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Maureen O'Hara

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The Greatest Guy I Ever Met

Maureen O'Hara gave up acting for 30 years and is now president of an Irish golf club. Stan Gebler Davies found her on home turf.

By Stan Gebler Davies

The Sunday Telegraph, November 29, 1992 page 13

At a certain point in the filming of The Quiet Man, John Ford's epic Irish comedy (1952), Maureen O'Hara suspected that her movie career might have come precipitately to an end. For the purpose of furthering her courtship with John Wayne, Ford had put her in a cart at a race meeting with the wind-machine behind her, so that her glorious red mane was whipped forwards into her eyes. It was lashing her eyeballs almost to shreds and consequently she kept squinting.

"What the hell do you think you are doing?" Ford yelled, or words to that effect. "Open your damn eyes." Ford had forgotten the first thing we should all remember about redheads, which is that they have one layer of skin less than the rest of humanity and react accordingly - even to the world's most eminent film director. Miss O'Hara leaned forward, her Irish up (as they say in the States), and roared at him: "What would a bald-headed son-of-a-bitch know about hair lashing across his eyeballs?" Ford, after thinking about it for a while, decided to laugh at this impertinence.

The several friendships involved all survived, including the bond with John Wayne, which was particularly strong. "I prefer the company of men," Wayne said, "except for Maureen O'Hara. She's the greatest guy I ever met." How Wayne could have made so basic a mistake is not difficult to fathom. In this most fundamentally feminine woman is a core of tempered steel which could be misinterpreted by those who do not know redheads, or Irishwomen, very well as a sort of masculinity. May I say that I discovered this instantly, with an intuition aided by long experience of the breed, when I met her at Glengarriff, in West Cork.

She took me to the local golf club, which is her turf and she is Lady President of it. She is a striking female of justly indeterminate age. There may be less hazardous operations than asking an actress's age, like abseiling down the cliffs of Moher, but on the whole I prefer to avoid these operations. I would guess she is about the same age as, or maybe a little younger than, my mother, also from Dublin. My mother, in common with certain of her contemporaries, is under the impression that Miss O'Hara, nee Fitzsimmons, won her way to eminence by coming first in a Dawn Ball, a contest held at the conclusion of dances, when dances were still decorous affairs. She was subsequently discovered by Charles Laughton, who cast her opposite himself in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

Well, the Laughton bit is certainly true, and my researches indicate that Miss O'Hara was roughly 19 when she made that movie, but the Dawn Ball episode appears to be Dublin fiction. Maureen in fact auditioned for the Abbey Theatre School and was taken on immediately, along with two other candidates, one of whom was a policeman whose histrionic abilities had been spotted when he was on point duty. What became of him is not known.

I asked her if she played golf often, and she answered that she did not. She has that peculiar lilt to her voice which some think is stage Irish but is in fact the overlay of an American on an Irish accent, very like Barry Fitzgerald or, come to think of it, my mother. She cannot play golf very easily because one of her hands was injured. "I had surgery on it," she tells me. It is a heavily freckled hand. "Jackie Gleason sat on it and smashed it, so . . ." "So?" "Well, we were making a movie, and he happened to have had a little too much to drink, and my hand happened to be in his way, so. . . " The freckles are the consequence of sunlight.

A great piece of good fortune attaches to redheads, which is that they can be quite stunningly attractive, but certain disabilities may attend them also; an ungovernable temper is one I have mentioned already, but being stung by wasps and assailed by sunlight are others. Maureen O'Hara has, under the circumstances, chosen wisely where to live. There are numerous advantages to living in Glengariff, but the availability of sunlight is not one of them. Miss O'Hara has been there about three decades, enjoying the barren, rocky beauty of the place and, presumably, the incessant rain.

Numerous offspring (six children, innumerable grandchildren) from her marriage to Charlie Blair, general in the US Air Force, visit her in the summer. The late Charles Blair flew over the North Pole in a fighter plane to prove that you could drop nuclear bombs on Russia if the need arose. He had a great fondness for seaplanes, and Maureen devotes much energy still to the seaplane museum at Foynes, on the Shannon. I asked her, had she learned to fly herself? "Why would you want to fly," she said, "when you were married to the best aviator in the world?" Good question, I suppose.

Miss O'Hara has worked with the best director and the best film actor in the world, by which I mean John Wayne. Of Ford she is forthcoming, but certain stories Wayne confessed to her will never be told. "One of these days, I'll write my book. You know the hardest thing is knowing some wonderful, wonderful stories, and you wonder if they're cruel in the telling and if you have a right to tell them. "I used to go to Acapulco with his wife Pilar. Just before he died I went to see him, and we'd sit on the waterfront and the boats would pass and hoot to salute him, and his grandchildren would hear a story about this and a story about that, and they'd say 'Did you really do that?', and Duke would say 'If your Auntie Maureen says I did, then I guess I really must have'."

I confess at this point that John Wayne was the only actor I ever wanted to meet, out of sheer admiration of what he embodied. (Is he not the only actor for whom US Congress struck a medal?) "Ah, you would have loved him," says Maureen. "He was a wonderful man, a wonderful person. With us, it wasn't a man and a woman - it was two friends. He knew a lot of my secrets which nobody ever knew and nobody ever will. He might be telling the Good Lord but he's not going to tell anyone else."

John Ford is, by her testimony, now less of an enigma than he wished to be. Asked once how he got to Hollywood, Ford answered that he got there by train and insisted that his private life was his own damn business. He drank like a fish but never on the job and he always came in on time and on budget. Even so, he still had trouble raising money for his films - the movie industry, then as now, dominated by idiots.

Maureen O'Hara is eloquent testimony to all of this. She walked away from the business and for 30 years didn't bother to make another film until two years ago. When Katharine Hepburn hurt herself a while ago, Miss O'Hara was offered the script that had been written for her. She considers it the highest compliment ever paid to her and is sincerely glad that Hepburn recovered in time to play the part.

"Ronald Colman said to me, if you're proud of one in 15 films you've made you can consider yourself lucky. Well, I'm proud of more than that and I know that I've been in some movies that'll be played long after I'm dead and gone."

John Ford is the subject of a two-part 'Omnibus' on BBC1, starting on Tuesday.

© 1992 The Sunday Telegraph Limited

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