Norfolk’s Margaret Sullavan Reached Stardom In Hollywood’s Golden Age
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Daisy Heath is a lazy, selfish nightclub diva who has fame, money and beauty—everything but a soul. To her, World War I is a huge inconvenience; the brass bands that accompany the boys marching off to battle only disturb her beauty rest. "It's 11 a.m.," she whines after a night of drinking and partying, ordering the windows shut to blot out the patriotic parade. "What am I, a farmer?" When told that there can only be one lump of sugar for coffee because of war rationing, she orders three lumps. "What are they doing, throwing sugar cubes at one another?"
As played by Margaret Sullavan in the 1936 film, The Shopworn Angel, one of several of the Norfolk-born actress's movies now available again on demand and DVD, she's a beautiful, hard-to-love mess, unrelatable (but acidly funny) for the first two reels of the movie. That's before she fully encounters the will of a greenhorn Texas serviceman, played by a young James Stewart, who falls in love with her and doesn't know enough about life and big city dames to be dissuaded.
It's watching Sullavan's defenses wear away, scene after scene, from Stewart's charmingly rambling advances that gives The Shopworn Angel its lasting, timeless warmth. Stewart and Sullavan made three more motion pictures together, including a 1940 romantic comedy called The Shop Around the Corner that has been praised as one of the greatest of all time (it's the film that inspired You’ve Got Mail, but don't hold that against it). Here, the couple play a magically-fated pair of coworkers who seem completely different from the duo in The Shopworn Angel, and Sullavan's Klara Novak is a fragile little bird who lights up at the thought of true love while never noticing that he's just across the shop, bowlegged and annoying as hell.
It's in the telling, as they say, and Margaret Sullavan had a way of telling that reaches through time and place. Chances are, if you know her name, it is because of the films she made with Stewart, shown often on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Or perhaps you know the actress through the devastating book that her daughter Brooke wrote, a bestseller called Haywire that chronicled her later mental illness and suspected suicide.
But to earlier generations, Margaret Sullavan meant much more. At the height of her fame—the 1930s and early '40s—this Virginia tomboy was a mark of quality in American motion pictures and a bracingly independent presence in a changing entertainment industry. Sullavan was not easy to miss, with a trademark husky voice and a chameleonic look that could be dowdy one moment and tinseltown glamour the next. "She was slight and deceptively conventional in looks," critic David Thomson (a big admirer) wrote. "One realized she was beautiful when her face lit up in response to the events of a film."
Today, of all the actresses from Hollywood's golden era, Margaret Sullavan seems the most modern, the least stilted, the one player in an old movie unlikely to succumb to a false moment even when everything else seems unnatural or dated. Her own story unfolded in the best neighborhoods of Norfolk, Virginia.
"Most actors are basically neurotic people. Terribly, terribly unhappy. That's one of the reasons they become actors. Nobody well adjusted would ever want to expose himself or herself to a large group of strangers. Think of it. Insanity!" —Margaret Sullavan
Margaret Brooke Sullavan was born in Norfolk on May 16, 1909 to a father and mother, Cornelius and Garland, who were wealthy, respectable and enjoined from two venerated Southern families. "The combination of Irish, American Revolutionary and Tidewater Virginia stock" an early publicity scribe wrote, produced "a willful little star who has gone against Hollywood tradition but has nevertheless gained her goal."
As a youngster, Margaret—her intimates called her Peggy, although she hated the name, preferring Maggie—was plagued by a muscular problem that left her isolated in her parents' stately Westover Avenue home. When she finally recuperated, the young tomboy hit the ground running, starting mischief with neighborhood kids "from the other side of the tracks," mostly boys. "I was never one of those little girls who just fluttered around with other little girls comparing dresses and cooking experimental dishes," she later said. "I liked to be out roughing it with the boys." Her youthful rebelliousness aside, she would fondly remember attending Sunday School at St. Andrews Church.
