Hamilton, Margaret (1902–1985)

views updated

Hamilton, Margaret (1902–1985)

American actress best known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Born Margaret Brainard Hamilton on September 12, 1902, in Cleveland, Ohio; died on May 16, 1985, in Salisbury, Connecticut; youngest of the four children (three girls and one boy) of Walter Jones Hamilton (an attorney) and Jennie (Adams) Hamilton; graduated from Hathaway-Brown High School, Cleveland, 1921; obtained teaching certificate from Wheelock Kindergarten Training School (now Wheelock College), Boston, 1923; studied voice with Grace Probert, Cleveland; studied acting and pantomime with Maria Ouspenskaya and Joseph Moon; married Paul Boynton Meserve (a landscape architect), on June 13, 1931 (divorced 1938); children: one son, Hamilton.

Selected theater:

New York debut as Helen Hallam in Another Language (Booth Theater, April 25,1932); Hattie in The Dark Tower (Morosco Theater, 1933); Lucy Gurget in The Farmer Takes a Wife (46th Street Theater, 1934); Gertrude in Outrageous Fortune (48th Street Theater, New York City, 1943); the Aunt in On Borrowed Time (Patio Theater, Los Angeles, California, 1946); Gwennie in The Men We Marry (Mansfield Theater, New York City, January 1948); Lucy Bascombe in Fancy Meeting You Again (Royale Theater, New York City, 1952); Mrs. Zero in The Adding Machine (Phoenix Theater, New York City, 1956); Madame Kleopatra Mamaeva in Diary of a Scoundrel (Phoenix Theater, New York City, 1956); Parthy Ann in Show Boat and the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz (St. Louis Municipal Opera, summer 1957); Bessie in Goldilocks (Lunt-Fontanne Theater, New York City, 1958); Dolly Tate in Annie Get Your Gun (New York City Center, 1958); Grandma in The American Dream (Civic Theater, Los Angeles, 1962); Clara in Save Me a Place at Forest Lawn (Pocket Theater, New York City, 1963); Connie Tufford in UTBU (Helen Hayes Theater, New York City, 1966); Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit (Seattle Repertory Theater, 1966); Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals (Seattle Repertory Theater, 1967–68 season); Dorinda Pratt in Come Summer (Lunt-Fontanne Theater, New York City, 1969); Mrs. Dudgeon in The Devil's Disciple (American Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Connecticut, summer 1970); Madame Desmermortes in Ring Round the Moon (Seattle Repertory Theater, fall 1971); Madame Armfeldt in national tour of A Little Night Music (1974).

Selected films:

Another Language (1933); Broadway Bill (1934) The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935); Way Down East (1935); These Three (1936); The Moon's Our Home (1936); You Only Live Once (1937); Mountain Justice (1937); Nothing Sacred (1937); A Slight Case of Murder (1938); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938); Stablemates (1938); Four's a Crowd (1938); The Wizard of Oz (1939); Angels Wash Their Faces (1939); Babes in Arms (1939); The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940); My Little Chickadee (1940); The Invisible Woman (1941); Meet the Stewarts (1942); The Ox-Bow Incident (1943); Johnny Come Lately (1943); George White's Scandals (1945); Janie Gets Married (1946); Mad Wednesday (1947); State of the Union (1948); The Red Pony (1949); The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949); Riding High (1950); Wabash Avenue (1950); People Will Talk (1951); Comin' Round the Mountain (1951); 13 Ghosts (1960); Paradise Alley (1962); The Daydreamer (1966); Rosie! (1967); Brewster McCloud (1970); The Anderson Tapes (1971); (voice only) Journey Back to Oz (1974).

Although her career spanned more than 50 years, and included 75 films and as many stage plays, Margaret Hamilton will forever be identified with the dual role of the detestable Mrs. Gulch and the cackling, green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Aired on American television at least once a year since 1956, the movie has introduced Hamilton to generations of children who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to see her perform.

Ironically, the woman who terrorized Dorothy and her companions on the road to Oz wanted nothing more than to be a kindergarten teacher. "I was born loving devotedly—first my dolls, then babies and children (little ones)," she once said. At the age of 12, she served as a kindergarten aide at Hathaway-Brown School, a private school near her home in Cleveland, Ohio. Hamilton studied voice for four years and had her first stage experience in high school, playing an elderly Englishman, Sir Peter Antrobus, in Pomander Walk, the senior-class play. With the encouraging applause of her friends and relatives, she decided that she might prefer acting to teaching, a change of mind that did not sit well with her mother, who insisted that Hamilton attend Wheelock Kindergarten Training School as planned. "When you know how to earn your living, you can fool around with the theater all you want," she told her stage-struck daughter.

