The Greatest Guy I Ever Met
Maureen O'Hara gave up acting for 30 years and is now
president of an Irish golf club. Stan Gebler Davies found her on home turf.
By Stan Gebler Davies
The Sunday Telegraph, November 29, 1992 page 13
At a certain point in the filming of The
Quiet Man, John Ford's
epic Irish comedy (1952), Maureen O'Hara suspected that her movie career
might have come precipitately to an end. For the purpose of furthering
her courtship with John Wayne,
Ford had put her in a cart
at a race meeting with the wind-machine behind her, so that her glorious
red mane was whipped forwards into her eyes. It was lashing her eyeballs
almost to shreds and consequently she kept squinting.
"What the hell do you think you are doing?" Ford
yelled, or words to that effect. "Open your damn eyes." Ford
had forgotten the first thing we should all remember about redheads, which
is that they have one layer of skin less than the rest of humanity and
react accordingly - even to the world's most eminent film director. Miss
O'Hara leaned forward, her Irish up (as they say in the States), and roared
at him: "What would a bald-headed son-of-a-bitch know about hair lashing
across his eyeballs?" Ford,
after thinking about it for a while, decided to laugh at this impertinence.
The several friendships involved all survived, including the bond
with John Wayne, which was particularly
strong. "I prefer the company of men," Wayne
said, "except for Maureen O'Hara. She's the greatest guy I ever met."
How Wayne could have made so
basic a mistake is not difficult to fathom. In this most fundamentally
feminine woman is a core of tempered steel which could be misinterpreted
by those who do not know redheads, or Irishwomen, very well as a sort of
masculinity. May I say that I discovered this instantly, with an intuition
aided by long experience of the breed, when I met her at Glengarriff, in
She took me to the local golf club, which is her turf and she is
Lady President of it. She is a striking female of justly indeterminate
age. There may be less hazardous operations than asking an actress's age,
like abseiling down the cliffs of Moher, but on the whole I prefer to avoid
these operations. I would guess she is about the same age as, or maybe
a little younger than, my mother, also from Dublin. My mother, in common
with certain of her contemporaries, is under the impression that Miss O'Hara,
nee Fitzsimmons, won her way to eminence by coming first in a Dawn Ball,
a contest held at the conclusion of dances, when dances were still decorous
affairs. She was subsequently discovered by Charles
Laughton, who cast her opposite himself in The Hunchback of Notre
Well, the Laughton
bit is certainly true, and my researches indicate that Miss O'Hara was
roughly 19 when she made that movie, but the Dawn Ball episode appears
to be Dublin fiction. Maureen in fact auditioned for the Abbey Theatre
School and was taken on immediately, along with two other candidates, one
of whom was a policeman whose histrionic abilities had been spotted when
he was on point duty. What became of him is not known.
I asked her if she played golf often, and she answered that she did
not. She has that peculiar lilt to her voice which some think is stage
Irish but is in fact the overlay of an American on an Irish accent, very
like Barry Fitzgerald
or, come to think of it, my mother. She cannot play golf very easily because
one of her hands was injured. "I had surgery on it," she tells
me. It is a heavily freckled hand. "Jackie Gleason sat on it and smashed
it, so . . ." "So?" "Well, we were making a movie,
and he happened to have had a little too much to drink, and my hand happened
to be in his way, so. . . " The freckles are the consequence of sunlight.
A great piece of good fortune attaches to redheads, which is that
they can be quite stunningly attractive, but certain disabilities may attend
them also; an ungovernable temper is one I have mentioned already, but
being stung by wasps and assailed by sunlight are others. Maureen O'Hara
has, under the circumstances, chosen wisely where to live. There are numerous
advantages to living in Glengariff, but the availability of sunlight is
not one of them. Miss O'Hara has been there about three decades, enjoying
the barren, rocky beauty of the place and, presumably, the incessant rain.
Numerous offspring (six children, innumerable grandchildren) from
her marriage to Charlie Blair, general in the US Air Force, visit her in
the summer. The late Charles Blair flew over the North Pole in a fighter
plane to prove that you could drop nuclear bombs on Russia if the need
arose. He had a great fondness for seaplanes, and Maureen devotes much
energy still to the seaplane museum at Foynes, on the Shannon. I asked
her, had she learned to fly herself? "Why would you want to fly,"
she said, "when you were married to the best aviator in the world?"
Good question, I suppose.
Miss O'Hara has worked with the best director and the best film actor
in the world, by which I mean John
Wayne. Of Ford she is forthcoming,
but certain stories Wayne confessed
to her will never be told. "One of these days, I'll write my book.
You know the hardest thing is knowing some wonderful, wonderful stories,
and you wonder if they're cruel in the telling and if you have a right
to tell them. "I used to go to Acapulco with his wife Pilar. Just
before he died I went to see him, and we'd sit on the waterfront and the
boats would pass and hoot to salute him, and his grandchildren would hear
a story about this and a story about that, and they'd say 'Did you really
do that?', and Duke would say 'If your Auntie Maureen says I did, then
I guess I really must have'."
I confess at this point that John
Wayne was the only actor I ever wanted to meet, out of sheer admiration
of what he embodied. (Is he not the only actor for whom US Congress struck
a medal?) "Ah, you would have loved him," says Maureen. "He
was a wonderful man, a wonderful person. With us, it wasn't a man and a
woman - it was two friends. He knew a lot of my secrets which nobody ever
knew and nobody ever will. He might be telling the Good Lord but he's not
going to tell anyone else."
John Ford is, by her
testimony, now less of an enigma than he wished to be. Asked once how he
got to Hollywood, Ford answered
that he got there by train and insisted that his private life was his own
damn business. He drank like a fish but never on the job and he always
came in on time and on budget. Even so, he still had trouble raising money
for his films - the movie industry, then as now, dominated by idiots.
Maureen O'Hara is eloquent testimony to all of this. She walked away
from the business and for 30 years didn't bother to make another film until
two years ago. When Katharine Hepburn
hurt herself a while ago, Miss O'Hara was offered the script that had been
written for her. She considers it the highest compliment ever paid to her
and is sincerely glad that Hepburn recovered in time to play the part.
"Ronald Colman said to me, if you're proud of one in 15 films
you've made you can consider yourself lucky. Well, I'm proud of more than
that and I know that I've been in some movies that'll be played long after
I'm dead and gone."
John Ford is the subject
of a two-part 'Omnibus' on BBC1, starting on Tuesday.
© 1992 The Sunday Telegraph Limited