O’Hara, Maureen (1920–2015), actor, was born Maureen FitzSimons on 17 August 1920 at the family home at 32 Upper Beechwood Avenue in Ranelagh, Dublin. Her father, Charles Stewart Parnell FitzSimons, managed a high-end clothing company and was part-owner of Dublin’s Shamrock Rovers FC. Her mother, Marguerita (Rita) FitzSimons (née Lilburn), was a clothes designer, actress and singer. Maureen, the second of six children (four girls and two boys), reminisced in her 2004 memoir, ’Tis herself, about the happy and creative house she grew up in: all of her siblings were drawn to the arts and enjoyed varying degrees of success in music, dance, theatre and film. A spirited and independent child, she enjoyed climbing trees and fishing in the Dodder river; she played soccer with boys and regularly attended Shamrock Rovers’ matches at Glenmalure Park in Milltown.
She attended the girls’ primary school on John Street West off Thomas Street, Dublin, and secondary school with the Sisters of Charity in Milltown, Dublin. At the age of six she gave her first performance at a school concert and was ‘bitten by the acting bug that night … I wanted to become the greatest actress of all time!’ (’Tis herself, 13). Shortly thereafter she was enrolled in the Ena Mary Burke School of Elocution and Drama, as well as taking singing and dance lessons, and joining the Rathmines Theatre Company. She entered and won various amateur acting competitions and feiseanna, and earned her first professional fees with roles in radio dramas for 2RN (later Radio Éireann).
In 1934, aged fourteen, she joined the Abbey Theatre company, initially doing background jobs such as set building and cleaning. After a year at the Abbey, she started getting walk-on parts in bigger productions, slowly progressing to parts with one or two lines. Just before she performed her first substantial role at the Abbey aged seventeen, she was ‘discovered’ by visiting American entertainer Harry Richman. He recommended her for a screen test in London. While at Elstree Studios a few days later, she was invited to deliver one line in Richman’s comedy, Kicking the moon around (1938), marking her uncredited film debut.
The screen test, however, did not go well: ‘They dressed me in a gold lamé gown … and transformed me with heavy makeup into a Mata Hari look-alike … I looked like a ten-dollar hooker’ (’Tis herself, 20). A meeting with actor Charles Laughton at his Mayflower Pictures production company was more fruitful, and she was offered a seven-year contract. Her first film was My Irish Molly (1938), a low-budget musical and the only film in which she appeared under her real name. Her next role was in Jamaica Inn (1939), based on the best-selling novel by Daphne du Maurier, co-starring Laughton and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Her performance was confident and well-reviewed. When it came to publicising the film, Laughton told her that her surname was too long for marquees and would have to be shortened: thus Maureen O’Hara was born.
While filming in England, she met production team member George Brown, and was persuaded to date him by a mutual friend. By her account Brown was dogged in his romantic pursuit, and in her naivety she consented, aged eighteen, to a hasty marriage on 13 June 1939, just prior to leaving for Hollywood to shoot her next film with Laughton, The hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), starring Laughton as Quasimodo and O’Hara as Esmeralda. Brown was meant to join her later in Hollywood but was prevented by the outbreak of the second world war. The marriage was annulled in 1941. O’Hara’s mother had accompanied her to Hollywood in June 1939 and the two became effectively trapped there when travel to and from Europe was barred. It would be some time before either could return to Ireland: Rita FitzSimons via a circuitous route in 1941, O’Hara in 1946.
On the set of The hunchback of Notre Dame O’Hara became friendly with dialogue director William Price, a charming Mississippian who became her frequent companion at social events. She again blundered into a marriage in December 1941 in which her feelings were not engaged: ‘Like a half-witted idiot, I jumped from the frying pan into the fire and became Mrs William Houston Price’ (’Tis herself, 73). This second marriage would be a tumultuous one: Price was reportedly an alcoholic and lavish spender of O’Hara’s film-star income, buying a succession of ostentatious houses at desirable Los Angeles addresses. The marriage lasted ten years and they had one child, Bronwyn (1944–2016). Over the years many of O’Hara’s family members, including her parents, joined her in California.
Although Hunchback was a resounding popular and critical success, Laughton broke the news to O’Hara that his production company was in financial trouble and that he had sold her contract to RKO Pictures. In her memoir, O’Hara maintained that had she not been bound by the RKO contract and been able to return to Europe earlier, she would have become a more serious, character-actor: ‘But the studios had different plans for me. Hollywood would never allow my talent to triumph over my face’ (p. 47).
