They had a nickname for Maureen O'Hara back in the day - Queen of Technicolor. With a head of gorgeous red hair and characteristically Irish eyes of bright green, hers was the kind of beauty color film was made for. A talented actress, singer, performer and businesswoman, Maureen's fiery locks were matched by her equally fiery spirit both on screen and off, making her a consistent symbol of strength and determination throughout her Hollywood career and beyond.
Born Maureen FitzSimons in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh in 1920, Maureen was the second oldest of the FitzSimons brood belonging to Stewart Parnell and his wife Marguerita. Maureen's life began as traditionally Irish as they come, complete with the Catholic upbringing, a household populated with 6 children, one of whom later became a nun, and the disapproving father figure who characteristically did not approve of his little girl's ambitions to be an actress. Unfortunately for her father and his intentions for Maureen, she was born the daughter of a former opera singer, which put the performing bug in her from birth.
Despite her father's reservations, Maureen trained at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where she did well at her studies and aspired to become a stage actress. She did have the good sense to remember her father's advice to have something to fall back on, thus splitting her time between theater training and a local business school, where she proved to be an excellent typist and bookkeeper. Those secretarial skills ultimately became unnecessary when her acting career took off years down the line, but Maureen kept sharp in them anyway by performing various secretarial tasks around movie sets, like transcribing notes for directors and typing up her own scripts and rewrites.
Her success at school soon opened new doors for Maureen. Though her ambitions were to become a stage actress, for aspiring actresses in the 1930s, the real big time was in movies. So came the inevitable screen test, which didn't go well for poor Maureen. Made up to be some sort of gilded princess with a gold lamé dress, heavy make-up and ornate hair, she found herself completely out-of-place and unprepared to play whatever person she was made up to be for this, her one chance to get her foot in the door for movies. Her lack of confidence showed and the result was a unsatisfactory review of her performance. This could haven spelled an abrupt end to her movie career, were it not for the likes of acclaimed British actor Charles Laughton, who saw in her test something great in this lovely young Irishwoman.
The result of Laughton's fondness for Maureen was a 7-year contract with his film studio, Mayflower Pictures. It was Laughton who suggested she change her last name, commenting that FitzSimons would look ugly spread across a marquee. At just 19, with a new contract and a new name, Maureen's first movie for Mayflower started out on a high note under the direction of legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock in 1939's JAMAICA INN. She also played Esmeralda in that year's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, which was her first full-fledged Hollywood production. Soon thereafter WWII began to rage across Europe, effectively shutting down most English film production. Knowing he could no longer cast his young star in anything for the foreseeable future, Laughton sold Maureen's contract to RKO Pictures, in the process making young Maureen an official Hollywood star.
Unfortunately, RKO didn't have the same fascination with Maureen as Laughton and cast her in mostly low budget productions for a time. That was until director John Ford caught a glimpse of this red-haired beauty and cast her in his 1941 film HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, which chronicled the lives of Welsh coal miners and the destruction wrought on their environment. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1941 and set Maureen on a wave of success she rode for several years to come. Despite a sometime rocky and contentious relationship, she and Ford went on to make 4 more films together.
Maureen became well known in the 1940s for playing the tough heroine opposite the charming rogue in various swashbuckling pirate movies with names like THE BLACK SWAN and SINBAD, THE SAILOR. She was often cast against type in stories of Arabian adventures in films like BAGDAD and FLAME OF ARABY. She also became well known as the tough and resolute old west heroine in films like BUFFALO BILL, COMANCHE TERRITORY and THE REDHEAD FROM WYOMING. She performed many of her own stunts in these films, doing everything from sword play in her pirate movies, to bar fights in her westerns, to high wire acts in films like THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. In addition to her acting and stunt work, Maureen was also a talented soprano singer, though her beautiful voice was probably the least recognized of her many talents in most of the films she appeared in.
She acted alongside several of her generation's leading men during this time, with names like Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Like many a Hollywood actor, she did her part for the war effort, starring in several films during the course of the war that in one way or another involved thwarting Nazi schemes or promoting the good deeds of the American military fighting against them.
One of Maureen's most memorable roles came shortly after the war, starring alongside a very young Natalie Wood in 1947's MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, playing the mother of young Natalie's character. Despite being one of Maureen's most well-remembered films, it was initially a role she took reluctantly. Maureen had just returned home to Ireland at about the time the film was scheduled to start production. This forced her to come back to Hollywood and complete the movie well ahead of the film's scheduled May 1947 release. Though resistant at first, she later changed her mind about it after reading the script. The film became an instant classic and remains a holiday staple almost 7 decades later.
The next big break in Maureen's career came in 1950, when she starred alongside John Wayne in the film RIO GRANDE. Playing the hardheaded, estranged wife to Wayne's equally tough military man, she proved herself not only a great actress, but also one of the few who could stand toe-to-toe with The Duke and come out unscathed. The two had such good chemistry on screen that they went on to make 4 more movies together, remaining good friends right up to Wayne's death in 1979.
In 1955, she played Lady Godiva in a somewhat historically flexible take on the events leading up to the infamous Saxon lady's nude ride through Coventry. The film was yet another opportunity for Maureen to play the strong willed woman demanding respect and equal treatment from her male counterparts. Unfortunately for moviegoers of the day, nude rides through the medieval English countryside could not yet be given the kind of portrayal they deserved. This meant that the climax of the film had to be spoiled by heaps of admittedly beautiful red hair covering the majority of Maureen's nude body, making it one of the great missed opportunities of her career.
Maureen's popularity continued well into the 1960s and early 1970s, with films like THE PARENT TRAP, MCLINTOCK! and BIG JAKE, the last two being her final films with frequent co-star John Wayne. Possessing a natural longevity that belied her actual years meant Maureen was able to get roles intended for much younger women. This kept her very much in demand in television, film and theatrical productions well into her 40s. However, by the close of the 1960s, Maureen had begun to grow tired of the game. Newly married to her third husband, an aviation pioneer and former brigadier general in 1968, she longed for more normal life at home. For these reasons she entered into semi-retirement at the start of the 1970s, with only a handful of movies and TV movies to her credit in that decade. When her husband died in a tragic plane crash in 1979, Maureen was understandably crushed. However, in the best tradition of the many strong women she had played over the years, Maureen carried on and was later elected CEO of her husband's airboat company, becoming the first woman to helm a scheduled airline in the U.S.
Maureen stayed away from movie making almost entirely for the next 2 decades, before returning to the big screen once again in 1991 to play one of her most well remembered roles for later generations of Americans, alongside John Candy in the romantic comedy ONLY THE LONELY. Despite it being 2 decades since anyone had seen her name on a marquee, Maureen proved she could still take up her familiar mantle as the iron-willed Irishwoman without missing a beat, playing Candy's character's domineering Irish mother forced to accept her son's long overdue desire to leave the nest.
Maureen's brief return to acting lasted through three more TV movies, before officially coming to an end in 2000. Now 93 years old, she lives a quiet life, splitting her time between homes in the Virgin Islands, her native homeland of Ireland and Boise, Idaho, where her grandson and great grandchildren live. Still bearing that trademark red hair, green eyes and ivory skin, still just as feisty and resolute as ever, Maureen remains, after almost a century, very much the same beautiful woman who electrified the screen with her beauty and indomitable spirit so many years ago.