Mary Maguire – The filmstar and the fascist, 1939-1974

Mary Maguire – the darling of Hollywood – for oh so brief a time, beams as she sqeezes the hand of the man she had just  married, Captain Robert Gordon Canning, in London on 10th August 1939.  The marriage was a disaster.
Photo from the Herald and Weekly Times Portrait collection. State Library of Victoria, Picture Collection

Profound changes occurred in Mary Maguire’s life in 1939 and these were to colour the remainder of her life.

In May 1939 she began work on “An Englishman’s Home” for Aldwych films. It was based on a well known play by Guy du Maurier. The plot concerned an invasion of Britain (the threatening power is un-named, but clearly meant to be Germany) and starred Austrian-born Paul von Hernried, another refugee to Britain from fascism. It again featured John Wood, in what was to be his last film before returning to Australia.

Englishman's home 1939

Above – A little over two years after this photo was taken on the set of “An Englishman’s Home”, Paul Henreid (left) had simplified his name and was in Hollywood, playing Victor Laszlo in “Casablanca”. John Wood (right) however, was to find himself a prisoner of war of the Japanese at about the same time. After his return to Australia in 1939, he joined the Army and was posted to Singapore. He was captured in early 1942. He spent the next three-and-a-half years working tirelessly to maintain morale through theatre performances. Source probably Aldwych films. Author’s collection.

About the time she was filming An Englishman’s Home”, Mary became engaged to Robert Gordon Canning, a wealthy and decorated British World War One veteran. It was, she later admitted, a whirlwind romance. Known to his close friends as “Bobbie”, he was a former Captain in the 10th Hussars and had earned the Military Cross for bravery in action at Arras in 1916. They were introduced to each other by Miles Mander, during a visit to England. At almost fifty-two, Bobbie was over thirty years Mary’s senior.

bobbie GC

Enlargement of Robert Gordon Canning on the wedding day, 10th August, 1939. Photo from the Herald and Weekly Times Portrait collection. State Library of Victoria, Picture Collection

What did Mary see in this man who was older than her father? At the time, Mary said, “Bobbie conforms to my idea of the ideal man … when I met Bobbie, nothing else mattered.” There was however, another dimension to Bobbie that would have made him less attractive to some, although it did not discourage the Maguires. Bobbie was an opinionated, active and influential fascist. From 1934 until mid-1938, he was a senior figure in the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and was close to BUF leader, Oswald Mosley, although he split from the movement in 1938.

Follow this link  – photo of leading BUF members including Bobbie and Mosley, 1935. Source: The Friends of Oswald Mosley (F.O.M. London)

At the time of the engagement, Bobbie had little to say publicly about what had attracted him to Mary, but he was quoted as saying that she was the first actor he met who “didn’t talk shop.” He apparently also disliked “bridge and golf-playing women.” “I am neither,” Mary pointed out. The impending marriage was celebrated with a portrait of Mary by popular artist Vasco Lazzolo.

Mary was wise enough to publicly disassociate herself from Gordon Canning’s political extremism and virulent anti-Semitism. She told Australian Women’s Weekly journalist Mary St. Claire, “I was given my big chance in Hollywood, where there are many Jews. It would be both ungrateful and unkind of me to ally myself because of marriage with the Fascist Party… I have no fascist sympathies and do not intend to take part in my fiancé’s political life.” This unsophisticated comment reveals a certain lack of worldliness on Mary’s part – how she expected not to be part of his political life is hard to imagine. She maintained the argument that she was not involved in his political activities, or at least, was largely ignorant of them, all her life. Looking back on the marriage in late 1944, she said of fascism “I didn’t understand what it was all about.”

MM signature

Not surprisingly, Mary Maguire’s signature in 1938-39 still looked unsophisticated. She was only 20 at the time. She maintained a strong affection for Australia all her life, but never went home again. Author’s Collection.

Part of the answer to the riddle of Mary’s attraction to Bobbie lies in a disaster that befell her about the same time. In July 1939, towards the end of filming An Englishman’s Home”, Mary became ill again. What seemed to start as another cold ended up very seriously. It was Bobbie who suspected something sinister and encouraged Mary to visit a specialist to have a proper assessment. Maxwell Chance, a highly regarded Mayfair doctor, diagnosed her with acute pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) and immediately sent her to an exclusive nursing home to rest and “dry out.”  It was a shock, an embarrassment, and it put an end to her acting for the time being, as well as her social life. Of course, the family did not publicly report her condition as TB, but rather as fatigue from “overwork” or “lung trouble” from working in the cold.

