Mary Orr

Actress-playwright author of the story that became 'All About Eve'
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The Independent Online

Mary Orr, actress and writer: born New York 21 December 1911; married 1947 Reginald Denham (died 1983); died New York 22 September 2006.

Mary Orr was a prolific authoress, actress and playwright who will be best remembered for a short story published in 1946. "The Wisdom of Eve", telling of an actress's seemingly devoted fan who plots to supplant her, was to become one of Hollywood's most celebrated, witty and enjoyable films, All About Eve (1950).

Orr told Sam Stagg, author of All About "All About Eve" (2000), that her inspiration had been a real-life situation recounted to her by the German actress Elisabeth Bergner when she was appearing on Broadway in The Two Mrs Carrolls (1943), directed by Reginald Denham, Orr's lover and husband-to-be.

Bergner and her husband Paul Czinner invited Denham and Orr to their weekend retreat, where Bergner told Orr about a "girl in a red coat" who would stand in the alley by the theatre every night, and who had seen (or claimed to have seen) every performance of The Two Mrs Carrolls. One night, feeling sorry for her, Bergner had invited her into her dressing-room, befriended her and given her work as a factotum and as secretary to Czinner, and was shocked when the girl tried to take over her life, her career and the affections of her powerful husband.

When Orr passed the story on to Denham, he said he recalled seeing the girl in the red dress at the stage door. He urged Orr to make a short story out of it. "What did I know about writing short stories?" recalled Orr:

I had written a piece for the Pictorial Review about a young actress struggling to get on Broadway - it was about myself really - and then Reggie and I wrote Wallflower, a play that opened at the Cort Theatre in January of 1944.

Orr wrote The Wisdom of Eve in four days, but, though Denham loved it, Orr's agent did not, and it was not published until 1946 when Dale Eunson, a screenwriter whose play Guest in the House had been directed by Denham, took over as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. He read the story, paid $800 for it, and it appeared in the May issue.

Though it was usual at the time for Hollywood story departments to be sent all such material, no interest was shown in the tale, possibly because Eve was not punished for her sins - censors of the time dictated that erring characters, particularly female ones, should suffer. The story, narrated by the star's close friend Karen Richards, starts, "A young girl is on her way to Hollywood with a contract for one thousand dollars a week from a major film company in her pocket book", and the closing line is "She's going to marry my husband, Lloyd Richards".

Some sources have speculated that the model for Eve was the actress Irene Worth, who had a small role in The Two Mrs Carrolls, but Orr said,

Irene Worth had some connection in London, some big shot, I can't remember who he was. He helped her get started in London, I think.

During the next three years Orr collaborated with Denham on two unsuccessful plays, Dark Hammock and Round Trip, in both of which she acted. She also wrote short stories and acted in dozens of radio shows. In January 1949, things were bleak - Denham was in hospital, his legs crushed in a car accident, and work was scarce. Orr applied for a radio job on the NBC series Radio Guild Playhouse, and was told that what they wanted was a script for the following week's show. Denham suggested that she adapt The Wisdom of Eve, which she did in 48 hours

She handed the script in on Monday, and acted in it as Karen on Friday. In the story Orr had named the actress Margola, with the accent on the first syllable. For the radio show, she renamed her Margo, and added the scene in which she misses a performance. Claudia Morgan and Marilyn Erskine played Margo and Eve.

Three days later Orr had a call from NBC - 20th Century-Fox were offering $5,000 for all rights to her original story and the radio play - Orr's agent negotiated that she retain stage rights. The director Joseph L. Mankiewicz had been wanting to make a film about awards and the scheming and rivalries behind the scenes - he had recently won several awards for his film A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Orr's story offered him another theme that would blend well with his idea, and he started work on a screenplay he entitled Best Performance, sending a note to the studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck that it had "a superb starring role for Susan Hayward".

Mankiewicz added several characters to Orr's story - Margo's lover, Bill Sampson, the vituperative gossip columnist Addison DeWitt, the worldly dresser Birdie Coonan, the ulcer-ridden producer Max Fabian plus Phoebe, a budding Eve. He dropped Margo's husband and he changed Karen from an actress in the story to a socialite connected to the theatre only by marriage. He retained none of Orr's dialogue but kept the hard-edged, ironic tone. When Zanuck read DeWitt's opening lines which conclude, "Eve . . . but more of Eve later . . . all about Eve, in fact", he underlined the words "all about Eve", which became the title of the film for its release, to enormous acclaim, in 1950, when it won Oscars as best film, and for Mankiewicz as writer and director. Orr, whose agent had omitted to specify credits in her contract, receives no screen credit at all.

Born in 1911 in Brooklyn, but raised in Ohio, where her father was president of a metal manufacturing company, Mary Orr left Syracuse University to enrol at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. She made her professional début at the Ivorytown Playhouse, Connecticut, as Mary Norton in Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), and first worked in the Broadway theatre as understudy to Clare Booth Luce as Curley's wife in Of Mice and Men (1937). She first appeared on the Broadway stage the following year when she appeared in Bachelor Born.

In 1940 she met the British actor- director-writer Reginald Denham when he directed her in Jupiter Laughs, and the two began a relationship even though he was still married to his second wife. In 1944 they collaborated on the play Wallflower, a popular comedy about the love life of two teenage sisters that was filmed by Warners in 1948. They married in 1947, but, though both worked often in the theatre, their writing efforts had little success. Their last collaboration was Dead Giveaway: a play of suspense (1982).

Mary Orr's novels include Diamond in the Sky (1959), A Place to Meet (1961) and The Tejera Secrets (1974). She and Denham wrote over 50 television scripts, and her many appearances on television include a role in Suspect (1942), the first play presented on television in the United States.

In 1952 she again played Karen in another radio adaptation of All About Eve, starring Tallulah Bankhead. Orr said:

She came over to me and said, "Dahling, I understand you wrote Margo Channing based on me." I said, "No, Miss Bankhead, she was based on Elisabeth Bergner." When she heard that, she thundered, "You didn't?" And she never spoke to me again.

Twelve years later Orr and Denham wrote a stage version of the short story, using characters and situations of the first radio versions, carefully avoiding any Mankiewicz dialogue or plot changes. In 1970 Lauren Bacall starred in Applause, a hit musical version of the film, with libretto by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. This time it was Mankiewicz who received no credit, with the show billed as "based on the film All About Eve and the original story by Mary Orr".

Elisabeth Bergner, in her autobiography, writes of her surprise at picking up a magazine in the hairdresser's and finding her story,

without the names, of course. It was about a great actress and the girl who always stood outside the stage door and who told big lies in order to break into the theatre . . . and Mary Orr and all the parties concerned got very rich from it. The only ones who didn't earn anything from it were the real participants: the girl, my husband, and I.

The identity of the real "Eve Harrington" was long the subject of gossip, but in 1991 the journalist Harry Haun asserted that it was an aspiring actress, Ruth Maxine Hirsch, who had taken the name Martina Lawrence (the name of a character played by Bergner in her 1939 film A Stolen Life) and who was now living in Venice and insisting that her skulduggery existed only in the mind of Bergner. Her longtime friend the actress Mary Diveny disagreed, stating,

Martina later latched on to Renata Tebaldi. I gather she also played Eve Harrington to her, except that this was the world of the opera. Good luck finding out about it. You won't. Divas don't like to admit they've been had.

Orr retired shortly after Denham's death in 1983.

Tom Vallance