Ferocious Susan Hayward Hits Back at Hollywood

Movie star Susan Hayward managed her career with "her fists up," and didn't let multiple arrests, bad screen tests, or directors' nasty comments stand in her way.

Susan Hayward

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Susan Hayward
This Post cover photograph from 1939 won a Hollywood screen test for Susan Hayward, who was then an unknown Brooklyn model. But she flunked the test.
Ivan Dmitri, © SEPS

Originally published July 11, 1959

She is not a beauty in the classical sense, and director William Wellmann once glumly prophesied, “She’ll never get anywhere with that bump on the end of her nose.” She never nested in the so-called social set of the cinema, and was disdainful about parties and public appearances. She is allergic to newspapermen, photographers, and magazine writers, and at Twentieth Century-Fox she imposed her own censorship on studio handouts and photos in which she was involved.

She has gone through life “with her fists up,” as one of her many ex-press agents says, and has a reputation for the stinging quip. Ben Medford, her first agent — he is among the disenchanted because she dropped him when success came — says, “This girl is smart, but cold as a polar bear’s foot.”

She has been embroiled with the Los Angeles cops three times — on a suicide attempt, later during a free-for-all at her home, and again in a bedroom-and-pajama combat in which she belted a jealous starlet. Her marriage to her first husband, an agonizing sort of soap opera, fell apart in a shower of front-page sparks, including her admission that she had clamped her teeth on his arm and massaged his face with a lighted cigarette.

Nevertheless, Miss Hayward has always been big box office. She has made some 60 pictures and has earned as much as $350,000 a year. She is considered a rich woman, and has captured the coveted Oscar as Best Actress for 1958 for her violent portrayal of Barbara Graham, the executed California murderess, in the Walter Wanger production, I Want to Live.

It was The Saturday Evening Post cover for October 7, 1939, that took her out of Brooklyn and brought her to Hollywood. Producer David O. Selznick, whose flacks had sounded a clarion call for a girl to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, saw the magazine and brought Miss Hayward to California for a screen test. The test was a painful flop, and Selznick said bluntly, “You’d better go back to Brooklyn and get some experience in stock.”

“I like the orange trees,” she snapped back, “and I’m going to stay.”

There was one excruciating day early in her career when Miss Hayward was testing for an important part in a major production. Her work was so amateurish, former agent Ben Medford recalls, that the director suddenly stopped the camera, snorted in disgust, and stamped off the set, leaving her standing there while the crew squirmed in embarrassment.

“Don’t let it get you, honey,” Medford said quickly. “There’s a lot of politics in this business, and when you’re a star this guy’ll be a bum on the streets.”

Susan looked at him without a flicker. “I know he will,” she said.

They were both right.

Susan Hayward

Shortly afterward, Miss Hayward was cast as the love interest in Beau Geste — it was a minor love interest, to be sure, because her lovers were out with the Foreign Legion except on weekends, but at least she was on film.

Presently there was a national sales meeting of Paramount distributors, theater owners, and executives. In order to excite the visiting firemen and brainwash them with the Paramount spirit, the studio sent busloads of pretty young starlets to the Ambassador Hotel and introduced them from the stage.

Most of these girls, as nervous as a greased pig at a county fair, mumbled something, curtsied prettily and scuttled off stage. But Susan Hayward planted her feet firmly in front of the footlights after she was introduced by William Le Baron, head of production, and said, “Wouldn’t you fellows like to see me in pictures?”

There was a scattering of applause.

“I’m the girl they send on the sleeper jumps [long-distance promotional tours],” Miss Hayward went on. “But for some reason or other, they don’t put me in any pictures.”

The handclapping was louder and stronger now.

“And if you fellows want to see me in pictures,” the belligerent young starlet cried when the noise died down, “why don’t you tell Mr. Le Baron?”

The roof fell in with a roar of applause, and the stunned executives on the stage exchanged looks of ­consternation. From that moment, Hollywood knew that Miss Susan Hayward was a small cyclone who, sacred territory notwithstanding, would be seen and heard.

—“Hollywood’s Late-Blooming Redhead” by Dean Jennings, July 11, 1959

This article is featured in the March/April 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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