“I got to star in my own movies. I even had my name above the title in some cases. But what am I known for? My bit part. It’s very funny”. ~ Evelyn Keyes, referring to her role as Suellen O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”
Evelyn Louise Keyes was an American film actress best-known for her role as Suellen O’Hara in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind”. She was born on November 20, 1916 in Port Arthur, Texas to Omar Dow Keyes and Maude Ollive Keyes, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Her father died when she was two years old, and she and her only brother and three sisters grew up living with her mother and her grandmother in Atlanta, Georgia. As a teenager, Keyes took voice, dance and piano lessons. Working as a chorus girl she performed for local clubs such as the Daughters of the Confederacy. Keyes moved to California at age twenty and shortly after her arrival in Los Angeles, a chance meeting with legendary director/producer Cecil B. Demille led to a Paramount contract. Her first role with DeMille was a small part in his pirate epic “The Buccaneer” (1938). After roles in a small handful of B movies she had another small part in a DeMille movie, the sprawling railroad saga “Union Pacific” (1939). It was David O. Selznick who gave her the part of Suellen O’Hara, who loses her beau to the more calculating Scarlett in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). Keyes then signed with Columbia Pictures and in 1941, she played an ingenue role in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”. She spent most of the early 1940s playing leads in many of Columbia’s B dramas and mysteries. She appeared as the female lead opposite Larry Parks in Columbia’s blockbuster hit “The Jolson Story” (1946) and as Kathy Flannigan in “Mrs. Mike” (1949). Keyes’ last major film role was a small part as Tom Ewell’s vacationing wife in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), which starred Marilyn Monroe. Keyes officially retired in 1956, but continued to act, appearing occasionally on television in shows such as “Love Boat” and “Murder She Wrote” among others.
Evelyn Keyes was married four times. The first to Barton Oliver Bainbridge Sr. from 1938 until his death from suicide in 1940. She then married director Charles Vidor in 1943. They divorced in 1945. Her next marriage was to actor/director John Huston on July 23, 1946. They divorced in February of 1950. Keyes last marriage was to bandleader Artie Shaw in 1957 and lasted until their divorce in 1985. While married to Huston, the couple adopted a Mexican child, Pablo, whom Huston had discovered while on the set of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948).
Keyes was also a writer and wrote a novel entitled “I Am a Billboard” which told the story of a Southern girl who becomes an overnight star in Hollywood and the trials and tribulations she endures as a result. The storyline paralleled her own life in many ways.
In her 1977 autobiography, “Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister”, Keyes writes of the personal cost she paid by having an abortion just before “Gone with the Wind” was to begin filming which left her unable to have children. She also recounts her marriages and multiple Hollywood affairs. Among the affairs she recounted were those to producer Michael Todd (who left Keyes for Elizabeth Taylor), Anthony Quinn, David Niven and Kirk Douglas. Keyes said of her many relationships, “I was always interested in the man of the moment, and there were many such moments.”
Evelyn Keyes died of uterine cancer on July 4, 2008, at the Peppers Estate Care Home in Montecito, California, near Santa Barbara. She had also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.