The condition explains why she was carried to her wedding in an invalid chair and why she immediately returned to the nursing home after the event. Her treatment for TB included a revolutionary proceedure designed to deflate and rest the infected lung, using oxygen introduced by a pneumothorax needle. Mary lay on her side to have the needle inserted between her ribs, a treatment that was repeated every few weeks. Antibiotic treatment for TB was still years away.

Only a few weeks after the wedding, Britain found itself at war again. Unfortunately, nothing had changed Bobbie’s anti-Semitic opinions or his admiration for aspects of the German model of National Socialism. As a former member of the BUF, he was already under close observation and MI5 had developed a significant file on him and all those he associated with.  As the tension of “the phony war” progressed, at least one of Bobbie’s old friendships was strained to breaking point. Bobbie and Miles Mander fell out quite spectacularly. In letters written to Mander in Hollywood in February 1940, Bobbie described the war as “a ramp” (a swindle), singling out “Jewish financiers” as the architects of the conflict, in the best fascist tradition. We know this because Mander, in a steaming fury, complained about him to the Home Office.

Mick on the Germans Daily Express April 23 1940

Mick continues to spin stories. This is part of an article headed “Screen Star’s father joins the BEF again”.  Mick had not served in the British or Australian Army in the First World War and he had not been a Welterweight Champion, as he suggests here. From The Daily Express, 23 April 1940. Via the British Library Newspaper Project.

Then, on Saturday 13 July, 1940, Bobbie was arrested and interned under the British government’s Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, Defence Regulation 18B. This law gave the Government power to imprison, without trial, individuals it thought had the potential to be fifth columnists.  Understandably, Mary, now at home, was shocked when police arrived at their London flat to arrest Bobbie (although she should have had some warning, as others like Mosley and his friend retired Admiral Barry Domvile had already been arrested). She was later to complain that the Police suspected her of being disloyal; with allegations made that she had “flashed signals to submarines lurking off (her home at) Sandwich.”

Mary and MichaelMary was well enough to escort Bobbie to the gates of Brixton prison, announcing that he had long since given up membership of “certain organisations.” A couple of weeks before he was interned, Mary had given Bobbie some good news. She was pregnant and was expecting early the following year. However, she was still continuing with her TB treatments. Her doctors feared the birth would be difficult, even hazardous.  On 3 February 1941, in the midst of the London Blitz, Mary gave birth to an eight-pound son. It was a difficult caesarean birth, aggravated by her weakness from the TB treatment and her petite size. Bobbie was briefly released from Brixton to attend to Mary and his new son.

Mary and her baby, named Michael Robert. The Sun (NSW) 5th June, 1941, Via National library of Australia Trove

It was Bina who passed on details of baby Michael’s birth, as she had after the wedding. The birth had cost Bobbie £2,000. She told journalists that the baby looked the image of Mick, who had joined the British Army. Bina then gave enthusiastic interviews to the press about the arrangements for the christening. “The baby will wear a christening robe made …from a beautiful old point lace robe which has been worn by his father’s mother, and has been in the Gordon Canning family for a hundred years.”

In various appeals to the British authorities, friends, politicians and doctors argued for Bobbie’s release, without any success. The following letter from Maxwell Chance, Mary’s doctor,  is now held in the British National Archive file on Bobbie. It also makes very clear how serious her condition was.

MM7

W.H.C Rollo was Bobbie’s lawyer, and also the father of Primula Rollo, the first wife of David Niven. The Committee reading this to review his detention recommended release, but it was not to be. The Home Secretary, again acting on the advice of M15, decided to keep Bobbie in detention. Source British National Archives. File KV 2-877/8

Mary was well enough by the second half of 1941 to return to work, although, as she was later to point out, it was extremely difficult to get film work with a husband in gaol on suspicion of treason. The work was a supporting role in the 70-minute “This was Paris”, made by Mary’s old studio, Warner Bros, at their Teddington studios in south–west London. The plot revolves around three or four key characters who are participants battling the activities of fifth columnists in France in 1940. Several of the players in the film, including Mary, would have been very well known to US audiences. Ben Lyon, a well known US actor, plays Butch, a perpetually drunken reporter for an Australian newspaper called “The Sidney Chronicle.” (Despite the incorrect spelling, it is clearly meant to be a newspaper in Sydney, Australia he works for). Mary plays his girlfriend with a degree of ability and confidence not seen in many of her earlier films.

