Susan Hayward was one of Hollywood’s most successful film stars from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. Although a native of New York, she spent much of her later life in Georgia on a farm near Carrollton.
Born Edythe Marrenner on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, Hayward began her career as a model while in her late teens. When the search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind began in 1938, producer David O. Selznick brought Marrenner to Hollywood, California, to audition for the part. Although she did not win the role, her audition paved the way for other acting opportunities. She was put under contract to Warner Brothers and changed her name to Susan Hayward.
Most of her early film assignments were small supporting roles or larger roles in B movies. In 1942 she made a strong impression as a fiery southern belle in Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind, but it wasn’t until the late 1940s that she emerged as a star.
Hayward earned her first Academy Award nomination in 1947 for Smash-up: The Story of a Woman and a second in 1949 for My Foolish Heart.
In 1950 she visited Georgia for the first time to film an adaptation of Corra Harris’s autobiographical novel, The Circuit Rider’s Wife (1910). Written and produced by Georgia native Lamar Trotti, the production was filmed on location in the valleys of Habersham and White counties. Hayward and William Lundigan starred as a young married couple adjusting to north Georgia mountain life in a Methodist ministry at the end of the nineteenth century. The film, titled I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (1951), and Hayward’s performance were well received at the Atlanta premiere. I’d Climb the Highest Mountain did not receive the box office success, however, of the biblical epic David and Bathsheba (1951), in which Hayward also starred.
Throughout the 1950s Hayward continued to play strong women who often came to tragic ends. She won Oscar nominations for her portrayals of three real-life women: singer Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart (1952); singer Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955); and convicted murderer Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! (1958). Her portrayal of Graham, who was executed in California in 1955, finally earned Hayward an Academy Award. At one point it was announced that Hayward would star as a real-life Georgia woman in The Three Faces of Eve (1957), although that part eventually went to Georgia native Joanne Woodward.
Hayward married Jess Barker in 1944, and the couple had twin sons. Hayward and Barker divorced in 1954. Three years later Hayward married Eaton Chalkley, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who had settled in Carrollton, Georgia, where he ran a used-car dealership and invested in real estate. He met Hayward at a party while on a business trip to Los Angeles, California. The couple settled on a farm six miles north of Carrollton, where Hayward lived quietly. She and her husband donated thirteen acres of land adjacent to their farm to help build a Catholic church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, one of many local causes in which Hayward became involved. She maintained her residence in Carrollton after the death of Chalkley in 1966.
Hayward continued to make films regularly during the 1960s, but none equaled the successes of the 1950s. Her final feature film was Valley of the Dolls (1967), although she made three made-for- television movies, all of which aired in 1972. In the interim, as opportunities for good screen roles lessened, she appeared on stage, most notably in a Las Vegas production of the musical Mame in 1968 and 1969.
In 1972 she was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. There was speculation that the cancer stemmed from her work on The Conqueror, which was filmed in the Utah desert in 1956, very close to a nuclear testing site in full use at the time. Several other members of the crew and cast, including John Wayne and Agnes Moorehead, had already succumbed to cancer. Hayward was treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta before moving back to California. She died in Beverly Hills on March 14, 1975, and was buried beside Chalkley in the cemetery of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Carrollton.