Martha Hyer dies at 89; Oscar-nominated actress

Martha Hyer, an Oscar-nominated actress who was likened to Grace Kelly for her cool, blond elegance, has died in Santa Fe, N.M., where she lived since the 1980s. She was 89.

Hyer’s death May 31 was confirmed by the Rivera Family Funeral Home. No cause was given.

Her most noted role was as an Indiana schoolteacher in “Some Came Running” (1958), the tale of an embittered World War II veteran, played by Frank Sinatra, returning to his hometown. Her performance earned her an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress.

Hyer also played William Holden’s wealthy fiancee in “Sabrina” (1954) and diplomat Cary Grant’s rich sister-in-law in the comedy “Houseboat” (1958).


Portraying sophisticated women came naturally for Hyer, who amassed an impressive collection of French Impressionist paintings and joked that she had to give up her mansion in the Hollywood Hills because she had run out of wall space.

“It’s very embarrassing when you are forced to hang an original Renoir in the bathroom,” she once told reporters.

Hyer was married to legendary producer Hal B. Wallis from 1966 until his death 20 years later.

They first saw each other in an LAX ticket line, where they exchanged a lingering glance they came to call “the Flight Two look.” In a short while, they traveled the world and were a fixture at society soirees. In his 1980 autobiography “Starmaker,” Wallis recalled her giving him a birthday gift lavish in spirit: a chauffeured jaunt to Disneyland and tickets to every ride.

“We spent the day and evening like a couple of kids,” the Hollywood giant wrote, “enjoying the attractions, eating too much, and just plain having fun.”

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, on Aug. 10, 1924, Hyer was the daughter of Agnes Barnhart Hyer and Julien C. Hyer, a judge who participated in the prosecution of World War II criminals at Nuremberg.

As a girl, she loved riding — a pastime that she grew to rue early in her career.

“I remember how I used to pray every night that God would let me grow up and be a cowgirl,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1962. “Well, he heard my request, all right. I thought RKO would never let me get off a horse!”


Among her early films were “Gun Smugglers” (1948), “Roughshod” (1949) and “Rustlers” (1949).

Hyer received a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where she studied drama. She later took acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Though she was often cast as a woman of the world, Hyer did her share of cornball comedies, including “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953) and “Francis in the Navy” (1955), with the famous talking mule.

By the time she had established her screen identity in the 1960s, she wanted to move on.


“I would like very much to convince people that I can be something more than a well-dressed sophisticate,” she said. “I go from one picture to the next getting wealthier and wealthier, but I’d like to do it with the hair down — either as a nymphomaniac or an alcoholic. I want to be a problem.”

In actuality, she encountered anguishing problems. In her 1990 memoir “Finding My Way,” she admitted overspending so badly that she wound up in debt to loan sharks.

Desperate for a loan of $1 million, she delivered a Monet, a Gauguin, and two Remington paintings to con men as collateral, according to a federal appeals court ruling in 1992. The works belonged to her husband, who knew nothing about the loan and wound up in a legal dispute with the gallery that eventually acquired them.

In her later years, Hyer was deeply religious. She became “somewhat of a recluse,” the Santa Fe New Mexican reported, “preferring to hike, paint, and spend time with close friends.”


Hyer’s first marriage, to film producer C. Ray Stahl, ended in a 1954 divorce. They had no children.

A list of her surviving relatives was not immediately available.

Twitter: @schawkins