Remembering Ann Sheridan

Putting the "oomph" back in "The Oomph Girl"

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Not only Hollywood, but the entire world was thrown into shock at the news that Ann Sheridan, the "Oomph girl," had been fighting for several months, even during the filming of her television series Pistols 'n' Petticoats on the CBS network.

She told no one of her battle for life. Her husband, actor Scott McKay, was traveling most of their married life, and so Ann was not burdened with the worry of his seeing her as her health decreased. She reported for work at the studio every day, and at night, after a heavy shooting

  Goodbye --

schedule, returned to her home in San Fernando Valley, to relax and rest, trying to regain her strength for the next day.

Ann Sheridan had made a remarkable comeback by the way of Pistols 'n' Petticoats, and shortly before she died, I interviewed her on the CBS set. We talked of many things, but mostly about her career and her plans for the future -- many of which were never realized.

At the time of our last meeting, let it be said here and now that her face was older, more gaunt -- the planes flatter, the angles sharper -- but much of the unusual beauty that gave meaning to the silly title of "Oomph girl" was still there. Much of the beauty and all of the spirit.

At 51, Ann Sheridan was quite a dish when she removed her horn-rimmed glasses through which she viewed today's Hollywood with a slightly amused, slightly haughty, "I've seen it all" air.

And indeed she did see it all -- both in her career and in her private life.

Her career spanned 33 years and included movie stardom at Warner Bros. in the days of Bogart, Cagney, and would you believe Ronald Reagan? And most recently her own show for CBS, Pistols 'n' Petticoats, which made the Top Ten with at least one of the ratings services.

In her personal life, too, Ann Sheridan had pretty much seen it all -- including three marriages, of which the first two ended in divorce, each after only a year. Most recently she was the bride of stage actor Scott McKay, who she married last June 5th at the home of their best friend, TV writer Robert Shaw, in Bel-Air. She approached this marriage with hope and a certain humility.

"I don't think I'm qualified to advise anybody on marriage," she had told me with a wry smile when we talked on the set of Pistols 'n' Petticoats at Universal City Studios. "After all, I had two divorces in my life...and I waited 23 years to get married again. I wanted to be moderately sure I'd found the right guy." The smile turned warmer, more tender as she added softly, "I'm pretty sure I have..."

Ann was an 18-year-old co-ed attending state teachers' college in Texas when her sister mailed Ann's photo to a Paramount "Search for Beauty" contest without Ann's knowledge back in 1933. She was one of the winners and bid a hasty goodbye to her home town of Denton, Texas, when Paramount signed her to a movie contract.

She also said goodbye to her plans for a teaching career and to her real name, Clara Lou Sheridan.

After a couple of years, Paramount fired her and Ann worked for a number of minor companies in a series of low-budget pictures. She also met an aspiring young movie actor named Edward Norris, and they fell in love. In August, 1936 she became Mrs. Edward Norris.

Things began looking up for Ann in her career, too. She signed for a good role at Warner Bros. in a picture called The Great O'Malley, starring Humphrey Bogart and Pat O'Brien, and the studio put her under contract at the magnificent salary of $75 a week.  Since those were the days of the Great Depression -- it was 1937 -- she didn't complain. Some studio workers were actually getting only five dollars a week.

Eddie's career had gotten off to a good start when he made a hit in They Won't Forget, a movie that made a star out of Lana Turner. But after that he was unable to find work for a long time, and he sat around the house and brooded while Ann went to work at Warner Bros. every day. The result was a separation, and they were divorced in October, 1937, after only 375 days of marriage.

Eddie said the marriage had been a "mistake." And Ann didn't disagree with him.

As a contract player at Warner Bros., Ann recalled later, at first "about all I did was appear in a few B pictures, pose for endless cheesecake photos and have people come to my house and annoy me" -- because some enterprising press agent had put a sign in front of her house identifying the tenant as the "Oomph girl."

That title had been given to her by the Warner Bros. publicity department as an improvement on the name Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist, had coined for her in his column when he said she had "umph." At first she was unwilling to go along with the name, but when Paul Muni, then a top Warner Bros. star, urged her to take advantage of it for the good it could do her career, she agreed to the title.

It was a good decision, for her fame as the "Oomph girl" soon led to a really good role opposite Humphrey Bogart in Angels with Dirty Faces, and the role made her a star almost at once. Her red hair and hazel eyes, combined with a tough-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold screen personality, made her a favorite with movie audiences and she clinched her stardom with such hits as Dodge City, They Drive By Night and Kings Row.

All the men at Warner Bros. liked her, from crew members to press agents to stars. They liked her down-to-earth no-nonsense personality, her refusal to put on airs despite her stardom. And the established male stars at the studio, people like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, took her under their wing and helped guide her career. They also taught her not to take any guff from the studio. As a result, she was frequently under suspension for refusing roles she didn't think were right for her.

One man who was especially drawn to her vibrant good looks and impudent spirit was George Brent, then an important star on the Warner Bros. lot, who was frequently cast as Bette Davis' leading man.

Ann and George met in the Warner Bros. commissary, known as the Green Room, soon after she became the "Oomph girl."  George was having lunch with James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Frank McHugh when Ann walked in, wearing a smock that completely concealed her sexy figure.

"What have you got under that?" one of the men asked.  Instantly Ann opened her smock and revealed a sexy bathing suit.

George liked what he saw, and the next day when he saw her again in the Green Room he gestured across the noisy room to ask if she'd dine with him sometime. All in pantomime, she gestured back that she would, and a date was made.

The next day Ann showed up on the Green Room at noon to keep what she thought was her date with George. But he wasn't there. It turned out he meant dinner.

That night he dropped by her house to take her to dinner -- and was stood up in turn. She was sorry, she said, but she had an engagement that evening.

But somehow the two eventually got together, and became engaged, not once, but twice.

They broke off their first engagement about a month before Christmas, 1941, after steady-dating for over a year after that first dining mix-up.  Ann gave George back his engagement ring and, making things doubly definite, she bought herself a ranch house on four acres of land in Encino, which was then far out in the country. (It's now a crowded suburb of Los Angeles.)

On Christmas Day, Ann softened enough to visit George and give him a present: a model of his former yacht, South Wind. He talked her into taking back the engagement ring, and to clinch matters he presented her with a beautiful sterling silver service initialled with "B." They were married on January 5, 1942 in Palm Beach, Florida.

Their comments to the press about marriage sounded like a scene out of one of Ann's funnier comedies -- perhaps The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Before marrying George, who was 38 at the time, Ann announced that the man she married might be 45, but his spirit would have to be 21. (She was 26 at the time of their marriage.)

And George announced that he would "rather marry a screwball from Texas than someone solid from Pasadena."

The marriage lasted 263 days, and its failure shook Ann's confidence so badly that she began to wonder whether she'd ever marry again. Later she was to say philosophically, "Because I was raised to believe that marriage was everything, I gave it a try."

What went wrong? "With both men," she said, "there was no honesty between us. And if two people living together can't be honest, then I don't want it."

After her divorce from George Brent, Ann went through a dismal period romantically when her name was "linked" for publicity reasons to men about whom she couldn't have cared less. She was just going through the motions. Her bright spirit faltered as her life became dull and uninteresting.

Then she fell in love again, it was like an unexpected gift. The man was press agent Steve Hannagan, a handsome, bluff, kind-hearted Irishman who, like herself, had been married and divorced. But there were complications. For one thing, Steve's public relations business was in the East, and Ann's career kept her on the West Coast. So it was hard for them to see each other as often as they liked, and a marriage under these circumstances would have been difficult. Ann, who'd had it with difficult marriages, wasn't about to let herself in for more trouble.

Yet eventually the two were so deeply in love that Ann went so far as to see a priest about taking instructions in Steve's Roman Catholic faith. That was when she learned what Steve apparently hadn't told her -- that in marrying him he would, as a divorced man, be cutting himself off from the sacraments and the approval of his church, and that she herself could not marry a divorced man and be a good Catholic.

That was when Ann gave up on organized religion. "Since I was a kid," she said later, "religion has always scared me to death. All that hellfire and damnation."  And what the priest told her was the last straw. "That did it. I was middle-aged. I couldn't rob cradles."

Yet for several years Ann was in limbo. She couldn't bring herself to break up with Steve, and she couldn't bring herself to marry him.  She was still shell-shocked from the failure of her first two marriages, and still frightened by the complications inherent in marriage to Steve.

For five year -- from 1944 to 1949 -- Ann and Steve went together. There was a lot of talk that the two were secretly married, but they weren't and broke up in 1949.

But Ann never fully got over Steve. The two continued to be close friends -- until Steve's sudden death in February, 1953, which left Ann stunned and shaken. She issued a poignant statement upon learning of his death.

"Once in a while the world is blessed with a man born with great understanding. This is attested to by the number of true friends he gathers during his life. Such a man was Steve Hannagan. My personal loss and feeling which are extremely deep, must therefore be shared by many others around the world who knew, loved and were influenced by the greatness of this man."

Ann soon learned that Steve had never gotten over her, either. He left a net estate of $768,098, and of this amount $218,399 was willed to Ann.

In 1949, at about the time of her breakup with Steve, Ann had bought out of her Warner Bros. contract, which had six months left to run, so that she could go to Europe to film I Was a Male War Bride with Cary Grant. In the years between 1949 and 1953, she had freelanced most of the time. But now, with Steve dead, Hollywood no longer held any interest for her. In June, 1953, four months after his death, she announced that she would move to Mexico City, where she would live and produce her own movies. As she put it, "Now that Steve is gone, I have decided to live in Mexico at least six months a year and form my own picture company."

