(Jack Kruschen, John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara & Chill Wills in McLintock! - 1963)
There are magic moments in life that give you a sense of connection, those fleeting, unexpected happenstances that ring a bell and ground you to a source of personal identity, and although it may sound lofty for all her worldwide significance, I felt this way the day I met the Irish actress Maureen O’ Hara.
I was working in a post-production facility in Santa Monica, California, whose clients were major motion picture studios, such as MGM, Paramount and New Line Cinema. During my six-year tenure, I met every actor with public acclaim imaginable. They’d come in to do voice-overs, ADR, commentary and “looping.” My job as the director of client services brought me face to face with a myriad of luminaries, but none shined as bright as Ms. O’Hara. She is vibrant, regal, statuesque. She was 83 at the time, which I know because she told me. She was in to do commentary on two movies she’d appeared in, both directed by John Ford, both co-starring her good friend, John Wayne. I knew she was scheduled a week before she arrived, and had prepared by going out to Santa Monica’s Irish import shop to buy Digestives and Barry’s Irish Gold Tea. While I was at it, I bought porcelain cups and saucers to match a pink flowered tea pot I couldn’t resist because I wanted Ms. O Hara to feel at home. I set up a display in the ADR room, where I knew she’d sit before a screen 20 feet wide and 15 feet tall, with a microphone in her hand while she watched “The Quiet Man” and “Rio Grande,” and tell behind-the-scene stories.
I was waiting in the lobby when Ms. O’Hara appeared. She wielded a walking cane, yet didn’t seem to rely upon it. Her gait was balanced and purposeful. She entered the scene like a queen, all red haired and shoulders squared with eyes directed forward. She took one look at me and said to her chauffeur, “This one here, get her, she’s coming with me.” I stepped forward and introduced myself, and without skipping a beat, she said, “How Irish are you; I know what I see.”
It felt to me like a secret society -- we were two from the same island, and she treated me as an insider, a confidant, a member of her extended clan.
I wasn’t expecting the invitation, and I did have other responsibilities, but for three magic days, I attended to Ms. O’Hara. I didn’t do much other than pour her tea, but she seemed to like having me around, and every line of her commentary was recorded as she told her stories to me. “Better to have someone next to me than to talk to thin air,” she said to the sound engineer, which was enough to justify my presence in the ADR room and explain my absence from the day’s activities to my boss.
“Now John Ford, he was a piece of work,” she said. “Mean as the devil, too,” she said looking into my eyes.
“Ms. O’Hara, will you have another cup of tea?” I asked. “Oh no, because if I do, I’ll have to go to the ladies,” came her reply.
She was confessional, opinionated, fearless, direct. She didn’t mince words, or care whom she offended. In between sessions, she told me about her home in Cork. There was a wistful quality to her voice as she told me about her garden, and she wanted to hear about my experiences in Ireland, as well. As I spoke, she didn’t take her eyes off me. Her focus was deep, meaningful, intense. And it felt to me like a secret society -- we were two from the same island, and she treated me as an insider, a confidant, a member of her extended clan. For I think the Irish do this when we find each other displaced from home. There’s an inexplicable affinity beyond words, a certain resonance of the heart that finds comfort in commonality and it brings a sense of solace and belonging to find someone in this world who is one of our tribe.
What struck the richest note for me about Ms. O’Hara was the realization that in those three magic-filled days, her illustrious career took a back seat to her seeming desire to share her stories with me. As she spoke to me, there was a subtextual dialogue at play, one built on the assumption that she knew I’d understand. And I did understand. I understood that she brought her unique Irishness to the world’s stage, and it colored everything. But one has to be Irish to detect this; one has to be in possession of that particular, peculiar premise that connects us together, wherever we meet in the world.
I’m thinking about all this because it’s Maureen O’Hara’s 95th birthday as I write. Happy birthday, Ms. O’Hara; pride of Ireland and queen of the stage.