Childhood & Early Years
Margaret Brooke Sullavan was born on May 16, 1909 in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father, Cornelius Sullavan, was a wealthy stockbroker. Her mother,Garland (nee Brooke) was an heiress. She had a half sister - Weedie Sullavan.
As a child, Margaret suffered from muscular weakness in the legs, which prevented her from walking until the age of six. Thereafter, she was admitted first to St George School and then to Sullins College in Bristol, Virginia.
To the dismay of her class-conscious parents, Margaret grew up to be a tomboy and liked playing with children from poorer background. Therefore, she was sent to Chatham Episcopal Institute in Virginia for her schooling. Later she became the president of the student body there.
Margaret Sullavan graduated from school in 1927 and thereafter moved to Boston, where she lived with her half-sister Weedie. She had by then decided to become an actress. So she enrolled at Denishawn School of Dance to study dance and at the E E Clive's Copley Theatre Dramatic School to learn drama.
To rein her, her parents next cut her allowance to a minimum. Undeterred, she took up the job of a clerk in the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore (The Coop) and began to live with that.
Subsequently in 1929, she succeeded in getting a chorus part in ‘Close Up’, one of Harvard Dramatic Society’s spring productions. Impressed by her performance, Charles Leatherbee and Bretaigne Windust of University Players persuaded her to join their group from the following summer.
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In the summer of 1929, Sullavan made her professional debut in ‘The Devil in the Cheese’ opposite Henry Fonda. She stayed with University Players for most of 1929 and 1930.
In May 1931, she made a debut in the Broadway with ‘A Modern Virgin’. When the play closed at Broadway in July, she went back to University Players for a short stint before going on a tour with ‘A Modern Virgin’ in September, 1931.
In 1932, she took part in number of Broadway productions. Although most of them were flops, critics were unanimous in praising her performance. Her parents too realized her potential. Thereby, they grudgingly withdrew their objection.
In 1933, while acting in ‘Dinner at Eight’, Sullavan caught the attention of film director John M. Stahl, who was then planning to make ‘Only Yesterday’. Subsequently, she was offered a three-year, two-pictures-a-year contract at $1,200 a week by Universal Studios. A clause, allowing her to return to the stage occasionally, was also included in it
Sullavan’sdebut film, ‘Only Yesterday’ was released on November 1, 1933. Initially she was not satisfied with her work and wanted to buy out her contract. But the company, realizing her potential, refused and The New York Herald Tribune marked her as “as one of the cinema people to be watched”.
Her next film, ‘Little Man, What Now?’ was released on May 1, 1934 in New York. It depicted a realistic story of a couple struggling to survive in post WWI Germany. Her role as Emma 'Lämmchen' Pinneberg gave her deep satisfaction.
Next in 1935 and 1936, she appeared in four films - 'The Good Fairy’, ‘So Red the Rose’, ‘Next time We Love’ and ‘The Moon’s Our Home’. All of them did average business and she had to wait two more years for a big hit.
’Three Comrades’, released on June 2, 1938, was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production and her seventh film. It not only made a huge profit at the box office, but also got her an Academy nomination for her role as Patricia Hollmann.
Subsequently, she made a number of MGM films, although her contract with Universal Players were not yet over. They include ‘The Shopworn Angel’ (1938), ‘The Shining Hour’ (1938) and ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ (1940) and ‘The Mortal Storm’ (1940)
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Among them, ‘The Shopworn Angel’ released on July 15, 1938, was even a bigger hit. Made on a budget of $531,000, it grossed $1,042,000 at the box office.
‘The Mortal Storm’, released on June 14, 1940, was another big hit. She plays a German girl who abandons her Nazi fiancé and dies while crossing over to Austria with a ‘non Aryan’ man. The film ranked tenth on Film Daily's nationwide poll at the end of the year.
Later a court case forced Sullavan to return to Universal Pictures and fulfill her 1933 contract with the company. Accordingly, she made ’Back Street’ and ‘Appointment of Love’ (both released in 1941) under the company’s banner.
In 1941, she also made ‘So Ends Our Night’ under the banner of United Artists. It was one of the few openly anti-Nazi films to be made in the Hollywood before America's entry into the war.
Subsequently, Sullavan went back to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for her next film, ‘Cry Havoc’. It was a war film released on November 23, 1943. She plays the Head Nurse, a mother figure looking over a bunch of nurses under difficult condition.
After ‘Cry Havoc’, she took a seven year break from films, mainly to be with her children, who were aged 6, 4 and 2. All along her career, in between movies, she continued performing in stage productions. Now she began concentrating on them. ‘The Voice of the Turtle' (1947-1948) was her most important work during this period.
In 1950, she returned to the film, to act in one last movie, ‘No Sad Songs for Me’. Here she depicted the role of a suburban wife dying from cancer. The film received favorable reviews and Sullavan was offered a number of films but she refused them all and decided to concentrate on stage.
In 1952, she appeared in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, where she played a suicidal housewife. The following year, she appeared in ‘Sabrina Fair’, which opened on November 11, 1953 and ran on Broadway for a total of 318 performances.
Next in 1955-56, Sullavan appeared in Janus, which ran for 251 performances from November 1955 to June 1956. It was her last stage show. Although she agreed to star in ‘Sweet Love Remembered’ in 1959 but she died before it opened.
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’The Three Comrades’, released in 1938, is one of her first major works. For this film, she not only received Oscar nomination, but was also named the year's best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.The film also grossed $2,043,000 at the box office, making a net profit of $472,000.
On stage ‘The Voice of the Turtle' (1947-1948) was her most important work. It debuted on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre on December 8, 1943. Altogether, it ran for 1,557 performances at different theatres. That made it the 51st longest-running show and the 9th longest-running play in the history of Broadway
Personal Life& Legacy
On December 25, 1931, Sullavan married her co-star Henry Fonda. They however separated after two months and divorced in 1933.
Next in November 25, 1934, she married film director, producer and script writer William Wyler but this marriage also did not work and they divorced on March 13, 1936.
On November 5, 1937, Sullavan married her agent and producer Leland Hayward. Together they had three children - Brook, Bridget and William (Bill). Later in 1947, Sullavan discovered that Hayward was having an affair with socialite Slim Keith so divorced him. While Brook became an actress Bill became a film producer and attorney.
In 1950, Sullavan married English investment banker Kenneth Wagg. They remained together until her death in 1960.
From the end of 1940s, Sullavan began to experience several setbacks in her personal life, among which her divorce from Leland Hayward was an important factor. Her two younger children suffered psychological troubles, which was aggravated by the divorce. They had to be temporarily hospitalized.
Although she had dotted on her children and sacrificed her career to be with them her younger children became estranged from her. In 1955, they told their mother that they preferred to live with their father. It was a great blow to her and she suffered nervous breakdown.
Sullavan also suffered from a hearing disorder, known as otosclerosis. Although treated surgically it became progressively worse. Sometime towards the end, she began to say that she loathed acting. She also felt that she failed as a mother.
On January 1, 1960, Sullavan visited New Haven for a tryout of her latest play ‘Sweet Love Remembered’. There she was found unconscious on bed in a hotel room at five o’clock in the evening; she was barely alive and the script of the play was found open beside her.
She was then rushed to the hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival. As there was no suicide note found the county coroner officially ruled Sullavan's death due to an accidental overdose of barbiturates. Later, she was interred at Saint Mary's Whitechapel Episcopal Churchyard in Lancaster, Virginia.
Sullavan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street for her contribution to the motion picture industry. In 1981, she has also been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.