October 01, 2014 01:20 PM

Maureen O’Hara, the Dublin-born screen beauty whose fiery red hair, green eyes and peaches-and-cream complexion helped to enrich such classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street and The Parent Trap – and was the one woman who could hold her own opposite John Wayne – has died. She was 92.


A radiant Hollywood presence since 1939, O’Hara – born Maureen FitzSimons – was one of the last remaining names from Tinseltown’s Golden Era. Later in life she also took on other giant roles: CEO of Antilles Air Boats, which flew tourists around the Caribbean islands, and owner and columnist of the Virgin Islander, a monthly tourist magazine that was sold in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.

Indeed, her own life would have made a wonderful movie.

The second of six children born to Charles (a high-fashion clothier) and Marguerita (an actress and operatic contralto) FitzSimons, O’Hara began acting at age 6 and joined the renowned Abbey Theatre at 14. Two years later she was unsuccessfully screen-tested in London (“I was mad as hell and disappointed by the hole unprofessional event,” she wrote in her 2004 memoir ‘Tis Herself, though by chance it was seen by actor Charles Laughton.

Intrigued by her looks but not by the name FitzSimons, Laughton suggested she change it, possibly to O’Mara – just as he suggested she be cast opposite him as the orphaned Mary Yelland in director Alfred Hitchcock’s British-made 1939 Jamaica Inn. That same year, Laughton also guided her toward R.K.O. for her first Hollywood movie, again opposite him: the classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which he was the tragic Quasimodo and she was the beguiling gypsy, Esmeralda.

An Audience Favorite

Once in California, O’Hara starred with virtually all of the marquee names of her day: Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and, of course, her great friend John Wayne. “He was a fine actor,” O’Hara, who stood 5’8″, told PEOPLE in 1991, when she played the bossy mother of the John Candy character in Only the Lonely (her last feature film), “and he matched me.”

In all, O’Hara and “Duke” Wayne made five films together, including director John Ford’s 1950 Rio Grande and his enduring 1952 The Quiet Man. For many years she made an annual pilgrimage to Wayne’s birthplace in Iowa, where tribute was paid the screen hero, but in 2013 she announced that it would be her last visit.

As reported by the Irish Times, she said that “after 75 years as a performing artist, it’s time to start taking my final bows.”

O’Hara’s first collaboration with the legendary Ford was for 1941’s Best Picture Oscar winner How Green Was My Valley, in which she played Angharad, the daughter in a Welsh mining family. Though Technicolor action roles, in which she generally played the love interest of some swashbuckler, were to follow, in 1947 she was fitted for a business suit as a Macy’s executive and indelibly cast as the overly protective mother who – at first – didn’t want her daughter (Natalie Wood) to believe in Santa Claus. The picture became a holiday perennial, Miracle on 34th Street.

From left: John Payne, Maureen O'Hara with the young Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Hulton Archive/Getty

Off-screen, though she and Wayne were never romantically involved, he was clearly her ideal man, family members told PEOPLE, and in a Turner Classic Movies interview with Robert Osborne aired in 2014, the star herself said, “Who would prefer anybody to John Wayne?”

O’Hara’s 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.

Then came true love: 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 O’Hara. But in 1967, after he had divorced, he and O’Hara had dinner alone – and married one year later. Within five years, after making TV’s 1973 The Red Pony, “Maureen gave up everything just to be a good wife,” her brother Charles FitzSimons told PEOPLE.

Tragic Death

Together the Blairs ran Antilles Air Boats from their home in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, building it into a 27-plane commercial fleet ranging the upper Caribbean and grossing $5 million a year. Marriage and partnership ended tragically in 1978, however, 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 told PEOPLE. “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.”

Having become the first woman to run a U.S. airline, O’Hara sold controlling stock the next year to Resorts International, though she remained as company president until 1981. A year earlier, she sold the Virgin Islander magazine to Gannett publishing, then split her time between her 25-acre estate overlooking Ireland’s Bantry Bay and her home in St. Croix.

Writing in her memoir about the death of John Wayne, which preceded that of her husband Charles’s, O’Hara admitted she thought, “What a hell of a game of chess must have been played by Charlie and Duke in heaven that night. And then I said, ‘Good-bye, you two bastards … please miss me.’

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