WHEN MAUREEN O’HARA LEFT THE green hills of Ireland for the klieg-light heat of Hollywood some 50 years ago, she haughtily stooped to conquer castle and sea in a low-cut bodice. Flashing a pair of stormy green eyes, a bounding mane of auburn hair and a dagger-edge brogue, she charmed a generation by playing to sword’s hilt the high-spirited lass who made pirates rue the day they abducted her.
After 34 years and more than 50 films, O’Hara gracefully retired from movies in 1973. Now she has been coaxed out of retirement to star in the bittersweet romantic comedy Only the Lonely. Still looking as fresh as a Killarney morning, O’Hara, 70, says there’s a specific reason she chose to do this film after turning down numerous scripts over the past 18 years. “I didn’t want to do the same thing I’d always done. It had to have another dimension. That other dimension was meanness.”
Indeed. O’Hara portrays a bigoted, controlling Irish mother to John Candy’s single Chicago cop who lives at home. Mom rants against virtually everyone who isn’t an Irish Catholic, particularly her son’s love interest, a Sicilian-Polish mortuary cosmetician (Ally Sheedy). Rambling to the rescue is an exuberant widower-next-door (Anthony Quinn) as Zorba the Cupid.
As it happens, writer-director Chris (Hume Alone) Columbus, who had admired O’Hara since seeing her in 1952’s The Quiet Man, created the role for her before he even knew where she was. Finding O’Hara was a problem. Columbus finally located her producer brother, Charles FitzSimons, and sent him the script. FitzSimons told his sister, “This time you can’t turn it down. You’ve got to do it.”
The role restarted a career that began in Dublin 65 years ago. Maureen was the second of six children of Charles and Marguerita FitzSimons. Dad was a high-fashion clothier, Mum an actress and operatic contralto. Maureen began acting at age 6 and joined the renowned Abbey Theatre at 14. Two years later she tested for the screen in London. The test was a disaster, but by chance she met Charles Laughton, who was intrigued by her looks (but not her surname, which he insisted she change). So Maureen O’Hara was born, playing opposite Laughton in Jamaica Inn (1939) and in the classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
In Hollywood, studios fought for her services, and she starred with virtually all of the marquee names of her day: Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and, of course, John Wayne. At 5’8″, with an imposing physique and a temperament to match, O’Hara was the only actress, as director John Ford saw it, who could hold her own with the Duke. She played in five films with Wayne, including Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) and his enduring The Quiet Man. “He was a fine actor, and he matched me,” O’Hara says of her late, great friend. “We could stand toe-to-toe.”
Though she and Wayne were never romantically involved, he was clearly her beau ideal. She seemed to need one. Her first marriage, to director George Hanley Brown, was annulled; her second, to director William Price (father of her only child, daughter Bronwyn Bridget), ended in divorce in 1952. Bluer skies were ahead though. In 1956, on her first flight back to Ireland since the end of World War II, O’Hara met the debonair pilot-in-command, Charles Blair, an Air Force hero who held a transatlantic flight record.
At the time, he was married and the father of four, so he simply became friends with Maureen and the FitzSimons family. But in 1967, after he had divorced, he and Maureen had dinner alone—and married one year later. O’Hara retired to spend more time with her husband after making TV’s The Red Pony in 1973. “This man in real life was everything John Wayne ever played onscreen,” says her brother Charles. “Maureen gave up everything just to be a good wife.”
Not to mention a good businesswoman. Together she and Blair ran Antilles Air Boats (AAB) from their home in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands. They began with a Navy surplus aircraft and finished with a 27-plane commercial fleet ranging the upper Caribbean and grossing $5 million a year. Marriage and partnership ended tragically on Sept. 2, 1978, when the amphibious aircraft Blair was flying developed engine trouble and crashed in the sea, killing him. “I didn’t have time to sit in a corner and cry,” O’Hara says. “I was left with an airline to be run and 165 employees to be paid every week and 125 scheduled flights a day, which had to be flown.”
She became the first woman to run a U.S. airline. She sold controlling stock the next year to Resorts Inter-national but remained with the company as president until 1981. She also owned—and wrote a general interest column for—the tourist magazine the Virgin Islander, which she sold to the Gannett publishing empire in 1980.
Nowadays she spends her summers at her 25-acre estate overlooking Ireland’s Bantry Bay and stays in St. Croix the rest of the year. There’s been no one special in her life since her husband’s death. “After Charles Blair?” she says. “No one could match him.”
O’Hara has immersed herself in her extended family. Daughter Bronwyn, 46, a musician and actress, lives in Dublin; grandson Beau, 20, attends school in Santa Monica. She remains close to her four stepchildren by Blair: Suzanne, Christopher, Charles Lee and Stephen. Then, of course, there are her brothers and sisters and a pack of nieces and nephews. “A small portion of the family went to see my new movie the other night,” she says proudly, “and that was 20 people.”
O’Hara says she is willing to make another film or two or to fulfill her long-cherished desire to make a stage musical. And while her career scarcely needs capping, she marvels, as she looks back on all that grand swashing and buckling, how success came as easily as it seemed to at the time. “I was never frightened,” she says. “But you know, when you’re very, very young, you’re very assured, and you have total knowledge of what you’re going to do. It’s just as we get older-and life knock-all of that confidence out of us that we think, ‘How’d we do that?’ ”
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles