress and took lessons. She got her first screen test in London but it turned out to be unsatisfactory. The studio dressed her in a “gold lame dress with flapping sleeves like wings” and heavy makeup. The experience led Maureen to think, “If this is the movies, I want nothing to do with them!” Thankfully, actor Charles Laughton saw the test sometime later and in spite of the heavy makeup and costume, was intrigued by her, particularly her large and expressive eyes. He asked his business partner, Erich Pommer to watch the film clip and Pommer agreed with Laughton’s assessment of her and Maureen was offered an initial seven-year contract with their new company. It was Laughton who gave her the name “O’Hara” although she insisted in keeping her name because he believed that , “nobody would ever get FitzSimmons straight.” A name really does make a difference when it comes to show business. He arranged to have her co-star with him in the British film, Jamaica Inn. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was her first Hollywood film and it was released in 1939, the same year as Jamaica Inn.
After Hunchback was completed, World War II began. When Laughton realized that his company could no longer film in London, he sold Maureen’s contract to RKO. However, the studio cast her in low-budget films until John Ford rescued her. He cast her in How Green is My Valley which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. She later starred as Natalie Wood’s mother in Miracle on 34th Street one of the most beloved Christmas Classics that airs every year during the holiday season.
In 1946 Maureen became a naturalized citizen of the United States, holding dual citizenship with the US and her native Ireland. She was considered an icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age and one of the world’s most beautiful women. She was remembered for her onscreen chemistry with John Wayne. They made five movies together between 1948 and 1972. She was the Duke’s favorite actress and considered a real friend. She’s the only woman he thought of in that way. As he lay dying on his hospital bed, he watched on television as she petitioned Congress to give him a Congressional Gold Medal and they voted unanimously to do so.
Acting was not Maureen’s only talent. She had a soprano voice. Singing was her first love. She was also very athletic. She did her own stunts in movies. I remember seeing her sword-fencing with skill and agility that was astounding. She held her own in the swashbuckling movies like The Black Swan opposite Tyrone Power and Sinbad the Sailor with Douglas Fairbanks. No doubt this had to do with her love for playing rough athletic games as a child. She excelled in sports. She had the pleasure of starring with leading men such as John Payne, Rex Harrison, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Brian Keith and Sir Alec Guiness and working with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, Walter Lang, to mention a few.
On a personal note, in 1939, when she was 19 years old, Maureen secretly married Englishman George H. Brown whom she met on the set of Jamaica Inn. Brown was a film producer, production assistant and occasional scriptwriter. The marriage was annulled in 1941. She married American film director William Houston Price but the marriage ended in 1953 because of his abuse of alcohol. They had one child–a daughter, Bronwyn Bridget Price. From 1953-1967 Maureen had a relationship with Enrique Parra, a Mexican politician and banker. In her biography, she wrote that Enrique “saved me from the darkness of an abusive marriage and brought me back into the warm light of life again. Leaving him was one of the most painful things I have ever had to do.” Parra died in June 2015–four months before her death.
In 1968 Maureen married her third husband, Charles F. Blair, a pioneer of transatlantic aviation, a former brigadier general of the US Air Force, a former chief pilot of Pan Am and founder and head of the U.S. Virgin Islands Antilles Air Boats. A few years after they married, Maureen retired from acting. Blair died in 1978 while flying from St. Croix to St. Thomas due to engine failure. Maureen was elected CEO and president of the airline, earning her the distinction of becoming the first woman president of a scheduled airline in the U.S. Her marriage to Blair were ten of the happiest years of her life. It devastated her that she had lost him and her friend John Wayne within months of each other.
Maureen came out of retirement in 1991 when she starred as John Candy’s domineering mother in Only the Lonely. After that she starred in several made for TV movies. Her last film, The Last Dance, was released in 2000. On November 4, 2014 she received the honorary award from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the annual Governor’s Awards. She is the second actress to receive an Honorary Oscar without having been nominated for an Oscar in a competitive category. Myrna Loy was the first.
Notes to Women celebrates Maureen O’Hara, the actress who lit up the screen with her luminous red hair, big, expressive eyes. She was one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She leaves behind a legacy of films in which she portrayed strong, brave and intelligent women.
I was tough. I was tall. I was strong. I didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. He was tough, he was tall, he was strong and he didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. As a man and a human being, I adored him.
Speaking as an actress, I wish all actors would be more like Duke (John Wayne)–and speaking as a person, it would be nice if all people could be honest and as genuine as he is. This is a real man.
To the people throughout the world, John Wayne is not just an actor, and a very fine actor – John Wayne is the United States of America.
Above all else, deep in my soul, I’m a tough Irishwoman.
I have never lost my faith in God.