Filled Under: Margaret Sullavan
Margaret Brooke Sullavan (May 16, 1909 – January 1, 1960) was an American stage and film actress who preferred working on the stage, making only sixteen movies during her Hollywood career.
Margaret Sullavan was born May 16, 1909 in Norfolk, Virginia to Cornelius Sullavan, a wealthy stockbroker, and his wife, Garland Brooke. Sullavan attended boarding school at Chatham Episcopal Institute (now Chatham Hall), where she was president of the student body and delivered the salutary oration in 1927. Sullavan moved to Boston and lived with her half-sister, Weedie, where she studied dance at the Boston Denishawn studio and (against her parents’ wishes) drama at the Copley Theatre. When her parents cut her allowance to a minimum, she defiantly paid her way as a clerk in the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore (The Coop), located in Harvard Square, Cambridge. Sullavan began her acting career onstage in early 1929 in a Harvard Dramatic Society musical production entitled Close Up. In the summer of 1929 she made her debut on the professional stage appearing opposite Henry Fonda in The Devil in the Cheese. Sullavan made her debut on Broadway in A Modern Virgin (a comedy by Elmer Harris), on May 20, 1931. After appearing in several Broadway productions Sullavan replaced another actor in Dinner at Eight in March of 1933. Movie director John M. Stahl happened to be watching the play and decided Sullavan would be perfect for a picture he was planning, “Only Yesterday” (1933). Sullavan had already turned down offers from Paramount and Columbia for five-year contracts, but when Stahl offered her a three-year, two-pictures-a-year contract with MGM at $1,200 a week, she accepted it and had a clause put in her contract that allowed her to return to the stage on occasion. Sullavan would continue to only sign short-term contracts because she did not want to be “owned” by any studio. After making “Only Yesterday” Sullavan would go on to make only sixteen movies during her Hollywood acting career, four of which were opposite James Stewart including the popular classic “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) and “Three Comrades” (1938) for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Sullavan’s other movies of note include the profitable and successful WWII drama “Cry Havoc” in 1943 and “Back Street” (1941) which was lauded as one of the best performances of Sullavan’s Hollywood career. Sullavan retired from the screen after making “Cry Havoc”, but returned in 1950 to make her last movie, “No Sad Songs for Me” (1950), in which she plays a woman who is dying of cancer. For the rest of her career Margaret Sullavan would only appear on the stage appearing in several shows on Broadway and in London, England.
When I really learn to act, I may take what I have learned back to Hollywood and display it on the screen”, Sullavan once said in an interview in October 1936, “but as long as the flesh-and-blood theatre will have me, it is to the flesh-and-blood theatre I’ll belong. I really am stage-struck. And if that be treason, Hollywood will have to make the most of it”
Margaret Sullavan was married four times. Her first marriage was to Henry Fonda on December 25, 1931 in Baltimore, while both were performing with the University Players in its 18-week winter season there. The marriage lasted only two months and the couple divorced.
In late 1934, Sullavan married William Wyler, the director of her next movie, “The Good Fairy” (1935). This second marriage lasted just over a year and they divorced in March 1936.
Sullavan’s third husband was agent and producer Leland Hayward. Hayward had been Sullavan’s agent since 1931 and their relationship had been deepening all through 1936. The couple had already become lovers, and Brooke, their “love child”, had been conceived that October. They both wanted the baby and married on November 15, 1936. Sullavan and Hayward would have three children together; Brooke in 1937, Bridget in 1939, and Bill in 1941. The marriage lasted eleven years and ended in 1947 when Sullavan discovered that Hayward was cheating on her with New York socialite and fashion icon Slim Keith.
Her fourth and final marriage was to English investment banker Kenneth Wagg. The couple stayed married until her death in 1960.
In her later life Margaret Sullavan experienced increasing hearing and health problems, depression, and mental frailty in the 1950s. She died of an overdose of barbiturates, which was ruled accidental, on January 1, 1960 at the age of 50. On January 1, 1960, Sullavan was found in bed, barely alive and unconscious, in a hotel room in New Haven, Connecticut. She was rushed to the hospital but died shortly after arrival. No note was found to indicate suicide, and no conclusion was reached as to whether her death was the result of a deliberate or an accidental overdose. The county coroner officially ruled Sullavan’s death an accident. After a private memorial service was held in Greenwich, Connecticut, Margaret Sullavan was interred at Saint Mary’s Whitechapel Episcopal Churchyard in Lancaster, Virginia.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Margaret Sullavan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1751 Vine Street. She was inducted, posthumously, into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.