“Are You Margaret Sullavan’s Brother?”

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Classic Movie Review by Ellen Bunton

(and her eager assistant, Meatball)


A Regular Monthly Feature

The Classic Movie Review

  The first Wednesday of the month.

For all you keepers of calendars, that means you can read about a classic movie, or a classic movie star, on these Wednesdays:

October 7                 November 4                December 2

Today’s post is about Margaret Sullavan and also about an adventure on which our intrepid reviewer embarked.

Read on

Are You Margaret Sullavan’s Brother?

Margaret Sullavan.  No, not Maureen O’Sullivan, who was Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan and Mia Farrow’s mother.  No, not Maureen O’Hara, who was the fiesty redhead opposite John Wayne in “McLintock.”

I’m speaking of another attractive and talented actress, a strawberry blonde with a throaty voice that combines the best of Tallulah Bankhead and Kim Novak—that attractive and talented actress, who only made a few movies.  Her preference was the stage.  Her most famous film was “The Shop Around the Corner” opposite a young Jimmy Stewart in 1940.  It was a romantic comedy, based on a French play, “Parfumerie,”  that was remade in 1947 as the musical comedy, “In the Good Old Summertime,” starring Judy Garland, and as  “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in 1998.

I first saw Margaret Sullavan one night on the late-night movie, long before cable, and asked my momma “Who’s that?”  She told me and mentioned she was born in Norfolk.  Further research told me she was the daughter of C. H. (Cornelius Hancock) Sullavan.  Even though Ms. Sullavan was deceased, I looked in the white pages of the phone book, hoping to locate a relative.  With the unusual spelling of her last name, I was hopeful.  Sure enough, there was a C. H. Sullavan.  I knew it couldn’t be her father but it might be a brother.

Now the sticky part: Margaret Sullavan died on New Years Day, 1960, at the age of 50.  The cause of death was a barbituate overdose, some say a suicide because she was losing her hearing and couldn’t hear her cues on stage.  I was hesitant to make a call under those circumstances so I wrote  him a letter and included my phone number.

A few weeks later Momma told me there was an older man on the phone and when I answered, he said “I’m C.H.Sullavan”.

I asked “Are you Margaret Sullavan’s brother?”  and he replied “Yes, I am.”

I was thrilled and just couldn’t stop talking about how much I adored his sister. I wanted to ask him about the details of her death, but I didn’t dare.

After I hung up, I realized that, while I couldn’t connect with Margaret,  I had actually spoken with her brother!  A few years ago I went to her grave in Lancaster, Virginia, and my friend said “You must like dead people” (I have visited a lot of cemeteries), and I replied “I don’t like dead people, it’s just that a lot of the people I like are dead!”  There IS a difference.


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3 Responses to "“Are You Margaret Sullavan’s Brother?”"
  1. Sarah Marrero says:

    Ellen, I’ve known you for 18 years, yet am always learning something new about you. This is an amazing story; it seems that Ms. Sullavan’s brother was grateful for the opportunity to speak to someone who appreciated his sister. As important as that phone call has been to you, I would venture to say you gave Mr. Sullavan an even greater gift.

  2. Alison Daniels says:

    This morning I learned that Margaret Sullavan, a distinctive actress whom I always admired, was born in Norfolk, Virginia. Thanks, Ellen, very interesting! I’ve read about her, particularly years ago through a memoir by her daughter Brooke Hayward, called Haywire. She was a dynamic personality but there was a lot of sadness in her family, another daughter named Bridget committed suicide. Margaret was married to Henry Fonda briefly and I guess they remained friends, as his children and her children became friends. Peter Fonda, son of Henry, named his own daughter Bridget after his childhood friend. It’s a pleasure to see a photo of this actress who really only made a handful of films but who was always touching in them. Sometimes we tend to forget that these famed movie stars were real people and not just images on the screen. I think Sarah Marrero’s comment is just lovely and very true.

  3. Ellen Bunton says:

    Her son William Hayward committed suicide in 2008. He was in his 60’s and he shot himself. I don’t know if suicide can “run in a family” but depression can. That family reminded me of the Hemingways and their self-induced tragedies.

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