Though she was seemingly as sweet as any other starlet, everyone in Hollywood knew Margaret Sullavan did things her way, wielding a power that both terrified execs and charmed leading heartthrobs. Yet while she exerted unwavering control over her professional career, her private life was very messy—and ultimately tragic.
Born in 1909, Margaret Sullavan made her first appearance in Norfolk, Virginia. On the surface, her childhood seemed charmed: Her father was a wealthy stockbroker, and her parents expected great things of Margaret and her brothers. Yet despite this luxe living, one very critical thing was missing from the young Margaret's life.
Sullavan was a frail child, and suffered from a painful muscular weakness in her legs that affected her ability to walk. This had devastating consequences. She wasn't well enough to socialize with any children her age until she was six years old, leading to an immensely lonely existence for the little girl. And once she recovered, things got even more complicated.
Sullavan’s snooty parents had ideas about who their daughter should befriend, and wanted her to associate only with people of a certain class. So they were appalled when Sullavan, who was quickly turning into an adventurous tomboy, connected with the no-frills lads from the poorer neighborhoods. As Sullavan later admitted, “I liked to be out roughing it with the boys.”
It wasn't long before Sullavan was too big for the crinolines her parents were trying to lace her into. She was much too ambitious to become a mere debutante, and became the president of the student body at her boarding school instead. The smart cookie even delivered the salutatory oration. Soon, however, Sullavan would turn her smarts toward revolt.
Up until 1927, Sullavan's well-to-do parents still held out hope that their little sweetie would become a society darling. Sullavan dashed those hopes to the ground. Against their express wishes, she moved to Boston to study drama and dance, a theatrical line of profession that her parents thought was totally gauche. And boy, did they show their displeasure.
Beside themselves with the fear that their Maggie would turn herself into a hussy "actress," the Sullavans cut their daughter's allowance down to the bare minimum in an attempt to pressure her back home. Ha, like that would ever work. Margaret rolled up her sleeves and got a job as a clerk to make ends meet. She was right to tough it out: She had a date with destiny.
In 1929, Sullavan landed a role in the prestigious Harvard Dramatic Society’s production of Close Up. She made a huge impression in a scandalous way. One of her co-stars was future Hollywood hunk Henry Fonda, who she was supposed to slap in one of the scenes. Well, Margaret Sullavan did nothing by halves...and that wasn't always a good thing.
Every time Sullavan had to slap Fonda's character, whether it was at a rehearsal or the real thing, she gave it her absolute all and delivered, as Fonda later recalled, "a rock-solid slap" to his chiseled moneymaker. Still, this beating had a strange effect on the young Fonda. Far from backing away from Sullavan, he ended up realizing, "She intrigued me." But Fonda had competition...
Fonda’s best friend was the sweetly awkward, yet wildly attractive, Jimmy Stewart. Naturally, Sullavan inserted herself into their merry group, and the trio became exceedingly close friends—so close that Stewart started to fall for the vivacious actress even as Fonda was, too. Finally, after plucking up the courage, Stewart decided to take the plunge and ask Sullavan out on a date...
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
Sullavan described Stewart’s invitation for the date as “the longest, slowest, shyest but most sincere” proposal she ever received. But they were doomed to a frustrating end. Stewart had a reputation for being a player, and Sullavan turned him down. Still, as we'll see, their relationship always had the lingering sentiment of what if. But then Fonda swooped in.
Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart might have been BFFs, but that didn't stop Fonda from wooing Sullavan when he realized his feelings were also more than just friendly. In his case, it worked. The pair struck up a passionate romance, with Fonda proposing shortly after and the pair tying the knot on Christmas Day, 1931. Except this was no fairy tale ending.
In truth, Fonda and Sullavan didn't make the best match, even if they had been friends beforehand. Where Fonda was notoriously cold and closed off, Sullavan was the exact opposite. The pert actress had no problem speaking her mind freely and loudly, and she had an explosive temper to boot. This all came to a disturbing climax.
On one occasion on set, Sullavan refused Fonda's request to go into an actors' group pot to buy fireworks. Fonda, ticked off, then complained passive-aggressively to another actor in front of her. Margaret Sullavan was not going to take that lying down: She grabbed a pitcher of ice water and poured it directly over Fonda's head. And that wasn't all.
Boy, did Sullavan have good follow-through. After publicly humiliating Fonda with only a ewer at her disposal, she watched him stalk silently out of the room with nary an apology thrown his way. Instead, she sat back down at the table she had been eating at, and continued to chomp down on her meal. Is it any wonder these two were headed for disaster?
Fonda and Sullavan tried their best to make it work, even both moving to New York City to be together and look for roles. Still, they met an embarrassing end. For all their efforts, they were only married for a paltry two months, separating before the honeymoon period was even over in early 1932. And then Sullavan's life really started to take on speed.
By the 1930s, Sullavan was one of the hottest stars on Broadway. Like clockwork, Hollywood started to take notice, with director John M. Stahl seeking her out to be in his next film. Sullavan's response was surprising. She didn't want to give up her control to studios, had already said "Nope" to Paramount and Columbia, and thought about turning Stahl down, too.
In the end, the director made her an offer she couldn't refuse: A multi-picture deal, and a clause that she could return to tread the boards whenever she wanted. Suddenly, Margaret was going to Hollywood. It did not begin well.
Sullavan confused Old Hollywood from the get-go, and her starlet antics became infamous. She rolled up to sunny, sophisticated Los Angeles in "old slacks, sneakers and sweaters," all while driving her beat-up Ford. Quite simply, Margaret Sullavan did not give a damn about your glamour, and she wanted everyone to know it. Then she really took it up a notch...
Industry professionals soon knew Sullavan by reputation alone, and that reputation was bad. She would show up to photoshoots barefoot, horrifying her photographers. Yet if they protested, she'd just airily remind them her "feet would not show." Likewise, she absolutely nixed the studio's idea that she get one of her crooked teeth "fixed."
You took Margaret as she was, or you didn't take her at all. But this made her some big enemies...
Even studio head honcho Louis B. Mayer—one of the most infamously cruel and powerful men in Hollywood—was wary of the strong-willed actress. Mayer's aide Eddie Mannix once confessed that Sullavan "was the only player who out-bullied Mayer." More than that, he admitted, "She gave him the willies." Oh, but Sullavan was just getting started.
Sullavan's wrath was already terrifying before she went to Hollywood, but it became downright deadly. On one notorious occasion, she got into a spat with director Sam Wood over a writer he wanted to fire and she wanted to keep. Their argument was so epic and explosive, Wood suffered a heart attack immediately after and passed. Sullavan was not a woman to cross.
Sullavan's first film role was in John Stahl's 1933 film Only Yesterday. It was supposed to be a moment to bask in her success, but it turned into an utter disaster. When Sullavan saw the rough cuts of her scenes, she was so embarrassed by her performance that she begged the studio to let her buy out her contract. They said "heck no," and Sullavan waited for the worst...
Though she'd probably never admit it, Sullavan was so wrong about Only Yesterday. Critics loved her performance, with one reviewer praising how she played the heroine with "forthright sympathy, wise reticence and honest feeling," and calling her one to watch. With all eyes on her, Sullavan made her next move—and it shocked everyone.
In 1935, Sullavan was on the set of director William Wyler's The Good Fairy, playing an adorable orphan girl. But behind the scenes, all was not so rosy. Sullavan, in classic fashion, was at odds with the Wyler almost the entire shooting schedule, and fought brazenly with him whenever she got the chance. Then suddenly, their hate turned to something else...
One day on set, Wyler and Sullavan actually realized they were in love, not hate. Since Sullavan was feisty, young, and dumb, she moved fast on this chance, eloping with Wyler in 1934 before The Good Fairy even came out. It was Sullavan's second marriage and Wyler's first, but it was still one very bad idea. Why? Just you wait...
Around this time, Sullavan started ham-fistedly campaigning around town to get her old "friend" Jimmy Stewart through some big studio doors in Hollywood. In particular, she wanted him in her upcoming film Next Time We Love, having been convinced since their theater days that he could be a huge star. There was just one problem.
Sullavan may have been gung-ho about Stewart, but nobody else was. In fact, when she started pestering executives to hire her old buddy, they didn't even know who he was. In the end, Sullavan got her way for one disturbing reason. The studio was afraid their spitfire starlet would go on strike in retaliation if they turned her down. And then the trouble really started.
Sullavan had staked a bet on Stewart, and now she was on the hook for every issue the studio had with him. And oh, they had many. Their director on Next Time We Love, Edward Griffith, immediately noticed how green Stewart was—he'd only had two film roles by this point—and started bullying both Stewart and Sullavan about it.
"Maggie, he's wet behind the ears," the director ominously complained to Sullavan once, "He's going to make a mess of things." Well, trust Sullavan to prove them all wrong.
