Garson, Greer (1904–1996)
Garson, Greer (1904–1996)
Star of the English stage and the American screen who, despite her Irish origins, became the screen's image of the quintessential Englishwoman. Born Eileen Evelyn Garson in County Down, in the Presbyterian section of Northern Ireland, on September 29, 1904; died of heart failure on April 6, 1996, in Dallas, Texas; only child of George Garson and Nina (Gregor) Garson; educated at the University of London and at the University of Grenoble, France; married Edward Alec Abbot Snelson, in 1933 (divorced 1941), married Richard Ney (an actor), in 1943 (divorced 1947); married Elijah E. Fogelson, on July 15, 1949 (died 1987); no children.
Won Academy Award for Best Actress for Mrs. Miniver (1943); nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress for Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Madame Curie (1944), Mrs. Parkington (1945), The Valley of Decision (1945), and Sunrise at Campobello (1961); named honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1984); received Golda Meir Award, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for her contributions to making educational opportunities available to deserving young people (June 18, 1988).
First appeared on stage with the Birmingham Repertory Company, Birmingham, England; appeared as Shirley Kaplan in Elmer Rice's Street Scene (1932); toured in G.B. Shaw's Too True to be Good; made first London appearance in Shakespeare's The Tempest at the open-air theater in Regent's Park; also appeared in London in Golden Arrow (1934), and Vintage Wine, Accent on Youth, Butterfly on the Wheel, Pages From a Diary, The Visitor, Mademoiselle, The School for Scandal, and Old Music (1937); signed by MGM Studios and brought to America (1937).
Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939); Remember? (1939); Pride and Prejudice (1940); Blossoms in the Dust (1941); When Ladies Meet (1941); Mrs. Miniver (1942); Random Harvest (1942); The Youngest Profession (1943); Madame Curie (1943); Mrs. Parkington (1944); Valley of Decision (1945); Adventure (1946); Desire Me (1947); Julia Misbehaves (1948); That Forsyte Woman (1949); The Miniver Story (1950); The Law and the Lady (1951); (as Calpurnia) Julius Caesar (1953); Scandal at Scourie (1953); Her Twelve Men (1954); Strange Lady in Town (1955); (as Eleanor Roosevelt) Sunrise at Campobello (1960); (cameo) Pepe (1960); The Singing Nun (1966); The Happiest Millionaire (1967).
Television and radio:
appeared in Shaw's "How He Lied to Her Husband" (BBC, 1937); "That Forsyte Woman" (Lux Radio Theater, November 11, 1951); "Career" (NBC, February 24, 1956); "The Little Foxes" (NBC's "Hallmark Hall of Fame," 1956); "The Glorious Gift of Molly Malloy" ("Comedy Spotlight," CBS, August 29, 1961).
Born in County Down, Northern Ireland (Ulster), Greer Garson was the only child of George Garson, a native of the Orkney Isles, and Nina Gregor Garson , a descendant of the famed Scottish warrior, Rob Roy MacGregor. (The name Greer is a contraction of Gregor.) By her own admission, she was a rather high-strung, "stuffy" child, who suffered from bronchitis and fainting spells and did not sit well with other children. Early on, she was reading books intended for grown-ups on which she would discourse; her first appearance on any stage was a recitation that she gave at the village town hall at the age of four. Soon, she was winning cups and prizes in amateur competitions but could not be taken to the theater because the experience proved too stimulating; coming home, she would relive each performance, reenacting the various parts.
