Geraldine Fitzgerald

Independent-minded actress

Tuesday 19 July 2005 00:00

Geraldine Mary Fitzgerald, actress, director and singer: born Greystones, Co Wicklow 24 November 1913; married 1936 Edward Lindsay-Hogg (succeeded as fourth Bt 1987, died 1999; one son; marriage dissolved 1946), 1946 Stuart Scheftel (died 1994; one daughter); died New York 17 July 2005.

When the young Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald went to Hollywood in the late 1930s, almost her first picture was William Wyler's 1939 classic Wuthering Heights. Playing Isabella Linton, she shone with a youthful, spirited freshness that well matched Laurence Olivier's glowering, impossibly glamorous Heathcliff. The inevitable truncation of the novel in the Hecht-McArthur script gave her very little to work with, but Fitzgerald managed the sudden transformation into Heathcliff's rejected wife with ease and conviction.

She was still only 26 and the film world lay at her feet. In the same year she made a powerful Warner Brothers weepie, Dark Victory, with Bette Davis. Her Wuthering Heights was for Sam Goldwyn and he offered her a seven-year contact. But she came from an Anglo-Irish family where the women tended to be very strong-willed. From the start she stipulated that she should be allowed six months off every year to do what she liked best - working in live theatre.

By the mid-1940s, it was clear that she was too spirited and independent to mesh easily with the Hollywood Dream Factory. She refused to play what she thought were unsuitable parts and was suspended several times by Goldwyn. So she did not have the chance to develop into the starring roles which would have matched her talents. Nevertheless she went on to make an individual, even quirky, theatrical career for herself.

Geraldine Fitzgerald was born at Greystones, near Dublin, in 1913. Her father was Ned Fitzgerald, a lawyer; her mother Edith had been born into another Anglo-Irish legal family, the Richardses. Geraldine was educated in Dublin and after an introduction by her aunt, the formidable Dublin actress Shelah Richards, she began to get sizeable roles at the Edwards-MacLiammoir Gate Theatre. In fact she played Isabella Linton in a Gate production as early as 1934, when she was only 20.

Her apprenticeship at one of the most exciting theatres in Europe in the early 1930s - which included Orson Welles and James Mason among its alumni - gave her a lasting love of acting on stage in front of live audiences. Her growing accomplishment, her auburn hair and her lively face soon brought Geraldine Fitzgerald parts in British films. In 1936 she played Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss; The Turn of the Tide followed later that year and Cafe Mascot in 1937.

In that year she married Edward Lindsay-Hogg, a gentleman who was keen on horses, and an occasional playwright. She went with him to New York, where she was soon making appearances at Welles's Mercury Theatre - playing Ellie Duncan in Heartbreak House in April 1938. Hollywood began to pay attention and before she did Wuthering Heights for Sam Goldwyn she had made her American début in Dark Victory - in which Bette Davis played a socialite dying of a brain tumour. (Davis, incidentally, remained a lifelong friend).

Wuthering Heights caused a stir and Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She is alleged to have withdrawn her name from the running which, if true, would certainly have displeased the Hollywood moguls. Next she made the unfortunate decision to refuse the lead part in The Maltese Falcon, a role taken with gusto by Mary Astor.

After that few big film parts followed - although she was in The Gay Sisters (1943) and Watch on the Rhine (1944). By 1946 her first marriage had broken up (she and Lindsay-Hogg had one son, Michael, who became a notable television and film director and producer). In 1946 Fitzgerald married the wealthy Stuart "Boy" Scheftel and they had a daughter, Susan. Scheftel was an excellent golfer, a great supporter of the arts and once ran for New York mayor.

Film roles became scarcer for Fitzgerald in the 1950s, but in 1958 she played the goading wife in Ten North Frederick and in 1965 she was the lonely social worker opposite Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. Meanwhile she was very active in the theatre, playing Goneril in King Lear (1956), Gertrude in Hamlet at Stratford, Connecticut, in 1958, and Juno in Juno and the Paycock at the Long Wharf Theatre at New Haven in 1973. Then, in 1975, she was acclaimed in the role of Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night, playing opposite Robert Ryan.

In her fifties and sixties, Fitzgerald had taken on two more ventures. In 1969, she founded the Everyman street theatre company to take drama out to the most depressed sections of New York City - often using local residents to take parts in the plays. She also started a career as a singer. She took lessons and toured with a delightful cabaret act, Street Songs, during the 1980s in which she sang a wide range of songs - from the Beatles to Edith Piaf.

Geraldine Fitzgerald spent her later years in New York, where her daughter Susan, a psychologist, and others cared for her as she slowly declined into Alzheimer's disease.

Bernard Adams

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