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Goddess In The Family—Maureen O’Hara

It isn’t a bit unusual for me to be talking about Maureen. I’m in business in Dublin, you know, and people often come in, saying that they have just seen one of her pictures and generally adding, “Oh, Mrs. FitzSimons, she is so beautiful!” I agree, of course, because, after all, the customer is always right—even in Ireland.

What puzzles me is that for the first seventeen years of her life I never noticed this beauty; never gave it a thought. Nor did Maureen. Nor her daddy, or her brothers and sisters. In fact, I can remember only one comment about her looks and that was her daddy’s repeated, teasing reference to her skin and hair. “Skin like an elephant’s hide and hair like hay,” he used to tell her. And Maureen, munching away at an apple, would take it quite unconcerned, if she heard it at all!

If this seems strange, perhaps you will understand when I tell you that Maureen is the second of six children, all born to me between the time I was nineteen and twenty-eight. As I recall, with that many growing youngsters running about the house, her daddy and I spent our time wondering: (1) Are they all present and accounted for? (2) Are they healthy and happy? (3) Are they keeping out of trouble? Somewhere further down the list was the question of their good looks, but we just never got to it when they were children.

But surely, you would say, I must have noticed Maureen’s beauty developing when she got to be about eleven or twelve? The answer is no. When Maureen got to be that age, something else began to develop and it wasn’t beauty—as I thought then. She started to shoot up in height and, before she was twelve, she was five feet six inches tall! Because my father was a man six feet, four, I began to worry. I just didn’t fancy being the mother of the tallest girl in Ireland!

Actually, Maureen was only to grow two more inches with full adulthood, but this was advance information I didn’t have. I was worried the more because, like so many overly tall children, she began to be sensitive about it; unconsciously so, I think. At least, I would catch her slumping so she could get down on a level with her playmates.

And about the time she stopped growing and began to fill out, there developed in my long-legged, queen-to-be, the appetite of a Killarney giant! Those days we all of us could hear Maureen coming home from school a half block before she got to the house. She would be sniffing for what was cooking in the kitchen and “oohing” and “ah-h-ing” if it smelled good. The next second she would pop in the side door and personally inspect what was stewing for supper.

no time for beauty . . .

Do you now suppose that we took any time out to wonder if this gawky, ravenous beanpole (who was also developing a fine tummy, by the way) was beautiful? Not a one of us, and certainly not Maureen who was much too busy lifting pot lids and tasting contents.

Oh, I do remember her getting a momentary qualm about her looks once or twice. There was an occasion, when she was about fifteen, when she appeared in downtown Dublin with her first lipstick on, and also one of my hats. This was duly reported to me, as those things often are, before Maureen got home that evening. I had noticed that a hat was missing, and my lipstick not where Id left it. But I said nothing, and in due time the hat reappeared and Maureen got back to soap and water.

Another time we were on a train and across from us sat a very attractive woman. Maureen leaned close so she could talk in my ear.

“Oh, Mommy!” she said. “I would love to grow up to be as beautiful as that lady!”

“Ho, ho!” I answered. “You’ll certainly not, young lady, walking around with your head scrooched into your shoulders, and eating like a horse at meals!”

“Oh, well,” said she, shrugging, as much as to say that beauty wasn’t worth the bother.

No, it wasn’t until Maureen was seventeen, and we went to London to attend the preview of her first picture, Jamaica Inn, that she was officially pronounced a beauty. The “authority” was Charles Laughton, and after all, it was almost as if King Henry the Eighth, himself, was talking! Maureen and I were on the edge of a crowd of people before the showing, when we heard Charles cry, out to a friend: “Just wait until you see that O’Hara girl on the screen. You’ll think you are looking at a Greek goddess, old man!”

I could feel Maureen’s startled little movement beside me.

“Well!” I whispeered to her, “What do you think of that?”

“The man’s daft, Mommy,” she whispered back.

Then we went in to see the picture. Maureen’s face was a study.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It’s that girl,’ she replied. “Mommy, she is beautiful but I just can’t connect myself with her. I keep hearing Daddy’s voice, ‘skin like an elephant’s hide and hair like hay.’ I know it’s me up there and at the same time I can’t believe it.”

“Then Mr. Laughton was right, wasn’t he?” I asked . . .

“If it’s me,” she said wonderingly. “If it’s me.”

Maureen made her first impression upon the public when she was not yet three. Oh, it wasn’t as an actress, but you might say she almost stopped the show, and certainly, she gave her daddy and me the reddest faces we have ever shown to the world. It was a crisp Sunday morning and her informal debut took place in church during a crowded Mass. Maureen’s older sister, Peggy, who was then four, had been left home because she’d dawdled with her dressing, wouldn’t let her gaitors be put on, and we were already late.

There came a moment in the Mass, the Elevation, when the assemblage was stilled in prayer. In the quiet some child began to cry and was immediately hushed. But Maureen got the idea Peggy had come to church all by herself, and couldn’t find us in the solidly filled pews. She split the silence by screaming out, “We’re here, Peggy! Over on this side! Here, Peggy!”

What a rustle and murmuring of laughter through the church, and what eyes were turned on us!