Sullavan was darned if she was going to get herself humiliated, and she went into overdrive to turn Stewart into leading man material. She spent long nights with him, helping him soften his abrupt mannerisms and tentative speech patterns into the iconic style we know today. As Griffith himself even had to admit, “It was Margaret Sullavan who made James Stewart a star.”
But all this "quality time" they spent together took on a darker meaning...
While all this was going on, Sullavan was still very much married to William Wyler, and he did not take at all kindly to the idea of his wife spending her nights with an up and coming star. According to insiders, the director grew overwhelmingly suspicious of these midnight "lessons" as the days wore on. And well, Stewart gave him good reason to worry.
While Sullavan's affections remain murky, one thing was for sure: Stewart was in L-O-V-E. When they starred in 1938's The Shopworn Angel, even their co-star Walter Pidgeon noticed, saying, "I really felt like the odd-man-out in that one. It was really all Jimmy and Maggie...He came absolutely alive in his scenes with her." And a love like that can't stay quiet for long...
Once their films together started coming out, Stewart's secret wasn't just bandied about behind the scenes; it made it all the way up to Louis B. Mayer. When the studio head watched The Shopworn Angel, he commented, "Why, they’re red-hot when they get in front of a camera." In other words, Sullavan was at the peak of her powers...and then it all fell apart.
In 1936, Sullavan's life turned into a Code Red Hurricane. Unable to cope with the breaches of trust, her marriage to William Wyler broke down entirely, and they divorced after less than two years together. But did she fly into Jimmy's arms? Uh, no. Instead, just months after her split she married another man, her agent Leland Hayward.
I wish I could say it didn't get more out of control...but it did.
Rebound marriages aren't a good idea for anyone, but they're even worse if your name is "Margaret Sullavan." Although Sullavan appropriately moved in with Hayward after the wedding, there was one glaring issue. She made sure to pick a house that was just down the street from, you guessed it, her friend Jimmy Stewart. Yeah, this doesn't bode well.
Sullavan’s third marriage to Hayward started out well enough. After marrying, they had three children, Brooke, Bridget, and Bill, in quick succession. For a moment, it looked like Sullavan had finally put all the drama behind her and was settling down for a quiet life away from the movies. Then it came to a heartbreaking conclusion.
In 1947, Sullavan faced down a wife's worst nightmare: She found out her husband Leland was cheating on her. Worse than that, he was cheating on her with the glamorous and beautiful socialite Slim Keith. Sullavan didn't need to think twice; she filed for divorce as soon as she made the discovery, and the split became final in 1948. But nothing is that simple...
In the wake of the divorce, Sullavan's family fell apart. While Hayward went to California, Sullavan stayed on the East Coast, and the children shuttled between—an arrangement that made no one happy. To add insult to injury, Hayward would often spoil the kids with lavish gifts, then send them back to Sullavan discontented and surly about her "staid" life. Soon, all hell broke loose.
In 1955, Sullavan's children dealt her a gut-wrenching blow. Tired of going back and forth across the United States, Bridget and Bill both requested that they permanently move in with their indulgent father, and only see Sullavan when they could make the time. This would be horrifically difficult for any mother to hear, but Sullavan's reaction was ruinous.
First, Sullavan literally begged her son to stay. When he wouldn't budge, she suffered a full-blown nervous breakdown. The actress began to sob uncontrollably, loud jags that could be heard throughout the house. As her daughter Brooke recalled, "Even from my room the sound was so painful I went into my bathroom and put my hands on my ears." Sadly, there was more to come.
Sullavan's breakdown got much worse before it got better. The star was wound so tightly that she later crawled under the bed and curled herself into a ball, refusing to come out for a long stretch. Eventually, one of her companions had to coax her out by using gentle tones—but all the same, Sullavan was broken. These desperate times called for desperate measures.
After her days-long breakdown, Sullavan knew she needed to get help. She agreed to spend two-and-a-half months at a private mental institution to recover, though this wasn't common knowledge at the time. To be sure, this experience helped the actress get back her health. Yet tragically, her suffering soon manifested in another form.
For many years, Sullavan kept a devastating secret. She was slowly losing her hearing. Born with a congenital hearing defect called otosclerosis, her hearing deteriorated as she aged. For an actress so dependent on sound, this was a terrifying diagnosis. By 1957, her hearing loss was too severe to ignore, and Sullavan was teetering on the edge again.
