The more you learn about Teresa Wright the more you
realize what a truly unusual person she is
by James Reid
Silver Screen Magazine June 1942 pages 42-43, 72-77
Teresa Wright is the only Pretty Young Thing who ever came to Hollywood
and refused to reveal that she had sex appeal.
Also, except for Helen Hayes and
Martha Scott, she is the only actress ever nominated for an Academy Award
in her first screen performance.
Helen and Martha weren't nominated
at her age. Neither did they make their movie bows by acting in competition
with Bette Davis -- as she did in "The
Little Foxes." She played Bette's
daughter, no less.
In that picture, she was convincing as a naive young Southern girl
of forty years ago, even unto the accent. In her second picture, "Mrs.
Miniver," playing Greer Garson's
daughter [sic], she is equally convincing as a crisp young English girl
of today -- with an English accent.
After two such hits as those, every one expected her to be typed
as a dramatic ingenue until further notice. But she's fooling every one.
In her third picture, "Pride
of the Yankees," she is completely grown-up. She plays Mrs.
Lou Gehrig -- to Gary Cooper's
Hordes of Gehrig fans are protesting that she's much too young for
the role. But Producer Samuel
Goldwyn is blithely ignoring the protests. He says confidently, "She'll
Hollywood is willing to believe that Sam
may have something there. Already she has proved herself one of the most
surprising young finds in movie history.
There ought to be a dramatic story in such a girl.
"But there isn't," says Teresa -- surprisingly, frankly
and apologetically. "I've lived the kind of life that no one would
ever write a novel about. It has been that uneventful. I haven't fought
with my family, or had a desperate struggle, or starved in garrets, or
surmounted great heartbreak, or otherwise suffered for my art.
"Most actresses can tell things to make your hair curl, about
what it takes to have a career. But I can't. I haven't a thing to tell
that would scare the potential competition -- or give any one the idea that
success is a matter of grim determination and dazzling personality."
She smiles a wide frank smile, "Reading my story, any girl would
wonder if she, too, couldn't become an actress."
A story like that is contrary to all the Hollywood rules, but it
sounds like the story that millions of girls have been secretly hoping
to read some day.
The girl who has that story to tell is as refreshing as her candor.
For one thing, she doesn't have "the Hollywood glitter."
If you didn't know that she was on the screen, you wouldn't suspect it --
meeting her in person. She's that natural, without trying to be. Nothing
about her personality or her appearance stamps her as an actress.
You don't feel that here is a flashy female, intensely ambitious,
eager to impress people. You feel, rather, that here is a quiet, intelligent,
even-tempered person, inclined to be a bit dreamy. Her hazel eyes are definitely
dreamy. And there's a wistfulness about her mouth.
She's a little thing. In a pair of green slacks and low-heeled shoes,
she's much smaller that she looked in those billowy dresses she wore in
"The Little Foxes."
She can't be more than five-feet-two, and she can't weight more than a
hundred well-distributed pounds. And she looks young enough to be dreaming
of going to the Junior Prom.
"Unconsciously, I seem to have fooled people about my age,"
she says. "They got the impression from seeing me as Alexandra
that I was about sixteen, And, that being the case, I don't blame them
for screaming when I was cast as Mrs. Gehrig. Actually, I'm twenty-three --
her age when the picture begins. I was a war baby of the last war."
She was born October 27, 1918, in New York City, and christened Muriel
Teresa Wright. Not liking the name "Teresa," she never used it
until she went on the stage, and she wouldn't have found any use for it
then if there hadn't been another "Muriel Wright" already registered
with Actors' Equity.
Many girls who would like to be actresses feel hopelessly handicapped
because they don't have colorful backgrounds and haven't lived dramatic
lives. But there are ways to get around that handicap. Take Teresa's word
"One way," she testifies, smiling, "is to be an only
child. There are two reasons for that. One, your parents will have more
time to devote to understanding you and your unexpected ambitions. Two,
having no brothers or sisters, you will start using your imagination very
young, inventing make-believe people. In other words, you will start acting
very young. And you will be very apt to keep at it, all the time you're
"At least, that's the way it happened with me. My parents seldom
went to the theatre, weren't particularly interested in things theatrical,
and had never given a thought to acting themselves. But it amused them
that their only daughter was addicted to make-believe. They were very tolerant
about letting the twig bend as it was so inclined. Meanwhile, growing up,
I made a habit of constantly escaping from prosaic, everyday things into
an imaginary world where I has some one else altogether -- an exciting person,
who did exciting things. Sometimes the escape took the form of acting in
school plays. From the first grade on, I was in every one that came along.
But they didn't come half often enough. So, in between, I put in my time
day-dreaming -- imagining myself an endless variety of dramatic situations.
"Perhaps, to become an actress, you do have to live an eventful
life. But you apparently don't have to live it in actuality. You can live
it in your imagination -- if I'm any example."
Not that Teresa believes that any girl can become an actress just
by day-dreaming hard enough. Far from it.
"There's the important little matter of getting some encouragement
from some one besides yourself -- some one whose opinion means something
to you. And there's that other important little matter of learning a few
"So many actresses dwell on how much discouragement they have
had to overcome. Why don't they ever confess how little encouragement they
needed, to keep on trying?"
She's willing to confess that, in her own case, the encouragement
of exactly three people made all the difference.
"A teacher in junior high was the first person who took any
serious notice of my interest in acting. She knew that I had never been
to the theatre, and she invited me to go with her to see Cornelia Otis
Skinner do some skits. For months afterward, I was exhilarated by that
experience. Then something even more exciting happened to me. My father
tacitly told me he thought I might become an actress some day, and that
he hoped I might be a good one. He took me to see the best -- Helen
Hayes, in ‘Victoria Regina.'
"I had never seen a professional play before. But that quaint
fact has been twisted, ever since, into a fable that I decided then and
there that I, too, would become an actress. I object violently to that
fable. It makes me sound as if I think I'm another Helen
Hayes -- something no one can ever be. Also, it completely ignores the
ambition-to-act that I had nourished for years. Seeing that play simply
fed that ambition some additional vitamins.
"But I still probably wouldn't have become an actress if it
hadn't been for the encouragement of a teacher in public speaking I had
in high school. He worked summers at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown,
and he recommended me as a student apprentice at the Wharf, the summer
after my junior year. For a slight fee, which daddy was willing to pay,
I had the chance to study acting for eight solid weeks, along with about
twenty other young hopefuls. The study consisted mostly of watching the
professionals and playing a few bits, ourselves -- which no one would call
exceptional training for an acting career.
"I was the youngest, smallest and shyest of the group, and I
would have been completely lost in the shuffle, if it hadn't been for one
lucky circumstance. Several child parts came up, and no one else was small
enough to play them, so they gave them to me. That led to my being invited
back the next summer, to play bigger roles. And I got some more experience."
That second summer, fresh out of Columbia High School in Maplewood,
N.J., she received her first offers from Hollywood -- and had enough sales
resistance to turn them down.
"There's nothing very glamorous about sales resistance -- it's
a negative quality, not a positive one -- so no one ever bothers to mention
it in Advice to the Would-Be Actress. But every one knows it's something
that a girl has to acquire sooner or later. Only there's an erroneous impression
that she has to have a certain number of dramatic disappointments first.
"But that wasn't the way it happened with me -- so apparently
it doesn't have to happen that way. Living the most uneventful life
in the world, you can still develop a habit of thinking for yourself. I
got in the habit through the simple fact that my father was in the insurance
business and traveled a great deal. Meanwhile, I had to go to school, so
I was boarded out with a succession of friends and relatives. They all
treated me very well, but my little problems were never their problems,
somehow. I had to decide all kinds of things for myself.
"When those first Hollywood offers came, it didn't occur to
me to run to any one for advice. I made the decision myself. I reasoned
that if I went to Hollywood as an unknown, without a promise of a definite
worthwhile role, no studio would be in a hurry to give such a role. First
I would have to pose for leg art, not only to get known, but to let the
studio find out if the public might be interested in me. If the leg art
didn't turn out very well, the studio would drop me, and people would get
the idea that I had no talent, and that would be my finish as an actress.
