Remembering Maggie McNamara

Portrait of Maggie McNamara by Jose RivasThirty years ago, on February 18th, 1978, a charming but nearly forgotten woman, once an Academy Award nominee for Best Actress, was discovered dead in New York from an overdose of sleeping pills.  She was only forty-nine years old, and hadn’t worked as an actress for nearly fifteen years, but anyone who remembered the promising Maggie McNamara was shocked to hear of her death.

The film which had earned her the Oscar nomination had been an object of much notoriety in its time, the then-salacious and downright scandalous The Moon is Blue from 1953, directed by Otto Preminger and based on F. Maggie McNamara and William Holden in The Moon is BlueHugh Herbert’s Broadway play.  The movie comedy, whose plot — a precocious young woman with plenty of curiosity about the opposite sex gets involved with two worldly gentlemen — dared to include dialogue with words like “virgin” and “mistress” peppered throughout, was released without the vaunted Seal of Approval from the Motion Picture Production Code office.  Despite fears that it would be blackballed by theaters all over the country, the titillating debate about its content propelled The Moon is Blue to box-office success

Hollywood newcomer Maggie McNamara was the female lead.  She had Holden, Maggie and David Niven in The Moon is Bluebeen a teenage model with some small theatrical experience, including the lead role in the Chicago company of the stage version of The Moon is Blue, and was personally tapped by Preminger to reprise her role in the movie.  Cast as her two suitors were two of Hollywood’s most urbane and accomplished actors, William Holden (just off Stalag 17) and David Niven, whose movie career had petered out somewhat but who had kept busy with frequent TV roles and was still an audience favorite. 

After the success of The Moon is Blue, the pert and attractive McNamaraDVD cover for Three Coins in the Fountain with McNamara and Jourdan was signed to a contract with 20th Century-Fox, and in 1954 starred in the lush romance Three Coins in the Fountain, as an ambitious but lovestruck young American woman — one of a trio of similarly lovelorn lMaggie McNamara as painted by Jose Rivassadies rooming in Rome together — who finds amore with a seductive Italian playboy, played by Louis Jourdan.  The film’s greatest legacy probably comes from the immortality of its dreamy theme song, made famous by Frank Sinatra and covered by many others.

The next year Maggie McNamara was cast opposite Richard Burton (late of The Robe) in his starring role as the Prince of Players, based on the life of Edwin Booth, one of 19th Century America’s most celebrated actors, and brother of Lincoln assassin and fellow actor John Wilkes Booth.  Maggie played Mary Devlin, the delicate Richard Burton and Maggie McNamara in Prince of Playersactress wife of Edwin, in the real life romantic and ultimately melancholy tale of their life together.  Their passionate love story, then Mary’s early death, along with Edwin’s unfortunate and horrified connection with the murder of Lincoln, laid the foundation for an epic tale straight out of American history, and the lush film was a moderate success. 

Sometime around this time she married TV director/writer David Swift, the creator of the Wally Cox situation comedy Mr. Peepers, a marriage that later ended in divorce.  Maggie McNamara wouldn’t show up again in an acting role until a part in her former colleague/director Otto Preminger’s Maggie McNamara in The Twilight Zonefilm The Cardinal in 1963, after which time she also made several interesting TV guest appearances, including an episode of the classic The Twilight Zone entitled “Ring-a-Ding Girl” and another in the cult favorite The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1964. 

Nothing more was heard of Maggie McNamara until on March 16, 1978, when the New York Times carried a report of her death, finally announced by a relative nearly a month after it happened.  She had been working as a secretary in NYC, and also reportedly working on screenwriting projects at the time of her suicide. 

1954, the year that she got her Academy Award nomination, was certainly the year of the gamine, with three of the Best Actress nominees — AudreyMcNamara and Holden in The Moon is Blue DVD Hepburn in Roman Holiday, Leslie Caron in Lili, and Maggie McNamara in The Moon is Blue — clearly fitting into the slim, energetic, and elfin mode, and the other two — Ava Gardner in Mogambo and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity — representing the earthier feminine ideal.  The Oscar would go to Audrey Hepburn, jumpstarting her subsequent major Hollywood career.

In this Oscar season, it’s not only the winners who should be remembered, but also those who tried, and even worse, sometimes disappeared from view, like the refreshing and talented Maggie McNamara whose life ended too soon and too sadly.     

4 Responses Remembering Maggie McNamara
Posted By RHS : February 20, 2008 10:46 am

I hadn't seen (and still haven't) The Moon Is Blue but I was aware of Maggie McNamara's death at the time and remember being baffled that someone who had starred in big movies could end up so low.  Thirty years on, that kind of story is hardly a mystery but it continues to boggle the mind and break the heart.

Posted By RHS : February 20, 2008 10:46 am

I hadn't seen (and still haven't) The Moon Is Blue but I was aware of Maggie McNamara's death at the time and remember being baffled that someone who had starred in big movies could end up so low.  Thirty years on, that kind of story is hardly a mystery but it continues to boggle the mind and break the heart.

Posted By jmoondog : February 21, 2008 12:12 pm

    you wonder what happens to a person between the time when they are doing so well till the time they are found dead   what happend in between to bring so much despare to make them kill them selvs  what a shame         could have someone helped

Posted By jmoondog : February 21, 2008 12:12 pm

    you wonder what happens to a person between the time when they are doing so well till the time they are found dead   what happend in between to bring so much despare to make them kill them selvs  what a shame         could have someone helped

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