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Hayward, Susanlocked

(30 June 1917–14 March 1975)
  • James Fisher

Hayward, Susan (30 June 1917–14 March 1975), actress, was born Edythe Marrenner in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Walter Marrenner, a transit worker, and Ellen Pearson. She was sent to Girls’ Commercial High School in Brooklyn to study stenography and dress design. After her high school graduation she became a photographer’s model in 1937. During the highly publicized nationwide search for a Scarlett O’Hara for the much-anticipated screen version of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind, Hayward was brought to Hollywood by producer David O. Selznick to test for the role. The part went to Vivien Leigh, but Hayward was signed to a short contract by Warner Bros., where her name was changed and she appeared in small roles in a number of forgettable films and a few good ones, including Hollywood Hotel (1937), The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), and The Sisters (1938).

In 1939 Hayward was signed by Paramount Pictures and continued her apprenticeship in mostly B-films, with the occasional supporting role in an A-picture. She had her best opportunities in William Wellman’s Beau Geste (1939), Cecil B. De Mille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1942), and René Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942).

Following a short stint with RKO, independent producer Walter Wanger signed Hayward to a contract in 1945, and her roles began to improve. She made a particularly outstanding appearance in the dramatic film Smash-up: The Story of a Woman (1947) playing the neglected wife of a popular singer. Her performance led to her first Academy Award nomination as best actress and, eventually, to a star contract with 20th Century–Fox. At Fox, Hayward scored a major success in the tearjerker My Foolish Heart (1950), based on a J. D. Salinger short story, which earned her another Oscar nomination and considerable critical praise. She also found a strong role in the screen biography of singer Jane Froman, With a Song in My Heart (1952), under the direction of Walter Lang, and won another Oscar nomination. Other excellent vehicles for Hayward in this era included David and Bathsheba (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The President’s Lady (1953), and The Conquerer (1956). In I’ll Cry Tomorrow, another screen biography (this time of singer and recovered alcoholic Lillian Roth), Hayward supplied the vocals herself (although she had been dubbed in the Froman film) and earned a best actress award from the Cannes Film Festival and another Oscar nomination.

A strikingly beautiful redhead with a determined and tempestuous nature, Hayward had a rich, husky voice that served her well in a variety of roles. Her métier was melodrama, but she also turned in polished performances in occasional comedies and epics. Hayward smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and was known as a hard drinker, but she was well liked by co-workers and widely considered one of the most professional and talented stars of her time.

Hayward’s greatest acclaim as an actress came in 1958 with her searing performance in I Want to Live! as real-life murderer Barbara “Bloody Babs” Graham, a party girl who had been sentenced to die in the gas chamber. Hayward won both the Academy Award for best actress and the New York Film Critics Award for her intensely emotional acting. Of her performance, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that “she moves onto levels of cold disdain and then plunges down to depths of terror and bleak surrender as she reaches the end. Except that the role does not present us a precisely pretty character, its performance merits for Miss Hayward the most respectful applause” (19 Nov. 1958).

Despite her personal triumph in I Want to Live!, Hayward rarely found a similarly worthy challenge on screen again, although she received praise for her solid performances as the noble mistress of a married man in the 1961 remake of the classic melodrama Back Street and as the promiscuous daughter of Bette Davis in Where Love Has Gone (1964), a tawdry Harold Robbins dramatization of the Lana Turner–Johnny Stompanato case.

Hayward was married twice. Her first marriage to actor Jess Barker in 1944 ended in divorce in 1954. The union produced two sons, and Hayward attempted suicide in 1955 during a bitter custody battle with Barker. She married F. Eaton Chalkley in 1957, and they lived quietly in a Georgia retreat. He died in 1966.

Hayward returned to the screen after a three-year hiatus following Where Love Has Gone to replace Judy Garland in the coveted role of Helen Lawson, an alcoholic singer, in the film version of Jacqueline Susann’s popular novel Valley of the Dolls. That same year she also appeared in The Honey Pot. However, as she moved firmly into middle age, movie opportunities were no longer plentiful for Hayward. After her first stage appearance in a 1969 Las Vegas production of the musical Mame, Hayward turned to television for three TV movies in 1972, Heat of Anger, The Revengers, and Goodbye, Maggie Cole. A television series spin-off of the last was curtailed when Hayward was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

While suffering the last stages of her illness, Hayward, on the arm of frequent costar Charlton Heston, appeared at the Academy Awards ceremony as a presenter. The prolonged applause of the audience of her peers acknowledged both Hayward’s skill as an actress and her courage in battling her devastating illness. She died at her Beverly Hills, California, home a few months after this final public appearance.


For additional information on Hayward see Christopher P. Andersen, A Star Is a Star, Is a Star, Is a Star! The Lives and Loves of Susan Hayward (1980); Robert LaGuardia and Gene Arceri, Red: The Tempestuous Life of Susan Hayward (1985); Beverly Linet, Susan Hayward: Portrait of a Survivor (1980); Doug McClelland, “The Brooklyn Bernhardt,” Films and Filming, Mar. 1965; McClelland, “Susan Hayward,” Films in Review, May 1962; McClelland, Susan Hayward: Divine Bitch (1973); Eduardo Moreno, The Films of Susan Hayward (1981); and James Robert Parish and Don Stanke, The Forties Gals (1980). An obituary is in the New York Times, 15 Mar. 1975.