After the death of her father when she was still a child, Garson accompanied her mother to London, where they lived outside the city in Essex County on rents from her father's properties. Young Greer continued to win awards for her recitations while attending the local county school. She came from a long line of teachers, doctors, and Presbyterian parsons, solidly middle class in her origins on both sides. Although her family intended she become a teacher, and she passed through the University of London in only three years with honors, she continued to develop her taste for acting. After graduation, though she went on to do advanced work at the University of Grenoble, Garson considered all this education to be a waste of time and later admitted that she attended only because of her family's wishes. It was in Grenoble that she decided to give up her graduate studies to pursue acting. Upon her return home, however, she met with firm opposition from her family, in particular her grandmother, a devout Presbyterian, who viewed the idea of a theatrical career with considerable alarm. Garson, therefore, took a job with the Encyclopedia Britannica and, after that, with an advertising agency. There she set up and operated a market-research library for the then handsome wage of £10 per week (around $50), amusing herself in her spare time by taking parts in amateur theatrical productions.
Greer Garson was turning 29 when she went on the stage. Emboldened by her limited success in amateur theatricals, she secured a letter of introduction to the manager of the well-known and respected Birmingham Repertory Company. Her interview went well, and in 1932 she made her professional debut in a black wig playing a Jewish-American "working girl" in the company's production of Elmer Rice's Street Scene, after which she appeared in a variety of roles over the next two years. Around this time, Garson met and, on September 28, 1933, married a young man named Edward Snelson, of the British civil service. This marriage ended abruptly five weeks later when Snelson announced that he was going to India, and his bride simply refused to accompany him. He left her for another woman. Garson was always reluctant to discuss her first marriage.
In 1934, Garson, who had been touring the provinces in a production of George Bernard Shaw's Too True to be Good and had already made her London debut in a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in the open-air theater in Regent's Park, was required to have a throat operation after which she suddenly found it difficult to find acting jobs. While sitting in the University Women's club in London, she was approached by novelist-playwright Sylvia Thompson , who was casting Golden Arrow. The play was to be directed by Laurence Olivier, who was also the star, and who, still less than 30 years old, was already one of the brightest figures in the British theater. Garson read the part (another American role) for Olivier, was given the job, and the two eventually became fast friends. In later years, many in Britain claimed to have "discovered" Greer Garson, but she always gave the credit to Sylvia Thompson and Laurence Olivier.
In less than three years (1934–37), Garson starred in eight popular plays: Golden Arrow, Vintage Wine, Accent on Youth (her first West End lead), Butterfly on the Wheel, Pages from a Diary, The Visitor, Mademoiselle (in which she was directed by Noel Coward), and Old Music. Though all of them were critical failures, she was always lauded and soon accounted one of the brightest young British actresses of the day. She also found time to appear in such classics as Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Sheridan's School for Scandal. She was kept so busy that she virtually went from one play directly into another, so much so that during her days on the London stage she had only one two-week vacation. To the young working women who could afford only the cheapest seats in the highest galleries but were devoted theatergoers, she became known as "The Duchess of Garson" for her elegant manner, while to her peers in the theater she was known as "Ca-reer" Garson because of her ambition and drive. Swept up into the whirl of London theatrical society, she and her mother took a handsome flat in Mayfair, and, when not on the stage, she was soon hobnobbing, not only with Coward, Olivier, and Thompson, but with such luminaries as director Margaret Webster and famed dramatist George Bernard Shaw. A significant incident, often overlooked in articles about her career, is that Garson made her television debut in Shaw's "How He Lied to Her Husband" for the BBC during the earliest years of British television.
One night in 1937, American film producer Louis B. Mayer was visiting London and saw
Garson on stage in the trivial costume melodrama Old Music. That evening, he invited her to dine with him after the show at the Savoy Grill. Though Garson brought her mother along as chaperon, Mayer was sufficiently impressed to give her a screen test the following day, after which she was handed a contract at $500 per week (said to have been at Garson's insistence and to have been the highest salary ever paid to a newcomer). She was told to appear at the MGM Studios in Culver City, California, as soon as she could extricate herself from the play. Mayer had eyes for other actresses as well, however, and on this trip to Europe he also acquired for his studio both the Hungarian blond Ilona Massey , and the Austrian beauty Hedy Lamarr .
