Maureen O’Hara was arguably the most successful Hollywood actress that Ireland has ever produced. She was at the height of her fame in the 1940s and 50s and was honoured with countless awards throughout her career.
Her most famous roles were generally opposite her long-time friend John Wayne, with whom she starred in the Quiet Man, directed by the legendary John Ford. O’Hara died peacefuilly in her sleep on 24 October, 2015 at her home in the United States with her family close to her. She was 95.
Maurren O’Hara was born in Dublin in 1920, with both her parents working in the clothing industry. She was trained in drama, singing and dance at the Abbey Theatre and was involved in amateur productions from a very young age.
Despite her flair for performing, O’Hara’s father was insistent that she must not become over-reliant on a career in acting, so she gained a qualification in bookkeeping.
O’Hara did pursue an acting career though, and received her first big break when she was invited to London for an audition. She was dressed up with excessive make-up and hair and an extravagant costume and has since revealed that she thought: “If this is the movies, I want nothing to do with them!”
It was worth it though, as one of the people present was actor Charles Laughton who was impressed by O’Hara and persuaded his friend to watch a film clip of the audition. O’Hara’s deep eyes were reportedly what grabbed Laughton’s attention and his friend agreed. They offered O’Hara a seven-year contract with their company, Mayflower Pictures.
In 1939 O’Hara had her first part in a major film in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn. A role in Hollywood production the Hunchback of Notre Dame soon followed, with Laughton casting O’Hara as Esmeralda. Around this time she married film producer George H Brown but their happiness was short-lived and the marriage was annulled after just a couple of years.
O’Hara’s blossoming career also came under serious threat by the outbreak of World War II. Mayflower Pictures, who she was signed to, could no longer make films in London because of the threat of a bomb attack. O’Hara’s contract was sold to Hollywood firm RKO, and her career suffered without the guidance and clout of Laughton behind her. She was now playing bit parts and minor movies and it seemed her career was in decline.
That was until John Ford cast her in his 1941 Academy Award winning picture, How Green Was My Valley. O’Hara starred in the emotional tale, and Ford was instantly taken with her.
With one of Hollywood’s biggest directors now a huge fan, O’Hara never looked back and had lead roles in several major movies over the next decade. Ford often cast her opposite John Wayne, believing the onscreen chemistry between the two added an intangible emotion and tension to his films.
In total O’Hara and Wayne starred in five films together, the most famous one undoubtedly being The Quiet Man.
O’Hara was granted American citizenship on 25 January 1946. She married William Houston Price and the two had a daughter together. The marriage was not a happy one though, with Price a heavy drinker and the two separated in 1953. A biography written about O’Hara’s life claimed that she was the victim of an abusive bully in Price, and he was wrestling with his sexuality during their marriage.
On screen O’Hara’s life was going from strength to strength as she starred in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, as the cynical single mother of a young girl who doesn’t want her child to believe in Santa Claus. However, by the end of the heart-warming story, the girl has her wishes for a house, a dad and a baby brother granted by Santa. A remake of the film was made in 1994, which people of a younger generation may recognise.
In 1953 O’Hara entered into a long term relationship with Mexican politician Enrique Parra. The two were an item for more than a decade but never married. O’Hara described their time together: “Enrique saved me from the darkness of an abusive marriage and brought me back into the warm light of life again. Leaving him was one of the most painful things I have ever had to do.”
She married for the third time in 1968, to Charles F Blair Jr, a former member of the US Air Force and a pioneer in aviation. Tragically, Blair was taken from O’Hara after just ten years of marriage, when an engine on his plane exploded during a flight. O’Hara donated his seaplane, a Sikorsky VS-44A, “The Queen of the Skies” to the New England Air Museum.
Because of her star quality as a heroine on screen, O’Hara was never given the opportunity to showcase her soprano singing voice in Hollywood.
Understandably, directors didn’t want to change her image with the public, given that she was such a success.
She did get the opportunity to sing to an audience though on various television programmes in the 50s and 60s. She also starred in a Broadway musical Christine and released two albums, Love Letters from Maureen O’Hara and Maureen O’Hara Sings Her Favourite Irish Songs.
She continued to act, but less frequently and her last major film role came in 1991, when she played John Candy’s mother in Only the Lonely. She wrote her autobiography, ‘Tis Yourself, in 2004. She has been honoured by several film companies in Ireland and the USA. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7004 Hollywood Blvd and has also received the Irish Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award.
O’Hara will forever be remembered as one of the most beautiful and talented actresses of the early Hollywood era. She lived in Idaho with her grandson until her death in 2015.
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