Set on Making Her Way: Susan Hayward
Susan Hayward is best known as an acclaimed and awarded actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was also a commercial model. Susan’s modeling and acting career spanned an extensive estimate of thirty years. Classical actresses among her contemporaries included Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, and Rita Hayworth, among many other actresses.
In the 30th of June, 1917, Susan Hayward was born Edythe Marrenner. Her father was Walter Marrenner, a handsome transportation barker from Coney Island, and her mother was Ellen Pearson, a stenographer. Walter hailed from an Irish descent, while Ellen owed her features to Swedish ancestry. It was this mix of lineages that would eventually give Edythe her good looks and her trademark red tresses.
Edythe was the youngest among three siblings, with an eldest sister named Florence and brother named Wally. She was particularly closer with Wally as compared to her sister, probably because of a smaller age gap. Florence was also believed to be the most favored child, which Edythe greatly resented throughout her life. Edyth and her siblings were born and raised in Brooklyn in the Flatbush area, in an environment where immigrants formed tight-knit communities, almost all of whom were living in poverty. The Marrenner family lived in a tenement.
Impoverishment can be very difficult for anyone, especially for young children. Edythe’s memories of her Brooklyn childhood were certainly not all happy ones. Such was the Marrenner’s scarcity that Edythe and her siblings would wear the same set of clothes for many weeks or month even, as they can’t afford to clean their clothes. Day-old breads, which stores sometimes sold at a fraction of the cost of fresh products, were a staple food for the family, since there was not enough money to buy any other kinds of food, let alone a fresh loaf of bread. Their deprived circumstances, however, pushed Edythe to find other means of provision. Together with Wally, she would collect disposed containers and other recyclable junk littered around the area, sell them, and use the meager amount to buy more food. If they were lucky, the money was enough for buying of new clothes.
Edythe went through even more strenuous times when she was hit by a car when she was seven years old. She suffered major leg and hip fractures, which left her no choice but to stay at home, covered in a body cast for many months. Determined as she was, Edythe soon began walking after six months, though with the help of crutches. Her injuries left her with limping gait. All of these different factors – her family’s poverty, her dirty clothes, and her limp – made her an awkward child who made few friends and was incessantly teased at school. These school torments had a lifetime effect on Edythe to pursue success. By age twelve, Edythe found something to alleviate her terrible situation.
Edythe began her passion for acting when performed in a school play called Cinderella in Flowerland, taking the female lead role. She may have been the butt of all jokes on a regular basis, but onstage, she was a star. Edythe became captivated by the dream of becoming a Hollywood actress and further ignited her passion by watching movies. Whatever extra money she had from collecting bottles and newspapers was redirected to buying cinema tickets. Movies were her means of escaping her harsh realities. Edythe once said, “I learned at a very early age that life is a battle. My family was poor, my neighborhood was poor. The only way that I could get away from the awfulness of life, at that time, was at the movies. There I decided that my big aim was to make money. And it was there that I became a very determined woman.”
One of the many actresses that inspired Edythe was Barbara Stanwyck, a famous actress during the “Talkies” era of Hollywood; Stanwyck was also a Brooklyn native herself. Such was her passion and acting prowess both on the stage, acting classes, and in drama clubs, that she became known as a “prize [actress]” when she graduated from high school. At the age of seventeen, Edythe grew out of her awkwardness and blossomed into a lady with an attractive face, a fair, smooth complexion, and an hourglass figure. Her limp was also almost unnoticeable. Fresh out of high school, Edythe was resolute on making it big.
Hoping to get her ticket to fame, Edythe would go to a Walgreen’s Drug Store along Broadway, where many girls who aspire to become Hollywood stars find part-time jobs as models. It was there that opportunity opened a door for Edythe when she met with Walter Thornton, agent and owner of the Thornton Modeling Agency. Edythe’s discovery was very timely, because it was during that period that colored photography was fast becoming popular, and Edythe’s fiery-red hair, creamy complexion and beautiful hazel-brown eyes – were just right for colored advertisements. Charmed, Thornton immediately signed the young Edythe.
A series of paper ads featuring the redhead followed suit. From vacuum cleaners, peppermints, to skin creams and bath soaps, Edythe’s face and hair stood out. Her fame rocketed in November 1937, when Walter Thornton wrote an article about the modeling world for the Saturday Evening Post, and largely featured Edythe as his model. Throughout her modeling career, her earnings went to taking care of her family, especially since during that time, her father was becoming weaker, and his health was taking a turn for the worse. Having to make a career and taking care of her family surely burdened Edythe at times; but her strength of character and passion to fulfill her Hollywood dreams pushed her to work hard.
Before 1937 ended, another opportunity passed by Edythe’s way: becoming Scarlett O’Hara. Margarett Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind was a bestseller and David O. Selznick was to produce the movie version. The producer sent Edythe a personal invitation to audition for the female lead right in her dream location in Hollywood. Given free train tickets, she and her older sister Florence travelled to Hollywood. While waiting for Edythe’s audition and screen test, her sisters stayed at a hotel suite paid for by Selznick, and was given a stipend during their stay. Unfortunately, Edythe did not snag the role. Her audition revealed two things that disqualified her for the role: her inexperienced acting and a distinct Brooklyn accent that sounded unrefined. Vivien Leigh was eventually cast as Scarlett O’ Hara; she went on to win an Oscar for her performance. Edythe would have to wait for the chance to win her own Oscar. She stayed in California and got herself an agent named Ben Medford.
Edythe did not have time to dwell on her failed casting audition. Warner Bros. was quickly captivated by her beauty and offered her a six-month contract that she readily accepted. Warner Bros. also gave Edythe a new name: Susan Hayward. Her career started at a slow pace; she played minor and insignificant roles that rendered her still an unknown. Along with her accent, Susan also brought her assertive personality, both of which made many people misunderstood her as brash. If there was one thing that her impoverished Brooklyn childhood had taught her, it was that she had to be a tough. “I spent an unhappy penniless childhood in Brooklyn,” Susan said. “I had to slug my way up in a town called Hollywood where people love to trample you to death.” She was set on making it big her own way, and refused to “play that casting couch game,” as recalled by her son, Timothy Barker, in an interview.
Susan had, once again, to prove her toughness when her father died of heart problems on March 16, 1938. More bad news came when she found out that Warner Bros. would not renew her contract. Dejected as she was, she did not wallow in her situation. Choosing, instead, to devote her attention to improving her accent and pronunciation. She would repeatedly watch the film The Prisoner of Zenda, and imitate English actor Ronald Colman’s accent until she emerged with a sophisticated accent herself. She secured a seven-year contract from Paramount Pictures and was heavily promoted in a group called the “Golden Circle”, which included other actors like William Holden, Robert Preston, Patricia Morison, and Evelyn Keyes, among others.
Susan’s first movie with Paramount was in 1939, titled Beau Geste, in which she played a relatively significant role as Isobel Rivers, as compared to her other roles that were left uncredited or even edited out. Viewers and critics saw a change for the better, both in her accent and in her acting, and many gave her performance a warm reception. Susan starred in two more films that year, Our Leading Citizen and $1000 a Touchdown. Both films failed to top the box office hits, and Susan felt she had to take control of her career. She took advantage of her non-exclusive contract with Paramount and hunted for films with substance and good scripts outside the production company.
In 1941, Susan found the movie she wanted to act in; Columbia Picture’s Adam Had Four Sons. The film had a character named Hester Stoddard who was a conniving troublemaker, and Susan knew she can play the character well. Instead of going to the director Gregory Ratoff, she went to his wife, Eugenie Leontovich and endorsed herself as the perfect actress to play Hester. The wife was won over, and Paramount agreed to loan Susan to Columbia for the film opposite Ingrid Bergman. The movie did not disappoint, and was a great display of Susan’s unique talent and range of character. A critic even wrote of her as “the most ablest bitch player in Hollywood.” The hit movie gave her another opportunity of gracing the cover of New York’s Sunday Mirror Magazine.
Susan Hayward, ever the determined woman, further expanded her celebrity status during World War II. She posed as a pin-up model, dressed in clothes that showed much of her milky skin and petite, hourglass figure, and became popular, especially with the soldiers. She continued working at her career as an actress and filmed two more films that year; Sis Hopkins and Among the Living. The next year, 1942, began as a very good year for Susan with the filming of a movie called Reap the Wild Wind as a female cousin to Paulette Goddard’s character, and Robert Preston’s love interest. The film, directed by renowned Cecil B. DeMille, was a success, and won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Susan’s beauty was a stand-out, especially because the film was in Technicolor. Her red hair was vibrant, her skin creamy white, and her brown eyes sparkled.
After Reap the Wild Wind, Susan worked continually, finishing four more movies that year: The Forest Rangers, I Married a Witch, Star Spangled Rhythm, and A Letter from Bataan. From 1943 to 1946, she made 9 movies, some of which included: Jack London (1943), And Now Tomorrow (1944), and Deadline at Dawn (1946). Her movies during that duration were a mix of hits and misses, but all of them had a common thread: she was impressive, and critics agree. She was fast becoming known as an A-list star, a reputation she had wanted, worked for, and deserved.
During the war, Susan never forgot her duties as a good American citizen, and volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen, serving coffee, entertaining, and dancing with the military men throughout the night. On November 1944, Susan was approached by an actor, Jess Barker. Ever the ladies’ man, Jess attempted to kiss the redhead, to which he got a slap in the face. Their meeting may have started out rocky, but their relationship grew and soon after, were recognized as a couple. On the 24th of July, 1944, Jess and Susan were married – as they found out that Susan was expecting. Jess was twenty-nine, and Susan twenty-seven. The following year, on February, Susan delivered two fraternal twin boys, Gregory and Timothy Barker.
1947 further secured Susan’s name as a Hollywood star when she was cast as the female lead in Smash-up: The Story of a Woman. Her character was a woman named Angelica Evans Conway, a singer who turned into an alcoholic after her career end. The film was a critical success and her performance was so stellar that it earned her the first of the five nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Many thought that Susan was a shoo-in to win the Oscar that year, but Loretta Young won the award instead. Even so, her career as an acclaimed actress was just starting to take off.
After and during Smash-up, Susan remained busy with films, leaving her husband to watch their growing twins. Jess Barker, whose acting career was at a standstill, never took to being a domestic, stay-at-home spouse, and began to resent his wife’s success. Their marriage was tumultuous throughout the years. Timothy, their son, recalled, “They did not have that shared reality that is required for two people to work out their problems. It just, it was not existent… they hurt one another a lot.” It was also at this time that Susan, like her Smash-up character, turned to alcohol. The intoxication did not ease her sadness, however, and she became more difficult and irritable.
Her film projects in the next two years disappointed Susan, because their quality did not match the caliber that Smash-up had. Six movie flops after, Susan worked on a film called My Foolish Heart in 1949. Critics viewed it as “a soggy love story” and “full of soap-opera clichés,” but the movie earned Susan another Academy Award nomination. With a seven-year contract with producer Darryl F. Zanuck, she worked in more competent films, such as I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, Rawhide, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, and David and Bathsheba, all in 1951. Zanuck’s strategy was to broaden Susan’s acting genres while casting her in films with popular leading men, such as Gregory Peck, William Lundigan, and Tyrone Power, among others.
1952 gave the actress another Academy Award nomination in the film With a Song with My Heart. The film was the life story of Jane Froman, a singer-actress who became crippled in an airplane accident. Perhaps it was that commonality of the fear of not walking again that made Susan’s performance gave justice to Froman’s tragedy. Susan also sang at the movie. The Lusty Man, starring Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward was also filmed in 1952. In that same year, the Foreign Press Association (FPA) selected her and John Wayne as The Two Most Popular Stars in the World. Susan Hayward, with the help of Zanuck, continued to make movies with famous leading men, such as Charlton Heston in The President’s Lady (1953), and Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune (1955).
In 1953, she also divorced Jess Barker and was officially single by August 1954. In 1955, Susan was rushed in the hospital unconscious, due to a drug overdose of sleeping pills. Still, the dogged woman never stopped working; after her hospital release, Susan did another movie that gave her the fourth Academy Award nomination.
I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) was about a Broadway actress Lillian Roth; an alcoholic and a character that surely Susan sympathized with. Her son, Timothy, observed that much of his mother’s nature was embedded in the character she was playing, which could have given her performance more depth and substance. Susan bagged another Academy Award nomination, but did not receive the coveted Oscar, much to her frustration. 1955 was a disappointing year for her, but it also provided a silver lining: Floyd Eaton Chalkley.
Floyd Eaton Chalkley and Susan were introduced to each in a Christmas party, and an attraction was instantly born. The Georgia native, then 47, charmed Susan because of his gentlemanly ways and well-bred attitude – it did not hurt that Charlton was also wealthy. After two years of being together, they married on the 9th of February 1957 and settled down on Floyd’s large estate in Carrollton, Georgia. The housewife role was very becoming of Susan and gave her the peace that she had longed for after working for such a long time and a first failure of a marriage. She took joy in building and taking care of their ranch and their farm, just being around nature and outside the hustle-bustle of Hollywood. She seemed finished with Hollywood, but Hollywood was not quite finished with her.
After a year of tranquil living with Floyd, Susan was approached by Walter Wanger, the producer of Smash-up, and was talked into doing another movie. I Want to Live! was another one of Susan’s controversial movies, perhaps the most out of all. Susan played Barbara Graham, a drug-addicted harlot accused of murder and was executed. Susan’s pursuit for daring roles gave her the push she needed to make it her best performance. The movie was such a hit, that it gave Susan another Academy Award for Best Actress.
Susan was ready to live her life as a devoted wife. It was fourteen years of married happiness before Floyd passed away on February 1966 of hepatitis. Susan soon moved to Florida and did minor film projects until the early seventies. Sadly, she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1972. Some speculate that the might have developed brain cancer as a result of filming in areas around old nuclear testing sites.
The “Brooklyn Bombshell” still had her tough spirit and in 1974, her career came full circle when she became a presenter for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Charlton Heston, her co-star for several movies, held her throughout the award presentation. As she was walking on stage, Susan Hayward, incredible classic actress and over-all and strong-willed woman, received a standing ovation, the final hurrah to her expansive list of works. At the age of fifty-six, Susan finally succumbed to her illness and passed away on March 14, 1975.
Susan Hayward once said, “When you’re dead, you’re dead. No one is going to remember me when I’m dead. Oh maybe a few friends will remember me affectionately. Being remembered isn’t the most important thing anyhow. It’s what you do when you are here that’s important.” Susan’s choices of strong female roles and overall contribution to the movie industry will never be forgotten.