For almost a year after arriving in Hollywood with her mother, Garson was paid to sit and wait while the studio decided how to use her. Altogether, she was allowed on the MGM lot only seven times and only for tests for films that were never made. Fed up with lounging around the five-room house that she had taken in Beverly Hills, she was about to return to London when she was handed the small but pivotal role of Kathy, the devoted wife who dies in childbirth, in the film Goodbye Mr. Chips. The film was made on location in England, the studio paying for her round-trip fare on an ocean liner. In effect, she had traveled 12,000 miles to make a film in what was virtually her native land. Produced in 1939, the year often celebrated as the most fruitful in Hollywood history, the film was a great success, even when measured against its competition: Gone With the Wind, Destry Rides Again, Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, The Women, and Stagecoach. Garson was nominated for an Oscar for her performance and suddenly found herself an international star.
To be an actress, you need the sensitivity of a new-born mouse, plus the hide of a rhinoceros, coupled with a highly developed desire to please, and an ability to accept criticism without wailing. The paradoxes are endless.
—Greer Garson, 1945
Arriving in Hollywood about the time that Norma Shearer retired and Greta Garbo simply stopped making films, Greer Garson, with her cool, red-headed beauty and regal poise, was just the type needed to step into their elegant shoes. Emanating class and warmth, Garson appealed to both men and women and, in short order, became one of the leading members of what was called the MGM Stock company. She was cast opposite MGM's most glamorous leading men (Robert Taylor, Clark Gable), was directed by the best talent on the studio's lot (LeRoy, Cukor, Wyler, Negulesco), and was one of the ten most important box-office attractions of the 1940s.
Greer Garson's second film was a trivial comedy, Remember? (1939), co-starring the popular romantic leads Lew Ayres and Robert Taylor, into which she was thrown by Louis Mayer to keep her in the public eye while he searched for a better vehicle to display her talents. He chose the role of Elizabeth Bennett in a gracious film version of Jane Austen 's Pride and Prejudice (1940). In this film, she was co-starred with her old chum Laurence Olivier, also newly brought to Hollywood. Pride and Prejudice was followed by Blossoms in the Dust (1941), the first of eight films in which Garson co-starred with Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984), and the film that earned her a second Oscar nomination as Best Actress. In Blossoms, the first to display the fullness of her beauty in technicolor, Garson played in a romanticized version of the life story of Edna Gladney , a pioneer in the struggle for humane treatment of illegitimate children, and it was in this part that she began to elaborate on the role that she had first played in Goodbye Mr. Chips, and which she was to make her own: the noble, courageous, self-sacrificing heroine, or as she called them, "walking cathedrals."
In her next film, When Ladies Meet (1941), Garson appeared in a talky tract on women's rights that brought no luster either to her career or that of her co-star Joan Crawford , but this was immediately followed by the title role in Mrs. Miniver (1942), certainly her best film and the one that would establish her reputation as one of the great Hollywood stars. Many stories still revolve around this particular film. Norma Shearer, for example, had turned down the part, unwilling to portray the mother of a grown son, while Garson was leery about the role for the same reason. Once in the film, however, Garson fell in love with Richard Ney, the very actor who played her son and who, at 26, was 14 years younger than herself. Though Mayer reluctantly accepted the relationship, he talked the couple into delaying their marriage until after the film was released lest the "incestuous" implications caused by their roles bring negative publicity for them and the movie. Only those who can remember how Jennifer Jones damaged her career by portraying a trollop in Duel in the Sun after having just played the Catholic saint Bernadette of Lourdes in The Song of Bernadette can appreciate the genuine risk run by an actor who violated the public's belief in his or her studio-built image during Hollywood's Golden Age.
Greer Garson received her third nomination and won an Oscar for Best Actress for Mrs. Miniver, for a performance that, incidentally, is said to have done an enormous amount to strengthen American support for the British cause in World War II. At the Academy Awards ceremony, however, she violated an unwritten rule of brevity by making a thank-you speech that lasted for five and a quarter minutes, later exaggerated to 45 minutes, an elaboration that has gained surprising currency.
