Leland Hayward (1902-1971)

Leland Hayward
Leland Hayward

Leland Hayward was, for many years, one of the most powerful unseen forces in Hollywood, first as a talent agent, handling many of the top performers of the 1930's and 1940's, such as Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, and then as a hugely successful stage and film producer. He was a particularly influential figure in the lives and careers of Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, and Margaret Sullavan.

As a theatrical producer he was responsible for the original Broadway productions of 'South Pacific' and 'The Sound of Music' and 'Anne of a Thousand Days' , and on the big screen he produced major successes such as 'Mister Roberts' in 1955 and 'The Spirit of St. Louis' in 1957.


He was born William Leland Hayward in Nebraska City, Nebraska, on September 13, 1902. He came from an illustrious family, being the grandson of a former Nebraskan Senator, Monroe Hayward, and the son of William Hayward, who commanded the "Harlem Hellfighters", during the First World War, the first regiment to be composed entirely of African-American soldiers and the most decorated American unit of the war.

William Hayward became a county judge in 1901 and ran for State Congress in 1910. Shortly after this, the family moved to New York City, but in 1911, when Leland was nine years old his mother moved back to Nebraska and divorced William. William, in 1919, married again, to Maisie Manwaring Plant, who was one of the wealthiest widows in America after inheriting $32million dollars on the death of her first husband. Leland continued to live in New York with his father who was able to bring him up in great comfort.

After attending the prestigious Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, Leland began studying at Princeton University in 1920, but quickly dropped out, restless and unsure of the direction of his life. His disapproving father stopped his allowance, and Leland started work as a reporter for The New York Sun, but quickly lost his job

He attempted to renew his studies by returning to Princeton in 1921, but after just two months decided that marriage was preferable to studying, and he married Inez (Lola) Gibbs, a Texas socialite and pioneer aviator, who had taught him to fly. Hayward was anything but conventional. He and Lola divorced a year later, then remarried in 1930 and divorced again in 1934.

Hayward was soon attracted to the rapidly expanding Hollywood movie business and he became first a publicity agent for the recently formed United Artists studio and then tried his hand at movie production. He produced several silent movies for First National Pictures, none of which made an impact.

Hollywood Agent

Hayward became a talent agent almost by accident. Whilst at a New York nightclub in 1926, the owner, a friend of his, intimated that business was not good and that he would pay good money to an act that would pull in the crowds. Hayward did not delay.

He went to the Broadway theater where Fred and Adele Astaire were currently playing in 'Lady Be Good' and recruited the famous couple for a 12 week engagement. It was a lucrative deal, not just for the Astaires, but for Hayward too, and he decided to pursue this new career.

It was a propitious time to become a talent agent. The film industry was booming and many stage actors and actresses were looking to the new medium for employment. Hollywood studios were beginning to churn out movies at a formidable rate and were constantly looking for new talent and for suitable plays and books which could be adapted for the screen. Hayward, as agent, was able to link it all together.

He began to swiftly sign up some of the top performers and writers of the time and developed a reputation for getting the highest salaries for his clients who, as well as Fred Astaire, came to include top stars such as Judy Garland, Boris Karloff, Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers. In 1932 he became involved with John W. Rumsey, president of the American Play Company, an established New York theatrical and literary agency and he began to work with Myron Selznick, a top Hollywood agent who developed the West Coast side of the business. He and Selznick together broke a restrictive practice which had become part of the Hollywood studio tradition.

Hollywood Producers' Non-raiding Agreement

Hollywood producers, until the mid 1930's operated a cosy “gentlemen's agreement” whereby they would not compete with other studios for star performers and writers, as this would push up wages. So, when a contract came up for renewal, the studio could virtually set its own terms, knowing there would be no enticing counter-offers.

Hayward and Selznick did not subscribe to this and went to different studios offering deals for their clients which caused salaries to be increased across the board through healthy competition. As a result, raids on the talent of competing studios became commonplace and Hayward became very unpopular amongst some of the Hollywood power brokers, in particular, Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM.

As time went on, Hayward became more and more successful at attracting top Hollywood talents to his agency. He would fly between East and West coasts three times a month and never even met many of his clients , preferring instead to do his deals over the telephone. Ernest Hemingway described him as “the greatest agent in the world.”

