Munson in 1941
Owena Elizabeth Wolcott
June 16, 1903
|Died||February 11, 1955 (aged 51)|
|Cause of death||Suicide by barbiturate overdose|
|Education||Catlin Gabel School|
(m. 1926; div. 1931)
Ona Munson (born Owena Elizabeth Wolcott; June 16, 1903 – February 11, 1955) was an American film and stage actress. She starred in nine Broadway productions and 20 feature films in her career, which spanned over 30 years.
Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Munson began her stage career in New York theater in 1919, debuting on Broadway in George White's Scandals. She starred in another four Broadway plays and musicals before the end of the 1920s. In 1930, she moved to Los Angeles to embark on a career in film, but after appearing as leads in several films, such as Going Wild (1930) and The Hot Heiress (1931), she returned to Broadway, starring in several productions, including Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts (1935).
Munson resumed her film career in the late 1930s, and was cast as madam Belle Watling in David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind (1939), a role which became her most famous. She starred in numerous films for Warner Bros. in the 1940s, but was often typecast based on her performance in Gone with the Wind, appearing again as a Chinese madam in the film noir The Shanghai Gesture (1941).
Munson married painter Edward Berman in 1950, her second husband after a five-year marriage to actor Edward Buzzell. She also had several documented affairs with women, including Alla Nazimova and playwright Mercedes de Acosta. Some commentators have considered her marriages as "lavender marriages", concealing Munson's homosexuality. By the mid-1950s, Munson was suffering from health complications following an unspecified surgical procedure, and frequently was using barbiturates. In February 1955, Berman found Munson dead in their Manhattan apartment, having committed suicide via a barbiturate overdose.
Life and career
1903–1918: Early life
Munson was born Owena Elizabeth Wolcott on June 16, 1903[a] in Portland, Oregon, the last of four children born to Owen Wolcott and Sally Wolcott (née Gore). All three of her elder siblings had died in infancy, leaving Munson the first surviving and only child. Munson was of French-Canadian heritage; her paternal grandmother immigrated from Quebec in 1865.
Munson was raised in Portland, where she attended the Catlin Gabel School (then known as Miss Catlin's School), and developed an affinity for English literature. Her parents divorced in the 1920s, and her father later remarried.
1919–1929: Broadway career
She first appeared on Broadway in a minor role in George White's Scandals, followed by a supporting part in Twinkle, Twinkle (both staged in 1919). In 1926, Munson took over the title role the singing and dancing ingenue Nanette in the original production of No, No, Nanette. On July 16, 1926, she married her first husband, fellow stage actor Edward Buzzell. The following year, she portrayed the title character in Manhattan Mary, followed by the female lead in 1928's original production of Hold Everything!, a musical in which she introduced the song "You're the Cream in My Coffee".
1930–1940: Move to Hollywood
Munson moved to Los Angeles in 1930, and appeared in the Warner Bros. movie Going Wild. Originally, this film was intended as a musical, but all the numbers were removed before release owing to the public's distaste for musicals, which virtually saturated the cinema in 1929-30. The following year, she divorced Buzzell. After the divorce, Munson had a brief affair with filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch before his marriage to Vivian Gaye.
Munson appeared the next year in The Hot Heiress, in which she sings several songs along with her co-star Ben Lyon. She also starred in Broadminded (1931) and Five Star Final (1931). After completing these films, Munson returned to New York and resumed her theater career, starring in Broadway productions of Hold Your Horses (1933), followed by Petticoat Fever and Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts (both staged in 1935), in the latter of which she portrayed Regina Engstrand. During rehearsals for Ghosts, Munson had a short-lived romantic affair with actress Alla Nazimova, which ended before the play's premiere. Co-star Harry Ellerbe stated that the couple had "parted amicably."
Munson returned to Los Angeles in 1938 to appear a minor part in His Exciting Night, followed by an uncredited role in Dramatic School. When David O. Selznick began casting his production Gone with the Wind, he first announced that Mae West was to play Belle, but both West and Tallulah Bankhead refused the role as too small. Munson was the antithesis of the voluptuous Belle: freckled and of slight build—but Selznick cast her in the role.
Munson’s career was stalemated by the acclaim of Gone with the Wind; for the remainder of her career, she was typecast in similar roles. In 1940, Munson had an affair with playwright Mercedes de Acosta while working for Republic Pictures in Los Angeles. Their affair was intense, with Munson once writing to Acosta in a letter: "I long to hold you in my arms and pour my love into you."
1941–1955: Later years
She subsequently appeared as a Chinese madam in Josef von Sternberg's film noir The Shanghai Gesture (1941), in which she was "unrecognizable." During the film's production, it was publicized that Munson had planned to marry Federal Housing agent Stewart McDonald. Though the couple ultimately did not marry, they remained romantically involved through 1942. Her last film was The Red House, released in 1947.
Plagued by ill health stemming from an unnamed surgical procedure, Munson committed suicide at the age of 51 with an overdose of barbiturates in her apartment in The Belnord on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Her body was discovered by her husband Berman on the afternoon of February 11, 1955. A note found next to her bed read: "This is the only way I know to be free again... Please don't follow me." An autopsy determined that Munson had ingested the barbiturates between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. on February 11.
She was interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Munson posthumously received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located on the north side of the 6200 block of Hollywood Boulevard.
|1928||The Head of the Family||Uncredited|||
|1930||Going Wild||Ruth Howard|||
|1931||The Hot Heiress||Juliette|||
|1931||Five Star Final||Kitty Carmody|||
|1938||His Exciting Night||Anne Baker|||
|1939||Scandal Sheet||Kitty Mulhane|||
|1939||Legion of Lost Flyers||Martha Wilson|||
|1939||Gone with the Wind||Belle Watling|||
|1939||The Big Guy||Mary Whitlock|||
|1940||Wagons Westward||Julie O'Conover|||
|1941||Lady from Louisiana||Julie Mirbeau|||
|1941||Wild Geese Calling||Clarabella|||
|1941||The Shanghai Gesture||'Mother' Gin Sling|||
|1942||Drums of the Congo||Dr. Ann Montgomery|||
|1945||The Cheaters||Florie Watson|||
|1947||The Red House||Mrs. Storm|||
|1919||George White's Scandals||Another Soubrette||Liberty Theatre|||
|1919||Twinkle, Twinkle||Alice James||Liberty Theatre|||
|1926||No, No, Nanette||Nanette (replacement)||Globe Theatre|||
|1927||Manhattan Mary||Mary Brennan||Apollo Theatre|||
|1928||Hold Everything!||Sue Burke||Broadhurst Theatre|||
|1933||Hold Your Horses||Marjory Ellis||Winter Garden Theatre|||
|1935||Petticoat Fever||Clara Wilson||Ritz Theatre|||
|1935||Ghosts||Regina Engstrand||Empire Theatre|||
|1952||First Lady||Sophy Prescott||City Center Theatre|||
Notes and references
- Some newspaper sources at the time of Munson's death claimed she was 48, indicating a birth year of 1906. However, biographer Axel Nissen notes in his book, Accustomed to Her Face: Thirty-Five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood—citing census records—that Munson was born in 1903. Additionally, Munson's 1923 U.S. passport application lists her date of birth as June 16, 1903.
- "Ona Munson". Los Angeles Times. Hollywood Star Walk of Fame. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
- "Former Stage, Screen Star Ona Munson, 48, Found Dead". Battle Creek Enquirer. Battle Creek, Michigan. February 15, 1951. p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.
- Nissen 2016, p. 144.
- Stephens, Chuck. "A Face in the Crowd: Ona Munson". Film Comment. Retrieved January 6, 2016.
- Nissen 2016, pp. 143–144.
- "Ona Munson". Playbill. Archived from the original on July 23, 2019.
- Nissen 2016, p. 146.
- Nissen 2016, p. 147.
- "Ona Munson Filmography". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Archived from the original on July 23, 2019.
- Jewell, Richard B. (2012). "7". RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born (1 ed.). London: University of California Press. p. 153. ISBN 0-520-27179-3.
- Nissen 2016, p. 149.
- Nissen 2016, p. 148.
- "(photo caption)" (PDF). Radio and Television Mirror. 13 (3): 41. January 1940. Retrieved 16 February 2015.
- Harbin, Marra & Schanke 2005, p. 297.
- Stephens, Chuck (January 2013). "A Face in the Crowd: Ona Munson". Film Comment. Archived from the original on November 6, 2018.
- Madsen 1995, pp. 14–15.
- Nissen 2016, p. 145.
- "Ona Munson". Internet Broadway Database. Archived from the original on July 23, 2019.
- Harbin, Billy J.; Marra, Kim; Schanke, Robert A. (2005). The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-09858-6.
- Madsen, Axel (1995). The Sewing Circle: Hollywood's Greatest Secret: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women. New York: Birch Lane Press. ISBN 978-1559722759.
- Nissen, Axel (2016). Accustomed to Her Face: Thirty-Five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-1-476-62606-2.
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