Thereafter, Garson played in one variation of her standard Mrs. Miniver role after another, with little opportunity to display her natural vivacity or gift for serious drama. Whereas she might have been a British Irene Dunne , she never really had the opportunity to become herself on the screen. In Madame Curie (1943), which Time Magazine called a "soberly, splendid, scientific romance," Garson played Marie Curie opposite Walter Pidgeon and was nominated for her fourth Best Actress award; in Mrs. Parkington (1944), she was nominated for her fifth, playing the wife of Walter Pidgeon, a man who had earned his riches through sculduggery. Her sixth nomination was for her performance in Marcia Davenport 's Valley of Decision (1945), as an Irish servant girl, secretly in love with her employer, a Pittsburgh industrialist (Gregory Peck). At the height of her career after Mrs. Parkington, Garson was offered her second seven-year contract by MGM at very favorable terms.
In 1946, the enormously popular Clark Gable returned from wartime military duty to resume his movie career. Someone in the studio's publicity department dreamed up the crude but memorable slogan "Gable's back and Garson's got 'im," but the film, Adventure, in which Garson attempted to vary her role, was not a success, and she reverted to type for Desire Me (1947).
After this film, Garson's four-year marriage to Richard Ney came to an amicable end. No community property was claimed and no alimony was requested by either party. Garson then resumed her career with Julia Misbehaves (1948), a film which was stolen by a 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor , and then appeared with Pidgeon, Errol Flynn, and Robert Young in That Forsyte Woman (1949), a film version of John Galsworthy's novel The Forsyte Saga, the change of title said to have been due to studio executives who decided that the public would not know what 'saga' meant.
At this time, Garson married her third husband, Elijah E. "Buddy" Fogelson, a Texas oil millionaire, with whom she remained for the rest of his life. Married on July 15, 1949, she became an American citizen in Abilene, Texas, less than two years later. Thereafter, although she continued her career, her main interests lay elsewhere, and, while she maintained a lavish home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles, she also luxuriated in a penthouse apartment in Dallas, her husband's ranch in New Mexico, an apartment in New York City, and another home in Palm Beach.
Garson's next film, The Miniver Story (1950), an ill-advised attempt to make a sequel to the original Miniver, was followed by an undistinguished remake of The Last of Mrs. Cheney retitled The Law and the Lady (1951). She followed that with a brief but significant appearance in a famed film version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1953). Although Shakespeare did not create a significant female role for this play, Julius Caesar does contain a single scene between Julius Caesar and his wife Calpurnia , the part that Garson requested. In this almost cameo appearance, she added the precise touch of dignity and "class" appropriate and necessary to the filming of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Garson's next few films were the easily forgettable Scandal at Scourie (1953), her eighth and final film with Walter Pidgeon; Her Twelve Men (1954), a comedy; and Strange Lady in Town (1955), an undistinguished western made at Warner Bros., but she bounced back with Warner's film version of the successful Broadway play Sunrise at Campobello (1960), dealing with the crisis in the life of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when he was suddenly struck down with polio at age 38. Garson played Eleanor Roosevelt for which she received her seventh and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
After a purposeless cameo in the quickly forgotten Pepe (Columbia, 1960), Garson waited five years before she undertook her next role, that of a mother superior in The Singing Nun (MGM, 1966). Her last screen appearance in The Happiest Millionaire (1967) was an undistinguished conclusion to what had been, at least in its earliest years, a most distinguished film career.
Garson continued to keep herself busy, leading a triple life as an actress, a winter resident of Dallas participating fully in its social and cultural life, and a summer vacationer at her husband's huge Pecos, New Mexico, cattle ranch. She had appeared on numerous radio programs in the 1940s and later on television in such plays as "Reunion in Vienna" ("Producer's Showcase," 1955) and "The Little Foxes" (1956). She portrayed Mary Ann Disraeli opposite Trevor Howard in The Remarkable Mr. Disraeli (1963) and made guest appearances as herself on the series "Father Knows Best" and "Laugh In." She also appeared in episodes of "Love Boat" and in 1971 undertook her last regular role, that of a woman lawyer in the series "Men From Shiloh," after which she appeared in "Crown Matrimonial" (1974). In 1978, Garson was seen in the series "Little Women," her last role as an actress. While none of these television appearances added any luster to her reputation, they did at least give Garson an opportunity to break out of her mold somewhat. In "Career," for example (NBC, February 24, 1956), she played a selfish movie star who adopts a child to polish her public image. Similarly, in "The Glorious Gift of Molly Malloy," she played an Irish schoolteacher whose educational methods upset the local authorities.
In 1958, Garson returned to the stage for the first and only time in over 20 years, taking over the lead in Mame from Rosalind Russell and enjoying a huge success for eight months in New York. Ten years later, she appeared in Los Angeles as Lady Cicely Waynflete in The Center Theater Group's production of Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion, a comedy that the Irish playwright had written for Ellen Terry decades before. In July 1978, she added the role of producer to her many other activities, when she and Arthur Cantor brought Alec McCowen's solo performance in The Gospel of Saint Mark from London to New York.
In her private life, Greer Garson was lively, talkative, energetic, and optimistic. She took readily to life in the United States and was especially fond of New York. Extremely photogenic, she had green eyes, luxurious orange-red hair, and a flawless, bone-white complexion. Her voice, warm and rich, was only slightly accented and her diction was perfect. Devoted to the memory of Louis B. Mayer, to whom she was always grateful, she never blamed him for the narrow path that he had set her on and actively supported the Louis B. Mayer Foundation as one of her many charities. As late as the 1970s, she was still regularly offered opportunities to return to the screen but as these were usually for parts in horror films, she graciously but firmly refused them all. With no suitable roles available, she was content in her retirement. In later years, Garson and her husband took to raising horses on their land, and in 1972 they won the Eclipse Award as owners of Ack Ack, named Horse of the Year, a thoroughbred that they had purchased for $500,000. Rising oil prices had made the Fogelsons billionaires, and Garson had ample funds with which to support her numerous charities, among them Southern Methodist University in Dallas to which she gave $10 million to build The Greer Garson Theater and Film Archive.
Not everything in the life of Greer Garson went well. An early injury to her spine plagued her throughout her life, her first two marriages had been failures, her penthouse was robbed of $100,000 worth of jewelry in 1974, and one night, in the late 1980s, she was forced to look helplessly at a television newscast of her Bel Air home going up in flames. She not only lost all her personal belongings but her Oscar, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences graciously replaced. Her health, never especially good, also deteriorated in her later years. She suffered through an emergency appendectomy and in 1980 had to be fitted with a pacemaker.
In 1984, Greer Garson was named an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a full knighthood, which would have entitled her to be known as "Dame" Greer Garson had she not given up her status as a British subject. Usually, such awards were bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace but, at 84, Garson's health was too precarious for her to attend in person. At the awards ceremony, however, she was cited for her work in the areas of environmental protection, wildlife conservation, the protection of antiquities and for her numerous endowments to several institutions of higher education both in the U.S. and Great Britain.
Buddy Fogelson died in 1987, and by 1990 Greer Garson had resettled in Los Angeles, but she was living in Texas when her last illness struck, and she died at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital of heart failure on April 6, 1996, at the age of 92.
The Free Library of Philadelphia, Theater Collection.
Parish, James Robert, and Ronald L. Bowers. The MGM Stock Company: The Golden Era. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1973.
Luft, H.G. "Greer Garson," in Films in Review. March 1961.
Troyan, Michael. A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson. University of Kentucky Press, 1998.
Wald, Malvin. "Greer Garson: Blue Ribbon Winner," in Daniel Peary, ed., Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book. NY: 1978.
Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey