Sullavan, Margaret (1911–1960)

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Sullavan, Margaret (1911–1960)

American actress, known for her moving performance in Three Comrades and her light touch in The Shop Around the Corner. Born Margaret Brooke Sullavan on May 16, 1911, in Norfolk, Virginia; died on January 1, 1960, of an overdose of barbiturates; daughter of Cornelius H. Sullivan (a broker) and Garland (Council) Sullavan; attended Miss Turnbull's Norfolk Tutoring School for Girls; attended the Walter Herron Taylor School, St. George's, and Chatham Episcopal Institute; attended Sullins College, Bristol, Virginia; married Henry Fonda (an actor), in 1930 (divorced within a year); married William Wyler (a director), in 1934 (divorced 1936); married Leland Hayward (a producer-agent), in 1936 (divorced); married a businessman; children: daughters, Brooke Hayward (an author) and Bridget Hayward.

Selected theater:

made stage debut as Isabella Parry in Strictly Dishonorable (1930); made Broadway debut in A Modern Virgin (1931); appeared as Paula Jordan in Dinner at Eight (1932), Terry Randall in Stage Door (1936), Sally in The Voice of the Turtle (1943), Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea (1952); Sabrina Fair (1953); Janus (1955).

Selected filmography:

Only Yesterday (1933); Little Man What Now? (1934); The Good Fairy (1935); So Red the Rose (1935); Next Time We Love (1936); The Moon's Our Home (1936); Three Comrades (1938); The Shopworn Angel (1938); The Shining Hour (1938); The Shop Around the Corner (1940); The Mortal Storm (1940); Back Street (1941); So Ends Our Night (1941); Appointment for Love (1941); Cry Havoc (1943); No Sad Songs for Me (1950).

A magnetic and versatile actress who was successful on both stage and screen, Margaret Sullavan is remembered primarily for her wrenching performance as Robert Taylor's tubercular wife in the film Three Comrades (1938), and for her portrayal of the struggling young actress in John van Druten's stage play The Voice of the Turtle (1943), for which she won the New

York Drama Critics' award. Never happy with the business of making movies, Sullavan turned her back on Hollywood at the height of her success, but continued to work on stage, although advancing deafness made it necessary for her to read lips in order to continue to perform.

Sullavan was born in 1911 in Norfolk, Virginia, the daughter of Garland Sullavan and Cornelius H. Sullivan, a successful financial broker. High spirited as a child, she was sent to a variety of strict private schools but never lost her willfulness. Her love of acting began with recitations in the family parlor at the age of six and continued throughout her school days, although her mother and father strongly disapproved of the stage as a career. At 17, having compromised with her parents, she went off to Boston, ostensibly to study dance, but after three weeks she transferred to drama school, supporting herself by clerking in a local department store. In the summer of 1928, she joined the University Players Guild, a group of students from Harvard, Princeton, and Smith College who produced plays on Cape Cod. Sullavan left after the first season to return home for her coming-out party, but returned the following season, more determined than ever to become an actress. In 1930, she was chosen to play Isabella Perry in the Southern company of Strictly Dishonorable, her first substantial role to date. That year, she also married Henry Fonda, then a fellow actor in the Guild. The marriage lasted less than a year.

In 1931, Sullavan made her Broadway debut in the leading role of A Modern Virgin, an illfated play that lasted for only 29 performances. Over the course of the next two years, she appeared in four more doomed productions, although her reputation as an actress continued to grow. In 1933, she replaced Marguerite Churchill in the role of Paula Jordan in the hit play Dinner at Eight. During the run, she signed a three-year contract with Universal Pictures, with the provision that she have summers free to work in the theater. From the onset, however, Sullavan was less than enthralled about acting in films, largely because she felt she had yet to prove herself as a stage actress. "Acting in the movies is just like ditch-digging," she told one executive. (After viewing the rushes of her first film Only Yesterday, she reportedly offered the studio $2,500 to release her from contract.) Though Sullavan may have been a problem to the studio heads, she absolutely delighted moviegoers.

While filming her third movie, The Good Fairy (1933), Sullavan married her director William Wyler. Their romance was the result of a series of disagreements between the two which culminated in a dinner engagement and a subsequent meeting of the minds. The union lasted until 1936, when Sullavan's movie contract expired and she returned to New York to play a small role in the Broadway play Stage Door. During the run of the show, she married her Hollywood agent Leland Hayward and moved back to California. Following a brief hiatus, during which time her two children, Brooke and Bridget, were born, she returned to the screen under a six-film deal Hayward had arranged for her at MGM. Friends reported at the time that her happy married life had changed Sullavan. "She is much calmer, softer, and is completely domesticated," said one.

Sullavan's later films were slightly more weighty and allowed her to extend her range. Notable was her touching performance in Three Comrades (1938), for which she won the New York Drama Critics' Best Actress award and the Picturegoer Gold Medal. One of her best comic roles ("a performance of impish and infinite delicacy," according to David Shipman) was in The Shop Around the Corner (1940), co-starring James Stewart and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. In 1942, after filming Cry Havoc (1943), Sullavan returned to Broadway to play Sally, a young actress who falls in love with an army sergeant on leave, in The Voice of the Turtle, a play in which she had also invested some money. Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune proclaimed her portrayal "impeccably right … little short of magnificent…. She reads her lines and plays her business so aptly that there is no questioning the fact that she is the finest actress of our day in the theater." After a considerable run, the play went to London in 1947, but failed to repeat its American success. It was later made into a movie with Eleanor Parker .

In 1950, Sullavan returned to films for the final time, to play a young woman dying of cancer in No Sad Songs for Me. Her stage career flourished, however, with performances in The Deep Blue Sea (1952), Sabrina Fair (1953), and Janus (1954). Along the way, she divorced Hayward and married a businessman. In 1960, depressed by the prognosis of her encroaching deafness, the actress took her own life by consuming an overdose of barbiturates. In 1977, Sullavan's daughter Brooke Hayward published the bestselling Haywire (1977), about herself, her mother, and her father.


Boardman, Gerald. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. NY: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography 1944. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1944.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Sullavan, Margaret (1911–1960)

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