A Maureen O'Hara tweed jacket from The Quiet Man

Beauty and the beast

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 10

Beauty and the beast

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 10

Beauty and the beast

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 10

A beauty with a crunching right hook, Maureen O'Hara was adored by John Ford. What will a lost cache of letters reveal about their relationship, asks Neil Lyndon

Anybody paying attention to Maureen O'Hara in John Ford's Oscar-winning film The Quiet Man (1952) must surely sense that something extraordinary is going on between her and the camera.

The close-ups that linger so long on her flashing green eyes, on the dramatic slash of her mouth and her stern jawline are a study in infatuation. Of some actors it is said "the camera loves them". In The Quiet Man, it looks obvious that, when the lens focuses on O'Hara, somebody behind that camera has got it bad.

At the same time, the brutality of Maureen O'Hara's treatment in the film at the hands of her leading man John Wayne is strangely shocking. The famous scene in which Wayne drags her on her back across a hillside and hurls her at the feet of her screen brother, Victor McLaglen, is so bruising to contemporary sensibilities that it can make you gasp. The violence is made more perplexing when we know – as recorded by O'Hara herself – that, before the scene was shot, Ford and Wayne had kicked sheep dung into the path her body would traverse in order to make the experience even more unpleasant (which may explain why, when Wayne forced a first kiss on O'Hara in the movie, she walloped his face so hard she actually broke a bone in her hand).

It appears, then, that the feelings of the director towards his leading lady were both intense and far from straightforward.
Now, for the first time, we may discover the truth about that contorted relationship which has fascinated movie historians and critics for more than half a century. The dozen letters that John Ford wrote to Maureen O'Hara from 1950 to 1951 are offered in November's sale of the Estate of Maureen O'Hara in New York, along with an extensive collection of O'Hara's property, including costumes from her screen roles and scripts with notes written on them in her own hand.

The emergence of these letters is itself a story that matches the characters of O'Hara, Wayne and Ford for charisma and fascination.
When O'Hara's house in Los Angeles was being emptied after her death last year, her grandson Conor FitzSimons found a shoebox in her wardrobe. Within that box, wrapped in tissue paper and tied with red ribbon, were Ford's letters. "My grandmother might occasionally mention letters that John Ford had written but she had shown them to nobody. The only people on earth who have read them are me and the representative of Bonhams. Whoever buys these letters will be holding something that the world has never seen. If they then want to share them with the world, that's their choice."

To protect this exclusivity, FitzSimons is reluctant to reveal details about the contents of the letters, but he acknowledges they make it clear that Ford had "a major crush" on O'Hara. Was it reciprocated? "It's obvious that she wasn't having his advances," replies FitzSimons. "My grandmother was adept at giving the cold-shoulder to men who made advances to her, of whom John Ford was just one of many." He admits that "in some of them, you can tell that drink is at work [in Ford]", which may explain why many "read like love letters to Kate" (the character O'Hara played in The Quiet Man).

A tumult of wish-fulfilment and emotional displacement seems to have been raging through the shooting of The Quiet Man – one of five films O'Hara made with John Ford between 1941 and 1957. FitzSimons believes Ford was projecting his own passionate feelings for O'Hara through Wayne's performance – an interpretation O'Hara herself confirmed long after the film had won its director his Academy Award for best picture. "We look like a real couple, Duke and I, don't we? John Ford gave both of us the confidence to do our best. But he was living out his fantasy through Duke and me. He was Sean [Wayne's character] and I was his ideal woman."

In following his director's cues, however, Wayne himself may have been pretending to be something he was not given to be by nature, something more than himself. Ford had first cast Wayne in the 1939 classic Stagecoach because "he looked like such a man"; but Wayne felt himself inadequate for O'Hara. Despite constant rumors of romance between them, both were adamant throughout their lives that they had never been more than friends.

Wayne's statements on this question resounded with ruefulness: "Maureen married the man that I merely acted on screen," he said.
It was true. O'Hara's first two marriages were unsuccessful, but her third husband, Charles F. Blair Jr, was a man in the authentic mold of American Right Stuff. A warrior, test pilot and businessman, decorated by the President, Brigadier General Blair achieved an amazing array of aeronautical firsts in his career – including being the first man to fly over the North Pole.

They were a formidable match. Maureen O'Hara was more than a beautiful face and a gifted actor: she was also one tough broad (Wayne described her as "the best guy I ever knew"). Born in 1920 to prosperous parents in Dublin, she began acting in her teens and was taken to Hollywood by her mentor, Charles Laughton, before she was 20. Despite her youth, however, she wasn't going to be pushed around the studios. They told her to change her nose and fix her teeth. She told them to take a hike.

The same ferocious independence of mind made her prickly and picky about the roles she would and would not play. She chose them with exceptional taste and acumen. From The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) with Laughton himself to How Green Was My Valley (her first film with Ford in 1941); from Miracle on 34th Street (1947) to The Parent Trap (1961), she chose many of the best films made in Hollywood in the mid-20th century.

After her retirement from the screen, she and Blair created an airline – Antilles Airboats – in St Croix where they lived. Blair flew the planes while O'Hara served the passengers meals and drinks. After he died in a crash in 1978, she continued to run the business (becoming the first woman in US history to lead a scheduled airline). And she published a magazine.

During this period, she was also an active parent to her grandson, Conor – the only son of her only child, Bronwyn. When his parents separated soon after his birth, Conor's upbringing had fallen to the care of his mother and grandmother, who had joint custody. He went to school in Ireland, and would meet his grandmother and her husband when their flying boat arrived in Dún Laoghaire, having crossed the Atlantic for their annual summer holiday in Maureen's homeland. For Christmas and Easter holidays from school, Conor would join the Blairs in the Virgin Islands, where O'Hara was established as "the Queen of the Caribbean and I was treated like a prince. She was an intensely loving, kind and thoughtful grandmother and was, in truth, my best friend."

In 2012, in failing health at the age of 92, Maureen O'Hara chose to be with her grandson and his family in Idaho, where she enjoyed the company of her great-grandchildren Bailey and Everest. "She wanted to spend her last years among the people she loved and who loved her," says FitzSimons.

In 2015, the year of her death, she received her only Oscar in the form of an Honorary Award from the Academy. Not before time. O'Hara conspicuously deserved the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in The Quiet Man but, she believed, John Ford conspired against her in the Academy – demonstrating to the last the searing emotions of a man who seems to have hated himself for being besotted with an unattainable woman.

Neil Lyndon is a journalist, author and former correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph.

Sale: The Estate of Maureen O'Hara
New York
Tuesday 29 November at 12pm
Enquiries: Catherine Williamson +1 323 436 5442
catherine.williamson@bonhams.com
bonhams.com/maureenohara

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