Recently, on a whim, I picked up a copy of Maureen O’Hara’s 2004 autobiography, ‘Tis Herself (written with John Nicoletti). I’ve been on a bit of a nonfiction kick lately, and any day in which I can take some time to read about my favorite classic film stars … well, that’s just a damn good day.
In writing her memoirs, O’Hara holds nothing back–well, very little, anyway. From her marriages to her career, O’Hara relates the story of her life with a great deal of candor and not a little pride. It’s an interesting read, to say the least. O’Hara is a remarkable actress, but I never knew much about her back story. Reading her autobiography now is a delight–it is written in a straightforward, yet entertaining manner about her life before, during, and after the Hollywood spotlight had descended upon her, and the stories of her encounters with her fellow Golden Age stars are, by turns, hilarious, touching, and somewhat horrifying.
Some of the stories in the book are familiar–O’Hara’s longtime friendship with John Wayne, for example–but some are altogether startling, particularly her association with director John Ford (which receives a great deal of attention in the book). Ford, O’Hara’s fellow Irishman–as proud of his roots as she–frankly seems bipolar per O’Hara’s description; by her own account, Ford loved and hated her by equal measure, embracing her one moment and actually socking her in the jaw the next. O’Hara, who along with Wayne was one of Ford’s most frequent collaborators, recalls Ford with a mixture of disgust and fondness, and it seems almost strange that, considering the ways in which he reportedly wronged her–undermining her brother Jimmy’s burgeoning movie career (he acted under the name James Lilburn), telling the United States government that O’Hara was smuggling jewels from Mexico, etc.–that she could even write of him with an ounce of compassion and forgiveness. But, as O’Hara explains, she has written of Ford with the hope of coming to some understanding of his behavior, and she feels her task is complete:
“For years, I wondered why John Ford grew to hate me so much. I couldn’t understand what made him say and do so many terrible things to me. I realize now that he didn’t hate me at all. He loved me very much and even thought he was in love with me … as I conclude my thoughts on John Ford, I reaffirm my respect, admiration, and friendship for him by saying, ‘I love you too, Pappy.'”
Her fractious dealings with Walt Disney, however, do not reach as satisfying a conclusion. Though it was in O’Hara’s contract that she should be billed above anyone else, Hayley Mills was given top billing in 1961’s The Parent Trap. When O’Hara challenged Disney, he threatened to “destroy” her until she backed down. And in later years, O’Hara alleges, when she pitched the idea of turning one of her daughter’s favorite childhood books into a film, with herself in the leading role, Disney reportedly rejected the idea and, soon after, made Mary Poppins anyway … without O’Hara. Even while ill, Disney nursed his grudge; according to O’Hara’s agent, Helen Morgan, when O’Hara’s name was once brought up in conversation, Disney retorted, “That bitch.”
Regarding her marriages–the first of which was annulled after having never been consummated, the second of which ended in the wake of her husband’s alcoholism (and produced her only child, Bronwyn), and the third of which marked the happiest period of her life until her husband’s tragic death in a plane crash–O’Hara is perhaps the most forthcoming. Her descriptions of her marriages are unflinchingly sincere, especially the portrait of her horrible second husband, Will Price, upon whose suicide she could only say, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
But her descriptions of life on the movie sets and her anecdotes about stars ranging from Charles Laughton (who was a second father to O’Hara) to Rex Harrison (whom she loathed) are, quite simply, enthralling. And only the hardest hearts among us will not shed a tear or two as she describes her final days with Wayne.
The book is accompanied by a variety of publicity shots and candid photos of the star throughout her lifetime, highlighting the earthy, redheaded beauty that initially made her a star (and a cinematographer’s dream) in the earliest days of Technicolor.
O’Hara concludes her memoirs by addressing the reader:
“How will you fill your empty pages? I pray that all you young people, middle-aged people, and old people like me live each day and enjoy each day, and when God calls you, that you answer Him and go willingly. But leave your mark on the world, on your children and on all the people that you leave behind so that they will be brave and leave brave memories.”
Taking her own advice, O’Hara leaves the reader with a veritable volume of brave memories, highlighting so brilliantly the mark she herself has made.
Fascinating and memorable, O’Hara’s autobiography reveals a prideful, searingly dedicated woman who was determined to be the best in the world and, like any determined Irish lass, made it to the top in record time. If you have never had the chance to read it, I can tell you right now, it’s definitely worth a perusal.