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Maureen O’Hara: It takes more than luck

Her memoir talks about working with John Wayne, Errol Flynn, John Ford, Rex Harrison and  more.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In 1939, an Irish miss of 18 landed in Hollywood not knowing what to expect. Her education came swiftly as she was thrust into stardom with her first movie and became a pawn in the big-studio system.

With customary frankness, Maureen O’Hara recounts her life story in “’Tis Herself,” written with John Nicoletti. She tells it all: her love-hate relationship with mentor John Ford; her devotion — strictly platonic — to co-star John Wayne; the misbehavior of Errol Flynn; the rudeness of Rex Harrison; two failed marriages and a happy marriage that ended in tragedy; a phony scandal that helped put Confidential magazine out of business.

O’Hara, with her flaming red hair and a startling beauty that belies her 83 years, came here from her current home in Arizona to talk about the book and her life.

She sold her longtime residence in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, though she keeps a smaller condominium nearby, and now lives with her 30-year-old grandson, Conor Beau FitzSimons, in Scottsdale, Ariz. She also maintains her longtime routine of spending summers in Ireland, where she heads a charity golf tournament.

In a recent interview at a Westside hotel, O’Hara cited her Irish luck in her early mentors. Charles Laughton chose her to co-star in her first important film, “Jamaica Inn,” and Alfred Hitchcock directed it in England in 1939.

That year, Laughton brought O’Hara to Hollywood to play Esmeralda to his Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which won her contracts with both RKO and 20th Century-Fox.

In 1941’s “How Green Was My Valley,” she began her association with the cantankerous Ford. She was asked why the four-time Academy Award-winning director was so hard on his actors and crew.

“I think he didn’t achieve what he wanted in life,” she replied. “He didn’t become a great military hero, he wasn’t a great Irish rebel leader. I don’t think he got what he wanted.”

Ford’s major target was John Wayne, whom he made a star with “Stagecoach.”

“I think Ford adored Duke, but maybe he was jealous,” O’Hara said. “Duke had the physique and the strength that Pappy (Ford) hoped he would have but didn’t have.

“Duke wouldn’t have crossed him for anything. The only person whoever punched him in the nose was Henry Fonda on ‘Mister Roberts.’ And they changed directors.”

Leading menO’Hara made five movies with Wayne, including “Rio Grande” and “The Quiet Man,” and he gave her a compliment she cherishes to this day: “He said I was the greatest guy he ever knew.”

Yet despite their many love scenes together, she maintained he never made a pass at her. “Why would he?” she asked. “I could have punched him out. I did judo, I fenced, I played soccer, football. I would’ve hauled off and hit him.”

Flynn was another story. She sat next to him at a war bond rally during World War II and noticed that he took regular sips from a whisky bottle he kept under the table. Then he began making lewd remarks to her until she threatened to expose him in her speech. He slipped under the table and made an exit on his hands and knees.

O’Hara got a better impression of Flynn when they starred in “Against All Flags.”

“He was wonderful to work with,” she said. “He came to work prepared, he knew his lines, he knew what he was supposed to do. Only one bad thing he did. By 4:30, 5 o’clock, his drinking would catch up with him. I did all my love scenes to a white chalk mark on a black flag, with the script woman reciting Errol’s lines in a monotone.”

She didn’t know what Harrison’s problem was when they made “The Foxes of Harrow.” She recalled that when the camera was on her face and his back “he’d belch in my face.”

Tabloid battlesThe O’Hara name was tarnished only once by scandal, but she soon was exonerated.

During the 1950s, the movie world was assaulted by something new — a scandal magazine. Confidential had attracted circulation in the millions with alleged accounts of misdeeds by Hollywood stars.

In March 1957, a headline shrieked: “It was the hottest show in town when MAUREEN O’HARA cuddled in row 35.” The story claimed that she and a Latin lover engaged in hot sex in a back row in Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

“It was a whole fraudulent thing, because at the time I was making a movie in Spain,” she declared, “and I had the passport to prove it.” Her testimony in court helped put Confidential out of business.

After two unhappy marriages, O’Hara in 1968 married retired brigadier general Charles Blair, a dashing pilot who was the first to fly solo over the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole.

She made a final picture with Wayne, “Big Jake,” then retired to the Virgin Islands where Blair operated an inter-islands airline. In 1978, he died in a plane crash.

After a 20-year absence, O’Hara returned to the big screen in 1991 with “Only the Lonely” with John Candy and Anthony Quinn. She has appeared in three TV movies since then but isn’t expecting any more acting jobs.

“They don’t write scripts for old ladies like me,” she said.