In retrospect, Hamilton had few regrets about her education, feeling that her better understanding of children enriched her life. She received her teaching certificate in 1923 and returned to Cleveland where she ran a nursery school for several years before going to New York to teach kindergarten in the Rye Country Day School. After the death of her mother, however, she went back to Cleveland once again and opened her own private nursery school. In 1927, still harboring a desire to act, she embarked on a three-year apprenticeship at the Cleveland Playhouse where she appeared in some 25 different roles. She had never been happier. "At last I experienced the indescribable joy of doing what I longed to do," she recalled.

Hamilton spent a year making the rounds of Broadway casting agents before she finally landed a role in Another Language (1932), playing Helen Hallam, a warm-hearted though acerbic wife who is victimized by a possessive mother-in-law. The play was a surprising hit, and Hamilton repeated the role in the film adaptation in 1933. From then on, she divided her time between the stage and screen, although she always remained partial to live theater. "Only in the theater do you have the opportunity to experiment, to change, to grow, to better each performance," she wrote in an article for Junior League News. Hamilton's roles were not widely diversified, limited somewhat by her tiny stature and sharp features. For the most part, she was relegated to hard-bitten domestics and gossipy "spinsters," or, as she said, "women with a corset of steel and a heart of gold."

Hamilton made 25 films before being cast in the dual role of Mrs. Gulch and the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Although it was her most memorable role, it was not her favorite. "I don't look on it as any great shakes of acting," she told Al Cohn in an interview for Newsday (March 19, 1978). "It's not subtle or restrained. It isn't any of the things you like to think might apply to your acting." From the first telecast of the movie, Hamilton received hundreds of letters, mostly from children. She always advised parents that children under seven might be truly upset by the Wicked Witch, and she turned down offers to resurrect the character in a sequel to the movie, although she often appeared in less formidable stage versions of the musical. "Little children's minds can't cope with seeing a mean witch alive again," she explained. "It's as though they think maybe I'm going to go back and cause trouble for Dorothy again."

During the early days of television, Hamilton, who had previously been heard on the radio, performed in dozens of live dramatic productions, including "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1954), "The Devil's Disciple" (1955), "The Trial of Lizzie Borden" (1957), and "The Silver Whistle" (1959). She had on-going roles in the soap operas "Secret Storm" and "As the World Turns," and often made guest appearances on sit-coms and variety programs such as "Johnny Carson," "David Frost," and "Dick Cavett." Hamilton also made her mark in television commercials, as a harassed homemaker for Jello, and as the voice of Emily Tipp, the cartoon character in ads for Tiptop Bread. During the 1970s, Hamilton became known in households across America as Cora, the New England storekeeper who stocked and sold only Maxwell House coffee.

Hamilton's stage credits encompassed comedy, drama, and musicals and included performances on Broadway, off-Broadway, stock, and regional theater. Some of her more notable portrayals included Mrs. Zero in The Adding Machine (1956) and Clara in the two-character play Save Me a Place at Forest Lawn (1963). One of her own favorites was the Grandma in Edward Albee's The American Dream (1962). Of her musical roles, she was memorable as Dolly Tate in Annie Get Your Gun, Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, and Parthy Ann Hawks in Show Boat. In 1974–75, she toured for 51 weeks as Madame Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, winning accolades from the critics, some of whom thought she stole the show.

In 1931, Hamilton had married Paul Boynton Meserve, a landscape architect, with whom she had a son, Hamilton. The couple divorced in 1938, after which Hamilton stayed in Los Angeles where she raised her son as a single parent. Active in the community, she taught Sunday school, was in the PTA, and served for a time as president of the Beverly Hills board of education. In 1951, she moved to New York City, where she was a member of the Veterans Hospital Radio and TV Guild and was active in the Bedside Network, an organization that entertained hospital patients. In 1969, she was a cofounder of AMAS, a repertory theater and school in New York City. Of her numerous honors was the Governor's Award of the State of Ohio (1977) and an honorary degree from her alma mater, Wheelock College (1970). Margaret Hamilton died following a heart attack on May 16, 1985.


Evory, Ann, and Peter M. Garaffa, eds. Contemporary Newsmakers. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1985.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

McGill, Raymond D., ed. Notable Names in the American Theater. Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1976.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1979. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1979.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Hamilton, Margaret (1902–1985)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article