Margaret Sullavan was a Golden Age icon with a shocking secret. The actress was born with an ear condition that caused her to gradually become deaf over the course of her lifetime. Margaret hid this deafness from the people in her life, and it’s possible that she was even trying to hide it from herself. The actress’s worsening deafness only exacerbated other worsening issues during her later life, which included depression and a messy third divorce. Margaret’s lifetime of fame and success was tragically cut short when the actress decided to take her own life. To make matters even worse, two of her children followed in her footsteps. Join Facts Verse as we explore how Margaret Sullavan lived in fear of her deafness, then met a tragic end.
Margaret Sullavan Had a Lonely Childhood
Margaret Sullavan was born to a wealthy family in May of 1909. Margaret’s father was a stockbroker, and his income made it so that Margaret didn’t know much in the way of material wants. However, this doesn’t mean that future star had a happy childhood! In fact, the young girl’s childhood was anything but the fairy tale that one would imagine. For several years as a kid, Margaret was essentially bedridden as a result of a muscular weakness. This dealt a significant blow to the growing child’s social life, as she spent these years with only herself to keep her company. Thankfully, this resulted in Margaret developing her mind in ways that she might not have otherwise. The child grew to become very strong willed, and certainly grew to have quite the imagination. Margaret eventually recovered from the muscular weakness, though there would be another problem that would end up affecting the young girl to a worsening degree over the remainder of her life.
As it turns out, Margaret was born with an ear condition that made it so that she started growing deaf at a rather young age. This deafness then worsened until Margaret spent the remainder of her years not being able to hear at all. This deafness might have been manageable if it weren’t for Margaret’s tragic reaction to it. For whatever reason, the actress refused to come to terms with her deafness until her dying days, instead choosing to live in denial. The depression that was caused by trying to hide her true nature to the public arguably resulted in the actress’s life ending much sooner than it needed to, and by her own hands.
Margaret’s deafness didn’t come to truly affect her until much later, after she had already attained stardom. Following her recovery from the muscular condition that saw her essentially bedridden for years as a child, Margaret blossomed into a bright and successful young adult. She became president of the student body at the Chatham Episcopal Institute, which is where she first developed dreams of becoming a stage actress. Following her graduation from the school, Margaret moved out to Boston and began studying the arts of acting and dancing while making a living for herself as a clerk at a bookstore. The future star’s parents didn’t support her on her quest to become an actress, so they refused to share their wealth once their daughter made it clear that was the path that she was going to take. She subsequently had to support herself, but that proved no problem for the soon-to-be celebrity.
Margaret Headed Straight for the Stage
In the late 1920s, Margaret Sullavan began performing on stage with the Harvard University Players. She performed with the theatrical troupe for an entire summer season, during which time she met future husband and film star Henry Fonda. At the time, Henry was just trying to make a name for himself as a performer like Margaret was. The two had quite a bit in common, and they ended up tying the knot and divorcing well before either of them achieved any level of Hollywood stardom. They married in 1931, and were divorced in 1933. Margaret would go on to remarry three times over the course of her life, and Henry Fonda wasn’t the only one of her husbands that was a notable figure.
After a few years of performing in lesser productions, Margaret finally debuted on Broadway with 1931’s A Modern Virgin. More Broadway roles followed the successful turn, including a role that saw Margaret working alongside a similarly young Humphrey Bogart. As Margaret’s profile on the stage increased, she started gaining the attention of some Hollywood producers. If you’re enjoying this video so far, be sure to hit the like button to show your support! Also, subscribe to the channel if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!
Margaret Was Always Strong-Willed
Margaret Sullavan was always incredibly strong-willed, and she wasn’t one to be had by the Hollywood studio system. When the Hollywood bigwigs came to Broadway wanting to get a taste of New York City’s newest star, the actress knew that she had some leverage. She turned down a few offers before finally making a deal with Universal Pictures that would allow her to continue acting on the stage. Some of the studios that Margaret turned down contractual offers from included Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures. The actress signed with Universal Pictures in 1933, and the contract was for a decidedly lenient three years. Once working for Universal Pictures, Margaret made sure to exercise special care when picking out scripts, which was a luxury that most other stars were never afforded.
Though Margaret exercised a significant amount of control when picking out her roles with Universal Pictures, she ended up being rather unhappy with how her debut performance turned out. As a matter of fact, Margaret was so unhappy upon seeing footage of herself in her very first film that she tried to buy both the film and her own contract out from Universal Pictures so that she could have the footage destroyed! It’s not quite clear what Margaret saw in her debut performance that caused her to have such a reaction, but the public felt much differently than she did. Margaret’s first role was in the 1933 film Only Yesterday, and the film was a big hit! The audience loved Margaret, and Universal Pictures ended up being very glad that they signed her on.
Margaret came to terms with the fact that the audience liked her more than she liked herself, and she relented to continue filming movies with Universal Pictures. The actress was always her harshest critic, and her hypersensitivity when it came to her image is likely a huge part of what made her hide her deafness away from the public once it became a serious issue. Following Margaret’s breakout performance on the screen in Only Yesterday, the actress caught another big film role in 1935’s The Good Fairy. Legendary filmmaker William Wyler directed The Good Fairy, and he became smitten with his leading lady during the production.
Was Margaret in Love with James Stewart?
Margaret and William soon fell in love, and William became Margaret’s second husband. Sadly, the marriage turned out to be just as short as the previous one. Margaret and William married in 1934, before the picture that they had filmed together even released. They were then divorced in 1936. Some have suggested that Margaret’s marriage to William Wyler came to an end because the actress fell in love with James Stewart. Margaret began appearing in films with James during the mid-1930s, and she is widely credited with helping the future celebrity become a star. Despite this, Margaret remained adamant until her dying day that her and James Stewart were nothing more than good friends. Some of the many pictures that Margaret and James starred in together included Next Time We Love and The Shop Around the Corner. Margaret fought for James to get the opportunity to screen test to be her on-screen partner in their first film together, and she also coached him to be a better actor.
Margaret continued to find success in Hollywood over the course of the remaining 1930s, and even garnered an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the film Three Comrades. However, after a pair of features in the early 1940s, Margaret decided that she wanted to return to the stage. Margaret only ever performed in one more film after her return to Broadway, though that film was a major success. Similarly, Margaret continued to receive great acclaim thanks to all of her stage performances. The actress simply liked working on the stage better than she did within the Hollywood system. Either that, or the loudness of Broadway fit better with her worsening deafness.
Margaret’s final film performance came in 1950, when she gave a critically acclaimed turn as a cancer patient in the film No Sad Songs for Me. The actress’s performance was so well received that she continued receiving lucrative offers for film roles up until her dying days, though she always turned them down. It’s unclear how much of Margaret’s erratic behavior was caused by her personal troubles.
Margaret’s Miserable Marriage and Last Days
In addition to Margaret’s worsening deafness, she also suffered a miserable third marriage. Margaret’s third husband was a man by the name of Leland Hayward, who was previously her agent. The marriage lasted over a decade and yielded three children, but it was not a happy one. It came to an end when Margaret caught her spouse cheating. Following the pair’s divorce in 1949, Margaret’s kids decided to live with their father instead of her. This emotionally affected Margaret a great deal, and worsened her already deteriorating mental state. She suffered a breakdown in 1955, after which time she was voluntarily committed for a period of time.
Margaret had married a man by the name of Kenneth Wagg in 1950, and he remained by the actress’s side until her death. Kenneth helped Margaret through the worst years of her life, but this apparently wasn’t enough. In 1960, Margaret committed suicide via sleeping-pill overdose. Two of her three children followed suit, marking an end to one of the most tragic stories in all of show business!
Though Margaret Sullavan was a critically acclaimed actress that the audience adored, her refusal to accept her worsening deafness caused her to withdrawal from the world. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Margaret Sullavan is credited with making James Stewart a star, and that she was also married to a young Henry Fonda? As always, like this video to show your support, and subscribe and hit the notification bell if you’d like to be among the first to know when more Facts Verse videos are on their way!