Garson, Greer

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Garson, Greer

(b. 29 September 1903 in London, England; d. 6 April 1996 in Dallas, Texas), famed stage and screen actress and philanthropist, nominated for seven Academy Awards and winner as Best Actress for Mrs. Miniver (1942).

Born Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson, her parents were George Garson, a Scottish Presbyterian commercial clerk, and his wife, Nancy Sophia Greer, a homemaker. An only child with chronic bronchitis, Garson often missed several weeks at a time after she started Essex Road Elementary School at age five. Upon her father’s sudden death in 1906, her mother (whom she always called “Nina”) inherited several income townhouses. Garson often spent long vacations at County Down, Northern Ireland (which her publicists indicated as her birthplace, also taking five years off her age). She developed powerful memorization skills and at age four reportedly gave a church-hall recitation. She earned a certificate from East Ham Secondary and went to the University of London in September 1921; she won a scholarship and graduated in 1926 with a bachelor’s degree and upper-second-class honors. After graduate French courses at the University of Grenoble, France, she returned to London, where she mastered secretarial skills, worked as a researcher for Encyclopaedia Britannica, and accepted employment with the advertising branch of Lever Brothers.

Participation in school groups inspired Garson—who was five feet, six inches tall and titian-haired, with blue-green eyes—to become an actress. She had a letter of introduction to Cyril Richards, the general manager of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, who arranged an audition for her in December 1931. Under contract with the theater, “Eileen Garson” debuted on 30 January 1932 as Shirley Kaplan, a Jewish schoolteacher in Street Scene. During a twelve-week tour she adopted the name “Greer Garson” as she played a challenging dual role in George Bernard Shaw’s Too Good to Be True; the play’s hectic routine and costume changes brought on pneumonia, and by spring a tonsillectomy was necessary. Forced to rest the entire summer, she lost her Birmingham contract. Edward Alec Abbot Snelson, a friend from her university days, returned from his career government position in India to be with her and her mother; he and Garson were married on 28 September 1933. After their honeymoon in Germany, Garson, still physically weak, went back to her mother in London and informed Snelson of her decision not to return with him to India. Around Christmas 1937, Garson resolved to seek a divorce; she did so only after she went to Hollywood, where she obtained a divorce on 12 May 1941. Snelson announced in September 1942 that he was suing for divorce on grounds of Garson’s desertion, since the United Kingdom did not always recognize American divorces. He was granted in England an uncontested decree nisi of divorce on 17 November 1942.

Meanwhile, Garson made her first London stage appearance in Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre on 5 June 1934, and throughout the summer she played walk-ons in other Shakespeare and Shaw plays. She soon attracted critical attention with roles in The Golden Arrow (1935), directed by Laurence Olivier, and Accent on Youth (1935), for which critics praised both her looks and her rich, resonant speaking voice. Another popular and artistic success for her was Noël Coward’s production of Mademoiselle (1936–1937). During its London run, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the American film director Tay Garnett approached Garson with screen-test offers for Fairbanks’s Criterion Films, but Coward refused to release her. During the summer of 1937 she performed several plays on television for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). After a performance in August 1937 of Old Music at the St. James Theatre, Louis B. Mayer arranged for a screen test at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) Denham studios. The result was a seven-year contract with MGM, at about $500 a week, close to double her weekly salary. In November 1937, accompanied by her mother, Garson set sail on the SS Normandie for New York.

About a year after her arrival, Garson accepted the role of Katherine Ellis Chipping opposite Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939); she earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Critical acclaim continued with her performance as Elizabeth Bennet in Robert Z. Leonard’s Pride and Prejudice (1940), which brought another Academy Award nomination, and as Mrs. Edna Gladney in Mervyn LeRoy’s Blossoms in the Dust (1941), MGM’s first Technicolor drama, with Walter Pidgeon as her costar in this first of eight films together. Garson won an Academy Award for best actress with her portrayal of the heroic title character in the wartime drama Mrs. Miniver, which again costarred her with Pidgeon and premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on 4 June 1942. The role of Mrs. Miniver had been intended for Norma Shearer, still considered MGM’s reigning queen; initially, Garson shared Shearer’s concern over playing mother to a soldier and his wife. Richard Ney, who played that soldier, married Garson on 24 July 1943; the two honeymooned briefly before Ensign Ney went overseas on wartime naval duty.

Another spectacular success was LeRoy’s Random Harvest (1942) with Ronald Colman, in which Garson performed a kilted song-and-dance routine called “She’s Ma Daisy.” She earned Academy Award nominations for her roles in LeRoy’s Madame Curie (1943) as well as Garnett’s Mrs. Parkington (1944) and Valley of Decision (1945). Offscreen, Garson was active in war bond drives in the United States and Canada. In 1947 Garson signed another seven-year contract with MGM, now worth $5,000 a week, yet the quality of scripts had fallen. Many of her immediate postwar films ended in financial losses for the studio.

