Actress Greer Garson, whose performance as the courageous English housewife “Mrs. Miniver” earned her an Academy Award in 1943, died early Saturday of heart failure at a Dallas hospital. She was 91.
“She had heart problems for years,” said a spokeswoman at Dallas Presbyterian Hospital, where she had been living in a long-term care unit for at least a year. She suffered a heart attack in 1980 and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery in 1988.
Among the last people to see the ailing Garson at the Texas hospital was pianist Van Cliburn, said Jack Roach, her attorney.
A titian-haired product of the English theater, she felt she was never able to get beyond the public’s image of her as Mrs. Miniver, the steadfast wife of an Englishman fighting a threatened Nazi invasion of Britain.
“I made my stage start in light comedy,” she told an interviewer during the late 1940s, “and I entered film with the idea that I would find the same kind of parts—with some really nasty villainesses for good measure.
“Instead, I seem eternally to be Mrs. Miniver.
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy such roles. Anyone would. But I would so like to play a real bitch just once.”
Starring opposite Walter Pidgeon, she portrayed a beautiful and dignified Englishwoman in the early years of World War II.
The film set box office records, was acclaimed best picture of the year and left its star holding an Oscar.
Her acceptance speech, in which she thanked everyone who had ever helped her, took nearly an hour. Soon after, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences limited responses to three minutes.
The picture also had another effect: “Mrs. Miniver” married her “son” the next year.
It was her second marriage. In 1933 (during a year of rejection in London) she had married a British civil servant, Edward Alec Abbot Snelson. The marriage lasted only a few months but was not legally dissolved until 1940.
It was shortly after the divorce that she met Richard Ney, a handsome young actor who later played her son in “Mrs. Miniver.” It was Ney’s last role before leaving for the Navy. In 1943, during a brief leave that he spent with her on the set of “Madame Curie,” they were married.
Despite the fact that she lasted less than a decade as a major motion picture star, the impression of her aristocratic beauty and gentle manner set a style that echoed in the public mind for more than a quarter-century after she had virtually retired.
“When you say ‘Greer Garson,’ ” the late Alfred Hitchcock once said, “you have summoned a host of assumptions concerning grace and charm and beauty that needs no further commentary or explanation.
Eileen Evelyn Garson was born in County Down, Ireland. She was the only child of George Garson, a native of the Orkney Islands (“Thank him for the red hair,” she said) and Nina Sophia Greer Garson, a Scotswoman descended from the clan McGregor. “That’s what the name ‘Greer’ is,” she said, “a contraction of ‘Gregor.’
Her father died when she was 4 months old, and times were hard. Her mother later took her to London, where she was, as she said later, “ill for fully six months out of each year” and unpopular at school.
The little girl made up for her unhappiness in a positive fashion: She became a scholar. But she said it wasn’t what she really wanted.
Indeed, she told later interviewers, she had already decided to become an actress. “I decided that when I was 4,” she said. “I did a recitation at a town hall in Ireland. And everyone applauded. And smiled at me. And that was all the encouragement I needed.”
She insisted on taking secretarial courses at the same time as her college classes and, on graduating from the university with a degree in French and 18th-century literature, she went to work for an advertising firm.
Her lunch hours were spent trying to wedge past secretaries to see theatrical directors and finally—with the help of the sister of one of the men in her office—she met the manager of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and quit advertising at once. She had her first role in “Street Scene” in 1932 and was acclaimed by critics as a promising newcomer.
After eight months of one-night-stand road performances in repertory, she began playing bit roles with provincial companies. She toured in George Bernard Shaw’s “Too True to Be Good” (she later met the playwright and spent his last Christmas, in 1949, with him) and returned to London in 1933 feeling she was ready for the “big time.”
“But the big time wasn’t really that interested in me,” she said. “I had a few small parts and moped about in a women’s hotel for a time, and that was lucky. Because it was in the dining room of that hotel that I met Sylvia.”
