Norfolk’s Margaret Sullavan Reached Stardom In Hollywood’s Golden Age

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 lengthmuch 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.

 

Stork Club, Margaret Sullavan
Stork Club with husband Leland Hayward (Orson Welles far left), November 1944.

"You'll never learn to act in Hollywood. Not in a thousand years." —Margaret Sullavan

Margaret Sullavan only made 16 motion pictures, in a brief career defined by a seeming indifference to movies. Because of her ongoing success on Broadway, she could afford to be choosey and refused to sign long-term contracts. The feared MGM Mogul, Louis B. Mayer, was frightened of her, it was said, but the public loved her. There's no better time than now to find out why. After years of unavailability, Warner Archive, Universal Archive and Turner Classic Movies have reissued many of Margaret Sullavan's best films (see below).

"She startled slicked up Hollywood in 1933 by wearing old slacks, sneakers and sweaters and driving a rented old Ford," LIFE magazine reported in 1942. "She defied studio officials by refusing to have a crooked tooth straightened. She horrified photographers by coming barefoot for fashion portraits, explaining that her feet would not show. She eloped with director William Wyler after quarreling with him steadily during 10 weeks of work. Just as she was about to come a top-rank screen star, she left Hollywood for Broadway 'to learn how to act.'"  

"What a creature she was," comedian Bill Murray enthused during a special tribute on TCM. The Moon's Our Home, a 1936 screwball comedy Sullavan made with Fonda after their divorce, is one of his favorite films. In this crazy movie, she dives in headfirst with a performance as over-the-top as many of her dramatic performances were understated. "When she told a man she loved him, on stage or screen, she gave it all an almost frightening conviction," ex-husband Fonda once wrote. And he would know.

The actress didn't do much broad slapstick; her forte was something deeper. Many of her films were set in Germany and depict a changing world battling fascism and the Nazi threat. Her characters didn't always come out on top. “Margaret Sullavan was a star whose deathbed scenes were one of the great joys of the Golden Age of Movies," author Gore Vidal once offered. "Sullavan never simply kicked the bucket. She made speeches, as she lay dying, and she was so incredibly noble that she made you feel like an absolute twerp for continuing to live out your petty life after she’d ridden on ahead.” 

There was an inside joke that Maggie had extended death scenes written into her contract. From her debut, Only Yesterday, in 1933, to her final film, No Sad Songs For Me, she made expiring an art form. On screen, she never died the same way twice. Suffering from deafness in real life, beset with depression, she was only 51 when death came for real in 1960, from an overdose of pills. 

She leaves behind a small but fascinating body of work and the echoes of something else, something timeless. “That wonderful voice of hers,” actress Louise Brooks remembered. “Strange, fey, mysterious … like a voice singing in the snow.”

Maggie Sullavan is buried in a modest grave at St. Mary's Whitechapel Trinity Episcopal Churchyard in Lancaster, Va., on the Northern Neck.

Margaret "Peggy" Sullavan, Chatham
Young Promise Sullavan was voted "Most Talented" at Chatham, not only excelling
in dramatic productions but editing the school yearbook, acting as a class treasurer,
playing basketball and joining the Drama, Latin, Cotillion and English clubs. 
Photo
courtesy of Chatham Hall Archive.

 

Maggie's Gems

After years languishing in the vaults, many of Margaret Sullavan's best films are now available again on DVD and streaming online video. But some are still awaiting reissue. Here are her best:

 

Only Yesterday (1933)

Sullavan's debut, which she hated, is unavailable on DVD and hard to find today outside of Youtube. But it's one of her finest performances, and the movie itself still shocks. Track it down.

 

Little Man, What Now? (1934)

Sullavan shines with co-star Douglass Montgomery as a young married couple torn apart by circumstance and escalating tensions in post-war Germany. Her first of four films with stylish director Frank Borzage. (Universal Vault).

 

The Good Fairy (1935)

This is Sullavan at her cutest, playing an innocent orphan girl whose good deeds get wacky. The script is by the legendary satirist Preston Sturges, and the director is William Wyler, who Sullavan battled on the set… and then married. (Kino/Universal)

 

So Red the Rose (1935)

Sullavan is a fiery Southern belle in this Civil War-era drama co-starring Randolph Scott. It's an interesting companion piece to the later Gone with the Wind. This is another of the actress’s films currently unavailable on DVD.

 

Next Time We Love (1936)

Her first onscreen pairing with James Stewart has a weak script, but the romantic comedy about an estranged couple (she's an actress, he's a newspaper reporter) still sizzles because of the stars' undeniable chemistry. (Universal Vault)

 

The Moon's Our Home (1936)

Containing one of the screen's best pillow fights, and featuring ex-husband Henry Fonda in a combative scenario that must've felt natural, this screwball comedy contains Sullavan's wildest, rawest acting work. (Universal Vault)

 

Three Comrades (1938)

With a script co-written by F. Scott Fitzgerald—yes, him—this was one of the first Hollywood films to deal squarely with the rising threat of Nazi-ism. Sullavan copped her one and only Academy Award nomination here, and her final scene is one for the ages. (Warner Archive)

 

The Shopworn Angel (1938)

Sullavan's second film with James Stewart is a doomed love story set during World War I—funny, endearing and, finally, heartbreaking. Juggling Stewart and Walter Pidgeon in an improbable love triangle, this is one of the actress's most complex roles, and she nails it. (Warner Archive)

 

The Shining Hour (1938)

Actress Joan Crawford sought out Sullavan as her co-star for this crackling adaptation of a popular play about the aftermath of an affair. Wonderfully shot, it's inspired soap opera, and the end scene involving a fire rescue is still harrowing. (Warner Archive)

 

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

"This is a love story about a couple too much in love with love to fall tidily into each other's arms," critic David Thomson wrote of this magical film. Set in Budapest, Sullavan and James Stewart are perfect as our mismatched pair, and the supporting cast (and their own bittersweet stories) supply the fairy dust, Essential. (Warner Archive/Amazon Video)

 

The Mortal Storm (1940) 

In their final film together, for MGM, Sullavan and Stewart play a German couple battling against the after-effects of Hitler's rise to power. This powerful movie so incensed German officials that they banned all MGM productions from the country, and this was before the U.S. had even entered World War II. (Warner Archive)

 

Back Street (1941) 

Sullavan fans (and biographer Lawrence Quirk say that this is her finest movie performance, in an otherwise ordinary adaptation of a previously-filmed love story that co-stars the oily Charles Boyer. (Universal Archive/Turner Classic Movies)

 

No Sad Songs for Me (1950) 

In light of her reputation for elaborate death scenes, Sullavan's final film can be read as something of a black comedy. After a seven-year absence from the screen, she portrays a woman dying of cancer who is desperate to find her husband a worthy second wife. A sentimental curio. (SPE Video)

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