Maureen O’Hara, the spirited Irish-born actress who played strong-willed, tempestuous beauties opposite all manner of adventurers in escapist movies of the 1940s and ’50s, died on Saturday at her home in Boise, Idaho. She was 95.
Johnny Nicoletti, her longtime manager, confirmed her death.
Ms. O’Hara was called the Queen of Technicolor, because when that film process first came into use, nothing seemed to show off its splendor better than her rich red hair, bright green eyes and flawless peaches-and-cream complexion. One critic praised her in an otherwise negative review of the 1950 film “Comanche Territory” with the sentiment “Framed in Technicolor, Miss O’Hara somehow seems more significant than a setting sun.” Even the creators of the process claimed her as its best advertisement.
Yet many of the films that made the young Ms. O’Hara a star were in black and white. They included her first Hollywood movie, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939), in which she played the haunted Gypsy girl Esmeralda to Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo; the Oscar-winning “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), in which she was memorable as a Welsh mining family’s beautiful daughter who marries the wrong man; “This Land Is Mine” (1943), a war drama in which she was directed by Jean Renoir; and “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), the holiday classic in which she played a cynical, modern Macy’s executive who tries to prevent her daughter from believing in Santa Claus.Photo
Perhaps the best remembered of her color films was the director John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (1952), the second of five movies in which Ms. O’Hara starred opposite John Wayne. Her character, the proud, stubborn and passionate Mary Kate Danaher, refuses to consummate her marriage to the Irish-American boxer played by Wayne until he fights for her dowry. And so he does.
As the film historian David Thomson once observed of her screen persona throughout her career, she was “inclined to thrust her hands on her hips, speak her mind and be told, ‘You’re pretty when you’re angry.’ ”
Those hips were likely to be dressed in the fashions of another era. Of the more than 50 films she made, about half were period pieces. She played saloon queens and ranch wives in westerns like “Buffalo Bill” (1944) and “Rio Grande” (1950), with Wayne; Arabian princesses in the likes of “Sinbad the Sailor” (1947), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and “Bagdad” (1949); the object of pirates’ affections in swashbucklers like “The Black Swan” (1942), with Tyrone Power, and “The Spanish Main” (1945). She even played a pirate captain herself in “Against All Flags” (1952), with Errol Flynn.
Wayne once paid her what he considered the highest compliment. “I’ve had many friends, and I prefer the company of men, except for Maureen O’Hara,” he said. “She is a great guy.
Maureen FitzSimons was born on Aug. 17, 1920, in Ranelagh, Ireland, on the outskirts of Dublin. She was the second of six children of Charles FitzSimons, a clothing-business manager and part-owner of a soccer team, and the former Marguerita Lilburn, a singer. Maureen began appearing in school plays as a child and was accepted as a student at the Abbey Theater in Dublin when she was 14.
Her Hollywood movie career almost did not happen. After she appeared in two British musicals, “Kicking the Moon Around” and “My Irish Molly,” in 1938, a screen test was arranged by a British studio. Ms. O’Hara was horrified by the results, particularly the way she looked in the heavy makeup and the gold lamé gown with strange, winglike sleeves that she had been given to wear.
But Charles Laughton happened to see the test and, he said, liked something about her eyes. He promptly cast her in the crime adventure “Jamaica Inn” (1939), of which he was a producer as well as the star. The film was Alfred Hitchcock’s last British project before moving to Hollywood. Ms. O’Hara ended up moving, too.
In her first two decades in the United States she made some 40 feature films, including five with Ford, a sometime friend and sometime enemy whom she later described to the Irish newspaper The Sunday Independent as “an auld devil and cruel as hell.”
In 1960 she played the title character in a television remake of “Mrs. Miniver,” and overnight, it seemed, she was transformed from the fiery young love interest to the dependable, well-preserved wife/mother/widow.
There was one last, notable exception: She played a dance hall girl in Sam Peckinpah’s western “The Deadly Companions” in 1961. But her best-known films from that period were “The Parent Trap” (1961), “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” (1962) and “Spencer’s Mountain” (1963).
Long before the paparazzi roamed Southern California, Ms. O’Hara had a memorable encounter with a celebrity tabloid. In 1957, the magazine Confidential published an article that accused her of improper amorous behavior in a public movie theater. She sued for libel and presented her passport to prove that she had not been in the country when the activity was supposed to have taken place. The case was eventually settled out of court, but it contributed to the magazine’s eventual demise.
Ms. O’Hara was married three times. In 1939, just before she left for the United States, she wed George H. Brown, a British film producer who later became the father of the magazine editor Tina Brown. That marriage was dissolved in 1941, and that same year she married her second husband, Will Price, a writer and director. They had a daughter, Bronwyn FitzSimons, and were divorced in 1953.
Fifteen years later she married Gen. Charles F. Blair, an Air Force aviator who operated Antilles Air Boats, a small Caribbean airline. The couple lived in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and she largely left show business behind, choosing to publish a magazine, The Virgin Islander, for which she also wrote a column. She took over Antilles after General Blair’s death in 1978.
Ms. O’Hara eventually returned to film, playing the overbearing mother of John Candy’s character in the 1991 comic drama “Only the Lonely.” Over the next decade she starred in three television movies: “The Christmas Box” (1995), “Cab to Canada” (1998) and “The Last Dance” (2000), in which she played a retired teacher helped by a former student (Eric Stoltz). It was her final screen appearance.
Ms. O’Hara received an Irish Film and Television Awards lifetime achievement honor in 2004 and published an autobiography, “’Tis Herself,” the same year.
She is survived by her daughter, a grandson and two great-grandchildren.
Although Ms. O’Hara took on dual citizenship, she was intensely proud of her Irishness. She served as the grand marshal of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1999. When a journalist asked her in 2004 how she remained so beautiful, she explained: “I was Irish. I remain Irish. And Irish women don’t let themselves go.”