To many, Maureen O’Hara was best known as the mother in 1961’s The Parent Trap and 1947’s Miracle On 34th Street, but dig deeper and you’ll discover she was so much more.
Known as the “Queen of Technicolor” for her fiery red hair, fierce green eyes and flawless complexion, the Dublin, Ireland-born actress, whose career spanned 75 years and 60 films, held several firsts including first action star and first woman to run an airline.
She is regarded as Ireland’s most celebrated actress. O’Hara also recorded albums and appeared on Broadway. “My first ambition was to be the No. 1 actress in the world,” she said in 1999. “And when the whole world bowed at my feet, I would retire in glory and never do anything again.”
Married three times, with one daughter named Bronwyn from her second marriage, the woman born Maureen FitzSimons lived through storied times.
Still, she considered the most influential men in her life to be actor Charles Laughton, who changed her name to O’Hara; actor John Wayne, with whom she starred in five films; and director John Ford, who catapulted her to stardom with How Green Was My Valley, which scored five Oscars.
When she died in her sleep in 2015 at age 95, she was surrounded by family in Boise, Idaho, who celebrated her life by playing music from her favorite film: 1952’s The Quiet Man.
Here, we take a look back at her incredible journey.
Maureen O’Hara: The early years
As the second eldest of six children to football-club owner dad Charles and opera-singer mom Marguerite, O’Hara began acting at age 5, studying at the Ena Mary Burke School of Elocution and Drama. She joined the Rathmines Theatre Company by age 10, and was soon hired by Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) to perform in radio plays that were available across Ireland.
O’Hara was motivated: She worked nights at the local laundromat during her teen years.
Fortunately, she would not have to rely on odd jobs for long.
A star was born
O’Hara was discovered by Charles Laughton at age 17, and he gave her the name O’Hara. She was hired to star with him in 1939’s Jamaica Inn, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and he also played Quasimodo to her Esmeralda in 1939’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
That same year, she left for America on The Queen Mary ship, and ultimately moved to Hollywood.
O’Hara’s first marriage was to producer George Hanley Brown in 1938. When she moved to Hollywood and he remained in England, the marriage was annulled in 1941.
Fast friendship with Lucille Ball
Not only did O’Hara meet male companions through her films, but she also met close friend Lucille Ball when they starred in the comedy Dance, Girl, Dance, in 1940. O’Hara was lunching with Ball she met Desi Arnaz.
Later, their children Lucille Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. tried to reunite their parents by playing O’Hara’s comedy The Parent Trap in hopes that they would “get the hint that they should be back together,” O’Hara said. (Unfortunately, it didn’t work.)
Director John Ford cast her in the 1941 family drama How Green Was My Valley, which took home five Oscars including Best Picture. She also became a World War II pinup.
O’Hara tied the knot with the director in 1941 and divorced in 1952. He directed her in the 1950 historical action-adventure flick Tripoli, and she bore her only child, daughter Bronwyn, with him in 1944. “The marriage was a terrible mistake, and we divorced in 1952,” O’Hara said.
Bronwyn also became an actress, adopting her mom’s maiden name, FitzSimons.
Maureen O’Hara, the first female action star
O’Hara is credited as the first female action star considering she completed many of her own stunts and sword-fighting scenes in romantic adventure films, including 1942’s The Black Swan and 1952’s At Sword’s Point.
Maureen O’Hara and The Duke
Directed by Ford and starring O’Hara opposite Wayne, the romantic comedy Quiet Man tells the story of a retired American boxer who returns to his Irish birth village, where he falls for a redhead whose brother is skeptical of their relationship. O’Hara considered it her favorite film.
O’Hara and Wayne would frequently collaborate, working on five films together, including 1950’s Rio Grande, 1952’s The Quiet Man, 1957’s The Wings of Eagles, 1963’s McLintock! and 1971’s Big Jake. She was enthused when he said he preferred to work with men, “except for Maureen O’Hara; she’s a great guy.”
In a 1991 interview, O’Hara explained that she met Wayne through Ford. “We hit it right off. I adored him, and he loved me. But we were never sweethearts. Never, ever.”
O’Hara’s voice took center stage when she appeared in the short-lived 1960 Broadway musical Christine, which was set in present-day India and told the story of an Irish woman and a Hindu doctor. It ran for just twelve shows. She recorded two albums including 1958’s Love Letters From Maureen O’Hara and 1961’s Maureen O’Hara Sings Her Favorite Irish Songs.
Best known to later generations for playing mothers in Miracle On 34th Street, opposite Natalie Wood, and The Parent Trap, opposite Hayley Mills, O’Hara’s additional family roles included 1962’s Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation, 1963’s McLintock! and 1963’s Spencer’s Mountain, which was inspired by the same novel by Earl Hamner that inspired The Waltons.
According to Biography, O’Hara had given up her film career after 1971’s Big Jake to move to St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to be her third husband, Charles Blair, whom she was wed to from 1968 until his death in 1978.
Blair was an aviation pioneer was the first pilot to make a solo flight over the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. He served as a Pan Am pilot for 30 years; wrote the autobiography, Red Ball in the Sky; and ran the Caribbean commuter airline, Antilles Airboats.
Tragically, he died in a commuter plane crash on his own airline on Sept. 2, 1978.
Despite the heartbreak, O’Hara picked up his role: She became the first female president of a scheduled airline at Antilles Airboats. After his death, she also penned a column for tourist magazine The Virgin Insider.
In a 1995 interview with the Associated Press, she said, “Being married to Charlie Blair and traveling all over the world with him, believe me, was enough for any woman. It was the best time of my life.”
The last chapter
Twenty years after her last film, she returned to the cinema to play John Candy’s mom in 1991’s Only The Lonely, continuing to act in made-for-TV movies including 1995’s Christmas Box, 1998’s Cab To Canada and 2000’s The Last Dance, which served as her final project.
During her acceptance speech, the wheelchair-bound O’Hara gave props to her leading men. “I wouldn’t be here tonight if it wasn’t also for other gentlemen who I was lucky to work with around the way, [including] Charles Laughton, who signed me to my first movie contract and is totally responsible for my career,” she began in her lilting Irish accent, before giving props to, “The Duke, John Wayne, who signed me to my first movie contract and is responsible for my career; and of course, that old divel himself, the great John Ford.”
O’Hara lived a quiet life until she died in her sleep on Oct., 24, 2015, at her home in Boise, Idaho, surrounded by family who celebrated her life by playing music from her favorite film: The Quiet Man.
She was survived by her daughter, Bronwyn FitzSimons of Glengarriff, Ireland; her grandson, Conor FitzSimons of Boise; and two great-grandchildren.
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