Best known for her role opposite James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner.
Little Man, What Now?
The Good Fairy
So Red the Rose
Next Time We Love
The Moon’s Our Home
The Shining Hour
The Mortal Storm
So Ends Our Night
Appointment for Love
No Sad Songs for Me
Perhaps I’ll get used to this bizarre place called Hollywood, but I doubt it. ~ Margaret Sullavan
Margaret Sullavan was born May 16, 1909, in Norfolk, Virginia, the daughter of a wealthy stockbroker, Cornelius Sullavan, and his wife, Garland Brooke. She had a younger brother, Cornelius, and a half-sister, Louise Gregory. The first years of her childhood were spent isolated from other children. She suffered from a painful muscular weakness in the legs that prevented her from walking, so that she was unable to socialize with other children until the age of six. After her recovery she emerged as an adventurous and tomboyish child who preferred playing with the children from the poorer neighborhood, much to the disapproval of her class-conscious parents.
She 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. She 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, Sullavan defiantly paid her way as a clerk in the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore (The Coop), located in Harvard Square, Cambridge
Sullavan succeeded in getting a chorus part in the Harvard Dramatic Society 1929 spring production Close Up, a musical written by Harvard senior Bernard Hanighen, who was later a composer for Broadway and Hollywood. The President of the Harvard Dramatic Society, Charles Leatherbee, along with the President of Princeton’s Theatre Intime, Bretaigne Windust, who together had established the University Players on Cape Cod the summer before, persuaded Sullavan to join them for their second summer season. Another member of the University Players was Henry Fonda, who had the comic lead in Close Up. In the summer of 1929 Sullavan appeared opposite Fonda in The Devil in the Cheese, her debut on the professional stage. She returned for most of the University Players’ 1930 season. In 1931, she squeezed in one production with the University Players between the closing of the Broadway production of A Modern Virgin in July and its tour in September. She rejoined the University Players for most of their 18-week 1930-31 winter season in Baltimore.
Sullavan’s parents did not approve of her choice of career. She played the lead in Strictly Dishonorable (1930) by Preston Sturges, which her parents attended. Confronted with her evident talent, their objections ceased.
She married actor Henry Fonda on December 25, 1931 while both were performing with the University Players in its 18-week winter season in Baltimore. Sullavan and Fonda separated after two months and divorced in 1933. After separating from Fonda, Sullavan began a relationship with Broadway producer Jed Harris.
In March 1933, Sullavan replaced another actor in Dinner at Eight in New York. Movie director John M. Stahl happened to be watching the play and was intrigued by Sullavan. He decided she would be perfect for a picture he was planning, Only Yesterday. At that time Sullavan had already turned down offers for five-year contracts from Paramount and Columbia. Sullavan was offered a three-year, two-pictures-a-year contract 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. Later on in her career, Sullavan would sign only short-term contracts because she did not want to be “owned” by any studio.
Sullavan arrived in Hollywood on May 16, 1933, her 24th birthday. Her film debut came that same year in Only Yesterday. She chose her scripts carefully. She was dissatisfied with her performance in Only Yesterday. When she saw herself in the early rushes, she had been so appalled that she had tried to buy out her contract for $2,500, but Universal refused.
She followed that role with one in Little Man, What Now? (1934), about a couple struggling to survive in impoverished post–World War I Germany.
Originally, Universal had been reluctant to make a movie about unemployment, starvation and homelessness, but Little Man had been an important project to Sullavan. After Only Yesterday she wanted to try “the real thing”. She later said that it had been one of the few things she had done in Hollywood that gave her a great measure of satisfaction. The Good Fairy (1935) was a comedy that Sullavan chose to illustrate her versatility. During the production, she married its director, William Wyler and divorced in March 1936.
King Vidor’s So Red the Rose (1935) dealt with people in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. It preceded the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, which became a bestseller, by one year and its resulting film adaptation by four years; the latter became a blockbuster. Sullavan played a childish Southern belle who matures into a responsible woman. The film also dealt with the situation of characters who were freed black slaves.
In Next Time We Love (1936), Sullavan plays opposite the then-unknown James Stewart. She had been campaigning for Stewart to be her leading man and the studio complied for fear that she would stage a threatened strike. The film dealt with a married couple who had grown apart over the years. The plot was unconvincing and simple, but the gentle interplay between Sullavan and Stewart saves the movie from being a soapy and sappy experience. Next Time We Love was the first of four films made by Sullavan and Stewart.
In the comedy The Moon’s Our Home (1936), Sullavan played opposite her ex-husband Henry Fonda. The original script was rather pallid, and Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were brought in to punch up the dialogue, reportedly at Sullavan’s insistence. Sullavan and Fonda play a newly married couple, and the movie is a cavalcade of insults and quips. Her seventh film, Three Comrades (1938), is a drama set in post–World War I Germany. Three returning German soldiers meet Sullavan who joins them and eventually marries one of them. She gained an Oscar nomination for her role and was named the year’s best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle. Sullavan reunited with Stewart in The Shopworn Angel (1938). Stewart played a sweet, naive Texan soldier on his way to Europe (World War I) who marries Sullavan on the way. Her ninth film was the rather soapy The Shining Hour (1938), playing the suicidal sister to Joan Crawford. In The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Sullavan and Stewart worked together again, playing colleagues who do not get along at work, but have both responded to a lonely-hearts ad and are (without knowing it) exchanging letters with each other.
The Mortal Storm (1940) was the last movie Sullavan and Stewart did together. Sullavan played a young German girl engaged in 1933 to a confirmed Nazi (Robert Young). When she realizes the true nature of his political views, she breaks the engagement and turns her attention to anti-Nazi Stewart. Later, trying to flee the Nazi regime, Sullavan and Stewart attempt to ski across the border to safety in Austria. Sullavan is gunned down by the Nazis (under orders from her ex-fiance). Stewart, at her request, picks up the dying Sullavan and takes her by skis into Austria, so she can die in what was still a free country.
A 1940 court decision obligated Sullavan to fulfill her original 1933 agreement with Universal, requiring her to make two more films for them. Back Street (1941) came first. The light comedy, Appointment for Love (1941), was Sullavan’s last picture with that company. In the film, Sullavan appeared with Boyer again. Boyer’s character marries Sullavan, who tells him that his past affairs mean nothing to her. She insists that each must have an apartment in the same building and that they meet only once a day, at seven o’clock in the morning. Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943) is a World War II drama and a rare all-female film. Sullavan played the strong mother figure who keeps a crew of nurses in line in a dugout in Bataan, while they are awaiting the advance of Japanese soldiers who are about to take over. It was the last film Sullavan made with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After its completion, she was free of all film commitments. She had often referred to MGM and Universal as “jails”.
Sullavan married Leland Hayward in 1936, Hayward had been Sullavan’s agent since 1931. At the time of the marriage, Sullavan was pregnant with the couple’s first child, a daughter named Brooke who later became an actress. The couple had two more children, Bridget (1939-October 17, 1960) and William III “Bill” (1941-2008), who later became film producer and attorney.
They moved to a colonial house just a block down from Stewart. Stewart’s frequent visits to the Sullavan/Hayward home soon restoked the rumors of his romantic feelings for Sullavan. Sullavan and Stewart’s second movie together was The Shopworn Angel (1938).
Sullavan took a break from films from 1943 to 1950. Throughout her career, Sullavan seemed to prefer the stage to the movies. She felt that only on the stage could she improve her skills as an actor.
Another reason for her early retirement from the screen (1943) was that she wanted to spend more time with her children, Brooke, Bridget and Bill (then 6, 4 and 2 years old). She felt that she had been neglecting them and felt guilty about it. Sullavan would still do stage work on occasion. From 1943-44 she played the sexually inexperienced but curious Sally Middleton in The Voice of the Turtle (by John Van Druten) on Broadway and later in London (1947). After her short return to the screen in 1950 with No Sad Songs for Me, she did not return to the stage until 1952. Her choice then was as the suicidal Hester Collyer, who meets a fellow sufferer, Mr. Miller (played by Herbert Berghof), in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. In 1953 she agreed to appear in Sabrina Fair by Samuel Taylor.
She came back to the screen in 1950 to do one last picture, No Sad Songs for Me. She played a fifties suburban wife and mother who learns that she will die of cancer within a year and who then determines to find a “second” wife for her soon-to-be-widower husband (Wendell Corey). Natalie Wood, then eleven, plays their daughter. After No Sad Songs for Me and its favorable reviews, Sullavan had several offers for other films, but she decided to concentrate on the stage for the rest of her career.
In 1950, Sullavan married English investment banker Kenneth Wagg. They remained married until her death in 1960.
Sullavan’s children, Brooke, and in particular Bridget and Bill, often proved rebellious and contrary. As a result of the divorce from Hayward, the family fell apart. Sullavan felt that Hayward was trying to alienate their children from her. When the children went to California to visit their father they were so spoiled with expensive gifts that, when they returned to their mother in Connecticut, they were deeply discontented with what they saw as a staid lifestyle.
By 1955, when Sullavan’s two younger children told their mother that they preferred to stay with their father permanently, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Sullavan’s eldest daughter, Brooke, wrote about the breakdown in her 1977 autobiography Haywire: Sullavan had humiliated herself by begging her son to stay with her. He remained adamant and his mother had started to cry. “This time she couldn’t stop. Even from my room the sound was so painful I went into my bathroom and put my hands on my ears”. In another scene from the book, a friend of the family (Millicent Osborne) had been alarmed by the sound of whimpering from the bedroom: “She walked in and found mother under the bed, huddled up in a fetal position. Kenneth was trying to get her out. The more authoritative his tone of voice, the farther under she crawled. Millicent Osborne took him aside and urged him to speak gently, to let her stay there until she came out of her own accord”. Eventually Sullavan agreed to spend some time (two and a half months) in a private mental institution. Her two younger children, Bridget and Bill, also spent time in various institutions. Bridget died of a drug overdose in October 1960, while Bill died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in March 2008.
On January 1, 1960, at about 5:30 p.m., Sullavan was found in bed, barely alive and unconscious, in a hotel room in New Haven, Connecticut. Her copy of the script to Sweet Love Remembered, in which she was then starring during its tryout in New Haven, was found open beside her. Sullavan was rushed to Grace New Haven Hospital, but shortly after 6:00 p.m. she was pronounced dead on arrival. She was 50 years old. 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 of barbiturates. The county coroner officially ruled Sullavan’s death an accidental overdose. After a private memorial service was held in Greenwich, Connecticut, Sullavan was interred at Saint Mary’s Whitechapel Episcopal Churchyard in Lancaster, Virginia.