Susan Hayward was the American actress best known for her passionate fictional portrayals of the dramatic lives of real people. But, given the dramatics of her own life, Hayward made for a compelling character herself—and her life would have made for a great movie. Read these facts and find out how Hayward claimed her crown as Hollywood’s drama queen.
1. She Was An Imposter
Susan Hayward wasn’t always, well, Susan Hayward. She was born in June 1917 as far away from the glitz and glam of Hollywood as one could get. Her birth name was actually Edythe Marrenner and her parents, Ellen and Walter Marrenner, were low-income laborers in New York City. Although she came from humble beginnings, Hayward was destined for so much more.
2. Her Life Was Exciting From Day One
Hayward’s life was pretty dramatic right from the get-go. It was full of unexpected twists and turns—some of them happy and some of them horrifying. Perhaps the most traumatic event of her childhood was when seven-year-old Hayward tried to innocently cross Snyder Avenue in New York City. In a split second, her life took a very unexpected turn…
3. She Had A Bad Accident
While she was crossing the street, a vehicle appeared out of nowhere and struck Hayward with its full force. The consequences were unspeakable: Hayward suffered two broken legs and a fractured hip. But you know what they say, what doesn’t put you in the grave only makes you great. Or, more accurately, leaves you with a scar and a story for the rest of your life.
The accident did, however, give Hayward the “break” she would need going forward.
4. She Had Her Own “Twist”
Hayward spent months in a partial body cast, recovering at home, and afterward, emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon. But something had gone terribly wrong: Her bones had healed and resettled abnormally, leaving her with the distinctive “hip swivel” that made her so appealing on camera. Hayward made the best of the hand she’d been dealt—but fate was only just getting started.
5. She Made The News
While most people would have been happy to collect disability for the rest of their life, Hayward never saw herself as a victim. She didn’t let her distinct walk keep her down. In fact, if anything, it encouraged her to walk more. At the age of 12, she got a paper route to help supplement the family income. But all of that exercise wasn’t working.
6. She Was A Plus-Size Model
Delivering papers to her neighbors didn’t deliver the kind of drama that Hayward liked. So, she got another job that was a little more exciting—modeling. But it wasn’t all glamor. In fact, there wasn’t any glamor at all. In her own blunt words, Hayward modeled “dresses for fat 14-years-olds.” While the job wasn’t exactly a dream come true, the aspiring model looking for inspiration elsewhere.
7. She Loved The Movies
Hayward found the drama and excitement that she had always been looking for on the big screen. For as long as she could remember, she loved the movies. She would go to see double features at the local theater after school with her older brother, Walter Jr. But, where she was close with her brother, she wasn’t too keen on her older sister.
8. Her Older Sister Was A Spotlight Hog
Hayward recalled later in her life how her older sister stole all of her mother’s love and attention—and, worst of all, beat her to Broadway. She recalled that her mother never gave her any encouragement in her professional pursuits and how she always played second fiddle to her older sister, Florence. “Florence is pretty, Florence is the one,” she’d mock.
9. She Was Naughty, Not Nice
If Hayward thought that her mother showed more affection to her older, more beautiful sister, then she was probably right. Although, it doesn’t seem like their mother showed much affection at all. Allegedly, during the Great Depression, Hayward’s mother did something despicable: She gave her gift-wrapped lumps of coal.
Thankfully, her days of playing second fiddle were numbered.
10. She Was The Most Dramatic
Hayward found her own way to step out of her sister’s shadow and shine brightly. She acted in school plays and vaudeville acts and showed quite a bit of promise. Not surprisingly, her classmates gave her the distinction of “Most Dramatic” in the graduation yearbook. And there’s only one place for super dramatic people.
11. She Took The Midnight Train
Hayward slimmed down after she finished school and pursued modeling with a passion. No more “fat 14-year-old dresses” for her. Her flaming red hair and intense eyes made her a top model in New York. The money was good but she knew she could do better. Hayward set off on a train to Hollywood and stardom. She had no idea just how much excitement (and disappointment) lay in wait.
12. She Was Lost In The Crowd
Hayward arrived in Hollywood in 1937. However, if she thought that outshining her older sister in New York had been a challenge, she was in for an unpleasant surprise. Hayward auditioned for the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind…along with 1,400 other actresses. She didn’t get the part but she did make an impression.
13. She “Hip-Swivelled” Her Way In
Hayward got a crash course in the cruelty of Hollywood-style show business. Instead of simply letting her know that she wasn’t right for the part, the casting crew of Gone With the Wind strung her along for months so that they could use her as a stand-in. She didn’t waste all of her time and hopes, however. The film’s director and Hollywood hotshot, David O. Selznick, was impressed with the flaming redhead and her distinctive gait.
14. She Became A New Girl
Selznick made sure that Hayward stuck around in Hollywood by getting her a contract with Warner Bros. She promptly paired up with a talent agent who knew that it was time to leave old Edythe Marrenner behind. She officially changed her name to Susan Hayward and the rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, however, her climb to stardom wasn’t without its tribulations.
15. She Got The Axes
Despite a very promising beginning, Hayward didn’t meet with success immediately in Hollywood. Apparently, some people were immune to her red hair and hip-swivel. Initially, Hayward only landed minor parts in a couple of forgotten films. We’ll never even know if she was any good because the studios cut her parts out of the final edit.
16. She Was The President’s Lady
People with a keen eye for talent said that Susan Hayward was going to be a big star. She just needed a break. And she finally got that break when she landed her first big role in 1938. She took 10th billing alongside none other than future US president, Ronald Raegan. Coincidentally, she would later star in a film called The President’s Lady.
However, not even this promising role could cement her potential.
17. She Got Her “Geste” Desserts
Once again, Hollywood had given Hayward false hope. After starring alongside Ronald Raegan, Warner Brothers sidelined Hayward. She decided that if she wanted to get ahead, she would need a new and better contract. She signed with Paramount Pictures and promptly starred in the hugely bankable film, Beau Geste in 1939. It’s almost like the stars had aligned in her favor…for the time being.
18. She Was A Stargazer
Here’s some food for thought: Is it superstition if it actually works? For most of her life, Hayward was a stargazer—and not just because she thought the night sky looked pretty. Hayward was a strong believer in astrology and consulted the map in the sky before making many of her career and personal life decisions. She left nothing up to chance—and yet, in the end, not even the stars could save her.
19. She Was A Morning Person
Whenever Hayward needed a little “astral” guidance, she didn’t turn to the North Star. Instead, she consulted the “Astrologer to the Stars,” Carroll Righter. Righter informed Hayward that the best time for her to sign a contract was at precisely 2:47 am, So, whenever Hayward had a new contract to sign, she set alarm for 2:45 am. Sounds silly? Perhaps. But Hayward definitely witnessed some results.
20. Her Stardom Took Off
As long as Hayward stuck to her astrological projections, her career seemed to take off. The contract that she had signed with Paramount Pictures at precisely 2:47 am landed her bigger and better roles in bigger and better films all through 1942. But she must have failed to consult the stars about her love life because that thing crashed and burned like an asteroid.
21. She Was Happy To Be Of Service
By the time WWII broke out, Hayward wasn’t just looking at the stars, she was one. In her little free time, she volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen (a club offering food, drinks, and entertainment to servicemen before their deployment). Her homey demeanor made her a favorite amongst the servicemen who sometimes showed up just to see her. But that wasn’t all.
22. She Fell Head Over Heels
While working at the Hollywood Canteen, Hayward met Jess Barker, a fellow actor. While she generally disliked the phony, glitz and glam of Hollywood and tried to distance herself from it, Hayward still ended up falling for Barker. They tried to keep the details of their relationship quiet, but of course, there’s no way of hiding that much drama.
23. She Swivelled Down The Aisle
Not long after they had started dating, Barker popped the question. There were rumors about a “turbulent” relationship so the marriage announcement might have seemed like it came out of nowhere—just like that car on Snyder Avenue all of those years ago. Nevertheless, in July 1944, Hayward said “I do” to Barker…and immediately regretted it.
24. She Had Two In The Pod
The marriage between the two up-and-coming stars might have seemed forced to many Hollywood insiders. And that’s because it probably was. Less than seven months into their marriage, Hayward gave birth to fraternal twins. While she loved her sons dearly, she was a lot less enamored with her husband. Their marriage would nearly cost her everything.
25. She Wanted Out
Hayward and Barker managed to keep the details of their acrimonious marriage out of the tabloids. But whatever was happening behind closed doors must have been bad. Less than 10 years after they said “I do,” they went running to a judge. Clearly, they convinced the judge that divorce was the right thing because he granted it almost immediately.