Garson’s personal life was in turmoil: on 27 January 1947, she announced her separation from Ney; despite a brief reconciliation, they were divorced on 25 September 1947. Fortunately, on the set of Julia Misbehaves (1948), her young costars Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford presented one of their mutual friends, U.S. Army Colonel Elijah E. (“Buddy”) Fogelson, a millionaire Texas oilman and rancher. Garson and Fogelson began a long and blissful marriage on 15 July 1949; they lived primarily on his ranch in Pecos, New Mexico. Fogelson had long before adopted his nephew as his son; Garson never had any children. On 11 April 1951 she received her final American citizenship papers.

Garson’s contract with MGM ended in 1954, after which she made only five more films. Chief among these was Vincent J. Donehue’s Sunrise at Campobello (1960), which garnered her seventh and final Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt. As Mother Prioress opposite Debbie Reynolds in Henry Koster’s The Singing Nun (1966), Garson acted in one last MGM project. Her final film, The Happiest Millionaire (1967), was the last of thirteen Garson films to play at Radio City during the Christmas season. In all, her films played there for a record total of eighty-three weeks, giving her true claim to the title “Queen of Radio City Music Hall.” During the same period, Garson performed in a variety of challenging television plays, including Reunion in Vienna (1955), The Little Foxes (1956), Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1960), and The Invincible Mr. Disraeli (1963). She also relieved Rosalind Russell on Broadway in Auntie Mame (1958) and acted in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion with the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles in 1968. She was still active during the 1970s and 1980s with appearances on national and public television.

Garson and her husband gave millions to charitable organizations, usually through the E. E. Fogelson and Greer Garson Fogelson Charitable Foundation. At St. John’s College (renamed the College of Santa Fe), they established the Greer Garson Theatre in 1975 and the Garson Communications Center and Studios in 1990. Other gifts included Southern Methodist University’s Greer Garson Theatre in Dallas (1992); the E. E. Fogelson Visitor Center at the Pecos National Historical Monument (1987); and the Fogelson Forum at the Dallas Presbyterian Hospital (1990). Garson’s honors and awards included an honorary degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music (1973), the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts (1987), the Masters Screen Artists Award at the USA Film Festival in Dallas (1988), the Golda Meir Fellowship Award of the Builders of Scopus (1988), and the insignia of Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1993) for her patriotism, conservation concerns, and university endowments.

Garson developed heart problems in the 1980s and underwent surgery several times, including a quadruple bypass in June 1988; her physicians advised her not to return to the high altitude of Santa Fe, and she finally sold the beloved ranch in 1990. During Christmas week of 1989 a fire destroyed almost everything, including her Academy Award, at her deluxe Wilshire Terrace apartment in Los Angeles; the Academy presented her with a replacement. For about a year prior to her death, Garson resided in the long-term-care unit of the Dallas Presbyterian Hospital, where she died of heart failure. She was buried next to Fogelson at Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas. A memorial service was held there at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, and a special memorial service was offered at St. Paul’s at Covent Garden in London on 4 July 1996.

One of Hollywood’s top box-office attractions from the late 1930s through the war years, Garson had an air of controlled maturity and understated elegance that became especially important during World War II. As her characters endured every trial, inner fortitude and dedication to duty radiated through her comforting voice and graceful demeanor as well as from her reassuring silence. Her characters endured every trial, and that inner fortitude and dedication to duty radiated through her comforting voice and graceful demeanor. The English-born Hollywood actress helped to galvanize public American sentiment in the conflict against Nazism, so that even after the war, a wax figure of Garson as the title character in Mrs. Miniver appeared at Madame Tussaud’s in London, a film that the British prime minister Winston Churchill assessed to be “propaganda worth a hundred battleships.”

The Greer Garson Collection of the Bywaters Special Collection, Jake and Nancy Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University, contains scrapbooks, slides, photographs, scripts, awards, correspondence, and other materials and memorabilia from Garson’s stage and film career as well as philanthropic activities. Garson never wanted to write an autobiography and was notorious in Hollywood for not liking to grant interviews during her peak years there. (She sometimes wrote articles for specialized journals and newsletters pertaining to cattle and horses.) There is a well-written biography by Michael Troyan, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson (1999), with complete listings of her plays and films and partial listing of her radio and television work, with bibliography, index, and extensive photographs. Other helpful sources are James Robert Parish and Ronald L. Bowers, MGM Stock Company (1973): 268–75, Herbert G. Luft, “Greer Garson: Convinced Audiences That Beauty Is Sometimes Coupled With Selflessness,” Films in Review (12: Mar. 1961): 152-64, and Current Biography 1942 (1943). Robert Osborne, Seventy Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards (1999), includes extended quotes from Garson’s Academy Award acceptance speech, and Anthony Holden, Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards (1994), lists her television credits. For extensive bibliographies primarily covering the Hollywood journals, see Mel Schuster, Motion Picture Performers: A Bibliography of Magazine and Periodical Articles, 1900–1969 (1971) and Supplement No. 1, 1970–1974 (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times (7 Apr. 1996), Los Angeles Times (7 Apr. 1996), London Sunday Times (7 Apr. 1996), and Current Biography Yearbook 1996 (1997). Many of Garson’s films and even some television specials appear on commercial videocassettes; there are audio recordings of some of her narrations and speaking books.

Madeline Sapienza