Chapter One: The Gypsy and the Two-Headed Beast
My whole life was foretold to me. I peered out the crack of our door and found an old Romany Gypsy standing hunched on our porch in the hot afternoon sun. She smiled down at me and took my five-year-old hands in hers, then turned my palms upward and read my fortune. "You will leave Ireland one day and become a very famous woman known all around the world. You are going to make a fortune and be very, very rich." Then she held my hands in the light and cackled, "But it will all slip through your fingers one day." I pulled my hands away and answered with certainty, "I'll never leave Ireland." Then I closed the door.
I thought the old girl was silly. I didn't need a Gypsy to tell me what my place in the world would be. I already knew. I believed from the time I was able to think that I was going to set the world on fire.
You are about to read the tale of the toughest Irish lass who ever took on Hollywood and became a major leading lady of the silver screen. In a career that has lasted for over sixty years, I have acted, punched, swashbuckled, and shot my way through an absurdly masculine profession during the most extraordinary of times. As a woman, I'm proud to say that I stood toe-to-toe with the best of them and made my mark on my own terms. I'm Maureen O'Hara, and this is my life story.
So did the old Gypsy get it right? And who is the real Maureen O'Hara anyway? I bet that's what you really want to know. Before I answer and we begin our journey together, I want to tell you why I've decided to write this book. For one thing, I do feel a sense of responsibility for sharing my thoughts and experiences about the most remarkable era in filmmaking history -- Hollywood's golden age. There aren't many of us left who can honestly look back and give you a taste of its delicious insanity and glamour.
More important, though, I'm finally ready to confront my long life with open eyes. I'm ready to revisit those treacherous hills I once climbed, and eager to kill any fear deargs (pronounced "far darrigs") that may still be lurking in the shadows. I also want to set the record straight about my life in my own words before some self-serving writer pens a heap of rubbish about me after I'm gone from this earth.
My favorite untrue story ever written about me is that I once lived in a magnificent Arabian palace with tall towers and a long swimming pool filled with waters of sapphire blue. Each night, I descended its marble steps and swam from one end to the other, cooling my naked body, while castrated slaves in white turbans and loincloths pointed flaming torches to light my way.
What fabulous rubbish.
You already know that I am an actress and movie star. Some see me as a former screen siren, while others remember me as the dame who gave as good as she got with Duke. To some I'm the first woman swashbuckler, while others think of me as a pirate queen. I've done as many tearjerkers as I have movies with crazy stunts. I was once called "Frozen Champagne" and "Window Dressing," which still annoys me. I much preferred "Big Red" or "the Queen of Technicolor." Many women have written to me over the years and said that I've been an inspiration to them, a woman who could hold her own against the world. That's lovely. The great director John Ford paid me my favorite compliment by saying I was the best "effin' " actress in Hollywood.
Much of this story, though, is part of a public persona that was carefully sewn together, like a magnificent quilt, by the powerful Hollywood studio system. An entire publicity team had to see to it that at least one item about me was published every day. Many were total lies or studio publicity department inventions. Hollywood gossip queens like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper then built on these myths in their daily columns, which were read as Gospel by millions.
Of course, my loved ones know me in a far more intimate way. To them I'm just Mammy, Gran', or Auntie Maureen -- a lousy cook but one helluva cleaning lady.
I am and have been all of these things throughout my personal and professional lives, but no one of them defines me. Above all else, deep in my soul, I'm a tough Irishwoman.
Being an Irishwoman means many things to me. An Irishwoman is strong and feisty. She has guts and stands up for what she believes in. She believes she is the best at whatever she does and proceeds through life with that knowledge. She can face any hazard that life throws her way and stay with it until she wins. She is loyal to her kinsmen and accepting of others. She's not above a sock in the jaw if you have it coming. She is only on her knees before God. Yes, I am most definitely an Irishwoman.
My heritage has been my grounding, and it has brought me peace. Being tough and strong have always been my most dominant characteristics, like a fire that burns deep within me. I have always believed that I can do anything I set my mind to, as long as I'm willing to make the necessary sacrifices. I have called upon this fire to achieve my goals and survive whenever I felt my world come crashing down around me. In this way, I am like many of the women I've played on-screen.
And yet you will soon read about two events in my life that caused me to stumble and do exactly the opposite of what you and I would expect Maureen O'Hara to do. They involve my first two marriages and may jolt you. One was a comedy of youth, but the other was a tragedy of inexperience.
Still, if the events of our youth shape us into who we become, then one incident in particular had the greatest impact on me. It happened when I was a young schoolgirl at the Irish Sisters of Charity school in Milltown.
