McAvoy, May (1901–1984)

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McAvoy, May (1901–1984)

American star of the silent-film era . Name variations: Mae McAvoy. Born on September 18, 1901, in New York City; died after a heart attack on April 26, 1984, in Sherman Oaks, California; daughter of a livery-stable owner; married Maurice G. Cleary (a United Artists and Lockheed Aircraft executive), in 1929 (divorced); children: Patrick Cleary.

Selected filmography:

Hate (1917); To Hell with the Kaiser (1917); Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1919); The Truth About Husbands (1920); The Devil's Garden (1920); Sentimental Tommy (1921); A Private Scandal (1921); The Top of New York (1922); Her Reputation (1923); The Enchanted Cottage (1924); Three Women (1924); The Mad Whirl (1925); Lady Windermere's Fan (1925); Ben-Hur (1926); The Jazz Singer (1927); A Reno Divorce (1927); The Lion and the Mouse (1928); The Terror (UK, 1928); Two Girls on Broadway (1940); Luxury Liner (1948); Mystery Street (1950); Executive Suite (1954); Gun Glory (1957).

May McAvoy was born in New York City in 1901, into a well-off family of Scots-Irish ancestry who owned extensive livery stables on a stretch of Park Avenue where the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel would later be built. She dreamed of becoming an actress from an early age, although her mother would have preferred that she become a schoolteacher, and dropped out of high school around 1916. At the time, Hollywood had not fully supplanted New York City as the center of the motion-picture industry, and McAvoy began applying to casting agencies in Manhattan. Initially, she received modeling jobs instead, including an advertisement for Domino Sugar; her first real film role came as an ingenue in Hate (1917), which led to steady work in the Pathé studio's silent films. In 1919, she played one of the title character's many children in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, the second film version of Alice Hegan Rice 's 1901 novel. McAvoy received good reviews for her work in the 1921 film Sentimental Tommy (adapted from a short story by J.M. Barrie), and, though the film was not a commercial success, won a contract with Paramount, which required her to move to the West Coast.

McAvoy made numerous films in Hollywood, becoming a well-known screen presence; the poet Carl Sandburg sang her praises when he was still a film critic for a Chicago daily. Famed director Cecil B. De Mille wanted to cast her in Adam's Rib, but when she learned her costume

would be virtually nonexistent, she declined. Because of this Paramount stopped giving her leading roles, but she was savvy enough to buy out her contract with the studio and work as a free agent, immediately tripling her fee. Over the next few years, she appeared in such films as The Enchanted Cottage (1924), Ernst Lubitsch's Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), and opposite heartthrob Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur, a film that cinema historians would later refer to as the last great epic of the silent period. There were reportedly numerous problems on the set during production of Ben-Hur because of an army of well-paid technicians and extras interested in extending the length of their employment. The movie went into cost overruns and was consistently thwarted by acts of sabotage; there were even threats of a plot to kidnap McAvoy. While she was talking one day to the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was visiting the production, a nearby set erupted in flames.

In 1927, she signed a contract with Warner Bros., which cast her opposite Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the film that introduced spoken dialogue. McAvoy also appeared in the first British talkie, The Terror (1928), after which she dropped from sight. Many stars of silent films, whose fans never would have known of their regional accents or squeaky voices, found their careers unexpectedly terminated with the introduction of sound, and there were rumors that McAvoy had been dropped because she had a lisp. In fact, in 1929 she had married Maurice G. Cleary, an executive at United Artists who later worked for Lockheed Martin, and retired to Beverly Hills to devote her time to raising their son. (They would later divorce.) May McAvoy appeared on the Los Angeles stage occasionally, and returned to the screen as a contract player for MGM in the 1940s and 1950s. She died in 1984.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of…? 3rd Series. NY: Crown Publishers, 1970.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Stars of the Silents. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1987, pp. 64–75.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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