Mary Maguire’s first line as Blossum Leroy in her final film “This Was Paris.” Her boyfriend, Butch, a reporter for “The Sidney Chronicle” (sic) has come home drunk, with British spy Bill Hamilton in tow. Listen to that accent! Is she meant to be Australian? It’s not made clear. Audio clip from VHS copy in the author’s collection.

In wartime England, the joy of parenthood and the pleasure of working in film again was not to last for long. Over Christmas 1941 little Michael became ill. In February 1942, he succumbed to  pneumonia – an operation failed. The little boy was buried at a church at the Gordon Canning ancestral seat of Hartpury in Gloucestershire, his name listed on a monument next to adults killed in Britain’s war effort. Even Bina was unable to put a positive spin on this awful event and could find little to say. Still in prison after a year and a half, Bobbie could not console her. Mary was absolutely devastated.

With the best medical support the Maguires could find, Mary slowly regained something of her former self, although distractions were difficult to find in the very desperate days of 1942. The war was not going well for the Allies. Mary was later to say that she had very little to do during the war.

Bedtime story
A grainy photo of Mary in August 1942. From “The Courier” (Tunbridge Wells), August 7, 1942. Via The British Library Newspaper project

Finally, in the middle of 1942 she felt strong enough to take up some acting again – this time in the theatre. Sister Joan was already achieving some success on the stage in London, so it made some sense to follow in her footsteps. Mary’s play was a production of Bedtime Story”, a “light comedy in 3 acts”, touring through southern England for a month – Bradford, Hull and Tunbridge Wells. Based on the Cinderella story, it was well received by war weary audiences. Although looking thinner and wearing her black hair shorter, Mary was still a glamourous film star and the provincial English press were thrilled when she hit town. But Mary didn’t stay with the play – by the end of the year she had left and the production moved on to Glasgow. She did not return to the stage.

Mary and Patsy 1942
Any news is good news. Sydney Truth reports on the wedding of oldest Maguire daughter Patricia to Peter Aitken, youngest son of Lord Beaverbrook. Truth, Sydney, 1 November 1942. via National Library of Australia’s Trove

 

But there was some good news. Sometime, early in 1943, Mary met an up-and-coming US aeronautical engineer, Phillip Legarra. Four years her senior, Phil worked in England for North American Aviation on the highly successful P-51 Mustang fighter project. The Mustang was soon to become the war’s breakthrough fighter aircraft, and in its final form was undoubtedly the finest US offensive fighter of the war. At the time they met, Phil was the company’s English representative. They fell in love.

To force Bobbie’s hand and give him no choice but to agree to a divorce, Mary took the unusual step of moving in with Phil, to a comfortable flat in Kensington.  Mary said; “I am not apologising for falling in love with someone my own age. That is natural.”

Phil Legarra fro Skyline

Below: Phil Legarra: “Notes from England” Skyline Magazine, July-August 1943. North American Aviation (in-house magazine), July-August 1943. Author’s Collection.

Bobbie was amongst the internees released in August 1943. Following a post-imprisonment interview conducted at Hartpury in late August 1943, two MI5 officers wondered if Bobbie was suffering “some form of mild mental derangement.” His eccentric behaviour over the next ten years also suggests this. Bobbie blamed Jewish pressure on the Government for his internment while Barry Domvile blamed “judmas;” in his damaged mind a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy was responsible. Bobbie remained an unrepentant national socialist to his death in 1967.

Bobbie Gordon Canning can be seen here in a Movietone newsreel. This is a 1945 auction of formerly impounded German embassy items. Bobbie purchased an enormous bust of Hitler.

Bobbie and Mary divorced in 1944 – despite his determination to put his marriage “in order”. Soon after, in a courageous step, Mary decided that honesty was the best policy, and she bared all to journalists, publicly making reference to her bout of TB for the first time. Phil and Mary’s plan was to marry and return to the US, where Mary could settle down and restart her Hollywood career and Phil could return to the aviation industry. Aware that not all her relatives in Australia would approve of a divorce, she tried to pre-empt their reactions. “Apart from the shock this is going to be to my grandparents in Melbourne, and also to many other of my Australian friends, I am unashamed of what I have done … It’s distressing, but that’s the way it is. I’m sure there are lots of people who won’t forgive me, but most women would do the same in similar circumstances.”  Uncharacteristically, Mick and Bina could find nothing to say publicly about the matter. They were obviously conflicted between their Catholic faith, the embarrassment of a looming divorce and their loyalty to a daughter whose marriage they had encouraged.