Sylvia was Sylvia Thompson, a novelist who had just written a play called “Golden Arrow.” She offered Garson the lead—opposite Laurence Olivier—and it was a flop. “But Larry and I weren’t,” Garson said. “The critics were more than kind to both of us.”
Her stellar credentials established, she entered upon a smooth and happy three years—1935 to 1938—of performance and growing accomplishment, starring in West End plays, including “Mademoiselle” (directed by Noel Coward), “Old Music,” “Accent on Youth” and “Vintage Wine.” She received numerous film offers from British companies but declined them because she wanted to make herself a firm fixture in the theatrical firmament.
But when the most persuasive of the American film moguls, Louis B. Mayer, visited London and saw her in “Old Music,” her days on the London stage were numbered.
One night Mayer emerged from the theater with an ironclad contract—and Garson sailed for America, to begin one of the most miserable years of her life.
“The trouble, I learned later, was that I didn’t fit into any established category,” she said. “No glamour girl, no cheesecake, the oddly boned face and the tallness. . . . It didn’t charm people. It worried them. “And worried producers do not cast you in parts.”
Also, she had wrenched her back in the studio’s swimming pool and re-injured it while on horseback.
Her first American film (a forgettable epic called “Remember?” opposite Robert Taylor) was a disaster, and she was considering returning to England when lightning struck.
“I never knew how it happened,” she said. “I think it was the work of a friend, but I never knew just who.”
Director Sam Wood was watching tests made for the feminine lead in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” and Garson’s test—not made for that picture—somehow was included. Wood’s reaction was instantaneous, and he sustained it against strong anti-Garson sentiment from studio heads. She would be “Kathie” against Robert Donat’s “Chips.”
The picture (filmed in England) was an outstanding success of 1939, and so was Greer Garson. Overnight, she became the studio’s darling.
Reunited before the cameras with Olivier for “Pride and Prejudice,” she found that the film’s so-so box office performance did nothing to muffle critical acclaim.
After the success of “Mrs. Miniver,” she was voted one of the 10 top moneymaking stars in the Motion Picture Herald Hall of Fame for 1942-46 and won the Photoplay Gold Medal for 1944 and 1945.
“The Valley of Decision” was also a success, but “Adventure,” which marked Clark Gable’s return to the screen after the war years, was a disaster for all concerned.
“That Forsyte Woman,” a truncated version of Galsworthy’s Forsyte saga, brought a brief return to smooth waters. A relatively small role in “Julius Caesar” kept her face before the public in 1953, and “Her Twelve Men” the next year did about as much, but “Strange Lady in Town” in 1955 was “the end of the line, so far as I was concerned,” she said. “I had other things to keep me busy.”
She meant her new husband, millionaire oilman Elijah E. “Buddy” Fogelson, and their Forked Lightning Ranch in New Mexico. The marriage to Ney had ended in divorce in 1947 and she married Fogelson in 1949.
“Marriage that works,” she said, “is a great blessing. Living with Buddy has broadened my life. I’ve shared the excitement of sitting up with him all night waiting for a gusher to come in and answering fan mail for a horse.”
The horse was Ack Ack, the most famous one in the couple’s racing stable that in 1971 won the first Eclipse Award given for horse of the year.
“We did seem an unlikely couple, Buddy and I,” she told an interviewer. “From early childhood I had dreamed of being an actress. . . .
“But Buddy confessed it was love at first sight and was confident we could make a go of it.
“Buddy was also prepared to let me work when my agent found a picture or a play that I liked.”
And there were a few of those:
She played Eleanor Roosevelt in “Sunrise at Campobello” on screen in 1960 and the mother superior in “The Singing Nun” in 1966. Her last screen appearance was as the wife in “The Happiest Millionaire” the next year.
There were also stage appearances, many of them at the Greer Garson Theater on the University of New Mexico campus.
The Fogelsons donated millions to promote the arts. They endowed scholarships for theater students at Southern Methodist University and, after Fogelson died in 1987, Garson continued to support the university. In 1990, she gave $10 million to SMU to build the Greer Garson Theatre.
Services were scheduled for Tuesday in Dallas.