Maureen and Peggy were inseparable as toddlers. If you threatened to spank one, tears would spring from the eyes of the other. As soon as they were old enough to get around, they took on themselves the task of defending the house from invaders. Their weapons were gooseberries which they stripped from their father’s bushes and threw at passersby. When I took them to the seaside for their first visit and they stuck their toes into the cold water, the same idea struck both of them at once. “Mommy!” they screamed. “Please fetch the kettle of hot water and warm the sea!”

The two younger girls, Florrie and Margo, were of a pair with Peggy and Maureen, but had their own peculiarities. Florrie, who has starred in English pictures but is now married. to a Montreal lumber man, we used to call “Sneaking Moses” because she would sneak into a room with a pair of scissors, cut something and then disappear. Margo, who has also been in a number of pictures, was called “The Banshee.” She wailed like one. The oldest of my boys, Charlie, now a barrister in Dublin, has been tested for pictures along with my younger son, Jimmy. Charlie, whom we called “Rusty Gullet” as a boy, because he always wanted to hurry up and be a man, and forced himself to talk with a low, hoarse voice, is not sure that he wants to leave the law for the screen. Jimmy is sure. He thinks of nothing else, and when I return to Ireland, my first duty is to discuss a contract he has been offered.

Having almost all your children in the movies has its points. Whenever I am lonesome for one of them, I need only hunt up his or her latest picture and spend a warm few hours.

Maureen started the acting, of course, just as she was always the ‘one to start something new about the house; destroying her toys, for instance. She wanted to know what made them tick. Once she slit her stuffed pony open, and I discovered her.

“I just wanted to know if it’s the same as me inside,” she explained.

“How would you know what you are like inside?” I asked.

“Oh, I know,” she answered, giving me a sidelong look. “Lots of pipes and things.”

A desire on my part to help a friend who was opening a small dramatic school, was Maureen’s actual start in her career. I thought it would be a very good idea if she got elocution lessons; a girl is the better for being able to speak clearly, instead of mumbling. But I gave it no further special thought until the class gave a play, Jack Frost, and to my surprise, Maureen made quite a thing of the lead.

Miss Edna Mary Burke, who heads a leading dramatic school in Dublin, happened to see the play and was taken with Maureen. What mother would say no under such circumstance? From then on, for years, Maureen was about the busiest girl in Dublin. You see, she didn’t stop with her regular school and her dramatic and dancing lessons. She took up stenography, typing and bookkeeping, as a practical step!

Now, she began professional work as well. She worked with the Abbey Theatre, did radio plays over Dublin’s station, Radio EIREANN, and was also attached to the Bernadette Players in Rathmines, a Dublin suburb. She was always going places alone now. I began to worry about this and lectured her on a number of subjects, including MEN.

Somewhere in Dublin there’s a lad for whom I still feel sorry because of these lectures. He approached Maureen, one rainy evening, as she stood outside the Abbey Theatre, waiting for a tram to take her home, her books under one arm and an umbrella in the other hand. She was about 15 then. Possibly, the young chap was just going to ask for street directions or the like. But that morning I had given Maureen that old, old piece of advice: “Men will only go as far, will only be as wicked, as a girl will let them be. Remember that, young lady!”

The young fellow said, “Good evening—” but that was far enough for Maureen. She promptly bent her umbrella over his head, and he fled for his life!

tricks of the traveler . . .

Yes, Maureen had quite a code of conduct to guide her in her travels in Dublin. But this was nothing to what was dinned into her head by her Aunt Florence, with whom she lived in London when she went there to make Jamaica Inn. Aunt Florence made Maureen copy down her instructions. Here they are, in case you ever go to London to make a picture!

1. While waiting for bus or tube train, never stand still. Always keep moving up and down the street or platform.

2. Never catch anyone’s eye.

3. Always sit near the conductor on the bus.

4. Never threaten to call a policeman if a flirt speaks to you—go and call him!

5. Never walk slowly. Always act like you are late and in a hurry!

As a result of following this set of rules carefully, Maureen remembers London as just one big blur. She never had a chance to stop and look at it.

Maureen did well in London, but again, in her practical way, she played safe. Even though she was making a picture with a star as prominent as Charles Laughton, she registered at Trinity College for a dramatic course. She stayed until she graduated, with a 92% mark; an achievement so unusual that the school board awarded her a gold medal of honor.

Her greatest asset in stage work was her quick memory. When she first read Shakespeare, she fell so much in love with him that she would memorize huge gobs of his plays at one sitting. She could read a page, give me the book, and then recite almost all of it straight out! More than that, she took to writing poetry, and could compose a little sonnet while riding home from school on her bicycle. I sometimes feel that working in pictures, where you need only remember a short scene at a time, is a waste of her talent. Still, films bring her talent to so many people. And her beauty.

Yes, when people step into my shop and talk about Maureen’s beauty, I agree. Now that I look back on it, there was her flaming red hair, and I remember how I used to try to get her dresses in complementary colors to match. Then there were her green eyes, and her finely-modeled face and the graceful movements.

What must I be thinking of? Why, Maureen was always beautiful! Of course! Of course! And the first thing I’ll do when I get back to Ireland will be to remind her father of it. He’ll be quite delighted!





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