Actually she settled in Mexico City. For the next few years she appeared in an average of one movie a year, ending with Woman and the Hunter, her most recent picture, which she filmed in Africa in 1956.  In Mexico she also had a romance with American-born Mexican movie villain Rodolfo Acosta Perez. The romance, however, did not end in marriage. Rodolfo was already a married man, though separated from his wife. Rodolfo asked his wife for a divorce, but she refused to give it to him -- for the sake, she said, of their two small daughters.

Eventually Mexico City also lost its appeal for Ann, and she moved back to the United States, taking up residence in New York, where she had an apartment for the last eight years of her life. She began doing television, appearing on the top dramatic shows of the day, including Playhouse 90, Climax! and The United States Steel Hour. She also went on the road with various plays, and she did summer stock.

"I met Scott while I was in summer stock in the East about eight years ago," she told me when we talked at Universal. "We were appearing in Kind Sir, we got along very well -- everybody in the cast did. We had fun and laughed, and enjoyed the 10 weeks we did together very much. I saw Scott off and on from then on."

In the spring of 1966, Ann appeared for a few months in a New York-based soap opera, Another World, and left it when the pilot she'd made for Pistols 'n' Petticoats was sold to a sponsor. Two months after starting work on the series, she married Scott.

And so, after taking eight years to make sure that her love was real and likely to last, Ann Sheridan married again. Even the threat of career separations, which had played a part in her problems with Steve Hannagan, didn't dissuade her once she'd made up her mind. For Scott is best known as a road company actor, and when Ann and I talked he was with the touring company of Luv for a 10-week run.

When we talked, the rigid whalebone stays in Ann's costume were causing her a great deal of pain. She explained that she had torn some ligaments on her rib cage when she was thrown from a horse during her honeymoon in Hawaii.

Partly because of her injury, and partly because the series was so exhausting, Ann had been living a very quiet life in Hollywood.  "When I finished work for the day, I go home, take off my makeup, eat a light dinner, and collapse," she told me during filming. "Weekends, I spend all my time resting. These TV shows demand every bit of energy you have -- bur they're fun. That show is a lot of hard work, but I enjoy it."

Despite her husband's absence because of his work, Ann didn't feel that show business added to the problems of a marriage. "There are lots of successful marriages in show business. The only reason you hear so much about the divorces is that show business people get a lot of publicity and other people don't."

"What makes you more optimistic about marriage now than you were in the past?"  I had asked her, thinking about those 23 years she waited before trying marriage again.

"We talk the same language. We spend a lot of quiet times together, too. We know when one or the other doesn't particular care to talk, or is busy doing something else. We never infringe upon each other's privacy. If we do, we're most apologetic about it and make it brief. Now that we have to be apart for a while, we talk every night on the phone."

As for the future, Ann planned to live where the work was, whether in Los Angeles or New York. She just wanted to have a certain amount of freedom at certain times of the year, when she could do what she wanted to do. With her TV series, she could do that. On a series you work very hard for 13 weeks, then you have several week off and can go pretty much where you want to.

"What do you want to do with your time off?" I asked her shortly before she died.

"Travel...and rest. I'd like very much to see Tahiti, but I think that first one the travel agenda would be Greece. I'm very, very curious about that. And I'd like to go back to Africa. I spent four months in Kenya when I was filming Woman and the Hunter, which was a British production. I don't think it turned out very well but I was able to see a little bit of Africa, which was a childhood dream...and I wasn't the least bit disappointed!"

Yes, Ann Sheridan was confident enough to plan a future.

At least, to the outside world she planned one. But looking back our last talks, when she was so happy at the success of Pistols 'n' Petticoats, which will run on the CBS network until June, I wonder whether she knew, deep down inside that large heart, that some of the things she hoped to do, some of the yet unrealized dreams, would never come to pass.

In expressing her hopes for the future, did Ann Sheridan secretly shed tears of regret at the terrifying thought that these were dreams of the past, that they would always remained dreams to be buried within her forever?

Maybe -- for Ann was the only one to know the true strength of the serious ailment she had been fighting for so log -- the cancer which she kept a secret to the final day of her life, January 21, 1967.

No one, not even her husband, Scott McKay, or the sister she adored so much, Kitty Kent of Fort Worth, Texas, had any idea.  "I never dreamed of such a thing," she commented when she learned the news, while Pistols 'n' Petticoats producer Joseph Conley said, "I asked her doctor several times and he would never tell me. She had been unable to work for the last three weeks, but before then she had worked with a lot of guts and character, determined to see the series through. I was very fond of Ann. She was a great, wonderful human being."

Until she died in her San Fernando Valley home that Saturday afternoon, everyone had been led to believe that Ann had been suffering from emphysema, a lung condition. Her health had declined sharply in the last few months, but she had almost reached her aim, having filmed every episode for Pistols 'n' Petticoats except the final one in the current season.

Big hearted Ann Sheridan, the "Oomph girl" is no longer with us. She would have been 52-years-old in February, but she lived her life to the fullest, and in giving up her struggle, passed away in peace.

- James Gregory

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