Her parents enrolled her in Miss Turnbull's Norfolk Tutoring School for Girls to teach her how to be a proper Southern lady, but when she was caught sneaking out late at night once too often, Cornelius and Garland sent her to boarding school. Actually, several boarding schools—first St. George’s in Middletown, R.I., then Chatham Episcopal Institute, now Chatham Hall, near Danville, where she was elected president of the student council and voted most talented due to her involvement in student theater productions. The 1926–1927 schoolyear was spent at Sullins College near Bristol, where she was voted most popular and continued to perform. It seems that she liked the applause. "Her goals changed," Lawrence Quirk wrote in Child of Fate, his 1986 biography of Sullavan, (Quirk was one of the few to ever interview the actress at length—much of what we know about her early life comes from his research). "She had won plaudits for her acting in roles at school, and her long-range ambition had [now] become the stage."
Thus began a tug of war as her parents were dead-set against her becoming an actress. "She finally got around them by settling (ostensibly) for dancing lessons at the Denishawn School in Boston," Quirk relays. "Within three weeks after her arrival in Boston, and after a short session with Denishawn, she pulled a fast one on them." Instead of dancing school, she enrolled in an actors training academy, E.E. Clive's Copley Theatre. Later, she would say that this was "where my true life began."
Above: Passion For Acting A young Margaret Sullavan discovered drama through
the Dramatic Club at Virginia's Chatham Episcopal Institute, a private boarding
school now named Chatham Hall; Left: Her Debut Sullavan's 1927 performance as
Puck in Chatham, Virginia's annual May Day parade may have been her first-ever
public performance; Right: Sullavan was a guard on the varsity basketball team both
years she attended Chatham. Photos courtesy of Chatham Hall Archive.
Sullavan's 1927 yearbook photo. Photo courtesy of Chatham Hall Archive.
"The need to act had become an urge so strong that nothing could stop me. It had to do with a need to express certain feelings inside me—feelings which could be aired in no other way."
Mom and dad weren't amused, cutting her allowance in the hopes of forcing her back home. Instead, Sullavan got a real job at the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore, which led to her snagging an audition with the Harvard Dramatic Society. That's where she first met her future husband Henry Fonda, while performing a comedy routine that involved her slapping him in the face. "When this girl slapped me, every time in rehearsal and every performance, it was a solid-rock slap," the legendary actor recalled in his autobiography. "She intrigued me." Later, her brief marriage to Fonda would set the bar for ugly, violent quarreling—a pattern that would repeat itself through Sullavan's life. In her prime, she chewed up men (and that includes four husbands) and cultivated a reputation as a sexual libertine.
In 1929, along with Fonda, she joined the nascent University Players, which was co-founded by future playwright Joshua Logan. Painting sets, playing usherette, she would soon be joined in the group by a young James Stewart, with whom she would have a complex, decades-long relationship (Sullavan would mentor Stewart in film acting when he later followed her to Hollywood).
If it's true, as The Smithfield Times reported in a 1934 profile, that "her father stopped coming up to New York to drag her home to Norfolk," it's because she finally gave in to her parents. She returned home to Norfolk in 1930, begrudgingly, to make her debutante debut, and stayed off and on for nearly a year. It was during this time that she finally got her Universal Actors Guild card and performed, semi-professionally, on the stage of the Little Theatre of Norfolk, which is still in operation today.
Details are fuzzy on how she became an understudy for a professional road company production of Strictly Dishonorable in the fall of 1930, but she got to perform as the lead during a Norfolk matinee stopover of the popular play, where her parents finally saw her perform and gave in. "To my deep relief," she would say. "I thought I'd have to put up with their yapping on the subject forever."
The budding actress soon caught a big break after auditioning for talent agent Lee Schubert. She caught a cold before the audition and her voice was lower than usual. Schubert loved it. Sullavan often joked that, to keep the cold, "I would stand in every available draft." She never lost that voice.