Margaret Sullavan (1909-1960)

Margaret Sullavan
Margaret Sullavan

Margaret Sullavan was an American stage and movie actress who made a great impact during her short career. She appeared in only 16 films, four of which were opposite a young James Stewart, and she took a cynical view of the Hollywood movie industry. She was nominated once for the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in 'Three Comrades' in 1938.

She was married four times, including to three famous men, actor Henry Fonda, director William Wyler and producer-agent Leland Hayward. Sullavan was afflicted with mental health problems (including depression exacerbated by increasing deafness in middle age) and she died, aged 50, of a barbiturate overdose.


She was born Margaret Brooke Sullavan on May 16, 1909, in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father was a stockbroker and the family were comfortably off. As a young girl, Margaret had a muscular weakness in her legs and spent several years unable to play with other children. She recovered completely by the age of six to become a high-spirited tomboy. She was a highly regarded student at the Chatham Episcopal Institute where she became student president in 1927. On graduation, already with the ambition to be a stage actress, she moved to Boston to study dance and drama, defying her parents' wishes for a more conventional career,and paying her own way by working at a local bookstore.

Young Actress

Margaret began her stage acting career in 1929 with a minor role in the Harvard Dramatic Society's production of 'Close Up'. She showed a natural talent and was invited to join the Harvard-run University Players on Cape Cod for the 1929 summer season where she performed opposite a young Henry Fonda, whom she would soon marry, in 'The Devil in the Cheese'. The same year she made her professional stage debut in a touring production of 'Strictly Dishonorable', written by Preston Sturges. After staying for the full 1930 season gaining invaluable experience in a variety of roles, she made her Broadway debut in 1931 in the comedy 'A Modern Virgin'. For two years she continued appearing in Broadway plays such as 'If Love Were All', 'Chrysalis' (with a young Humphrey Bogart) and 'Dinner at Eight' and made a name for herself as a talented, up and coming actress.

It was not long before Hollywood agents were knocking on her door. Margaret was aware of how the big studios could take over the life of their contracted stars and she turned down contracts with Paramount and Columbia before accepting a three year contract from Universal in 1933. She insisted on a clause inserted especially for her that enabled her to work on stage as well as on screen and she was careful to choose suitable scripts.

Hollywood Actress 1933

When Margaret arrived in Hollywood in 1933, she was a beautiful and talented 24 year old and she had the movie world at her feet. She made her film debut in 1933 in 'Only Yesterday'. She was dissatisfied with her performance and even tried to buy out her contract, but the film established her as a star and she he followed it the following year with a beautiful performance in the romantic drama 'Little Man, What Now?', which again gained her favorable reviews. Her next film, 'The Good Fairy' in 1935, was a comedy directed by William Wyler. In an impetuous move, she married Wyler during the shoot. The marriage, like her first to Henry Fonda, did not last.

James Stewart

Margaret first met James Stewart, when they were both starting their careers at the University Players. Stewart became a good friend of her first husband, Henry Fonda, and he and Margaret made four films together in the four years between 1936 and 1940. It would be no exaggeration to say that Margaret helped to make James Stewart a star. Until 1936 Stewart had only played supporting roles in 'B' movies but through Sullavan's insistence he was tested by Universal to be her leading man in 'Next Time We Love'. She and Stewart reunited in 'The Shopworn Angel' in 1938 and in 1940 appeared twice together in 'The Shop Around the Corner' and 'The Mortal Storm'. There was considerable onscreen chemistry between them. Margaret had faith in Stewart's ability and spent evenings coaching him in his acting technique which led to rumours that their relationship was more than professional.

Margaret continued her successful movie career through the 1930's into the 1940's with several high quality performances, stealing the limelight from Joan Crawford in 'The Shining Hour' in 1938 and in the same year being nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in 'Three Comrades'. She again gave a skilful and convincing performance in 'Back Street' in 1941. Her only other film in the 1940's was the war drama 'Cry Havoc', after which she decided to concentrate on her stage career, and only appeared once more on the big screen after that time.

Stage Career

Margaret never lost her love for the stage. Even as her movie career was taking off she appeared on Broadway in 1936 in 'Stage Door', which ran for 5 months. In 1943, after making the movie 'Cry Havoc' she starred on Broadway in the original cast of the hit comedy 'The Voice of the Turtle'. She continued to appear on stage in such works as 'The Deep Blue Sea' in 1953, and 'Janus' from 1955-56.

Later Life

In 1950, after a gap of seven years, Margaret came back for one more film, 'No Sad Songs for Me' in which she plays a woman who learns she is dying of cancer. The film received favorable reviews and Margaret was offered numerous movie roles as a result. She rejected them all to concentrate on the stage.


Margaret married four times. Her first marriage, to fellow University Players actor Henry Fonda, was in 1931 and ended in divorce after only 15 months. Her second husband was William Wyler whom she married in November, 1934 whilst he was directing her in 'The Good Fairy'. They divorced in March, 1936 after sixteen months.

Her third marriage, to her agent, Leland Hayward, was in 1936. The couple had three children and divorced in 1949. Sixteen months later, in 1950, she married English banker, Kenneth Wagg. The marriage lasted until her death.

Margaret suffered from depression, exacerbated by an increasing deafness as she entered middle age, due to an abnormal bone growth in her ear. In addition, after her divorce from Leland Hayward, her two youngest children gave her the devastating news that they wished to live permanently with their father. Her life had effectively collapsed and she suffered a breakdown in 1955. Her mental condition continued to deteriorate and in 1960 she was found unconscious after an overdose of pills in a hotel room.

Margaret Sullavan died from barbiturate poisoning on January 1, 1960. Her death was officially ruled to be accidental.

Her two youngest children, Bridget and Bill, both subsequently committed suicide. Her eldest daughter, Brooke, wrote about her mother's breakdown in her 1977 best-selling autobiography 'Haywire'.

Margaret Sullavan Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actress ... Three Comrades (1938)

Margaret Sullavan Filmography

Only Yesterday
Little Man, What Now?
The Good Fairy
So Red the Rose
Next Time We Live
The Moon's Our Home
I Loved a Soldier
Three Comrades
The Shopworn Angel
The Shining Hour
The Shop Around the Corner
The Mortal Storm
So Ends Our Night
Back Street
Appointment for Love
Cry 'Havoc'