There were two old biddies there who just couldn't stand me. I never knew why they disliked me so, but they jeered at and ridiculed me every day. Miss O'Meara taught English in room 8 and Miss Cook taught math in room 7. But I never saw them as two old teachers. To me they were one, a large and ugly beast joined at the side like Siamese twins, with two heads that shared one small brain and an even smaller heart. (Allow me just a smidgeon of lat-itude here. I've waited seventy years for this!)
One day I was sent to school wearing a brand-new sweater. My mother always dressed me and my sisters in matching outfits when we were growing up, but each of us had our own special color and mine was red. I was walking down the hall with my older sister and she looked marvelous in her new blue sweater. At fourteen, Peggy already had a figure, but, at twelve, I was still an awkward girl -- big, tall, and freckled.
As Peggy and I made our way to class, we came upon the two old biddies in the hallway. "Peggy," purred Miss O'Meara, "that sweater looks beautiful on you." Miss Cook followed her lead. "Yes it does. Just beautiful." But as I scurried behind Peggy, the two old biddies quickly transformed into the two-headed beast and lashed out at me. "And, Maureen," Miss O'Meara's head went on snidely. "Whatever are you hiding under your sweater? A football?" I tried to ignore her and kept walking with my head down in anger while Miss Cook's head burst into laughter. Their shrill cackles followed me down that hallway.
I was angry, and worst of all, I was hiding. My first class of the day was English, with Miss O'Meara. Should I go or should I run? I wondered. I felt the fire inside me. It told me that I couldn't run. So I turned the doorknob and entered.
Miss O'Meara was standing in front of her desk, before the class, holding the morning edition of the local newspaper, the Irish Independent. Over the previous weekend, I had entered a very prominent acting festival and had won the top prize. It was such a big competition that the Irish Independent placed the story, with my picture, on the front page of the paper. Miss O'Meara's eyes were fixed on the article, and the corners of her mouth were turned up in a smirk. As the door closed behind me, she turned her attention to me with intensity.
"And here she is at last," Miss O'Meara began, sarcasm dripping from her mouth. "The newest star of Dublin theater, Miss Maureen FitzSimons." I moved quickly across the room to my seat, not saying a word. "Maureen, I was just sharing with the class your triumphant victory at this weekend's festival." Her eyes narrowed on me as she continued. "However did you do it? How could you win such an important acting competition?"
The class began to giggle and I felt the heat of the spotlight burning my body. I remained silent, my head down, as Miss O'Meara continued. "Perhaps you could give the class just a taste of your extraordinary talent. Come up and show us what you did to win the competition." She followed her challenge with laughter and the entire class joined her.
As the sound of it covered me, I felt that fire burning in my belly. It grew in intensity and extended throughout my body. It lifted me, and I knew at that moment that I would never surrender to anyone's jeers. I wouldn't go up there to save my life. I wouldn't give that old biddy the satisfaction. I folded my arms across my chest and locked eyes with her, freezing them. Then I stuck my lower lip out at her defiantly and held it there.
I had never been openly defiant, not ever, and it caught her by surprise. The smile washed from her face. "No? You won't share with the class? I see. Then come with me." She moved toward the door and opened it. We moved down the hall, and Miss O'Meara opened the door that led into room 7, holding it for me to enter.
Miss Cook looked up with surprise as Miss O'Meara and I joined her at the head of the class. They melded together again, transforming into the two-headed beast. O'Meara's head spoke first. "Miss Cook, I thought you would like to share the good news with your class. Our Maureen has made the newspapers for her acting." Cook's head joined in. "Yes, I heard that she had," she said coldly. "How wonderful for you." O'Meara's head continued. "I've been trying to coax Maureen to share what she did to win."
Cook's head picked up fast on where this was going. "Yeeeees. Wouldn't that be fun? Please, Maureen, do perform for the class. We would all love to see what you did to win." I remained silent, unwilling to give an inch. As far as I was concerned, this was a battle between good and evil. "Just give us a little sample," Cook's head went on, "of that enormous talent you must have." O'Meara's head began to laugh and Cook's soon followed. Then the entire class joined in.
I stood there in front of the class with my arms folded, lower lip sticking out, looking at them all with defiant eyes. I was deeply, deeply hurt by their behavior but determined not to show it. Instead, I made a promise to myself. I swore that those two old biddies, that two-headed beast, would never beat me. I would win. I would stand up straight and take it all on the chin. I wouldn't let them or anyone else ever knock me down again.
Just you wait, I promised them in my head. I'm going to become the most famous actress in the world and one day you both are going to boast to everyone you know that I was in your class. Then I'm going to tell the entire world how deeply you hurt me.
That day, I swore I'd keep my promise. If need be, I'd lick the world. And what a big world it proved to be.
Copyright © 2004 by Maureen O¹Hara and John Nicoletti