Sullavan fell into a deep depression once more. She often wandered around in the middle of the night and had difficulty sleeping. Some mornings, she couldn’t even get out of bed, and would stay cooped up in her room for days on end, repeating “Just let me be, please” to anyone who knocked. Once so majestic and feisty, Sullavan was now an echo of the starlet she used to be.
In 1950, just after her divorce from Hayward, Sullavan got married for the fourth and final time, this time to the banker Kenneth Wagg. For once in her life, the relationship was a steady respite for the actress, though it may have lacked the passion of her earlier flings. They were together for over a decade, with Wagg caring for her through her worst moments.
Sullavan had so many highs throughout her career, but she only had one favorite film: Little Man, What Now? from 1934. Because of the film's topics of poverty and unemployment in WWII, Universal Studios was initially reluctant to make it, but Sullavan herself called it the "real thing," and some of the best work she ever did as an actress.
When Sullavan was at the peak of stardom, her sass was at an all-time high, too. In 1943, her then-husband Leland Hayward attempted to read some rave reviews to her about her new film Cry 'Havoc'. Instead, Sullavan snapped, "You read them, use them for toilet paper. I had enough hell with that damned picture while making it—I don't want to read about it now!" Can't say she was wrong.
Despite her success, Sullavan’s parents continued to despise her goals well into her career. But in 1930, they finally bustled into a theater and witnessed her acting chops firsthand. They couldn't believe their eyes. Even they had to admit their daughter was good, and they never bothered her again. "To my deep relief," Sullavan commented wryly, "I thought I'd have to put up with their yappings on the subject forever."
A scout for the influential theater mogul Lee Shubert also attended the same play as Sullavan's parents, and took word back to his boss that they had a star on their hands. It was Sullavan's first real chance at stardom—and she nearly lost it. When she met with Shubert himself, she was suffering from a bad case of laryngitis and worried that her husky voice would dissuade him. Well, that's not what happened.
Shubert, of course, absolutely loved her voice, and signed her on to his plays. Always the first to make light of any situation, Sullavan developed a go-to joke about this fateful first meeting, quipping that for years afterward, she insisted on standing in every available draft to turn her temporary illness into a permanent huskiness.
Sullavan, a Broadway baby at heart, never fully let go of her dislike for Hollywood and its studio system. Later in her career, she began to refuse to sign long-term contracts, hating the idea of a studio "owning" her. She was independent to a fault and wanted to follow her own aspirations rather than have them dictated to her by men in high places.
Today, we are only getting to the bottom of Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. The most common interpretation of their relationship claims that while Stewart remained desperately in love with Sullavan, she spurned or avoided his advances. Certainly, Sullavan's series of marriages to men who weren't Stewart probably weren't encouraging to the poor guy—however, the truth might be much different.
When Sullavan’s daughter Brooke wrote a book about her mother in 1977, she let out one of Tinseltown's biggest secrets. For all their "will they, won't they" energy, the book claims that the lovelorn pair actually carried on an affair way back when Sullavan was still married to Henry Fonda, and broke it off forever when they realized it might destroy the friendship.
After years of slow decline, Sullavan's flame was extinguished in one cruel moment. On New Year's Day, 1960, she was found unconscious and barely clinging to life in a hotel bed in Connecticut. Aides rushed her to the hospital, but it was too late; she passed before she even got there at just 50 years old. The world was stunned—and then unsettling details emerged.
When the autopsy came back, it revealed that Sullavan had passed from a barbiturate overdose, leading many to assume that she had tragically taken her own life, exhausted from years of suffering. However, she left no note, and so the coroner ruled the shocking incident as an accident. Whatever the truth of her final moments is, we may never know.
Sullavan's passing affected so many, but Jimmy Stewart's response was the most upsetting. When Stewart found out, he was shattered. As his wife later described, "He became something of a recluse for a while...He lost the spark that had always been there...the spark went out not with the failure of his films but with the death of Margaret Sullavan.”
Sadly, Sullavan's tragic legacy continued past her end. Her youngest children, Bridget and Bill, suffered with mental illness just like their mother, and in October 1960—just months after Margaret's death—Bridget died of an eerily similar overdose. In 2008, Bill took his own life with a shot to the head. Like Sullavan herself, they both lost their lives at far too young an age.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your time!
Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at email@example.com. Thanks for your help!
The Factinate team
If you like humaverse you may also consider subscribing to these newsletters: