The first movie I ever remember seeing (because I was 12 and it was scary and I left before the end and had to walk a long way home) was Sinbad the Sailor. It was the beauty of the very grownup woman (she was 27 then, I later learned) who played the leading role that stayed with me, more than the memory of whatever part I thought was frightening. Later the same year, I saw her again in Miracle on 34th Street. I even memorized her name.
By then, I was in awe of her, and the affection that came with that awe never waned. In years to come, I saw her in Sitting Pretty, Tripoli, Rio Grande and The Quiet Man.
I went away to Notre Dame and grew up. But so did she, I noticed, and in the meantime, unlike many in her industry, her private life never got in the way of her skills or the image she projected the world.
After my marriage to a lady named Maureen (Sullivan) in 1955, I saw the other Maureen in five more movies and on TV several times, including one appearance as a mystery guest on What’s My Line? In later years, I went back and rented How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Flash forward to 1993. I’d divorced in 1977 and married another real redhead. Meanwhile, Maureen had basically come out of retirement to do Only the Lonely. I’d also moved to St. Petersburg, Florida in 1991 to merchandise clothing, the celebrities that were associated with that merchandise (Vanna White, Ivana, Stephanie Powers, Bo Derek, Sandy Duncan, et al) and shoes, accessories and cosmetics for Home Shopping Network.
In October 1993, one of HSN’s cosmetic vendors asked us a question: If they could sign Maureen O’Hara to a contract to come on board, develop her own product line (with our help) and sell it on air, would we be interested? This VP voted yes as quietly as possible and hoped that no one in the room could hear my heart beating a hundred times a minute.
Later that month, one of my buyers and I flew to Ireland. Our 747 to Shannon couldn’t land because of fog. We landed in Manchester, England. A small chartered plane flew us to Cork. Finbar J. Gurley drove us 60 miles to our hotel in Ballylickey in one heck of a hurry. Finally, with our clothes changed, we walked to our dinner date with Maureen O’Hara at Seaview, only 15 minutes late.
Her back was to the door as we entered the tiny restaurant. She turned to see us, and I was staring into the very eyes of the single actress I had admired practically all my life. The mouth, the hair, the nose, the voice. It was her. Or close enough, considering the aging process that had visited both our bodies. It was a magic moment.
Dinner was a get-to-know-you experience, but mostly one-sided, if you catch my drift. She talked mostly about The Quiet Man—John Wayne’s real name, the fact that the movie had cost $1.5 million to make, that Wayne had made $100,000 and she only $75,000, and that both of her brothers (the FitzSimons) had been in the movie, as well as director John Ford’s brother and Barry Fitzgerald’s brother. She promised we’d see where they’d stayed (Ashford Castle near Cong) to make the movie and the little river into which Wayne and Victor McLagen fell in their fight.
Our little dinner lasted until midnight. It seemed like 30 minutes.
We went to her home in Glengarriff the next morning, traveling in one car with a driver … thankfully always in one car. All I had to do to see her from three feet away was turn around in my passenger seat. We met her housekeeper, saw her spectacular view of Bantry Bay and the dining room table that she said “has been used once in 25 years.” We walked through her private quarters on the second floor and, yes, looked at her baby pictures.
We also saw five resources that day, ate dinner at Ashford Castle in Cong and spent the night there, as well. “The outside of the place where the Duke and McLaglen had a drink in the center of Cong,” she told us at dinner, “is the same as it was in the movie. It’s called Cohan’s—but it was and still is a grocery store. The inside scene was done in the studio.”
After our “O’Hara-fans-interrupted” dinner, she pointed out the tower rooms where Ford, Wayne and she had stayed. “And you know who had to climb the stairs all the way to the top, don’t you.” We saw the river, too, which seemed to have shrunk since its 1952 movie debut.
On to Dublin the next day and three more potential resources. We checked into Jury’s. She asked me to come to her room and see her before dinner.
Her suite was large and entirely candle-lit. She was dressed for dinner, makeup and all. She sat facing me from the middle of a beige-colored sofa. I sat on a similar sofa, and we were separated by a small coffee table.
It felt surreal. A few feet away from me (also dressed for dinner) was this icon, this star of the ages, in this dimly lit, romantic setting, asking me to make sure that the clothing we selected were reflective of who she was and what she stood for.
If I’d squinted for a second and let my imagination follow my regressing thoughts, I would be looking at the same face I’d seen in The Quiet Man—or even The Parent Trap. Maureen O’Hara, the one and only, was relying on insignificant me to make her image come out correctly in front of the 60 million people she’d be exposed to on HSN.
We were in the Dublin market the next day. I stopped long enough to have a telephone interview with Trevor Danker of the Sunday Independent. We had a happy dinner for 8 at Rolys’ Bistro.
Friday, after a long breakfast we said our sad goodbyes. The only thing that saved the day for me was that I knew we’d be back in January to actually place her clothing line for fall 1994.
I had trouble with my luggage on that January trip, but recovered quickly, since she was there to meet us. Again in one car, we went into the Dublin market for the long, long day, then had dinner with Maureen at La Stampa.
After one more day in the market, my buyer and I went off to Glasgow that evening, returning on Saturday morning to go to the RDS Center in Dublin for Showcase Dublin, a trade show where all Irish vendors show in booths, much like the shows I’d been to in Las Vegas. We saw 35 of our list of 47 potential vendors. We also had time for an interview with the Irish Press—which I have signed by Maureen and framed on the wall of my study.
We went back to Showcase on Sunday and Monday, stopped at Kitty O’Shea’s for lunch, and later prepared for a dinner that the Irish Trade Board was putting on for us (for her) at the Royal St. George Yacht Club. In the engraved invitation, they said a “coach service” would pick us up at the Berkeley Court Hotel at 7:45 p.m.
There were 100 people there from many countries. Maureen and I sat at the head table. The entertainment after dinner was a lady who alternately played the harp and the guitar. Somehow, she inveigled me to sing Home on the Range with her in front of everyone. I didn’t know it had two verses, and I did the best I could.
The singer asked for requests and not being shy, I asked for When Irish Eyes are Smiling and asked Maureen to sing it. She said she only would if I would join her. I did. If someone hadn’t shown me pictures of us doing that later, I wouldn’t have believed that once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The coach took us back to the Berkeley. Maureen sat beside me in her full-length mink, the arm rest between us pushed back. She leaned up against me and put her head on my shoulder. I held her hand.
That was goodbye—until I saw her in St. Petersburg, Florida in March.
The moral of this story is that we should always be alert for occasions when we can die from having a lifetime dream come true, be elevated to a heavenly place that comes with that ecstasy—and never leave the land of the living.