And I wanted to be an actress the rest of my life. It didn't make sense
to gamble my whole future on some leg art. It made more sense to go off
to New York and try to crash Broadway -- difficult though that might be."
Most people have the impression that the only way an unknown can
crash Broadway is to have extraordinary pull -- or extraordinary push. And
Teresa had neither.
"I day-dreamed about walking boldly into agents' offices and
convincing them at first sight, that I could be dramatic. But I didn't
have it in me to make that day-dream come true. I didn't know how to be
bold, having always been shy. And I just wasn't the dazzling type. My only
hope was that sheer persistence might pay off some day.
"When the break did come, it wasn't through any forcefulness
on my part. I went backstage one day at 'Our Town' to visit Doro Merendi,
who had been one of the professional players at the Wharf. She was sharing
a dressing room with Martha Scott, and I met Martha. After I left, Martha
asked Doro, 'Why don't you have your friend try out as the understudy for
the road company?' I hadn't even known they were looking for an understudy,
and Doro had forgotten it. Very likely, I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't
met Martha Scott that particular afternoon."
Scared to death, and sick with a cold, Teresa tried out for that
understudy job -- and still doesn't understand how she got it. She understudied
for months, and she must have worked hard, because then she was given the
lead herself in a brief tour of a second road company of "Our Town."
Out of that came an offer from a summer theatre in New Hampshire, where
she heard, just as the season ended, that back on Broadway Oscar Serlin
was looking for a girl to play the ingenue lead in "Life With Father."
He had pictured a blond in the part, and Teresa's hair was dark. But being
an ex-Hollywood talent scout, Serlin was loath to overlook any possibilities.
He asked her to read for him; she might be right for some future part.
A few weeks later, he called her back and had her read the role again.
The third time he called her back, he said, "I've changed my mind.
The role's yours."
The play was a hit, and she was a hit, and Hollywood came pounding
on her door. She still said "No" because, in all the offers of
gold and glory, she couldn't find an offer of a single definite role.
She was still in the play nearly two years later ("luckily
for me," she points out) when Goldwyn
started casting "The Little
Foxes." For the role of Alexandra, he wanted a girl who
could look sixteen, demure and un-actressy, yet be enough of an actress
to play dramatic scenes with Bette Davis.
He couldn't find such a girl in Hollywood. (He tried.) So he went
East to scout the Broadway possibilities. The first play he saw was "Life
With Father" -- and his search ended right there. So did Teresa Wright's
hold-out against Hollywood. Here, at last, was an offer of a definite role.
And such a role as she had never dreamed of getting.
She expected to make the one picture, the return to the cast of "Life
With Father." But shrewd Mr. Goldwyn
put a clause in her one-picture contract, giving him an option on her acting
for the next five years -- just in case she turned out to be a screen success.
And even before the critics went into their raves, he exercised the option.
She'll be around for a long time. Even if she doesn't have a dramatic life-story.
Commenting on the year she has been here already, she says, "I
think I must have set some sort of record, with the rapidity with which I've
matured. A year ago, I was only sixteen. A few weeks ago, when I finished 'Mrs. Miniver,'
I was eighteen or nineteen. Now I'm twenty-three. And before 'Pride
of the Yankees' is finished, I'll be thirty -- according to the script.
"Some one asked me the other day if movie-acting is getting
easier for me now, and I suppose it should be, but sometimes it seems
as if it's getting harder and harder. For 'The Little Foxes,' I had to acquire a
Southern accent -- which was a problem for a born New Yorker. And for 'Mrs. Miniver,'
I had to acquire an English accent. In this one, I come from Chicago, so
I don't have any accent problem. But on both of my first two pictures,
the directors went in for weeks of rehearsal, in the manner of stage plays,
and then shot every scene in sequence. But there weren't any rehearsals
before this one, and we keep jumping back and forth, so that I'm thirty
one day and twenty-three the next, and vice versa. It's a little like riding
The Whip at Coney Island.
