Susan Hayward was a talented and beautiful red headed American actress who began her career in sweet leading lady or in supporting roles, but who developed into an alluring temptress and later in her career gave several top drawer performances portraying strong women battling life-threatening problems. The top films from her golden period include ‘With a Song in My Heart’ in 1952, ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow’ in 1955 and ‘I Want to Live’ in 1957, for which she won an Oscar for her outstanding and moving portrayal of convicted murderer Barbara Graham.
She was born Edythe Marrenner in the Brooklyn district of New York on June 30, 1917. Her father was a transportation worker and she had an elder brother and sister. The family lived in a tenement in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn and were extremely poor. Edythe and her brother, Wally, used to collect recyclable bottles and cans littered around the area, and sell them, to provide money to help feed the family.
When she was seven years old Edythe was involved in a car accident and fractured her hip. She was in a body cast for months and it was a year before she recovered fully. The injury left her with one leg an inch and half shorter than the other, and for the rest of her life she walked with a limp.
Hayward attended Public School 181 in Brooklyn, and went on to The Girls’ Commercial High School. She had a difficult time at school, having few friends, and being the butt of other pupils’ taunts about her limp and poor clothes. All this changed when she was twelve and was cast in the lead role in the school production of ‘Cinderella in Flowerland’. She developed a love for acting and a dream to become a Hollywood actress.
For her success in school plays she was named “Most Dramatic” by her classmates and she furthered her interest in Hollywood by going to the movies at any chance she got, She was inspired particularly by Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl who had found great screen success.
By the time Edythe graduated in 1935 aged eighteen, she had developed into a rare beauty with a shapely figure. Her setbacks had made her a very determined young lady and she was resolute about attaining fame and fortune.
She began her working life as a photographer’s model for the Thornton Modeling Agency in New York. Colored photography was just becoming popular and Edythe’s red hair and peaches and cream complexion were perfect for the new colored advertisements. In 1937 the agency did a feature in the national weekly magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and Edythe’s fame began to spread.
Early Hollywood Career 1938
Edythe stayed on in Hollywood and got herself an agent who quickly obtained a six-month contract for her with Warner Brothers. The studio changed her name to Susan Hayward and she began her movie career with bit parts in minor films, learning her new profession, and refusing, as her son later put it, to “play that casting couch game”. She appeared as Ronald Reagan’s girlfriend in ‘Girls on Probation’ in 1938 but otherwise all her appearances were uncredited.
In March 1938 her father died and soon afterwards Warners decided not to renew her contract. Susan faced up to her problems and began a period of self-education, spending much time on improving her accent and pronunciation. Her hard work paid off and she secured a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures, becoming part of a group of fresh young talent including Evelyn Keyes, William Holden and Robert Preston.
Her first movie with the new studio was ‘Beau Geste’ in 1939, starring Gary Cooper and William Holden. It was a major step up in film quality for Susan and her performance was well received. She appeared in two more films in 1939, ‘Our Leading Citizen’ and ‘$1000 a Touchdown’. Neither film made an impact but she performed well and she began to be noticed by Hollywood producers.
The next few years showed Susan’s dramatic talent in a number of different movies. In 1941 she played a supporting role to Ingrid Bergman and Fay Wray in ‘Adam Had Four Sons’ and then stole the show in an unusual horror film, ‘Among the Living’, later the same year.
Hollywood Success 1942
Susan was appearing in better films with some of the cream of Hollywood stars. Her rise continued with ‘Reap the Wild Wind’ in 1942, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, in which she co-starred with John Wayne, Paulette Goddard and William Holden. Later in 1942 she played a witch in the comedy ‘I Married a Witch’ and after several unmemorable movies including performing a skit in Paramount’s war-effort movie, ‘Star Spangled Rhythm’, she appeared again with Wayne in 1944 in ‘The Fighting Seabees’. She continued to give a good account of herself in such movies as ‘Young and Willing’ and ‘Jack London’ in 1943, and ‘The Hairy Ape’ and ‘And Now Tomorrow’ in 1944 but she was still waiting for the roles which would propel her into the big league of leading ladies. She did not have to wait long.
Hollywood Star 1947
Between 1947 and 1958 Susan was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award on five occasions, winning it once. Her first nomination was for her performance in ‘Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman’ in 1947 and she soon was nominated again for ‘My Foolish Heart’ in 1949. She was now one of the top names in Hollywood and she was able to pick and choose her scripts. She played the female lead Bathsheba opposite Gregory Peck in the Biblical epic ‘David and Bathsheba’ in 1951 and then received her third Best Actress nomination in 1952 for ‘With a Song in My Heart’.
In 1953 she was praised for her performance as Rachel Jackson, the wife of Andrew Jackson, in ‘The President’s Lady’ and after another well received Biblical epic, ‘Demetrius and the Gladiators’ in 1954, she received her fourth Oscar nomination in the same year, playing alcoholic singer Lillian Roth in ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow’.
Best Actress Oscar 1958
Susan had come very close on four occasions but with her fifth nomination she finally won the Best Actress Award for her strong and moving performance as real-life killer, Barbara Graham, in ‘I Want to Live!’ released in 1957.
Susan’s career had definitely peaked and she made fewer films each year, devoting more of her time to domestic life with her second husband, Floyd Eaton Chalkley.
In 1961 she co-starred with Dean Martin in ‘Ada’ but in general the movies in the last part of her career were not up to the standard of her earlier ones. She continued making movies until 1972 when she made her final film, ‘The Revengers’.
Susan married twice. Her first husband was actor, Jess Barker, whom she married in 1944. They had two children, fraternal twin boys, Gregory and Timothy. The couple divorced in 1954 after a stormy marriage. The following year Susan took an overdose of sleeping pills in an apparent suicide attempt. She was rushed to hospital and fully recovered.
At Christmas of 1955 Susan met wealthy rancher Floyd Eaton Chalkley. They married in 1957 and settled into a happy and quiet life on Chalkley’s farm in Carrollton, in western Georgia. When Chalkley died in 1966 Susan was grief-stricken and went into mourning for three years.
Susan’s last appearance in public was when she presented the Best Actress Oscar at the 1974 Awards Ceremony. She was very ill and had to be physically supported by her friend, Charlton Heston.
She had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 1972 and given three months to live. Typically, she battled on.
Susan Hayward died on March 14, 1975, in Hollywood. She was 57. She was buried at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cemetery in Carrollton, Georgia.