Stage and Movie Producer

In 1945, at the height of his fame and success, Hayward changed his career path. He sold his talent agency to Dr Jules Stein's Music Corporation of America and became a Broadway producer.

He had immediate success, with his first production, 'A Bell for Adano' running from December, 1944 to October, 1945, and in November,1945 he followed it with the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'State of the Union'.

In 1948 he produced 'Mister Roberts' on Broadway, starring his old client, Henry Fonda. Hayward won the 1948 Tony Award as Best Producer and in 1955 the play was made into an equally successful movie, also starring Fonda.

In 1949 Leland co-produced the play 'South Pacific' along with Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. Together they jointly won the 1949 Tony Award for Best Producer of a Musical. The play was made into a hugely successful movie in 1958.

Leland was also the producer of Henry Fonda's Broadway play "Point of No Return" which ran for a year from December, 1951. In 1959 he co-produced with David Merrick the Broadway play "Gypsy" which was also later made into a movie starring Natalie Wood.

Other notable movie productions he made at this time included 'The Spirit of St. Louis' in 1957 and 'The Old Man and the Sea' the following year.

His biggest stage success by far came in 1959 with 'The Sound of Music', starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel, which won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, out of nine nominations.

Hayward did not ignore the new medium of television and during the 1950's and 1960's he produced a number of musical television specials such as 'The Fabulous Fifties' in 1960, 'The Gershwin Years' in 1961 and 'Opening Night' in 1963. He also produced dramatic specials such as 'Saturday's Children' and 'Tonight in Samarkand', both in 1962. In 1963, Hayward produced 'That Was The Week That Was', an adaptation of a British television series, which ran for two seasons.


Hayward was a keen aviation pioneer, and was taught to fly by his first wife, Inez Gibbs. When his talent agency became successful in the early 1930's Hayward used to fly his own plane between the East and West coasts three times a month.

True to form Hayward could not resist going into the aviation business. He did so just before the start of WWII, partly with his own money and partly with funds supplied by his wealthy clients. He bought a small flying school near Phoenix, Arizona and succeeded in obtaining a lucrative Government contract to train U S Army pilots. By the end of the war hundreds of pilots from different nationalities had completed their training there and at two other flying schools which Hayward operated.

In addition Hayward was a member of the board of Trans World Airlines and in 1946 was a co-founder of Southwest Airways. a regional company linking several cities in Nevada, Oregon and California. The company later became part of Delta Airlines.


Hayward was a notable ladies' man and, as a dashing bachelor about town, his name was often linked romantically to some of the beautiful actresses in his agency such as Clara Bow, Fay Wray, Marlene Dietrich and Miriam Hopkins. He had a three year relationship with Katharine Hepburn at the start of her career and in 1935 the couple were rumoured to be engaged. In that year, in fact, Hayward married another actress client, Margaret Sullavan.

Hayward was married in all five times. His first wife was Inez Gibbs, whom he married in 1921, divorced in 1924, remarried in 1930 and divorced for a second time in 1934.

The actress, Margaret Sullavan, his second wife, was the mother of his three children, Brooke, Bridget and William. Hayward and Margaret married in 1936 and divorced 13 years later. Margaret committed suicide in 1960. Their daughter, Bridget, committed suicide ten months later. Their son, William, committed suicide in 2008, by shooting himself. The family's dysfunctional life has been recorded in the surviving daughter Brooke's autobiography, 'Haywire'.

Hayward's third wife was Nancy “Slim” Hawks {born Mary Gross). She was an international model and socialite married to the director Howard Hawks. Upon meeting Hayward she divorced Hawks. Hayward divorced Margaret Sullavan and the couple married in 1949.

In 1960 Hayward and "Slim" were divorced and only hours later Hayward married Mrs. Pamela Digby Churchill, the divorced wife of Randolph Churchill, Sir Winston's son. The marriage lasted until Hayward's death.

Leland Hayward died from a stroke on March 18, 1971 at Yorktown Heights, New York. He was aged 68.

Leland Hayward Academy Awards

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