"Also, in this one, I'm face to face with a terrific mental
hazard. It's my first biographical role, and the person I'm playing is
still alive and will see me on the screen, portraying her. It's a queer
feeling, to think of that. You always wonder if you're doing a character
justice, but in this case the wonder is the haunting kind. She's so refreshing
and clean-cut and natural. The kind of girl that people like to think of
as a typical American girl. Just as they think of Lou Gehrig as a typical
specimen of young American manhood.
"What the picture is, really, is a cross-section of American
life, of the things that make America what it is, all revolving around
the great American game: baseball. Which, until I started this picture,
was never one of my favorite games. I was horrible at it in high school,
and hated to have to play it in gym class -- especially with boys, who were
good at it. But now I'm developing into a fan. The other day, I was about
to skip over the sport page as usual, when a headline about the Yankees
caught my eye, and I found myself reading the story straight through. And
I'm fascinated by Babe Ruth and some of the other colorful characters who
are in the picture. The boys, though, are disappointed in the picture business,
I think. They expected to play more ball -- and not do so much waiting around
for camera set-ups and things like that.
"I'm enjoying working with Gary
Cooper, too -- as what girl wouldn't? -- except for one thing. They can't
do anything to shorten Gary,
so they're doing everything they can to make me taller. And being partial
to low heels, I'm suffering for my art for the first time, wearing heels
that are miniature stilts.
"Oh yes -- and over protest, it looks as if I'm finally going
to have to be photographed in a bathing suit. There's a sequence that calls
for both Gary and me to be
in bathing suits. I see no need for it, because there's certainly no public
demand for undraped views of either of us, and we're both going to feel
silly. We only hope they don't photograph us side by side."
In private life, she dons a bathing suit fairly often; she swims
the year around. That conjures up a picture of an athletic, outdoor sort
of girl. Then she mischievously tells you how she nearly got herself killed
last fall, going horseback-riding. She asked for the meekest horse in the
stable, and still the animal ran away with her. Then there was the time
she decided to walk around the Lakeside golf course with some friends and,
halfway along, decided to try her hand at hitting a golf ball. Anxious
not to interfere with the game of her friends, who were shooting in one
direction, she aimed her practice shot in the opposite direction. When
they discovered what she was doing, they took the club away from her -- for
her own protection.
Her small size and wistful face fool a great many people into thinking
of her as the type who needs protection. But she's capable of taking care
of herself. The way she waited for the right Hollywood offer is one illustration
of that. So is the fact that she calmly lives alone in a cluttered little
apartment that originally appealed to her because it had a novel touch:
a tile-covered Spanish stove in the center of the kitchen. (Her combination
cook-and-maid falls over it sixteen times a day.) Also, it was about
the only apartment she could find that had neutral-colored walls, which
allowed her to hang up her favorite painting -- which has an orange frame.
In a year, Hollywood has changed her in only two noticeable ways.
Her hair is reddish-brown now, instead of dark, for photographic reasons.
And she's more clothes-conscious than she used to be.
"In New York, my friends used to say, 'Really, Muriel, you should
dress better. People do look at your appearance.' I'm still not a fashion
leader, by any means, but Hollywood has persuaded me to try to look my
best in public. Also, I think the fact that I'm engaged has made me take
more interest in clothes. After all, the way a girl looks is a reflection
on the taste of the man who has asked her to marry him."
The gentlemen in question is Scenario Writer Niven Busch, who wrote
the script for "The Little
Foxes," and whose photograph keeps a sharp eye on us all
through the interview. The romance flowered very quietly. Few people knew
there was a romance -- until there was an engagement.
She admits that it's confusing that they're engaged. So few people
are ever engaged in Hollywood, except in the gossip columns. Either they
go out with two other people the next week, or they fly off to Yuma. "But
the fact that we're engaged," she says, "means what the word
used to mean: we're taking time to think it over very seriously, before
GIVE STAMPS AND BONDS AS GIFTS