On March 14 1975 actress Susan Hayward died a few months shy of her 58th birthday; the cause of death was multiple cancerous and inoperable brain tumors. She was buried about 40 miles west of Atlanta (20 miles from the Alabama state line) in Carrollton Georgia with her second husband Floyd Eaton Chalkley a wealthy lawyer and businessman who’d died nine years earlier.
She’d been born Edythe Marrener in Brooklyn New York on June 30 1917 and after graduating from high school and doing some modeling Susan Hayward traveled to Hollywood to participate in producer David O. Selznick’s great search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara for his screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Though her screen test didn’t go well with acting & voice lessons and a new name she was cast in small parts like that of Isobel Rivers in Beau Geste (1939) opposite movie brothers Gary Cooper Ray Milland & Robert Preston and Best Supporting Actor nominee Brian Donlevy. Cecil B. DeMille also cast her with Milland and opposite Preston (as well as John Wayne and Paulette Goddard among others) to take advantage of her red flowing locks in his Technicolor action adventure drama with Oscar winning Special Effects Reap the Wild Wind (1942). Though she found other roles like playing a reporter that travels with a newly formed construction battalion during World War II (her character becomes involved in a love triangle between those played by Wayne and Dennis O’Keefe) in The Fighting Seabees (1944) it wasn’t until after the war that she began to make her mark as an actress.
Playing the part of a singer whose life changes for the worse once she retires to help her singer husband launch his highly successful career (rumored to be based on Dixie Lee Bing Crosby’s first wife) Hayward earned her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947). The year she received her second nomination in the category (for My Foolish Heart (1949)) redheaded Hayward wore countless colorful dresses in another (Technicolor) melodrama that would be her last pairing with Preston Tulsa (1949). She plays a rancher’s daughter whose desire for revenge against an oilman “responsible” for her father’s accidental death eventually becomes an unquenchable ambition for wealth that alienates her closest friend and fiance (Preston). In 1952 she not only received her third Best Actress Oscar nomination for With a Song in My Heart (1952) but she earned top billing over Robert Mitchum who plays a former rodeo star come tutor as the cautious but saucy mouthed wife of a ranch hand that wants to be a bull rider (Arthur Kennedy) in director Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952).
After her first marriage to actor Jess Barker ended after 10 years with a bitter custody battle for their twin sons and her suicide attempt Hayward turned in one of her best performances playing the rise and fall (& recovery) of singer-actress Lillian Roth onscreen in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955); Roth’s autobiographical story ends like an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous. The following year she was second billed behind Wayne in Dick Powell’s ill-fated The Conqueror (1956). Given the subsequent deaths caused by cancer of Wayne Hayward Agnes Moorehead Thomas Gomez John Hoyt and Powell (among others) there has long been speculation about the fallout effects of it having been filmed in Utah near former nuclear testing sites. On February 8th 1957 Hayward wed Chalkley (moving to his 200 acre ranch in Georgia) and slightly more than two years later finally took home the gold on Oscar night (on her fifth and last nomination for Best Actress) for her performance in another biographical drama I Want to Live! (1958) about Barbara Graham who pleaded and fought (unsuccessfully) to escape California’s gas chamber. She continued to appear in movies until her second husband died of hepatitis in 1966 though she did briefly return to work several years later before her brain cancer was diagnosed.
In March 2007 I traveled to her grave site at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Carrollton GA and took these pictures; the tombstone reads:
- F. EATON CHALKLEY
- 1909 – 1966
- MRS. F. E. CHALKLEY
- 1917 – 1975
and there’s a small additional stone to the left bearing the inscription:
- SUSAN HAYWARD
I share three oblique connections with this Academy Award winning actress: I too was diagnosed with a brain tumor though mine was a non-cancerous cystic astrocytoma in my cerebellum (removed in June 1997) my grandmother was laid to rest with her second husband and my parents’ first date was seeing With a Song in My Heart (1952).
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog