Nearly seven decades after starring in her first feature film, Irish actress Maureen O’Hara is still an enduring icon of Hollywood cinema’s Golden Age.
Best-known for her portrayal of iron-willed beauties in dozens of film classics of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the flame-haired Dublin native and real-life spitfire will this week be honored by New York City’s Irish Arts Center, which intends to bestow upon her its coveted Spirit of Ireland Award.
One of the most beloved actresses in Hollywood and Irish history, O’Hara is the first to admit she had to fight for everything she obtained, whether it was the respect she deserved from her peers, the price she should be paid by employers or the right to play characters every bit as interesting and well-developed as her male counterparts. As she blazed a trail for generations of women working in the film industry, she was frequently compared to the swashbucklers, frontier gals and other fiery heroines she immortalized on screen.
“I’ve done as many tear-jerkers as I have movies with crazy stunts,” O’Hara notes in her 2004 autobiography, ‘Tis Herself.’ “Many women have written to me over the years and said that I’ve been an inspiration to them, a woman who could hold her own against the world. That’s lovely. The great director John Ford paid me my favorite compliment by saying I was the best ‘effin’ actress in Hollywood.”
The actress apparently had no difficulty standing up for her rights outside of Hollywood, as well. In 1940s, she became the first person to be recognized by the United States as a citizen of the Irish Republic. The distinction was made after an outraged O’Hara was classified as English instead of Irish on her citizenship application and ordered to forswear her allegiance to England.
“I can’t accept citizenship under these conditions,” she declared to the judge. “Do you realize what you’re trying to do to my children and grandchildren?” she argued. “You’re trying to take away their right to boast about their wonderful Irish mother and grandmother.”
She recalls in her book how the judge then barked at his clerk: “Give her whatever she wants on her papers! Just get her out of here!”
Born Maureen Fitzsimons on Aug. 17, 1920, in Ranelagh, just a couple of miles from the center of Dublin, the woman whom history will remember as “Big Red” and the “Queen of Technicolor” was only five years old when a gypsy predicted she would grow up to be a great actress and leave Ireland.
Confident she would some day “set the world on fire,” but reluctant to leave the home she loved, young Maureen Fitzsimons spent much of her childhood training to fulfill her destiny by taking drama, voice, music and dance lessons, eventually finding work at Dublin’s fabled Abbey Theatre when she was 14.
Three years later, she was invited to London for a screen test, which set in motion a chain of events that led to her discovery by celebrated actor and producer Charles Laughton. It was Laughton who suggested the teen actress change her surname to O’Hara because the shorter handle would fit better on theater marquees. After two small roles, she got a break in Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, “Jamaica Inn” and went to on to star in William Dieterle’s version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which just so happened to co-star O’Hara’s champion, Charles Laughton.
In 1940, O’Hara began a long and productive, though sometimes abusive, working relationship with the brilliant, but volatile director, John Ford, starting with the Oscar-winning mining drama, “How Green Was My Valley.” She would later share the big screen with life-long friend, John Wayne, in Ford’s 1950 western, “Rio Grande” and his 1957 war picture, “The Wings of Eagles.”
“We loved working with each other,” O’Hara has said of Wayne. “We looked like a couple who belonged together.”
The actors were most memorably paired in Ford’s 1952 romance, “The Quiet Man,” the first film to capture Ireland on film in glorious Technicolor. In the movie, O’Hara plays Mary Kate Danaher, a stubborn, but good-hearted spinster courted by the Duke’s Sean Thornton, an American boxer who unintentionally steps on the toes of Mary Kate’s brother, Red Will (Victor McLaglan) while seeking out his Irish roots.
“I loved Mary Kate Danaher,” said the actress who was the grand marshal in 1999 of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “I loved the hell and the fire in her. She was a terrific dame, tough and didn’t let herself get walked on.”
Although she went on to star in another 20 films, the “Miracle on 34th Street” star took an 18-year break from show business shortly after she married her third husband, aviator Charles Blair in 1968. (Two previous marriages ended in disaster when O’Hara was still quite young. Her second marriage, however, yielded her beloved only daughter, Bronwyn.)
“From the day we were married, Charlie and I were inseparable,” O’Hara recalls in her book. “Just standing beside him, I felt his strength — physical, mental, spiritual — and that made me feel secure and content. We were a dynamite couple…it was fireworks between us that never stopped.”
O’Hara helped Blair manage a commuter sea-plane service in the Caribbean, called “Antilles Airboats.” She also owned and published the magazine, “The Virgin Islander,” penning a monthly column for it titled, “Maureen O’Hara Says.” After her husband’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1978, O’Hara was elected CEO and president of Antilles Airboats, making her the first woman president of a scheduled airline in the United States.
She has not starred in a film or TV movie for nearly six years, the still-stunning actress said in 2004 that she continues to read scripts and consider acting projects. She also revealed she was mulling over the possibility of writing a follow-up to her memoirs, this time focusing on her idyllic childhood in Ireland and her storybook marriage to Blair.
“Some time ago, I told [television interviewer] Larry King that I planned to live to be 102. I still do,” she says in her autobiography. “I dreamed as a little girl in Dublin of growing up into a wonderfully eccentric, tough, cantankerous, and sometimes mean old lady who thumps her cane loudly to get what she wants and express her thoughts. I’ve already been known to use a cane to get around from time to time — the thumping is still to come.”