But that was just the beginning of Hayward’s nightmare.
26. She Was A Shooting Star
Throughout those nearly 10 years of marriage, as Hayward’s love for Barker had been cooling down, her career had continued heating up. Between 1944 and 1954, Hayward starred in 25 films, appearing in as many as four in a year. Eventually, the stresses of her personal life found their way into her acting and onto the sets of her films.
27. She Was A Brawler
In 1947, Hayward starred in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman alongside Marsha Hunt. It seems like Hayward took some of her frustration out on Hunt. In an interview given years later, Hunt recalled, “I had a big fight onscreen with Susan Hayward in a powder room, and we went right at it…no retakes. The bruises were showing. It was a hard movie to make.”
28. She Gave People The Silent Treatment
And if Hayward wasn’t fighting with her co-stars—probably envisioning her husband’s head—then she was ignoring them altogether. One of her co-stars remarked, “Miss Susan Hayward never talked to her co-workers when waiting for a take. She took no interest in the rest of us. It was extremely strange—as if we did not exist.” Despite Hayward’s increasingly weird behavior, her performances were still top-notch.
29. Her Antics Were Effective
If Hayward’s on-set behavior was odd, then it was effective. For all of the drama she caused on the set of Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, the film netted Hayward her first of five Academy Award nominations. Even that year’s winner, Loretta Young, had to later confess that she had voted for Hayward to win the award. Her day, however, would come—but it came with a price.
30. She Was The Boss On Set
Hayward was able to give it on set but couldn’t quite take it. On the set of 1951’s Rawhide, for example, Hayward had a run-in with one of her co-stars that she took to heart. According to Hayward, one of her male co-stars handled her too roughly in one of their scenes…so she had the director replace him. She didn’t win all of her on-set scuffles though.
31. She Disliked Davis
Hayward starred alongside Hollywood legend Bette Davis in the 1964 film, Where Love Has Gone. While we can’t say where love went to, it definitely was not on that star-studded set. Hayward and Davis clashed as much off-screen as they did on-screen after Davis tore off Hayward’s wig and repeatedly lashed her with it. Never put two divas in a room together.
32. She Wasn’t Very Vocal
For all of her rough edges, Hayward had a softer side that she rarely showed. Even though she often portrayed fictional versions of real-life singers on-screen, Hayward didn’t enjoy the sound of her own voice. Nevertheless, she serenaded audiences with her voice in 1955’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow—a role that netted her the Best Actress Award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
33. She Was A “Devoted Companion”
As a favorite of critics and with more than a few Academy Award nominations under her belt, Hayward’s career was nearing its peak. Fellow actor, Charlton Heston, wrote in the book Charlton Heston’s Hollywood: “Fortunately, we had an actress…who made her character a woman of flesh and blood—a true frontier girl, a passionate wife, and a devoted companion.” But not everyone thought she was so devoted.
34. She Was Under Too Much Stress
Hayward’s divorce in 1954 had been simple enough. But the ensuing custody battle proved to be more than she could handle. Between trying to juggle her hectic filming schedule—or, as she would have called it, her “Fighting with Co-stars Schedule”—and an increasingly bitter custody battle, Hayward was about to snap. And when she did, it was in a truly dramatic fashion.
35. She Just Wanted To Escape It All
In order to get away from all of the stresses she was facing, Hayward wanted to take her sons to Hong Kong. She was meant to shoot the 1955 film, Solider of Fortune there and it provided an opportunity for a family vacation. But her ex-husband prohibited the children from leaving the country, citing dangers to their health. In the end, however, it was Hayward’s health that was the most worrisome.
36. She Overdosed
Without her much-needed escape, the stresses over her custody battle and the pressure of her filming schedule became too great for Hayward. In April of 1955, she attempted to end it all by overdosing on sleeping pills. She only narrowly survived the incident when detectives broke down her patio door and found her unconscious.
37. She Had A Long Recovery
Hayward had a slow but steady recovery from the throes of her depression. She eventually won her heated custody battle and took a small break from acting, appearing in only one or two films a year as opposed to all of them. Most importantly, however, Hayward put the pieces of love life back together and upgraded to a better man.
38. She Just About To Retire
It seemed like all of that drama had been too much even for the drama queen herself. Hayward had just about had enough of Hollywood and the complications of stardom. She married a Georgia rancher and businessman named Floyd Eaton Chalkley in 1957. They moved to a farm in Georgia and it seemed to many like Hayward was done with acting. Little did she know, her best days were still ahead.
39. She Finally Won The Gold
Hayward kept up some acting roles but drastically reduced her schedule. She made her tentative comeback in the appropriately named 1958 film I Want to Live!. For her passionate portrayal of Barbara Graham, Hayward finally received the Academy Award for Best Actress that had eluded her for so long. Unfortunately, it might have gone to her head a little bit.
40. She Had A Good Side
Hayward had always been a star but now that she had Oscar gold, she was a bona fide diva. And like many of the other film star divas of her era, Hayward had very specific instructions for any of her would-be directors. She insisted on being photographed almost exclusively from the left side of her face. Specifically, from the three-quarter angle. But that wasn’t all.
41. She Had A Big Closet
No diva could ever truly call themselves a diva if they didn’t look the part—and Hayward made sure that she looked the part. On the set of 1961’s Back Street, Hayward’s wardrobe budget was set to a staggering $100,000. But you know what they say, everything that goes up must come down. And down they would come for Hayward.
42. She Lost The Love Of Her Life
It had taken a lot for Hayward to turn her life around—she was, for a time, living drama-free. But her happiness didn’t last for very long. Hayward’s new husband, the one who had made her so content, passed away unexpectedly in 1966. They had enjoyed less than ten years of marital bliss. Fortunately, Hayward wouldn’t suffer widowhood for too long.
43. She Took A Trip Down South
Hayward and Chalkley had made a comfortable home for themselves in sunny Georgia. But, once Chalkley passed away, home just didn’t seem like home to Hayward and she went to live in Florida. She took an extended hiatus from acting with plans to make a triumphant return. But even her much-anticipated comeback wasn’t without its twists and turns.
44. She Lost Her Voice
Just a couple of years later, Hayward made a tentative return to film in 1967’s The Valley of the Dolls. She shared the limelight with a star-studded cast which helped to reduce her stress. Next, she tried to step into the solo spotlight in 1968’s Mame but, ultimately, her voice gave out under the immense pressure. She just wasn’t feeling her very best—and it was about to get so much worse.
45. Her Lungs Gave Out
Hayward hadn’t been able to put all of her energies into her comeback and there was good reason for it. In 1972, her doctor diagnosed her with a lung tumor that had metastasized. It’s no wonder that her voice had given out on the set of what should have been her triumphant return. By the next year, her health had deteriorated even further.
46. She Had Bad Brain Fog
In April of 1973, when she was still just 55 years old, Hayward experienced another dramatic and unexpected turn of events. While her doctor had diagnosed her with lung cancer the year prior, the otherwise healthy actress couldn’t have predicted the cruel development: She suffered a seizure brought on by brain cancer.
47. She Took Her Final Bow
Following the upsetting diagnosis of both lung and brain cancer, Hayward stepped away from film altogether. Still, she was determined to overcome her health issues. She had, after all, survived a wrestling match with a car and escaped an encounter with the Grim Reaper after an overdose. However, in the end, it was too much, even for Hayward.
In 1975, she suffered a fatal seizure at her Beverly Hills home.
48. She Had Chemistry
Hayward’s demise might have seemed sudden but it could actually have been decades in the making. At the height of her career, Hayward had starred in 1956’s The Conqueror alongside John Wayne. Hayward and Wayne definitely had chemistry on screen but there was another kind of chemistry working behind the scenes–a very bad kind.
49. She Was Radioactive
Hayward and her co-stars filmed The Conqueror on location in St. George, Utah. If that sounds familiar, you know your history. Filming took place not far from abandoned atomic test sites. Scientists speculate that the film location might have been bathed in radioactive material. And there’s good—or very horrifying—reasons for thinking that.
50. She Was Just One Of Many
Hayward wasn’t the only star from 1956’s The Conqueror to ultimately succumb to suspicious and invasive cancers. Fellow stars John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell all fell victim to cancer and cancer-related illnesses. In fact, out of a cast of 220 people, almost half of them developed cancer later in life.
51. She Was Always The Queen…Of Drama
Hayward definitely had a dramatic life full of ups and downs, but, no matter how crazy things became, she always kept a level head…full of flaming red hair. Hayward put it best in her own words: “I never thought of myself as a movie star. I’m just a working girl. A working girl who worked her way to the top—and never fell off.”