Phil and Mary married in March 1945 and left for California just as soon as they could. As newspapers of the time reported, Mary hoped to get a role in “Forever Amber”, a major “Gone With the Wind” style production based on a popular novel by Kathleen Winsor. But in Hollywood, things had changed. Her great mentor and family friend Miles Mander suffered a heart attack and died suddenly after dinner at one of Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurants in February 1946, only a few months after she returned. Richard Monter, her former agent, died in 1947. Even Mary’s one-time friend, Marion Davies, had moved on, selling her huge seaside Ocean House at Santa Monica in 1945. Her hopes of returning to acting on the screen came to nothing.

Mary and Phil were also denied the joy of parenthood. The female reproductive system is particularly vulnerable to TB – the damage the disease can do to the fallopian tubes can be irreparable and successful conception extremely difficult. It appears this was the reason there were no children from their marriage. It must have been a bitter blow.

Mary decided that a career as an extra was not for her. She could have followed Jocelyn Howarth’s example and continued to try – she might have taken uncredited roles or worked as an extra as old Melbourne friend Joan Winfield did, but she seems to have made a conscious decision not to. It says a great deal about her that she could walk away and leave it all behind. Mary and Phil must have been reassured though – the US aircraft industry, largely based in Southern California – employed hundreds of thousands of people at the war’s end, and the couple’s security and prosperity must have seemed assured by Phil’s connections and ability as an engineer.

Mick Maguire died suddenly in England in June 1950. A few years later, Bina returned to Australia for a holiday. It was at this time she made her “you simply HAVE to meet the right people and at the right places” statement to explain the girls’ successful marriages. She was also reported to have said “if you want marry money, you have to go where money is.”  When she died in 1963, there was another flurry of newspaper accounts. She was, said friends, a woman of “great personal charm and very clear purpose… a motivating force in the whole operation” said another friend.

Mary to Mick's funeral

Mary flew home to the US from Mick’s funeral in London.This airline manifest shows she was still travelling as an Australian in 1950. Mary was often to say she wanted to return to Australia, but never did. Her interest in flying dated to the 1930s. (This image has been modified from the original manifest) From National Archives, via Ancestry.com

The couple settled into a comfortable home in the trendy beachside suburban development at Surfridge, near the airport. The houses in this development faced westwards and had views of the Pacific Ocean, a suburb in the rolling sand dunes popular with former Hollywood stars and the modestly wealthy. Unfortunately the suburb was reclaimed in the 1960s for Los Angeles airport redevelopment. Today, this area is a ghost-suburb; footpaths and streets without houses and palm trees shading what were once verdant gardens and green back yards.

Mary died on 18 May, 1974 – aged only fifty-five. Phil had died in 1971 – alcohol played a part in both their deaths. In her last years Mary lived in a small apartment on Pasadena Avenue in Long Beach. Built in 1922, it still stands and is one of the older apartment blocks in the area. In appearance it could be straight out of Nathaniel West’s classic expose of life of the margins of Hollywood – Day of the Locust.

Two of Mary’s sisters returned to Australia in the 1970s, visiting relatives and being interviewed by state and local papers. Patsy said her strongest Australian memories were of life as a child in the Maguire hotels, and the interesting guests she met. Australian comedian and thirties film star George Wallace stayed in her mind particularly.

carmel lupe and joanMary’s sisters – Carmel, Lupe and Joan Maguire (and Patsy not shown) all achieved the “glittering marriages” their parents hoped for. Press Association Photo about 1938. Author’s collection 

Mary Maguire’s career in the mid-1930s also mirrored that of many other young starlets who sought an acting career in the golden years of Hollywood. She did not leave behind a significant body of film-work; indeed, most of her films are unremarkable second feature or B-films. She developed to become a competent actress, but over six years and a dozen films; she was regularly consigned to the one, almost identical role, the young love interest – the ingénue. This is hardly surprising in the context of the time, in an industry famous for stereotyping actresses. She was barely sixteen years old when she had her first speaking role in a film and twenty-three when she had her last.

Mary Maguire, a personal experience

Further Readings appear at the end of Part One.

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