After three mediocre films with RKO, she was offered a role in the Welsh coal-mining epic How green was my valley (1941) directed by John Ford (qv) for 20th Century Fox. It was the first of five films she would make with Ford and it won five Oscars in 1942, including best picture, beating Citizen Kane. A significant portion of O’Hara’s 2004 memoir is devoted to recalling her intense and often troubled friendship with Ford, the son of emigrants from Spiddal, Co. Galway. She became a regular visitor to his home and spent many weekends with the Ford family aboard their yacht, the Araner. In 1942 Ford offered O’Hara the lead in a film that would take another ten years to be made: The quiet man (1952). The two worked together over the next several years to develop the draft script while Ford tried in vain to secure financial backing for the project. Their relationship soured over time, particularly after The quiet man was finally filmed, and in her memoir O’Hara recounts various incidents of cruel and sometimes bizarre behaviour from Ford, who she characterised as domineering and volatile.
Despite her hopes, she was not offered serious dramatic roles after the success of How green was my valley, and instead continued to be cast in either middle-of-the-road fare or outright ‘stinkeroos’. Her next film, To the shores of Tripoli (1942), was her first in Technicolour. O’Hara would later be declared the ‘queen of Technicolour’, the process accentuating her red hair, hazel eyes and pale skin. She felt this moniker hindered rather than helped her career, keeping her trapped in ‘decorative roles’ filmed in Technicolour.
She appeared in over sixty films throughout her long career. Trapped in the studio system for much of that time, she had little choice in the roles assigned to her, many of which she thought trite and forgettable. She did, however, often enjoy her roles in adventure films. She relished the opportunity to perform her own stunts or brandish a sword in big-budget swashbucklers such as The black swan (1942 with Tyrone Power), At sword’s point (filmed 1949, released 1952) and Against all flags (1952 with Errol Flynn), and westerns such as Comanche territory (1949) for which she mastered the American bullwhip so well she ‘could snap a cigarette out of someone’s mouth’ (’Tis herself, 131).
Despite the poor quality of many of her films, she established herself as one of the leading Hollywood stars of the 1940s and 1950s. Some of her best roles came later in her career, and she enjoyed a resurgence in the early 1960s, before retiring from film for two decades from the early 1970s. The roles she, and critics, rated the most highly from the first part of her career were her first two with Laughton, Jamaica Inn and The hunchback of Notre Dame; three of her five films with Ford: How green was my valley, Rio Grande (1950, her first film opposite John Wayne, who became a close friend) and The quiet man (her personal favourite); the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947); Our man in Havana (1959) alongside Alec Guinness (while filming on location in Cuba she met Fidel Castro and befriended Che Guevara); the Walt Disney produced smash hit, The parent trap (1961); and Mr Hobbs takes a vacation (1962), opposite James Stewart.
O’Hara also had aspirations as a singer and performed songs in some of her films as the story required but was passed up for musicals (in her memoir she sorrowfully recounts losing the part of Anna in The king and I to Deborah Kerr). During the late 1950s, with the advent of big-name variety television programmes, she was frequently invited to sing on the shows of Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Andy Williams and others. She made two albums: Love letters from Maureen O’Hara (1960) and Maureen O’Hara sings her favorite Irish songs (1963), and was cast in the lead role of a Broadway musical ‘Christine’, which closed after just one week in April 1960.
The year before she divorced her estranged husband William Price (August 1952), O’Hara was introduced to banker Enrique Parra while attending the Mexican Film Festival, and they became romantically involved. They were together for fifteen, mostly happy, years, with O’Hara regularly visiting Mexico City for extended stays, enrolling her daughter in school there. They did not marry (Parra never divorced) and parted company in 1967. In March 1957 gossip magazine Confidential published a salacious piece claiming that O’Hara was caught in flagrante with a ‘Latin lover’ (presumed to mean Parra) in the back row of famed Hollywood cinema, Grauman’s Chinese Theater. O’Hara sued the magazine for libel, leading to a high-profile case that was ultimately settled out of court in July 1958 for an undisclosed amount. Confidential went out of business shortly thereafter.
After Parra, O’Hara began a relationship with the world-renowned pilot Charles Blair and the two married on 12 March 1968. They moved to St Croix in the US Virgin Islands where Blair established a new inter-island airline. O’Hara completed three further films before retiring from the film business: the unsuccessful How do I love thee? (1969) with Jackie Gleason; the better performing but still underwhelming, Big Jake (1970), her last film with John Wayne; and a made-for-television western, The red pony (1973), with Henry Fonda, which she considered among her best performances. She happily left the limelight behind. As well as helping her husband with his business, in 1976 she became publisher of the magazine Virgin Islander: ‘Life with Charlie on that island had brought me more happiness and joy than all my days in Hollywood ever had’ (’Tis herself, 265). The couple also bought ‘Lugdine’ a house in Glengarriff, west Cork, as their Irish bolthole.
In spring 1978 O’Hara was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and after treatment in Los Angeles travelled to Lugdine with her sister Florrie to recuperate. Blair visited her there but was called away to work, and shortly after was killed in a plane accident. The devastated O’Hara was suspicious about the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death. She believed that his airline, which employed a number of ex-military men, also completed reconnaissance flights over Cuba and that there was perhaps some connection between this activity and his death. The following year in 1979 she lost her closest friend, John Wayne, to cancer.
After these losses, O’Hara sold the airline (she became president after her husband’s death) and magazine, and divided her time between St Croix, Los Angeles and New York, with summers in Glengarriff, where she established the annual General Charles F. Blair and Maureen O’Hara Golf Classic and the Maureen O’Hara Foundation, which focused on film studies. In late 1989, while in New York, she suffered a series of heart attacks and underwent emergency surgery. After making a full recovery, the next year, her seventieth, she returned to the screen as the tough Irish mother to John Candy’s character in the well-received Only the lonely (1990). Over the following ten years she made a further three popular made-for-television films.
In 2004 Maureen O’Hara published her memoir ’Tis herself with the assistance of her manager John Nicoletti. In it she depicts herself as a contradictory figure, a tough dame who was frequently cowed by the men in her life: her first two husbands, John Ford and various film executives. It is peppered with salacious gossip and stories of how she was frequently exploited, betrayed or disappointed by the movie world: a Hollywood story.
After suffering a stroke in 2005 she made Glengarriff her permanent home, and in 2006 power of attorney was granted to her personal assistant, Carolyn Murphy. In 2012 her family and social services responded to accusations that she was being forced to make too many public appearances while in poor health, and that her funds were being misappropriated. At the time O’Hara was suffering short-term memory loss, as well as Type 2 diabetes, and using a wheelchair. The FitzSimons family decided to move the then ninety-two-year-old O’Hara from Cork to Idaho, to be looked after by her grandson, Conor, while a legal battle was waged over power of attorney. A defamation suit was brought by Carolyn Murphy against O’Hara’s nephew Charlie FitzSimons, and he would ultimately have to pay damages and apologise to Murphy, who he had accused of financial misconduct. In May 2013 O’Hara made a rare public appearance in Winterset, Iowa, for the ground-breaking for the new John Wayne Birthplace Museum. The following year, the ninety-four-year-old O’Hara finally received an honorary Oscar in recognition of her long film career.
On 24 October 2015 Maureen O’Hara died in her sleep from natural causes at her home in Boise, Idaho, aged ninety-five. She is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with her late husband Charles Blair. She was survived by her daughter Bronwyn, her grandson Conor FitzSimons, and two great-grandchildren. Bronwyn FitzSimons died in May 2016 in Glengarriff, aged seventy-one.
O’Hara received numerous awards and accolades over the years. These included a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7004 Hollywood Boulevard (1960), an honorary degree from the NUI, Galway (1988), a fellowship of the British Film Institute (1993) and a lifetime achievement award from the Irish Film and Television Academy (2004). Named ‘Irish American of the year’ in 2005 by Irish America magazine, she was inducted into its hall of fame in 2011. In 2012 she received the freedom of the town of Kells, Co. Meath, where her father had been born, and a sculpture in her honour was unveiled there. She herself was most proud of her dual citizenship, having become the first American citizen to have the nationality ‘Irish’ as opposed to ‘English’ recognised in her citizenship paperwork (after a fight); of being the first female president of a scheduled airline company; and of being grand marshal of New York City’s St Patrick’s Day parade in 1999. Above all, she was proudest of her portrayal of Mary Kate Danaher in The quiet man, the most enduringly popular of all her films. In 2020 Maureen O’Hara was rated the top Irish actor of all time by the film critics of the Irish Times.